A Sometimes Difficult Man Who Never Found It Hard to Love Life
By Leonard Shapiro
I found that out the first time I spoke to him almost 20 years ago, when he was technically the majority owner of the team, but was unable to run the franchise on a day-to-day basis because of the NFL's rules on cross ownership. At the time, he also owned and operated the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers and NHL's Kings, and could not exercise full control of the Redskins until he sold the two Los Angeles teams a few years later.
The year was 1978, and George Allen essentially had been fired by Cooke's Redskins' surrogate, team president and part-owner Edward Bennett Williams, the distinguished Washington attorney. Allen had subsequently been hired to coach the Los Angeles Rams, and I was working on a Post magazine story trying to determine the final plays in Allen's controversial departure.
I had a telephone number for Cooke in Las Vegas, where he was then living in a hotel (like Howard Hughes before him, he had a whole floor to himself) and operating his vast business empire from Nevada while also going through a messy divorce from his first wife, Jeannie, in California.
Allen always had said Cooke had been one of his biggest fans and a longtime benefactor, and I wanted to talk to Cooke about his take on Allen's departure. When the phone rang, none other than Jack Kent Cooke picked it up. I was somewhat startled, expecting a secretary or an administrative aide to be screening his calls. After a brief and slightly stammered introduction I explained what kind of story I was doing, and Cooke cut to the chase. What would you like to know, young man?
He answered my questions for about 10 minutes, providing no great revelations and occasionally correcting the wording of one of my questions. He was a student of the language, he explained that day. And then, quite abruptly, he asked me to repeat back to him, word for word, everything he'd just told me. When I politely declined, explaining that was a violation of Post and personal policy, he exploded.
"Young man," he began, "I want you to know that if if there is one 'i' left undotted, one 't' left uncrossed, one jot or tittle out of place, I'll have your job. Do you understand?"
I had never before or since heard anyone use "jot or tittle" in a conversation, but then again, Jack Kent Cooke was unlike anyone I have ever encountered in 30 years as a journalist. This was a self-made man, a bold thinker and brilliant businessman who could be equal parts charm, culture and charisma while displaying a streak of crude and occasionally cruel incivility, arrogant bluster and unforgiving vindictiveness.
He was a man who wrote music, read extensively and even composed love poems to the four women he courted and eventually married. He once told the late Mo Siegel, his on-again, off-again sportswriter pal and frequent lunch and dinner companion, he had no intention of ever dying, and that he didn't like to go to funerals because it reminded him of his own mortality. Though they had patched up their relationship, he was true to his word when Siegel died two years ago: a no-show at the funeral.
Since our first conversation so many years ago, I interviewed Cooke many more times, and it was never easy.
In 1991, the issue of the team's name "Redskins" continued to be debated around the country. Many Native American groups were strongly opposed to the use of a team name they considered derogatory and deeply offensive. One had even sued the federal government to have the team's trademark revoked for those very reasons.
I was assigned a story on the controversy, and called Cooke for an interview. Come over to the house, he said, and we'll talk. Mostly, however, he talked, insisting from the start that it was to be all off the record, or I could leave. I protested, as I always did, and he refused to reconsider, as he always did.
At one point, I asked him if he'd looked up "Redskins" in the dictionary and seen Webster's first entry after the word. It read "der." as in derogatory. "I don't use Webster," he countered, "I use the Oxford Dictionary, and my dear boy, it says no such thing."
Let me ask you another question, I went on. Had he ever asked New York Times columnist William Safire, his friend and the author of a Sunday column on language in the Times magazine, how he felt about the team being called the Redskins?
"That's a good question," he said, then barked to a secretary in the next room, "get me Willie Safire on the phone, would you dear?"
A few second later, his office telephone rang.
"Hello Willie, how are you? Listen, I've got a reporter in here wanting to know what you think about this Redskins business."
A few seconds passed as Cooke listened. As the conversation continued, he clearly was not happy with what he was hearing, and eventually, he slammed down the telephone.
"So what did he say, Jack?" I asked.
In short, Cooke insisted that Safire, a Redskins fan himself, personally had no problems with the name, but "as an old PR man," he advised Cooke it might not be such a terrible idea to change it to something less offensive. That's when Cooke's conversation with "Willie" had ended.
"Let me tell you something, my dear boy," he said from behind his desk before I was shown the door. "As long as I own this football team and long after I'm gone, they will always be the Washington Redskins."
There have been other conversations, and the occasional confrontation, as well. Our last conversation was personal. I happen to live about three miles from Cooke's Middleburg, Va., estate. My 9-year-old son Taylor and his 8-year-old daughter Jacqueline go to the same school and are a grade apart. One day, Cooke called the house looking for my wife, Vicky, whom he's known since she started a newspaper in Middleburg 15 years ago. She wasn't home, I said. Was there something I could help him with?
Jack Kent Cooke was looking for a piano teacher for his daughter. She'd shown some interest, he said, reminding me that he'd been an accomplished clarinetist in his day, as well. I gave him the name of my son's teacher and the telephone number, but not before one of the world's most fabulously wealthy men had one last question.
"How much does it cost?" he asked.
"To be honest with you, Jack, I have no idea," I said.
"Well, you should," said the man who owned the Washington Redskins. "Thanks for the information."