Story by Peter Perl
The Washington Post
Sunday, August 31, 1997
On a bright summer afternoon in his spacious corner office at Redskin Park, John Kent Cooke is hunched behind the huge Canadian Victorian desk that belonged to his father. He is working on the "special request list" of several hundred prominent Redskins season ticket holders. Big corporations, advertisers, family friends, heavy-hitting law firms, TV producers, newspaper columnists, ex-Redskins players - most have paid $995 to $1,995 per club seat at the new Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, and they want the best spots possible.
Behind Cooke, there is bright new wallpaper and a new photo display. This office, too, once belonged to his late father, and Jack Kent Cooke had covered the wall with pictures of himself. Now, only a few images of him remain among 19 mostly black-and-white pictures of Redskins heritage-Vince Lombardi, George Allen, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham. President Richard Nixon visiting a Skins practice. A 1937 championship game program. Highlights of a proud history that includes 30 consecutive years of sold-out games at RFK Stadium and a season ticket waiting list of 50,000.
With the death of the patriarch on April 6 at age 84, and with the opening of Jack Kent Cooke Stadium coming on September 14, the Washington Redskins are entering a new era. A computer has assigned seats to most of the 56,000 fans who held season tickets at RFK. But for VIP customers, the personal touch of a Cooke remains central to what is still a family business.
"Have we taken care of Art and Monte . . . and Charles?" Cooke asks Jeff Ritter, the ticket manager. Art Monk, Monte Coleman, Charles Mann and several other former players would like to sit together. Ritter says that should be no problem.
"Put them in 342," Cooke says, and notes the assignment in a thick alphabetized accordion file.
A federal judge wants lower seats because she's getting too old to climb so many stairs.
"Put her in the second or third row, near the aisle."
TV pundit Robert Novak wants better seats, and so does a producer from "60 Minutes." Cooke obliges.
Lawyers from Arnold & Porter want to move next to lawyers from Williams & Connolly.
Cooke pauses, smiles mischievously.
Williams & Connolly-the firm founded by his father's nemesis, former Redskins partner Edward Bennett Williams-is coincidentally now representing his own nemesis, Marlene Ramallo Cooke. His father's 44-year-old widow is seeking one-third of the Cooke estate, estimated at $500 million to $800 million, and thereby complicating John Cooke's already difficult effort to take ownership of the team whose daily operations he has run since 1981.
"Gee, I don't think we can accommodate this . . . uh, Williams," Cooke says, leering wickedly at Ritter. He holds the smile a moment, then shrugs. "Give them the block of 20 they want."
For an instant, the resemblance to the old man is striking-he has the piercing blue eyes, intense and devilish, the craggy face and receding hairline. At times his gravelly, commanding voice sounds hauntingly like his father's, particularly when he explodes into Britishisms like, "Bloody good deal!" or "Good God, man!"
Now Charley Casserly, the general manager, interrupts to outline the latest multimillion-dollar contract proposal from the agent for quarterback Gus Frerotte. Cooke looks at the sheet, frowns, and tells Casserly the price is still too high and he should continue negotiating.
Cooke resumes with Ritter, taking up the long list of special ticket requests his father left behind.
"Politicians!" Cooke says, rolling his eyes. Former senator Dennis DeConcini is on Jack's list. So are Mike Miller, president of the Maryland Senate, and aides to Gov. Parris Glendening, and many more.
He sighs wearily. "Well, we will honor my father's wishes," he declares solemnly. Then, with another wicked smile and a pause worthy of Johnny Carson, he adds: "For this season."
The man who is taking charge of the Redskins has spent his lifetime as the understudy for the role.
For virtually all of his 55 years, John Kent Cooke has defined himself primarily as the son of Jack. He has spent his entire adult life working for his father's businesses, going where his father wanted him, altering his ambitions to match his father's needs, obeying his orders, sometimes resenting, arguing with and avoiding him-and loving him.
But while his father basked in the spotlight, John stayed in his shadow. He chose not just a low profile, but virtually no profile. He avoided parties and public appearances; he rarely lost his temper or his modesty; and he developed a kinder, gentler and more private version of the Cooke persona. As a result, the Redskins, one of the most visible institutions in Washington, are now controlled by a man who is unknown to the public.
The uncertainties surrounding Jack Kent Cooke's estate have made speculation over the future ownership of the Redskins something of a sport in itself. At the center stands John: His ambitions and his ability to negotiate and to satisfy diverse Redskins stakeholders will be key to the team's future. One paradox of the Cookes is that now, just as John becomes the leading man, his father-from the grave-may end up denying his son that role. Jack immortalized himself by setting up a foundation bearing his name. Under terms of his convoluted and much-amended 1988 will, all his vast assets, including the Redskins, must be sold off to fund the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation for academic scholarships and for underprivileged children. John Cooke, who owned 10 percent of his father's business, must now try to find the money to buy the team from the estate and continue the family football legacy.
This account of John Cooke and the forces that have shaped him is based on more than 50 interviews with family members, friends, and present and former employees and players, along with court and corporate records. Any understanding of John also requires some understanding of the family history, which spans two nations and a whirlwind of triumphs and heartaches. Dominated by Jack's outsize ego, it is a saga that, to outsiders, can seem notable for its excesses, such as the patriarch's publicly ridiculed decision to name the Prince George's County town where he built his stadium "Raljon," after his two sons, Ralph and John. But inside the family, and especially from John's point of view, that same family history looks much different-inevitably, it is more complicated, more ambiguous. The story of the name Raljon, as it happens, is one of the most poignant examples of this difference in perspective.
Naming things was quintessential Jack Kent Cooke, a man who, after all, had invented his own name. Born Jack Kenneth Cooke on October 25, 1912, in Hamilton, Ontario, he became the most American of Canadians, driven by a fierce and flamboyant entrepreneurial spirit that made him a business legend.
Jack Cooke-high school dropout turned band leader turned door-to-door soap and encyclopedia salesman-reinvented himself as Jack Kent Cooke, who became one of the richest men in North America, a daring visionary and supersalesman, master of a realm that at various times included radio stations, magazines, cable television systems, the Chrysler Building, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, the Los Angeles Kings hockey team, along with franchises in professional baseball, soccer and, finally, football.
He was a driven man who relished his celebrity. And if he could be warm, courtly and charming, he could also take the license to be pompous, arrogant, rude and downright cruel.
Ralph and John. Only they knew what it was like to be a son of Jack.
Ralph Kent Cooke went his own way. The older son emulated his father, but struggled to be independent of him-to compete, in his way, with that most competitive of men. Ralph emigrated from Canada before Jack, and set up businesses of his own. He tried advertising, construction, moviemaking, car racing. He succeeded-and failed terribly-on his own. He was always the more boisterous, challenging and adventuresome of the brothers, and he drank too much. Ralph also was bigger and taller than his father, with a fuller head of hair. Most people thought he looked more like his mother's side of the family.
John was more cautious and obedient, more predictable. He chose to stay within his father's orbit, faithfully tracing a career arc drawn by Jack through cable television, sports marketing, cattle ranching and the Redskins. There were times he wanted to be a newspaper publisher or perhaps own a winery, but he never strayed. John was more comfortable with people than his father, and usually comfortable with his own role as the loyal son who worked diligently backstage.
Typical of their relationship was a phone conversation between father and son early last year:
"Johnny!" the old man growled. "I've got a wonderful idea!"
"What's that, Dad?" John asked, arching his eyebrows. Even after 35 years of working for his father, he never knew what was coming next.
"I am going to rename it Raljon!"
It took a moment for the idea to register as the old man explained that he was arranging to have the U.S. Postal Service issue a special four-digit add-on to the Landover Zip code so that the acreage encompassing the new 78,600-seat stadium would become forever known as Raljon, Maryland.
"Dad, I wish you wouldn't," said John. He could see what was coming. Jack's life had long been fodder for the gossip pages: the lavish lifestyle, the five turbulent marriages to four women, the court fight over child support payments for the daughter he'd fathered at age 75, the public cuckolding he appeared to be suffering at the hands of his latest wife, the firebrand Marlene, a convicted drug felon facing deportation to Bolivia. Now Raljon. The news media would jump on this bizarre name as still more evidence that Jack Kent Cooke was an ego-mad millionaire, tasteless, nouveau riche.
"I want to do it!" the father declared in the gruff voice he reserved for those moments when he made it known to all in his domain that his wishes would be followed.
John knew what was behind his father's desire, but he also realized that no one outside the family would understand. "Raljon" was coined by John's mother, Jean, nearly half a century ago, and the term had come to symbolize the family's happier times. Raljon had become a sort of talisman for his father, the way "Rosebud" was for Citizen Kane. In Cooke lore, the name was born long before Jack moved his operations from Canada to the bright lights of Los Angeles, before Jack and Jean Cooke bitterly split, before the two sons were forced to choose sides.
"How am I going to explain it, Dad?" John asked his father.
"You don't have to explain it," the father said, "to anyone."
(continued on Page Two)