The House of Cooke
The Washington Post
By the time John Kent Cooke was born, in September 1941, his father was closing in on his first million at age 30. Ralphie and Johnnycakes, as Jack called them, were dazzled by the bright light of their dashing father. So was much of Canada. "Being the youngest, he is probably Canada's handsomest millionaire," gushed a major magazine profile of the era.
For the boys, it was a life of privilege. The Cookes moved into an ornate mansion in Toronto's posh Forest Hill, and lived with flair: chauffeurs, servants and a cook, British-style boarding school for the boys (Johnny wrote home every week early on complaining of homesickness) and Easter trips to New York for shopping at Brooks Brothers.
The young radio magnate was addicted to working long hours. He bought two major Canadian magazines and a minor league baseball team. When his father came home for dinner, John would usually find him afterward reading a book or methodically polishing the antiques he collected, shining up the tables and chairs, the brass, the silver, even the floors. Johnny particularly liked to accompany his father on Saturday antiquing trips, watching his dogged bargaining and later becoming an avid collector himself.
The "handsome millionaire" became known as a ladies' man in Toronto and in the early 1950s carried on various romantic escapades, including a somewhat public affair with a nightclub singer. Around that time, when John was 10, his father bought a 112-foot diesel yacht and sent both boys and their mother off on a year-long Caribbean cruise, with a crew that included a tutor for the boys' schooling. Despite seasickness, John adored the boat, polished all its chrome and steel fittings, and developed a lifelong love of sailing.
Jack prized yachts, liked to race them, and owned three, the last of which, a 40-foot powerboat, Jeannie christened the Raljon.
While other kids shivered through Toronto winters, the Cooke boys returned with Florida tans because they spent spring training with their father's first major sports toy, the Toronto Maple Leafs, a minor league baseball team. John took more interest in sports than Ralph did. The younger son spent hours at the ballpark with his friends, taking tickets, selling ice cream and hot dogs, even working as a batboy, where he learned from the ballplayers two skills that upset his proper father: spitting and swearing.
At Maple Leaf Stadium, the young man saw his father's showmanship. Jack Cooke introduced cheerleaders, ladies' nights, flagpole sitters, diaper-changing contests, raffles and giveaways, hyping all of this hoopla on CKEY, his big Toronto radio station. When Johnny tired of his old, fat pony named Peanuts, Jack seized the idea of promoting a "Pony Night" giveaway of the poor animal. In a single season, Jack doubled the club's attendance to 500,000 and was named minor league executive of the year in 1952. He told skeptical friends that major league baseball would come soon to Canada, and that his son John might someday run a team.
Jack was at times a demanding father, and in school both boys were offered bribes-the then-significant sum of $50-for good grades. John did well in English and history but was otherwise an uninspired student. Like his brother, he finished high school but dropped out of college. John worked briefly in television apprenticeships arranged by his father, in England and in Hollywood. He thought he might become a writer or a film editor, and also was interested in newspapers. But ever since he was a kid, he'd also assumed he'd follow in his father's footsteps. As a teenager, he readily changed his name at his father's request from John Peter to John Kent Cooke.
The Cooke path led to America in 1960. Jack used his influence to gain instant American citizenship by an act of Congress, moved to a mansion in Beverly Hills, and began expanding his empire in radio and in the fledgling "community antenna" TV industry, spending millions to buy cable franchises across the nation. John joined his father's L.A.-based American Cablevision, got his hands dirty as a cable installer, and then went to work in La Crosse, Wis. It was a crafty choice in the Vietnam War era: John, who was then a resident Canadian eligible for the draft, had joined the Air National Guard, and he avoided active duty by picking a spot with no air base within 150 miles.
In Wisconsin, John proved adept in marketing and promotion. Sending teams of local housewives door to door to sell cable, he helped triple the subscriber base in a few years. On a blind date there, he also met an office worker named Rebecca Ann Gilliam, who became his wife in 1966 and the mother of their two sons, John Kent Cooke Jr., in 1967, and Thomas Kent Cooke, in 1970.
John next joined his father in Jack's boldest venture yet: the Los Angeles Lakers, which he purchased for a record sum of $5.2 million in 1965, even though he had never even attended a professional basketball game. Nobody had ever paid more than $3 million for a National Basketball Association team, and people said Cooke was crazy. He also fought to win a National Hockey League franchise for the Los Angeles Kings. Then, after clashing repeatedly with the city government, he spent $16 million to build his own arena for his two teams, the Fabulous Forum.
The Los Angeles years were glamorous ones for the Cooke family, with Jack basking in the glory of his moves that brought Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson-and an NBA title-to the Lakers. He presided proudly over the owner's box night after night with his wife, children and grandchildren in quasi-obligatory attendance.
Jack was a bigger celebrity than ever. But it all was about to come crashing down.
The sheer relentlessness of Jack Kent Cooke eventually wore down his wife. Married at 17, Barbara Jean Carnegie Cooke felt she was never Jack's equal, and the bigger he got, the more inadequate she felt. By the mid-1970s, she became deeply and dangerously depressed. John and Ralph realized their parents' marriage had to end. They also realized that given their father's nature, the sons would have to take sides.
In happier times, Jack had bought a huge cattle ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, which he built into a family vacation compound. It was a grand 13,000-acre spread with a beautiful 35-foot A-frame lodge, separate cottages for Ralph's and John's families, tennis court, fish pond and pool. The Cookes named the place Raljon.
John had tired of Los Angeles and of promoting and attending well over 100 events a year at the Forum, and his wife, Becky, had been diagnosed with epilepsy. In the early '70s, they moved with their young boys to the Raljon ranch to run Jack's 4,000-head cattle operation. The kids loved it and so did John, who took up fly fishing, deer hunting and mountain climbing. "Even though he was a rich kid from the city who inherited a ranch, he never gave you that impression," says John's longtime friend Joe Bryan, a retired firefighter. Bryan lived nearby and admired, among other things, John's ability to gut and skin a deer. "He ran around in dirty Levis and loved to get dirty, and he was the nicest guy."
It was at Raljon in 1976 that Jean Cooke drove off after a fight-one of many arguments-and Jack ran outside in his robe to try to stop her. In the process, he broke his wrist. Within months, the proceedings began for what would become a most ugly and protracted divorce.
Ralph had a strong bond with his mother, and Jack tried to recruit his older son to reason with her, to get her to call off the divorce or to accept a settlement on his terms-roughly $2 million. Jack sent her letters and tape recordings through Ralph, many of which she threw away. Jack blamed Ralph.
Ralph, like John, was caught in the middle. He tried to stay neutral, but any support for his mother was seen as betrayal by his father, says Carolyn Rozelle, Ralph's first wife and mother of his four children. The Cooke divorce brought out ancient hostilities between Jack and his older son, says Rozelle, the widow of former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle. Jack had belittled Ralph from an early age, calling him fat and predicting that he would never amount to anything.
"In my opinion, Jack never really liked Ralph," says Rozelle, who recalls one brutal confrontation at the ranch. "Jack was very, very angry at Ralph and saying this to him: 'I never really wanted you; you are a son I don't care about.' And I thought, how can a father say those things to a son, a son who has always been there? And I said to Jack, 'I can't believe you are saying this! As far as I am concerned, I don't want anything more to do with you.' I went back and got the children and Ralph came and we drove off. Ralph did not say a word."
Furious over Ralph's perceived disloyalty, Jack disowned him and did not speak to him for nearly a decade. He made Ralph disappear, rewriting his biographical entry in Who's Who in America to read, "1 son from previous marriage, John Kent." When people asked, Jack would say that he had only one son. For years afterward, Ralph kept on his bedroom dresser a framed quote from Thackeray: "If a man's character is to be abused . . . there's nobody like a relation to do the business."
Throughout the divorce, John remained clearly loyal to his father. He tried several times to persuade his mother to accept his father's offer, according to family members and court depositions. Jean resisted these entreaties and ultimately won a divorce settlement of $42 million. At the time, it was a U.S. record.
John did not speak to his mother or his brother for seven years. "I would rather not relive that, and rather not have my mother relive that," he says and declines to discuss the rift further, except to say that he eventually initiated reconciliations with both Jean and Ralph.
"John to some degree was somewhat of a hostage," says Rozelle, because he had been so long dependent on his father.
"John loved his brother. But John knew what side the bread was buttered on" and was afraid to support his mother and brother, says Bob Wilshire, a longtime friend and financial adviser to Ralph. He added, "Ralph had moxie. Ralph had balls."
To which John responds: "There is more to character than what is dangling between your legs."
Around the same time, the two brothers also chose sides in another way-through money. Their mother, after many years of pushing Jack, had prevailed upon him to give the boys a tangible inheritance. Jack put aside company stock, in trust, in each of their names. In the mid-1970s, when the inheritance was valued at more than $5 million each, the brothers again took divergent paths. Ralph spent it to finance his own business ventures; John reinvested almost his entire sum in his father's business. The Raljon Corp., a Nevada company formed in 1976, was Jack's primary holding company, but he changed the name three years later to Jack Kent Cooke Inc.
To pay off the divorce settlement and start fresh, Jack sold the Lakers, the Kings, the Forum and the cattle ranch. He also considered selling his controlling interest in the Washington Redskins, which had grown out of a 25 percent stake he'd bought in 1960 for the bargain price of $350,000.
But John told his father that running the Redskins could be great fun compared with L.A.-you only had eight home games to worry about, you had a popular team that always sold out, and you wouldn't have to sweat the constant promotion and salesmanship that the Forum had required. John said he was ready to leave the Raljon ranch and go east with his father in 1979.
(continued on Page Three)