Jack Kent Cooke owns the Redskins and the Chrysler Building, has cash enough to pay yak-kety-yak Joe Theismann by the word, and in the elegant Virginia hills near Upperville is happily engaged in "my third life," the earlier ones having taken place in Canada, where he sold encyclopedias, and in California, where he built a sports/business empire worth close to a billion dollars. To an author who wanted to include him in a book on the world's five greatest salesmen, Cooke replied thunderously, "Sir, I am not one of five anything."
The calendar says Cooke is 69 years old, but what the hell does a calendar know? The electric company should have so much energy. "Energy, and one of the consequences of energy, enthusiasm, is the product of a confluence of genes," Cooke says. "Either you got it, or you ain't not got it." The minute he had a full-blown heart attack 10 years ago, he denied it. He walked to a couch, told the doctor what to do next, and five months later commanded troops in an eight-month-long pitched battle to save his Teleprompter cable-television company from bankruptcy, accomplishing what a Wall Street analyst calls "a minor miracle."
What he wants now is more like a major miracle. He wants his beloved Redskins in the Super Bowl. "I only want a quasi-dynasty, such as Dallas has. That's not too much to ask, is it?" After that, he says he would turn control of the Redskins over to his son, John, 40, who has a 600-acre cattle farm at nearby Plains, Va.
And only last month Cooke set out on "my newest adventure." He loves to win. Dime-store shrinks may even say he needs to win, that his restless searching for new fields to conquer is a leftover from the days he saw his father, a prosperous businessman, ruined in the Depression. He's won at the radio and publishing business, won with his football, basketball, baseball and hockey teams, and now wants to win the Kentucky Derby.
Whether driven by good genes, considerable ego, high anxiety -- or all of the above -- Cooke wants to win the Derby with a horse from his Kent Farms, a racing stable and breeding operation he started with the purchase of four thoroughbred fillies this summer at a reported cost of $2 million.
Cooke has eyes the blue of a flame's edge. His face has gone to crinkles, his hair (what is left of it) to whites and grays. Written of a day 35 years ago, a biographer's estimate still fits: "Jack Kent Cooke of the dazzling smile, vital, blue-eyed, white-toothed, superbly tailored, wearing a red carnation and suede shoes, was the epitome of sophisticated masculinity."
Cooke drives a Mercedes these days, having left a Bentley in California, and dresses in stuff Cary Grant would like. He was a star hockey center as a kid, and Cooke yet moves with an athlete's sureness, carrying his shoulders back, his chin up.
"He had this cocky, gutsy, Jimmy Cagney attitude, the strut and all," said George Wallach, a who once worked for Cooke and who 15 years ago came to admire the boss for his genius and despise him for his tyranny. "You trembled when Cooke spoke," Wallach said.
Cooke's voice is mellifluous and powerful, as it should be after 69 years of vigorous exercise. Maybe with a salesman's blarney or an actor's skill, Cooke invests every word with theater. His voice in its full range of tone, volume and emotion has been a force Dave Kindred is a sports columnist for The Post. of persuasion the last half-century.
"Jack is the greatest salesman in the world, bar none," said Bill Bresnan, his lieutenant for 20 years. Said Hank Greenspun, a Las Vegas publisher who came to be Cooke's friend and occasional business adversary: "Jack's the best at the bargaining table. As a friend, I can't say enough good about him; and, as an adversary, I can't say enough bad. . . . At all times, he is a stripe apart from the conventional."
That last sentence is true -- unless you know another Canadian kid who quit school in the Depression and sold encyclopedias before making a radio fortune that led him to America and cable TV while owning three sports teams and a 17,000-seat arena he built on a dare and sold in a $67.5 million deal to buy the Chrysler Building for $87 million shortly after getting into the Guiness Book of World Recordswith a $41 million divorce.
He also has a terrific snuff box collection.
But what, you may ask, has Jack Kent Cooke done lately? In Washington circles, he is little noticed, in contrast to his life in Los Angeles, where his parties were media events full of movie star glitter. A friend from those days believes Cooke's divorce from his first wife, Jean, his childhood sweetheart, hurt him deeply.
"He aged with the divorce, which took three or four years of bitter court fighting," the friend said. "Jack had always doted on Jean. They were so romantic. But she finally couldn't put up with his working 24 hours a day. I think he moved East, and generally lays low, because of the pain of the biggest failure of his life."
Now the hunt country folks of Cooke's neighborhood, out there between Upperville and Middleburg, say he keeps to himself. "He doesn't mingle much here," said a shopkeeper in Middleburg. "He's very much his own man. He's somewhat pompous, but everybody's pompous out here."
Edward Bennett Williams, Cooke's partner in the Redskins for 15 years, says Cooke is not part of the Washington social scene. "He's out there," Williams said, as if Upperville were a few miles this side of the planet Jupiter.
Cooke has lived three years in a place where celebrity and power are the coin of the realm, but he pursues neither. "Rex Harrison, in 'My Fair Lady,' sings a verse that says, 'I am a very private man,' and, yes, that is me," Cooke said. He won't talk about the world record divorce that, to quote Greenspun, "turned ugly because Jack saw himself getting beat in a business deal, which is what it became." Cooke also is silent about his second wife, Jeannie, whom he married two years ago. They separated two months ago.
A little privacy goes a long way, though, and Cooke doesn't mind a nod to his wizardry on the business pages. Nor does it ruin his day if the sportswriters say nice going when he signs Joe Theismann. And after three years in town, Cooke sat still long enough this summer to explain not only what he's done lately but what he did back way back when.
What Cooke has done lately: He considered buying the Walt Disney universe of film studios and amusement parks ("Too big a stick"). He turned down an inquiry to buy the now-defunct Washington Star ("If I were 30 years younger. . ."). Last August he engineered a merger of Teleprompter with Westinghouse that gained his stockholders $656 million.
Cooke nowadays doesn't waste much time sleeping, so the old clarinetist -- who once led his own band and wanted to be the next Artie Shaw -- uses nighttime to compose music (some of which has been recorded by the Syd Dale orchestra). He is a voracious reader who mails copies of news stories to friends, with his remarks appended. (George Will, who's on the mailing list, says with a chuckle, "I take these mailings as reproachments and admonishments.") Self-educated and preaching with the passion of the converted, Cooke believes precision in language reveals precision in thought. He helps along those who stumble, such as the U.S. senator at a dinner party who made the mistake of saying to Cooke, "We gave away 3 point 6 bill today, Jack. What do you think about that?"
Not much, it turned out. Cooke said, "I would think a lot more of it, senator, if you had said the United States Senate, in all its professed wisdom, approved bills of appropriation for 3 billion, 600 million dollars."
The senator and the salesman never spoke again that night.
The mother lode of devotion runs no deeper anywhere than in Cooke on those days when his Redskins work wonders. Last December when the mediocre Redskins somehow defeated the mighty Philadelphia Eagles, Cooke was transported to such joy that he walked along a catwalk near the roof of RFK Stadium and shouted into the chill air, "If you had to die, you wouldn't mind doing it on a day like this."
Breathes there another anything who would see a gray winter's day of freezing football as a proper farewell to the mortal coil? Cooke pronounced the thought so grandly, with such blarney and amiability, that the first helpless impulse was to agree. Only after a minute's contemplation did the words of Cooke's high school football coach come to mind. "Watch yourself, boy," Ted Reeve warned, "because (Cooke) can sell stoves at a shipwreck."
Doing a deal, selling stoves at a shipwreck, if need be, still excites Cooke, who says, "I retired once, which taught me never to do that again." Irvin Feld, owner of Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, said, "Jack could not vegetate. He has a very active mind. How do you feed it? By doing new deals."
These days, Cooke looks for new deals in commercial real estate. One day this spring he worked on the terrace of his 51-acre estate, Fallingbrook. The stone manor house is quite large, but with no moat, and its shrubs are cut in the shapes of pheasants and running dogs. The jokester Gene McCarthy saw the topiary and asked, "Jack, have you told your help about the Emancipation Proclamation?" Smiling, Cooke said, "They haven't asked."
Cooke wore riding clothes with a yellow sweater bearing the Redskin logo. "They're asking," he said into a telephone, "for $89 million, but we can get it for less. Ten times earnings is about $70 million, which is five times cash flow. I can shelter $7 million a year that way . . . Well, holy mackerel . . . Now, you'll let me know, won't you? Attaboy."
Cooke hung up the phone.
Someone asked if Cooke had slowed the pace of his life from the tornado period of the mid- 1960s and early 1970s in Los Angeles. "I'm working as hard as ever," he said. "You must. You have to dream. Otherwise, go dig a hole six feet deep and climb in."
On his phone with six lines, Cooke listens to real estate propositions, looking for "the one in 50" right for him. "Where is that on the dial?" he said when someone called offering a radio station for sale. "I ask of curiosity, not of any desire to buy. To that, I say no. . . . Isn't that refreshing? To hear a straightforward 'no.' None of this 'I'll get back to you.' No. N-O. . . I'm interested in commercial real estate now. If you hear of anything, do be a good boy and let me know."
Edward Bennett Williams called Cooke "a financial genius," and the Teleprompter rescue and subsequent merger are classic examples of the doggedness and ingenuity that make Cooke "an indomitable optimist," to use his own words.
Only 60 days passed between first contact and consummation last summer of the Teleprompter-Westinghouse merger, a blockbuster deal opposed by some cable operators, including Ted Turner, but approved by the Federal Communications Commission.
Westinghouse president Daniel Ritchie said of the merger: "Jack knew Teleprompter would need huge capital to make the necessary steps in the future. So he'd made up his mind to find a buyer. He wanted a company that understood the cable business and would take care of his employees and stockholders so he wouldn't be embarrassed. He was well prepared and we moved very quickly."
Eight years earlier, Teleprompter was about to go belly up. In 1971, after Cooke merged his cable TV company with Teleprompter, he gave his voting rights as the largest stockholder to the boss of the other company, Irving Kahn.
On March 8 that year, Cooke created the closed-circuit theater concept for boxing with the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight. He paid each man the astonishing fee of $2.5 million, forever changing the fight business. Cooke also operated his new buthan
in Cooke on those
days when ilding, the Forum, along with the basketball Lakers and hockey Kings (leaving the Redskins to partner Edward Bennett Williams).
Shortly thereafter, Kahn was indicted for bribing a public official years before, at which point Cooke mounted a proxy fight that gave him control of Teleprompter early in 1972. Cooke's heart attack occurred March 8, 1973, before he could untangle Kahn's financial web of overcommitment on capital deals.
Five months later, Cooke left his 13,000-acre ranch in the Sierras for New York City.
"No doctor would have recommended he undertake what he did," said Bresnan, Cooke's long-time employee. "The doctor, in fact, recommended that, if he must go to New York, he work 10:30-to-4 days. Well, we almost had to physically oust him every day."
Rising interest rates, up to a then-unbelievable 12 percent, compounded the cable TV problem of finding money to wire major cities. Because pay TV didn't exist at that time, Teleprompter's revenues were insufficient to meet costs incurred by Kahn's overcommitment.
Cooke first turned the irresistible force of his persuasion on Boston and New York banks that could have foreclosed on Teleprompter. He obtained extensions of life-giving loans. At Cooke's direction, Teleprompter sold off franchises, dropped others, negotiated delays in construction, fired Kahn people, pared expenses and launched a massive door-to-door sales campaign.
By May 1974, Cooke had rescued the company and was back in Los Angeles at the Forum, building a sports operation that he sold in 1979 for $67.5 million. No private man then, Cooke was omnipresent in newspapers and on television.
"He was a tough bargainer," said Bill Nicholas, former chairman of the L.A. Coliseum Commission who often battled as landlord with Cooke, a basketball tenant in the city's Sports Arena. "It was either Cooke's way or no other way. No compromises, no ifs or ands."
When Cooke, the old hockey star, bid for the National Hockey League's first expansion franchise in 1965, Nicholas and the commission supported another bidder, Dan Reeves, then owner of the Los Angeles Rams.
"So Cooke threatened to build his own building," Nicholas said.
According to Nicholas, Cooke showed them pictures of a building he said he would put up. "But it was a picture of a building already rejected in San Diego. He had no building plans. Yet he stood there and said, 'This is my building.'" ("The architect misled me by giving me those pictures," Cooke says.)
Nicholas says today that he didn't think Cooke would build the Forum, even when he saw Romanesque columns going up around the excavation site.
Cooke's "Fabulous Forum," as he grandly called it, cost $16 million. To pay for it, he worked 20-hour days in a style remembered vividly, and with some pain, by men who sat nervously at their desks, waiting in fearful anticipation of that irresistible voice.
"There were intercoms in the offices," said Stu Zanville, a publicist for the Lakers in 1972 and now for the Harlem Globetrotters, "and you'd see people jump six feet up when he called them. With everything going on in his life, he still read every word of my releases. I was impressed--and terrified.
"Once I wrote that Laker attendance was 'spiraling.' He called me in. You had to go through double doors into his office and then it was a little short of a mile to get to this big Louis XIV desk. He'd have his eyes down until you got to the desk's edge, and then he'd look up.
"'Do you know the meaning of spiral, Stuart?' he said. He always called me Stuart, never Stu. 'It means to gyrate wildly in all directions, including down. What you meant to say, Stuart, is that Laker attendance is spiraling upward.'"
George Wallach, now an agent representing athletes Bruce Jenner and Bert Jones, worked in advertising sales until, in the late 1960s, two months after Cooke gave him a raise from $10,000 to $14,000, Cooke fired him. "I can trace my career to Cooke, and I'll always be grateful to for showing me how fast I could run, but I'd never work for him again . . . He wasn't humane or compassionate. He'd publicly flog you or praise you . . . But I learned I could perform under the most intense pressure. It's like graduating from the Harvard Business School. When you go to Jack Kent Cooke Tech, people know you've got something."
Working for Cooke, Wallach said, "was like war. We'd ask each other, 'Did you make it today?' We took body counts everyday. If you did a good job, you didn't get more money; you got to keep your job and got more responsibility. He'd smoke those Marlboros the same way every time, with that crystal ashtray, that suit, that glint in his eyes and he'd say, 'I want the Taj Mahal built by the close of business Friday.' Somehow, you got it done. Then he'd give you an 'Attaboy.' The best I ever did was a three-attaboy job."
Jake Milford, general
manager of the hockey
Kings recalled: "Jack one
time sent a memo to
everybody in the Forum with orders to call me John, not Jake, or their jobs were in jeopardy. He was demanding, but it was a great four years and I loved the experience. At games, he had a red phone beside him -- the Russian phone, we called it -- and he called me, he called the organist, he called everybody."
The worst thing you could do, Milford said, was feign knowledge in Cooke's presence. "He showed me a sign on his office wall. It said: 'I do not know, but I will find out.' Jack told me, 'Don't worry, John, even I don't know everything.'"
Cooke grew up in an elaborate house with a maid and two cars at 194 Neville Park Blvd. in Toronto; he was the son of the late Ralph Cooke, whose company made and sold picture frames. His mother, Nancy, so often told him he could accomplish anything that he believed it.
He was 18 in 1931, ready to begin his last year of high school, when he knew his parents were having trouble with money. The Depression had arrived.
"So I said, 'I will go out and I will sell encyclopedias and I will make money,'" Cooke said. "I never thought of selling being difficult. I had to do something."
By 1934 Cooke was a married man who quit selling encyclopedias to work for $11 a week as a stock exchange runner. Asking for $25, he was offered $16. He went back on the road, with his bride and a set of encyclopedias that misplaced the Prairie provinces.
Outside Veregin, Saskatchewan, the place where locals practiced religious rituals in the nude, Cooke drove his car into mud and could not get it unstuck. He and his wife, Jean, walked to town.
"Then I went out and saw the local grain elevator operator and the local minister and the local doctor, whoever the hell I thought might have a $5 deposit on a perfectly dreadful set of encyclopedias," Cooke said. "But all I got were postdated checks. I couldn't use them to get my car unstuck.
"Until, finally, school was out and I saw the local principal. He didn't want to buy a set of books with maps that showed Saskatchewan in the wrong place. I was with him from about 4:30 to 7. His wife had dinner on the table. She kept giving me dirty looks, as much as to say, 'Get out of here.' I was hungry. I know my wife was hungry. She was sitting in the kitchen of the hotel.
"I think more to get rid of me than anything else, the principal gave me a $5 deposit. And I got the car out of hock, got gas for the car, a sandwich or two and from then on, my luck began to turn."
His luck turned for good in 1937 when, as a soap salesman, he met a man just as ambitious. Roy Thomson would be made a baron, ennobled by the queen of England, 27 years later after building, with Cooke's unbridled help, a newspaper and broadcasting empire that today spans the Atlantic. In 1937 Thomson was a 43-year-old dreamer who, to sell radio sets, started two tiny radio stations, operating one with a transmitter made from jam jars containing salt water.
"Boy, I like you. How would you like to go down to Stratford and run that radio station for me?o hian
in Cooke on those
days when " Thomson said to the young Cooke, adding cheerily that the salary was $25 a week and that sometimes he couldn't pay. Anything to get out of soap pleased Cooke, and soon he broadcast from the back of a bakery truck on the streets of Stratford, Ontario. He interviewed passersby as to what they liked about his sponsor's bread.
Thomson and Cooke seemed an odd couple. Younger by 18 years, Cooke was movie-star handsome and elegantly dressed, while the myopic, overweight Thomson seemed an unmade bed. They shared ingenuity, 16-hour work days and a sense of humor. They turned dreary radio stations and sad newspapers into cash registers. By 30, Cooke was a millionaire from his one-third share of the empire he and Thomson created.
The partnership ended in 1949 when Cooke made a radio station deal and, because the seller didn't like Thomson, agreed to leave Thomson out.
"The best business decision I ever made," Cooke said 45 years later, "was saying yes to Roy Thomson. I loved him, and, God, was he ever good to me. And the worst business mistake I ever made was doing the deal without him."
Through the 1950s, Cooke's business interests in Canada spread from broadcasting to publishing to sports. He retired to California in 1960. Cooke quickly learned it wasn't the money that mattered; it was doing the deal. Pretty soon he went looking for a shipwreck so he could sell some stoves.
From a friend's casual remark that 25 percent of the Washington Redskins could be bought for $300,000, Cooke moved into football in 1960. He now owns 87 percent of the Redskins, with Williams holding the rest and relinquishing control with a reference to the golden rule of business: "He that has the gold, rules."
"Cooke and Ed Williams had the perfect working relationship with the Redskins," said an acquaintance of both men. "They were 3,000 miles apart. Their egos couldn't exist any closer together. When Jack moved East, it was clear Ed was out."
Under Williams' direction -- "I had total autonomy," he said -- the Redskins reached the Super Bowl of the 1972 season. Cooke's only major action as the boss with hands-on control has been to hire Joe Gibbs as coach, replacing Jack Pardee, who had been Williams' choice to succeed George Allen.
Williams bought the Baltimore Orioles baseball team, knowing Cooke would take over the Redskins. And now Williams is the Redskin "president," a figurehead role far removed from power.
Reports from Redskin Park hold that Cooke is no longer the unnerving overseer with his finger on every pulse. This may be because it is impossible not to make money in pro football, what with the loot falling out of the television sky. So Cooke gets involved just on big deals, such as signing up Joe Theismann.
"I agreed to a contract at Mr. Cooke's home," says Theismann, "but he said, 'I've changed my mind, Joe. I'm not honoring our agreement.' I was stunned. Then, in that dramatic voice, he said, 'I am giving you X amount more.' My jaw hit the floor. I was overwhelmed."
On a spring day at Fallingbrook, Cooke walked onto his sunlit terrace for lunch of hamburgers of his recipe. He lifted his face to the sun and spread his arms.
"This is," he said musically, "the greatest day in the history of the world."
A smile then.
"Even better than yesterday, though yesterday that seemed an impossibility."