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A Washington Monument

By Bart Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 7, 1997; Page A1

He was a high school dropout who began his business career by selling encyclopedias door-to-door during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But before he was done, Jack Kent Cooke was a titan of business and professional sports, amassing a fortune in communications and real estate and owning several teams from coast to coast — most notably his beloved Washington Redskins.

Cooke, who was 84 when he died yesterday, was a financial wizard who rose to the highest brackets of wealth in America, with holdings estimated in recent years between $700 million and $1.2 billion. Those included cable television systems, newspapers, the leasehold to the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, extensive holdings in stocks and bonds, and a thoroughbred racing horse stable and breeding farm in Kentucky. In Los Angeles, he owned the Lakers basketball team and the Kings hockey team, which he sold in 1979.

As the hands-on owner of the Redskins, Cooke presided over a team that won the National Football League's Super Bowl after the 1982, 1987 and 1991 seasons. He came East from California in 1979 and took operating control of the football team shortly thereafter. One of his early moves was to hire Joe Gibbs, who coached the Redskins to the three championships, as well as a loss in a fourth Super Bowl.

More recently, Cooke had been a high-profile figure on the Washington political landscape in his highly publicized and controversial seven-year quest to build a 78,600-seat stadium for the Redskins. After extensive negotiations with local officials in the District, Alexandria, and Anne Arundel and Prince George's counties, and with the governors of Maryland and Virginia, he finally reached an agreement to build Jack Kent Cooke Stadium in Prince George's.

It was once said that Cooke could "sell stoves at a shipwreck." He was a master wheeler-dealer, and, more than anything else, he loved to win. To an author who once sought an interview for a book on the world's five greatest salesmen, he replied indignantly, "Sir, I am not one of five anything!" He was a man of limitless energy who rarely took vacations or days off, and he often said of himself, "The harder I work, the luckier I get."

He was pompous, overbearing, rude, impatient and arrogant, but he also could be charming and courtly. He was engaging in conversation, self-educated and widely knowledgeable in fields as diverse as architecture, music, sports, literature and politics. His English was precise, and he often corrected others' grammatical errors. He read voraciously — newspapers, magazines, novels, poetry, biographies, even the Unabridged Oxford English Dictionary. He was married five times to four different women. At times, he called women "pets" and men and women "darlings."

Cooke, who once smoked up to five packs of cigarettes a day, was diagnosed with arteriosclerotic heart disease in the 1970s. He had frequent angina that was treated with medication. "Never bothersome," he once said of the pain, "and I wouldn't admit it even if it were."

Although grieved by turmoil in his marital life, Cooke often enjoyed a life of caviar and champagne: One evening in the early 1980s found him in Manhattan with his second wife, Jeanne, dining at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where he stayed in the hotel's private towers wing, attending a Broadway play ("Woman of the Year"), then dancing in the Rainbow Room, 65 floors atop the RCA (now General Electric) Building, gazing at one of his prized investments: the Chrysler Building. Cooke's dining companions over the years ranged from TV stars such as Lorne Greene of the 1960s series "Bonanza" to government heavyweights such as William J. Casey, the late director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

At Kent Farms, his 640-acre estate in Middleburg, in the heart of Virginia's hunt country, Cooke presided over his far-flung business empire, known as Jack Kent Cooke Inc., while living the life of a gentleman farmer. At a moment's notice, his stable attendant could saddle up his Tennessee walking horses should Cooke be in the mood for a ride. Two pilots saw to it that his private jet was ever ready for takeoff should Cooke need to travel.

Claustrophobic all his life, he detested air travel and riding in elevators. "When I fly to the West Coast [in a private plane], I can fly for 2½ hours or so, so my trips are punctuated by a stop in a little town called Salina, Kansas," Cooke said in a 1988 interview. As for elevators, Cooke said he survived by "gritting . . . teeth . . . clenching . . . fists."

In his later years, Cooke looked like an aging Shakespearean actor, customarily dressing in expensive tweed jackets and gray flannel trousers and often sporting kangaroo leather boots. At Kent Farms, he worked behind an 18th-century Chippendale partner's desk, near a boardroom decorated at times with framed tributes from current and former employees. "An honest and compassionate man," wrote Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the former Lakers center. "Long live the king," wrote Joe Gibbs, the former Redskins coach.

A half-mile from his office, Cooke lived in a stucco and glass house that Washington Post staff writer Bill Brubaker once described as "post-Renaissance Malibu with its Bonnard art, Georgian silver, electric beds and all-weather sun room." His household staff had standing instructions to be "extremely polite" when answering the telephone because "Mr. Cooke has many distinguished citizens of the country calling him," Brubaker noted in a 1988 profile. At various times, Cooke also had apartments in the District — one at the Watergate — and he lived in recent years in a $2 million house in Woodley Park.

Cooke acquired the Redskins in stages more than 25 years, beginning in November 1960 with the purchase of a 25 percent stake in the team for $350,000. Only two months earlier, Cooke, a native of Canada, had become a U.S. citizen by a special act of Congress, which passed a private law granting him U.S. residency retroactive to 1950, thus complying with a requirement for U.S. citizenship. The legislation was sponsored by Rep. Francis E. Walter (D-Pa.), who told the House Judiciary Committee that Cooke was ready to give up his "wealth, status and social position" in Canada "to build a new future for himself and his family in the United States of America."

After Redskins founder George Preston Marshall died in 1969, Cooke acquired more shares in the franchise. By 1979, he owned 85 percent of the team when he moved to Northern Virginia, and shortly thereafter he took operating control from Washington lawyer Edward Bennett Williams, who had been chief operating officer. In February 1985, he became sole owner of the Redskins when he bought the last block of outstanding stock from Williams.

His total investment in the franchise was believed to have been around $15‚million, less than 10 percent of what he could have reasonably expected to get had he put the team up for sale. But the Redskins were more than a business matter, Cooke always insisted. He called them "the greatest hobby a man could have."

At Cooke's expense, hundreds of the Washington area's politically, socially and financially powerful and well-connected traveled by chartered jet to the Redskins' Super Bowls. A request to join him in the owner's box at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium for a Redskins home game was among the most coveted invitations in the nation's capital. On a given game day, Cooke's guest list might include the governor of Maryland or Virginia, the mayor of Washington, leading members of Congress, the director of a federal agency or a Cabinet member, judges and influential figures of television and the press. Cooke, a Republican, counted high-profile Democrats and Republicans among his friends.

To clear Cooke's postgame passage through traffic-clogged streets around the stadium, the D.C. government routinely provided a motorcycle police officer to escort his chauffeur-driven limousine.

Jack Kent Cooke was born Oct. 25, 1912, in Hamilton, Ontario, the eldest of four children in an upper-middle-class family. His parents had emigrated from South Africa in 1910.

As a youth, Cooke was a standout ice hockey center, and, until the last few months of his life, he still moved about with the easy confidence of an accomplished athlete, chin up and shoulders back. In his middle and old age, he watched his diet scrupulously, often eating fruit salads and oat bran muffins for lunch, and he held his weight to a trim 158 pounds.

His father, a picture frame manufacturer, went broke in the 1929 stock market crash, and the young Cooke quit school and went "out into the marvelous business world," as he once put it, selling encyclopedias door-to-door. A gifted musician, he also played saxophone and clarinet in a Toronto hotel, and for a time he was a band leader under the name of Oley Kent. Later in life, he told friends that he would have been a professional musician had he been more talented. As their owner, Cooke would compose the Lakers' and the Kings' fight songs.

When he was 21, Cooke married 17-year-old Jeannie Carnegie. He paid for their wedding trip in Western Canada by selling encyclopedias along the way. He also sold soap.

Switching career paths in 1937, he talked his way into a $23.85-a-week job as manager of a radio station in Stratford, Ontario, that was barely passing financial muster. In short order, Cooke turned the operation into a money-maker, catching the eye of the station's owner, Roy Thompson, who would become world famous as Lord Thompson, the Fleet Street publishing giant. Thompson promoted Cooke to manager of his Toronto office and soon thereafter offered him a chance to buy one-third of another station.

Cooke snapped up the offer, and he and Thompson were partners in Canadian newspaper and broadcasting business ventures for almost a decade and a half. They bought low, sold high and held onto those operations that turned a tidy profit. By the late 1940s, they controlled a chain of newspapers, magazines and radio stations, a motion picture production company, an advertising agency and a plastics company. After their partnership ended in the early 1950s, Cooke ran Toronto's most successful radio station, CKEY, and a Canadian magazine publishing company until 1961.

It was in 1951 that Cooke made his entry into the financial arena of professional sports, acquiring the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team of the Class AAA International League.

At the box office and in the box scores, the team was poor, with low attendance and a losing record. Cooke figured he could boost attendance with such showmanship tactics as diaper-changing contests at home plate and offers of free admission to anyone accompanied by a black cat on Friday the 13th. He was right. The next year, the Maple Leafs led the minor leagues in paid attendance, and they reached the playoffs for the first time in seven years. In 1952, the Sporting News named Cooke minor-league executive of the year.

Cooke's acuity in the business office was matched by a sharp eye for on-the-field leadership potential. At Toronto in the early 1960s, he launched the managerial career of an obscure infielder named Sparky Anderson, who would become the first manager to win the World Series with teams in both the National and American leagues.

But by then Cooke had grown restless in Canada, and he was looking for new fields on which to play. In 1960, he moved to Los Angeles, where he bought a house in Beverly Hills — a belated 25th-wedding-anniversary gift to his first wife.

He was worth an estimated $15‚million by then, including $1 million in U.S. investments. Among them were an advertising agency and a recording production company. In 1959, he negotiated the purchase of a country and western radio station in suburban Los Angeles, and the next year he became a U.S. citizen by special act of Congress, citizenship being a Federal Communications Commission requirement to own a radio station. The FCC later revoked the station's license, citing as one reason two fraudulent listener contests that Cooke helped devise.

Shortly after his $350,000 purchase of 25 percent of the Redskins, Cooke abruptly decided to retire. He said he needed a rest, but he soon grew bored with playing golf, and he went back to work.

In 1964, he created a cable television company to bring high-quality television reception to areas with poor picture quality. The company would later merge into Teleprompter Corp., which was the nation's largest cable TV company during the 1970s, with Cooke as its largest shareholder.

He acquired the Lakers for $5.2 million in 1965. Among the players he would sign for the club were superstars Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. He also acquired a National Hockey League franchise for Los Angeles for $2 million and was about to launch the Kings in 1966 when he reached an impasse with the L.A. Coliseum Commission over playing dates in the city's sports arena.

Cooke wanted exclusive rights to the arena 365 days a year. The Coliseum Commission said no. Cooke said fine; he'd build his own arena. Fifteen months later, he opened the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, circular in design, with Greek columns, which cost him $16 million.

In 1971, he originated closed-circuit telecasts of boxing matches to theater audiences with the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden in New York. Each fighter was paid what then was an astonishing fee of $2.5 million, and the business of prizefighting was changed forever.

Cooke suffered a heart attack in 1973, about a year after he had gained control of Teleprompter, but he cut short his convalescence to travel to New York for nine months of tough and protracted negotiations for loan extensions to save the company from financial overcommitments by its previous management. Successful in those dealings, Cooke returned to Los Angeles to run his sports empire from the Forum. In 1981, Teleprompter would be acquired by Westinghouse. For his shares in the company, Cooke would get $70 million, plus a $4.65 million consulting contract.

By then, his 42-year marriage to Jeannie Carnegie Cooke had collapsed. She left him in July 1976, writing him, "Unfortunately, I can't measure up to your competitive nature." A 30-month property settlement battle ended in 1979 with Cooke agreeing to an even split of all his assets, which at the time were estimated at $80 million. The final judgment was signed by Las Vegas Superior Court Judge Joseph A. Wapner, who later became known to millions of television viewers as the judge on TV's "People's Court."

A court-appointed psychiatrist, Allen E. Davis, testified during the proceedings that Jeannie Cooke had "described her marital relations as having been extremely stressful for her ... because of her husband's aggressiveness and demands on her to accompany him on all business trips, and frequent business-related entertaining, such that she felt 'shaky inside for years,' had visible tremors, and became so depressed she attempted suicide four times between 1965 and 1976."

Jack Kent Cooke would later call that divorce "one of the worst mistakes I ever made in my life."

But he moved to sever his West Coast ties soon after the final decree was signed, relocating in Northern Virginia and selling the Kings, the Lakers, the Forum and a 13,000-acre ranch in the Sierra foothills for $67.5 million. That same year, he spent $87 million for several midtown Manhattan properties, including the right to lease space in the Chrysler Building through 2029, a form of ownership.

In October 1980, he married sculptor Jeanne Maxwell Williams Wilson, who had been director of women's events at the Sands Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, where Cooke had moved after his first wife left him. They had been dating for three years, but their marriage lasted 10 months.

On Jan. 5, 1981, Cooke opened a new chapter in Redskins history by firing coach Jack Pardee and hiring Joe Gibbs, who would lead the team to its three Super Bowl championships.

During his years in the Washington area, Cooke's business fortune increased more than tenfold. While presiding over the Redskins, he engineered dozens of multimillion-dollar business deals, including the purchase in 1985 of the Los Angeles Daily News for $176 million, the acquisition and sale of cable television franchises from Syracuse, N.Y., to Alaska for a profit of $500 million, and the addition of real estate holdings in New York in addition to the Chrysler Building.

In 1984, he bought Elmendorf Farm, a 503-acre horse breeding farm near Lexington, Ky., which is at the heart of the world's most famous breeding ground for thoroughbreds. Its failure to produce a Kentucky Derby winner was a sporting and financial disappointment to Cooke, who had the farm on the market for $7.5 million when he died.

Cooke's eldest son, Ralph Kent Cooke, managed the Elmendorf Farm operation until he died of liver failure at 58 in September 1995. Ralph Kent Cooke had sided with his mother during his parents' divorce proceedings, and his father had declared him a nonperson for two years, but they later reconciled. At his death, Ralph Kent Cooke was awaiting trial on charges of possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia resulting from a raid on the farm by Lexington police, postal inspectors and federal drug agents in March 1995. He pleaded not guilty.

In his personal life, Cooke's 1987 third marriage, to Suzanne Martin, 43 years younger than he, lasted 10 weeks. They had met at a swimming pool two years earlier when Cooke was on a business trip to Florida. Pregnant when they were married, she promised Cooke that she would get an abortion the day after the wedding, but she said she was unable to go through with it after checking into the hospital. Furious that she had not kept the promise, Cooke divorced her. Their daughter, Jacqueline Kent Cooke, was born in January 1988, the same month Cooke's Redskins won their second Super Bowl.

On May 5, 1990, Cooke married Marlene Ramallo Chalmers, a native of Bolivia who had served 3½ months in a federal prison for conspiracy to import less than a kilogram of cocaine. The marriage was annulled in 1994 on the grounds that a divorce from her previous husband was invalid.

They were remarried in July 1995. He was 82 at the time, and her age was described in various court documents as 38, 42 and numbers in between.

"Love is lovelier the second time around," Jack Kent Cooke said at that marriage, quoting the lyrics of a popular song.

Additional survivors include a son from his first marriage, John Kent Cooke, an executive with the Redskins.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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