A Billion Dollars Later, Cooke Is Still Playing to Win

Times Staff Writer

A day or so after Jack Kent Cooke opened the Forum 20 years ago, he was proudly strolling through the place with his lawyer, Alan Rothenberg, when they came to a candy machine.

Inserting a coin, Cooke asked: "Join me?"

Idly, Rothenberg said: "Why not?"

At that moment, as Rothenberg, now the president of the Clippers, and Cooke tell it, the machine went berserk. Like a slot machine, it poured out nickels, dimes and quarters in a torrent--more than $10 worth.

As the money piled up at his feet, Cooke looked at it delightedly and said: "That, Alan, is the story of my life."

Exactly. And he's still rolling. In financial terms, as Cooke said again the other day, his luck has held for most of the 20th Century.

His life is a story of coups.

Thus, after building the Forum in a Los Angeles suburb, he exchanged it, in a manner of speaking, for the 77-story Chrysler Building in New York.

He also exchanged the Lakers for the Washington Redskins.

And among other things, he exchanged a domicile in Bel-Air for 1,400 acres of northern Virginia, where he lives today in a modern mansion called Far Acres on a forested estate known as Kent Farms.

Self-educated and self-made, Cooke was a saxophone player at 20, a radio station manager at 24, a millionaire at 30 and a multimillionaire at 47, when he moved to California.

On the day that he survived a heart attack in 1973, the year he turned 60, Cooke had $73 million.

Nine years ago, when at 66 he was divorced by his first wife and left Los Angeles, they shared their $100 million more or less evenly, according to the Guinness Book of Records and other sources.

Today at 75, according to the editors of Forbes magazine, Cooke has a personal fortune of $900 million.

That's a low estimate, other sources said. As one remarked: "Since last year, Jack has been working on his second billion."

Which leaves the question: Why? Perhaps the best answer is that he is a compulsive competitor. Bright and vigorous, he lives to win.

And this winter, what he wants most is a second Super Bowl ring--another Super Bowl championship for the Redskins--and if you think he wouldn't trade the Chrysler Building to get it, make him an offer.

Two or three years ago, when Prince Charles and Princess Diana visited Washington, one of Cooke's neighbors, Paul Mellon, a man with $850 million himself, invited Cooke to lunch with the royal tourists and a few other guests one Sunday at the Mellon estate.

"Regrets only," Mellon wrote.

Cooke wrote back: "Are you serious?"

And, as planned, he went to a Redskin game that day.

Cooke sometimes concedes that the Redskins could win without him, but he knows, in his heart of hearts, that it would be harder.

There are, of course, those who doubt that he even has a heart. To many who know him, Cooke seems cold and aloof. Admired by some acquaintances, he has been called arrogant and abrasive by others.

At the Forum, which he ruled for 12 years, they remember the afternoon that a visitor encountered three young women weeping simultaneously at different desks in the arena's subterranean offices.

When the rest of the employees appeared to be unconcerned, the visitor asked one of them: "What's going on here?"

Looking around, the employee replied: "It must be Friday. You get in Jack's doghouse, you get the ax here Fridays."

Rothenberg, who still serves as Cooke's Los Angeles lawyer, discounts such tales. "He isn't difficult to work for," Rothenberg said. "It's a thrill just to be around him--and he's loyal to those who work hard."

At his office on the farm, Cooke said: "Most of the (30) employees you see here, I've had from the start."

Cooke started in Virginia and Washington in 1979, after he had lived one lifetime in Canada and another in California. As a Virginian, he looks much as he did in the later Los Angeles years, when he was already a ringer for a refined, aging Shakespearean actor, one with a feel for dramatic roles. He was born with a flair for the histrionic.

Standing 5 feet 9 inches, Cooke remains a wiry, erect, athletic type who has reluctantly given up the Marlboros that he chain-smoked in Los Angeles until his coronary scared him.

What's more, he said, he never eats breakfast or lunch anymore, restricting himself to one meal a day.

Consequently, seen from a distance, say, on his way up the stairs, he could be a hurrying, nervous soap salesman in his 30s.

There was a time when Cooke did indeed peddle soap. That was in Canada, where as a young man he also sold encyclopedias, and he retains the slickness of a door-to-door salesman as well as the air of a trouper who has had a long love affair with his own voice.

Customarily, Cooke wears the uniform of his class in rural Virginia, an expensive tweed jacket with gray flannel pants. He wears it distinctively, sometimes with kangaroo leather boots. He has always paid attention to his clothes.

His friends and enemies, who in both instances are legion, unite in calling him politically conservative, almost reactionary, and personally frugal, almost stingy.

A veteran basketball reporter still talks about the day that he located a public telephone for Cooke at a Los Angeles hotel. Placing a call to his second son, John, who was then away at college in Wisconsin, Cooke told him that he'd just bought the Lakers for $5 million.

Then he said: "By the way, John, your mother wants you to call her at the house this afternoon, but dollars don't grow on trees. Call station to station!"

In fiscal matters, what seems to interest Cooke the most is value received. He hates to be a sucker.

"I've seen him fight over nickels," Rothenberg said. "Then he'll casually lay out millions for the right deal or to get the right player. He's the most confident and optimistic man I've known."

To Laker announcer Chick Hearn, Cooke combines the two essentials for entrepreneurial success. "He's a doer who is also a dreamer," Hearn said. "And good isn't good enough for him. He only dreams for what's the very best."

What's very best for Cooke, some employees would say.

Hank Ives, the Laker publicist here in the old days, recalls that whenever Cooke was around, it was a sin to meander about the office or down the hall. "There was only one way to go," Ives said. "Fast."

Unfailingly, however, Cooke has managed to find time for the common courtesies.

There was, for instance, a day when his Los Angeles chauffeur made a dental appointment for himself at 9 a.m. but failed to show. Two hours later, the dentist, Lawrence Paben, got a surprise call.

"I owe you an apology," Cooke said. "I didn't know about his appointment. It's all my fault."

Talking about it later, Paben said: "I feel sure that there was another time when a guy told me, 'I'm sorry.' But I can't remember when."

THE REBOUNDER

In the Washington financial community, they often refer to the deal that Cooke didn't make in 1985, when he tried to take over Multimedia, a holding company with interests in mostly Southern radio, TV and newspaper properties.

After he had put $89 million into Multimedia stock, Cooke's bid failed and he won only the consolation prize--a cool $25-million profit on a series of investments that had taken barely three months of his spare time.

That's $8.3 million a month.

"Nice going," a friend said.

"Nice going, hell," Cooke said. "I wanted the company. I need $25 million like I need the plague."

Surprisingly, before the year was out, Cooke paid $176 million for one suburban paper in the Los Angeles area, the Daily News, which is based in Van Nuys.

Cooke watchers, studying it all from the sidelines, noted instantly that this wasn't the first time that he had responded rather theatrically to a challenging incident.

His career, in truth, has been a litany of stubborn, creative responses to challenge.

He is a living example of the adage that a long life is the best revenge.

Consider the following:

--When a giant named Wilt Chamberlain jilted him for the American Basketball Assn., Cooke somehow got a more valuable center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, on the rebound.

--Cooke's response to premature retirement in the 1960s was an emotional decision to come back by paying $5 million for the Lakers. "You could have had almost any other basketball team that year for $1 million," Hearn said.

--Not long thereafter, Cooke's response to an insulting Coliseum Commission denial was to build the Forum.

--Then, making another emotional decision to sell the Forum, he got the Chrysler Building on the rebound and converted a white elephant into a gold mine.

It had all begun years earlier, when his response to sudden family adversity had been to give up two things he held dear, music and a college education.

His father, a well-to-do Toronto picture-frame manufacturer with three sons and a daughter, went broke in the 1929 stock market crash, prompting Cooke to immediately seek full-time work when his other option was a part-time job and part-time school. He overreacted, some said.

That was shortly before he could become the equivalent in his school district of a second-semester college freshman. He never went back to the halls of ivy. He had known the good life in a home with money to spend and a servant or two, and he chose to chase that vision, although, in a more perfect world, he would have pursued his one great interest, music.

At the time, he was playing sax and clarinet several nights a week in a Canadian hotel with a pretty fast group. His colleagues, among others, were Percy Faith, later an orchestra leader; Murray McEachern, who was probably the best dual trombone-saxophone player of the big-band era, and Harold Taylor, later president of Sarah Lawrence College.

"That's all I wanted to do," Cooke said. "Had I been endowed with more talent, I'd be a professional musician today."

The reluctant billionaire.

And to hear him talk about his aborted music career, as a singer and song writer--"Love Is Gone"--as well as big-band sideman on the E flat alto saxophone, is to believe him.

Music has charms.

The greatest challenge of Cooke's life, followed by his most creative response, was posed by his 1970s divorce and the settlement imposed by a Superior Court judge named Joseph A. Wapner, who later accepted an appointment to a higher court, the televised "People's Court."

It had been a 42-year marriage.

When Wapner nicked him for about half of everything he had, Cooke resolved to kill for it, just as he had resolved to kill the Coliseum Commission in an earlier crisis. And predictably, he made another killing.

In the nine years since that traumatic day in Superior Court, he has run $50 million into at least $900 million.

On a recent afternoon at the farm, Cooke was asked to contemplate the achievements of his first 75 years and identify his favorite.

Was it building the Forum? Rejuvenating the Chrysler Building? Buying the Lakers? The Redskins? Making his first million? His first billion? Getting Abdul-Jabbar from Milwaukee? Drafting Magic Johnson? Merging TelePrompTer with Westinghouse? Selling his first bar of soap? Winning the Super Bowl?

The guy has certainly been busy. What, in his view, is the best thing he's done?

Quietly, he said: "The best thing I've done is marry my first wife. That was an achievement."

In a more perfect world, they would have celebrated their golden wedding anniversary two years ago.

He was a struggling door-to-door salesman that day 52 summers past when he and Jean Carnegie were married, and thereafter she struggled along with him for several years.

He called her Jeannie, and in time they were to live on Saint Cloud Road in Bel-Air.

Today in Virginia, his friends say that Jack is still carrying the torch for Jeannie. They say that he embraced Virginia on the rebound. They say that he never wanted to leave Los Angeles--that even now he'd rather be back in Los Angeles, with Jeannie, trying to make ends meet on $100 million.

But no one knows for sure. When asked why he relocated in Virginia after living briefly in Las Vegas, he said: "I wanted to be here."

It's in the record, though, that within six weeks after judgment day in Wapner's court, Cooke sold out, packed up and flew East, abandoning the rewards of the 20-odd years and $20-odd million he had invested in California.

What does he think of L.A. now?

"The roots I had in Los Angeles have never withered," he said firmly. "In the East, I hear them jeer at the mores of Southern California. It is done with ill-concealed contempt. It isn't done with my approval. I'm a pretty strong advocate of the good side of Los Angeles."

His former wife still lives on Saint Cloud Road in the house that Wapner awarded her, although she spends part of the year in San Diego County. She has remarried. She is Jean Carnegie Berwald now.

A year after moving to Virginia, Jack married sculptor Jean Maxwell Williams. They were divorced a year later.

Jack and his third wife, publicist Suzanne Martin, were married last summer. He has sued for divorce, according to an Associated Press report from Warrenton, Va. They are expecting their first child, Jack's third. He also has several grandchildren.

His first son, Ralph, now 50, sided with Jean in the Cooke family schism and still lives in Los Angeles, where he has been in advertising and movie production. Ralph's former wife, Carrie, is now the wife of NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle.

Jack's second born, John Kent Cooke, 46, lives in Virginia, where he and his wife recently separated. As executive vice president of the Redskins, John Kent is a leader whose work is highly regarded by rivals and associates alike. He is also the club's heir apparent.

Jack Kent, however, plans to live forever.

Several years ago, when his death was reported on the Monday night of a Ram win over the Atlanta Falcons, he cheerfully corrected the wire service announcement.

"Cooke is alive," he said. "It's Atlanta that died."

THE EMPEROR

As the 1983 Jaguar XJS pulls up at the only traffic signal in Middleburg, Va., everyone within earshot glares at the driver, whose four-speaker sound system is cranked way up. Another doggone 16-year-old, a nearby shopkeeper tells herself.

This is no teen-ager, though. This is Jack Kent Cooke, and these are two things he fancies: fast cars and thunderous music.

He apologized to his passenger. "I hope you don't mind," he said. "I like it loud. Particularly this tape.

"It's the new music from 'Phantom of the Opera.' This will be the musical of the year when it gets to New York (from London), and I'm memorizing the score. I've got the same tape in all my cars."

Cooke sings along with the soprano soloist as he races eastward through Middleburg--the so-called capital of Virginia's horse and hunting country--on his way to football practice at Redskin Park, which is nearly an hour distant from his new home. The nation's capital is another hour or so beyond. He said he never misses football practice when he's in the Virginia-Washington area.

His other cars and the other "Phantom of the Opera" tapes, three or four of each, are back at Kent Farms, on the other side of Middleburg--10 minutes or so from the traffic signal--on the way to Upperville.

There's a station wagon there, along with an old Cadillac limousine that looks like a hearse, plus a 1976 Mercedes 450 SLC. And there's also a driver, for when Cooke chooses to be driven.

Nearby, waiting patiently, are two pilots and an eight-place Hawker-Siddeley aircraft. A British-made jet, this is Cooke's private plane. If it's too far to drive, he flies. He said the Hawker is as fast as a commercial airliner, making Los Angeles in 4 1/2 or 5 hours, depending on the wind.

Unlike Armand Hammer's plane, Cooke's isn't fitted with sleeping berths. Cooke is the sort that never naps, he said. He uses the Hawker as an office every hour he's in it, on the runway or aloft.

To Cooke, an office is a telephone. There are often five or six calls waiting on his eight-line phone at home. And when he's moving, on tires or by air, he's usually talking.

"Here's something you may not know about airplanes," he said. "You can phone down, but you can't phone up. A plane is a marvelous workplace. You're never bothered by incoming calls."

The same can be said for riding a horse. And as luck would have it, Cooke has some horses, too, at Kent Farms. They're all Tennessee walkers, one of which he rides first thing almost every morning--selecting different paths, the better to admire the scenery.

This is a man who doesn't lack for bridle paths. The rolling land is his for miles around, 640 acres on the home farm and nearly 800 more down the road a piece. The road is John Mosby Drive, which was named for a prominent Confederate raider during the Civil War. The unit known as Mosby's Rangers was organized at Cooke's intersection.

Cooke's acreage is mostly heavily wooded. The forest glitters in evening sunlight, or when the leaves are turning or in the first sun after a night of lightly falling snow.

There are clearings for the cattle and for one or two crops, mostly wheat, and in the middle of Cooke's forest there is another clearing of 9 or 10 acres on a slight rise. In the middle of this stands his new house, Far Acres, a spreading, jarringly modern structure designed by a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Cooke loves it. In a fashionable, conservative county, one long identified by its stately Colonial dwellings, the man who built a Roman Forum in California has built one of the only two modern mansions to be found in this part of old Virginny.

"You wouldn't expect me to do the traditional, would you?" he asks.

Uh, no.

He offers coffee, but nothing stronger, although he has made a long study of his beverage of preference: imported wine.

One day on a recent California trip, stopping at the Bel-Air Hotel while he looked for a house near his new newspaper office, Cooke shared a chilled bottle of presumably French white wine with a slow sipper who wanted it even colder.

"May I have an ice cube?" the slow sipper asked.

"Not here," Cooke said with what he would have called rudeness in another. "Nobody puts ice cubes in my wine."

With either wine or coffee at Far Acres, the spectacular long view from Cooke's walls of windows is of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

In the other direction, after a 20-minute walk through the forest--and he often walks it--Cooke is at the doorway of his corporate headquarters, a long, one-floor, converted barn painted red.

The view from another wall of windows in his private office--correcting the monumental design error of his basement work space at the Forum--captures hundreds of oak, maple, sycamore, arborvitae, pine, cedar and flowering dogwood trees.

It's hard for a visitor to keep in mind that the man who owns all this and more--the slight, graying, carefully dressed emperor-type sitting there at a corner desk--is an addict who, hooked on competition and winning, got most of what he owns on a series of dares.

Or by skinning Chick Hearn. "He got his stake by underpaying me," the Laker announcer said one day, smiling through his tears.

It should be noted that Cooke's empire isn't precisely that. In a sense he is an emperor, sure enough, but what he has is a spread of three empires.

Though it's a rare individual who can master any one field today, Cooke has made himself the master of three.

In alphabetical order, they are:

--BUSINESS:

Cooke is a buyer and seller with extensive real estate holdings in New York and in the West. Most recently he sold Kent Plaza, the largest modern development in Phoenix.

Everything he has is always on the block except his farms, his football team and the prestigious Chrysler Building in New York, the art deco skyscraper in which Cooke takes an aesthetic interest.

"He's the greatest salesman I've known," Rothenberg said. "He can sell you anything he wants to. Or he can sell you on something of yours that he wants.

"The (recent stock market) crash didn't hurt him much because most of his major holdings are owned privately."

--COMMUNICATIONS:

The largest chunk of Cooke's fortune was made in cable television. He had the sense to get into it in 1960, when, to most people, cable meant a streetcar in San Francisco, or an underwater telegram from overseas.

He came out of one deal with an estimated $100 million, not all profit, probably, but all his.

On one particularly happy day, he reaped more than that by merging the company known as TelePrompTer into an older company, Westinghouse. He had previously saved TelePrompTer by moving to New York to run the firm for a year or so, dropping everything in California. Fortunately, nothing broke.

Cooke made his first real dollar in radio, as a station manager in Canada, where he also made his first real million as a partner with the late Roy Thomson in the ownership and management of a large group of small newspapers and radio stations.

He is now back in print journalism as the owner of the Daily News.

Media financial experts said he paid too much for it, $176 million cash for a property they valued at about $100 million, but people are always saying things like that about Cooke.

He tends to double his investment whenever he sells anything--in any of his empires. And because he tends to buy shrewdly in the first place, the guy he sells to often winds up doubling his. Ask Jerry Buss.

--SPORTS:

Over the years, Cooke has owned everything from a minor league baseball team in Canada to the money-coining Lakers.

But when he refined his athletic operations a few years back, he was discovered to be the sole owner of two of the continent's classiest sports ventures, the Redskins and an enterprise that Hearn calls that $50-million horse farm in Kentucky.

The latter is the Elmendorf Racing & Breeding Farm near Lexington, where Cooke's men produce thoroughbred horses for the race tracks. "My wants are few and modest," the owner of Elmendorf said one day at Far Acres. "I'd be satisfied to win the Kentucky Derby and Super Bowl the same year."

He concedes that he's lucky to have the Redskins today. To begin with, he bought in only after overhearing a tip. And at least twice, he tried unsuccessfully to sell his shares. But he tried for a candy bar once, too, and hit a $10 jackpot. Don't underestimate him.

What he has besides luck is a knack for hiring useful commanders for all three Cooke empires.

This may be best illustrated by his sports choices. In baseball, he was the first to hire Sparky Anderson and Dick Williams. In football, he has been served by two Super Bowl coaches, George Allen and Joe Gibbs. And he launched a basketball dynasty by trading for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and drafting Magic Johnson.

"There's no way that Jack Cooke or anyone else could become an expert in so many sports," Rothenberg said. "What he has is an awesome sixth sense."

For example, as a present for himself in the 1960s--when he became a United States' citizen by special act of Congress--Cooke had the sixth sense to pay $300,000 for 25% of the Redskins. They were then worth only about $1 million. Thereafter, every chance he got he bought more Redskin stock until he had it all.

He also had the sixth sense to insist on Magic Johnson in a basketball draft in which it wasn't all that clear to others that Johnson was a 6-foot 9-inch Jerry West.

Said Rothenberg: "The Lakers wouldn't have had either Abdul-Jabbar or Johnson if Cooke hadn't personally insisted--intervened."

As many sports fans remember, Cooke also intervened, regularly, in the business of the hockey-playing Kings, and rode them spectacularly into the ground, or at least off the ice--the Los Angeles flag bearer in the sport of his Canadian childhood.

Curiously, by contrast, he has been a roaring success in U.S. football, even though he never played or saw the game as a boy, and even though, elsewhere, football seems to be the hardest sport for U.S. owners to understand.

Would you believe that in the regular-season games of most of the 1980s, Cooke has been a bigger winner than Al Davis?

Believe it.

On the Redskin practice field one bitterly cold day this month--as Cooke sat on the sideline with the numb guest he had transported from Kent Farms--his offensive team suddenly began going through some strange motions in a dummy scrimmage. The one-back, two-tight end Redskins didn't look the same, somehow, though in the Washington freeze it was even hard for football writers to put a finger on the difference.

Then Cooke leaned over and whispered: "Hey, they've got three tight ends out there."

Counting them again, he rattled off the numbers and names of all three players.

"Don't print that," he cautioned. "I'll bet Joe Gibbs is putting in something new for Sunday."

He was. And in time, with Gibbs' new tactic, Cooke's club won again.

Look at it this way. When an old saxophone player from Canada can recognize three tight ends at a football practice, don't be surprised if he has a billion dollars.

Times researcher Doug Conner contributed to this story.

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