Jack Kent Cooke, Media, Sports Impresario Dies
Jack Kent Cooke, a onetime traveling encyclopedia salesman who scrapped to become a billionaire media and real estate tycoon and an irascible but unforgettable sports impresario here and in the nation’s capital, died Sunday of a heart attack in Washington, D.C. He was 84.
As an owner of pro basketball, football and hockey teams, Cooke reigned over the Los Angeles Lakers’ first National Basketball Assn. championship in his “Fabulous Forum,” the Inglewood arena that Cooke built after a ferocious dispute with Los Angeles city officials. He added Wilt Chamberlain to the team that went on to win the 1972 championship, the first of six for a team that later--thanks to Cooke’s efforts--would boast talents such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson.
Later, he moved to Washington, where his Redskins won the Super Bowl three times.
His media empire includes the Los Angeles Daily News, which he purchased for $176 million in 1985. Among his real estate holdings are New York’s fabled Chrysler Building, and the nation’s oldest thoroughbred breeding farm, in Kentucky.
He was married to four women--three of them in the last 20 years of his life.
Cooke was hardly exaggerating when he once described his life as being “better than any F. Scott Fitzgerald novel.” He was a man of gargantuan entrepreneurial skills, coupled with a reputation as a hard-nosed, hands-on businessman who insisted on doing everything his way.
No deal was too small to delight him. In 1982, he gloated to a friend that he was “always making deals. I love it. Got a good deal just this morning. My DieHard [car] battery went out and they gave me a new one for half-price!”
Sports Illustrated writer Rick Reilly summarized his personality in 1991, writing that the mogul could almost make you believe that he would never die. He had spent eight decades “squeezing life down to its very rind: In the last 11 years, he has begotten a daughter, married three women (13, 44 and 40 years his junior), made an estimated $1.15 billion and kept up a pace that is still too fast for most people,” wrote Reilly. “If it can be done with money, charm, smarts, power, gall, white lies, blue eyes or sheer stare-down will, then Cooke will find a loophole in this death thing.”
But just after 10:30 on Sunday morning, the Washington fire and rescue squad was summoned to Cooke’s large home and rushed him to George Washington Hospital, where he died of congestive heart failure resulting from heart disease.
His wife, Marlena Cooke, his son, John Kent Cooke Sr., who is the Redskins’ executive vice president, and his daughter-in-law, Rita, as well as the tycoon’s grandson John Kent Cooke Jr. were all at the hospital when Cooke died.
Cooke died just months before the completion of what was to be his last dream project: a new 78,000-seat stadium for the Redskins, built to his specifications and with his money, that is scheduled to open in September.
Several sports executives paid tribute to Cooke on Sunday. National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement: “Jack Kent Cooke will be remembered as one of the premiere owners in NFL history and one of the great sportsmen and entrepreneurs in American business. He combined promotional flair, management skill, and financial strength to turn the Redskins into a Washington institution, a national attraction, and one of the most successful franchises in sports history.”
“He would give [his teams’ managers] anything you wanted because he wanted to win so badly and he wouldn’t accept anything else,” said Bobby Beathard, who ran the Redskins when they won three Super Bowls and now is general manager of the San Diego Chargers.
And Richard T. Schlosberg III, publisher of The Times, said:
“While I was saddened to hear of his death, he was a man of imagination and great zest for life. The city has directly benefited from his ownership of the Los Angeles Daily News.”
A millionaire by age 31, Cooke was over the next half century a newspaper and radio station owner, a plastics mogul, a cable television magnate, a yacht racer and more. He paid what was then the world’s largest judgment in a divorce suit.
Even among the wealthy, inflated-ego world of pro football owners, Cooke was unique, said Gene Upshaw, executive director of the National Football League Players Assn. “I can still see that tweed hat he wore and those dark glasses, whether it was morning, noon or night,” Upshaw said in a telephone interview Sunday.
“Everyone around this town called him Mr. Cooke. He never even came to the [NFL] owners’ meetings, but he was there through his son John, and the other owners knew what he thought and felt through John. You knew whatever it was, he was going to do it his way.”
Indeed, Cooke, a Toronto native, became a U.S. citizen in 1960 by a special act of Congress.
And after his longtime doormat Redskins became an NFL power, an invitation to his luxury stadium suite was considered a plum invite among the nation’s power elite.
The guest list from the past decade reads like one from a White House dinner: Retired Gen. Colin Powell, former CIA director William Webster, then-Vice President Dan Quayle and his wife, Marilyn, President Reagan’s chief of staff Donald Regan, and President Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Others were 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern, conservative columnist George Will, liberal columnist Carl Rowan, New York Times political correspondent R.W. Apple, “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl, former Lakers star Magic Johnson and Lakers announcer Chick Hearn and his wife, Marge.
“He was the most brilliant businessman I’ve ever known and he was one of the closest friends I’ve ever had,” said a despondent Hearn in an interview Sunday. “Whenever I had a trial or tribulation, such as my children’s death, he was the first to come to my aid.”
“He was a stickler for details,” Hearn said. “If you were good at your job, he was your biggest supporter. If you didn’t get the maximum out of your ability, you didn’t work long for him.”
From Encyclopedias to Broadcasting
Born in 1912, Cooke grew up comfortably in Toronto. His father, Ralph Ercil Cooke, was a successful manufacturer and seller of picture frames, until the Depression wiped out his business and his son’s college prospects.
The young man, though, proved harder to depress than the economy. He soon was earning a good living as an encyclopedia salesman, but he had occasional cash-flow problems because many buyers made down payments with post-dated checks.
He was out of cash one rainy day in 1934 when he and his wife got bogged down on a muddy road outside Veregin, Saskatchewan. Hungry, broke and immobilized, the pair made camp in their 1931 Ford roadster. When the rain let up the next day, they walked into town. There, Cooke called on the local high school principal, practically holding him prisoner in his own living room until, after 2 1/2 hours of Cooke’s brazen badgering, the man broke down and made a $5 cash deposit on a set of encyclopedias. The Cookes were able to eat.
“I was really ashamed,” Cooke told an interviewer years later. “It was bloody near a wicked thing I was doing.”
Cooke soon moved on to Colgate-Palmolive Co., and by his later recollection “sold more soap in one week than anybody else” in the company’s history. “I’d go into a market,” he said, “and say that my car had broken down, that I was running behind--and would they mind ordering right away so I could get on my way? I could make about twice as many calls as I was supposed to that way.”
But what Cooke really wanted was to get into publishing and broadcasting. In 1936, he got an introduction to Roy Thomson, a struggling publisher and broadcaster who would eventually build a transatlantic newspaper empire and become an English nobleman--Lord Thomson of Fleet Street. Thomson and Cooke got on well together, and soon got rich together, buying, selling and running newspapers and radio stations. (One station owned by Cooke employed a newscaster named Lorne Greene, who would later reach a larger audience as the star of “Bonanza.”)
Cooke, a competent but unremarkable hockey player in his school days, broke into the managerial side of sports in 1951, buying the class-AAA baseball franchise in Toronto. For a salesman of his skills, it proved no more difficult to sell minor-league baseball than it had been to sell minor-league encyclopedias. His team led the bush leagues in attendance five times. In 1952, The Sporting News named him minor-league executive of the year.
His flair and audacity were evident in his baseball promotions. He was rebuked by the Humane Society for offering free admission one Friday the 13th to anyone who brought a black cat. Another time he announced that “All expectant fathers and their wives will be admitted for only 50 cents. A real three-for-one deal!”
In 1960, Cooke acquired a 25% interest in the Washington Redskins for $300,000. As part of the deal, he got first right to buy an additional 52% of the club’s stock on the death of owner George Preston Marshall. “Naturally,” Cooke said a few years later, “I’ll buy it.”
Not long thereafter, he moved to Los Angeles.
Owning the Lakers and Kings
Cooke simultaneously burst onto the world’s and California’s sports stage in 1965, buying the struggling Lakers for the then-staggering sum of $5,175,000. This was considered a ridiculously extravagant price. After all, Bob Short, who sold the Lakers to Cooke, had paid only $140,000 for the team eight years earlier.
But when Cooke sold his holdings to Jerry Buss to pay off a $41-million divorce judgment in 1979, the team’s worth had risen to $67.5 million. It is now estimated to be in the range of $200 million.
Still in the 1960s, and in the face of more widespread disbelief, Cooke built the $16-million Forum in Inglewood, a classic colonnaded arena that would become his most visible sports monument in Southern California and, until he bought the Chrysler Building, the most famous of his real estate holdings.
The Forum rose from the dust of a dispute in which Cooke tried to stare down the public commission that ran the Los Angeles Sports Arena. Cooke said its lease terms were unacceptable and would have to be changed, or he would build his own arena. The commissioners laughed at the absurdity of such an undertaking.
“I thought he was bluffing,” Hearn recalled Sunday. “I bet him a $500 suit that he wouldn’t build the Forum. That’s why he became such a well-dressed man. He didn’t bluff. He was always playing with a winning hand.”
As Lakers owner, Cooke also played a key role in averting a 1967 walkout by NBA players, according to Tommy Hawkins, the team’s player representative at the time. Hawkins said that Cooke worked with him to forge an accommodation between the chieftain of the players union and the head of the league’s board of governors, who weren’t talking. Those negotiations gave players pensions and medical benefits for the first time.
Cooke also brought Los Angeles a new major-league sport, acquiring a National Hockey League expansion franchise and introducing the Kings, whose name proved grander than their performance while Cooke was the owner.
For most of a decade, Cooke presided at the Forum. He also he used the Forum to stage everything from heavyweight boxing to midget auto racing.
He also had a brief but spectacular run as a promoter of boxing on closed-circuit TV, paying Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier the unheard-of sum of $2.5 million each for their 1971 title match in New York. Not surprisingly, Cooke made more than either of them did.
Cooke in the late 1960s and early ‘70s could frequently be found in the Forum Club, having dinner with a rotating collection of guests, among them Greene, Karl Malden or some other show-business figure. During such a dinner in 1973, Cooke felt chest pains; for the first time in years, he was being slowed down, by a heart attack.
The episode seemed to strike him as more annoying than frightening. For one thing, he didn’t have time for a heart attack. For another, he had always taken pride in his health. “I’ve never been sick a day in my life,” he told a reporter in 1966.
Huge Divorce Settlement
But Cooke’s business successes consumed his life, and in 1976 his wife of 45 years, Barbara Jean Cooke, sued for divorce. He moved to Las Vegas, and for a while uncharacteristically shunned interviews.
In 1979, Judge Joseph Wapner, later of television fame, socked Cooke with a $41-million divorce settlement, reported to be a record at the time. Cooke returned to Los Angeles briefly, but soon sold his Forum holdings and his 13,000-acre ranch in the Sierra Foothills to Jerry Buss.
He moved east and became something of a country gentleman that year, settling on a 51-acre estate in the Virginia hills, only an hour’s drive from the home field of his remaining team, the Redskins. Between drives to Washington, he drove hard bargains on the telephone, occupying himself chiefly with major commercial real estate transactions.
Indeed, in August 1979, he bought the Chrysler Building for $87 million--a bargain price, he said, considering that he turned down a $300-million offer for it in 1982.
In 1985, Cooke bought the Los Angeles Daily News for $176 million. “He overpaid for it and then spent a lot of money upgrading the capital equipment,” newspaper industry analyst John Morton said Sunday. In the mid-1990s Cooke tried to sell the paper but pulled it off the market in June 1995. Six months later, a federal appeals court ruled that the company owed at least $600,000 to its editorial staff in back pay and interest stemming from a lengthy dispute over merit pay increases.
After his move to Washington, Cooke made a series of headline-grabbing marriages. The first, in October 1980, in a ceremony performed by U.S. District Judge John J. Sirica of Watergate fame, was to sculptor Jean Maxwell Williams. They were divorced 10 months later.
The next was a tempestuous 73-day marriage to 31-year-old Suzanne Martin in 1987. After they parted, their daughter, Jacqueline Kent Cooke, was born Jan. 25, 1988, six days before the Redskins won Super Bowl XXII.
Cooke’s fourth wife was Suzanne Martin’s former friend, Marlena Ramallo Chalmers, who had been sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for conspiracy to import less than a kilogram of cocaine. That stemmed from a 1986 arrest at Washington National Airport with a companion who was carrying a suitcase containing 10 grams of cocaine.
Notwithstanding, she and Cooke were married in May 1990 and were divorced in 1994, after she had several other brushes with the law, including an infamous early morning drunken-driving arrest in 1993. Marlena was apprehended after careening down a Georgetown Street with a male companion sprawled across the hood of her Jaguar. But she and Cooke remarried, and she was at his bedside Sunday when he died.
(Cooke’s eldest son, Ralph Kent Cooke, died in 1995 of liver failure. He was facing trial on charges of cocaine possession at the time.)
Funeral arrangements have not been set, a Washington Redskins spokesman said Sunday.
Times staff writers Helene A. Elliott and T.J. Simers contributed to this article, as did researchers Janet R. Lundblad and Maloy Moore.
* MIKE DOWNEY: Jack Kent Cooke niggled with employees over nickels, but spent millions to become a professional sports mogul. C1