JACK KENT COOKE IN LOTUSLAND
Whatever became of the Boy Wonder? Why, he went to live in a pink Venetian palace in California, booted ten million dollars in a richly comic brush with radio, and bought a piece of the Washington Redskins. This is a portrait of the most American of all Canadians
CANADIANS first heard that the sometime Boy Wonder of Canadian Business was thinking of moving to the U. S. on May 4. 1960, or just over four years ago. That was the day it was reported from Washington that Representative Francis Walter (Dem., Pennsylvania) had just introduced to the House of Representatives “a private bill for the relief of Jack Kent Cooke" who, so far as anyone knew at the time, had been living all along in a French townhouse on Frybrook Road in Toronto. The bill said in effect that any time Cooke wanted to apply for U. S. citizenship the permanent residence requirements (five years continuous) and physical presence requirements (six months immediately prior to application) were to be held to have been fulfilled. The bill, which was unprecedented in U. S. immigration history, became Private Law 86-486 on September 14, I960.
The report had all the requisite drama of a good first-act curtain line. For one thing, it was a theatrically Unexpected Development. Cooke himself admits he discussed the move in Canada only with his Toronto lawyer. William Zimmerman, and with an Ottawa friend and adviser, the late Senator Duncan MacTavish. The older of Cooke's two sons, Ralph, first heard the news when he read it in the papers.
For another thing, the announcement instantly established Cooke as a protagonist to be reckoned with, whatever was to come, for unprecedented private bills are not easily wangled in Washington, especially by an alien. Cooke, who doesn't like to explain away his effects any more than the next showman, says only that, "Representative Walter was not the advocate. It was done entirely by friends of mine in the United States who wanted me, desperately apparently, to come down here. The exact procedure escapes even me.”
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JACK KENT COOKE
"Washington,” a reporter wrote in tareweil, "will tind out he's five-toot-eight of thunder god”
But above all the announcement was good theatre because it had mystery and suspense. Why was Cooke leaving Canada? No comment. What was he going to do about his Canadian empire — radio station ( KEY: Liberty magazine; Saturday Night; the Toronto Maple l eaf Baseball Club; Consolidated Frybrook, his holding company? No comment. What was he up to in the U. S.? No comment. How was the plot to build from here?
Canadians, rustling their programs and speculating fiercely, settled hack to wait for the next act.
On the strength of what had gone before it promised to be interesting, even gripping, in a logical, Aristotelian way. Cooke's rise in Canada had been so swift, specialized and gaudy as to seem more American than Canadian anyway. With no grubstake, no advanced education and no job training except an adolescent stint as a billbilly bandleader (Oley Kent and his Orchestra) and another as a salesman (encyclopedias, soap and stocks) Cooke went into radio management and ownership and made himself a millionaire by the age of twenty-eight. He was a millionaire at least eleven times over — and a brazen, unorthodox public figure — by the time he left Canada. He was well known — if imperfectly understood — to be an upstart aggressive freebooter. True it was said he was brilliant, shrewd, wellread. charming and gracious when he wished to be: sentimental too — so much so that he'd peel off five hundred dollars on the spot for a kid who had lost his legs but refuse to see the beneficiary. “I'd cry,“ he'd explain.
Still, the stories that were traded about him concerned the leopardskin couch in his office; the staterooms of his navy Fairmile which, lubberly, he'd had custom-wallpapered; the expectation of appreciation for an office gift in direct ratio to its price tag, which he couldn't help quoting. He was known to be a whirlwind who would work alongside his staff in his shirtsleeves for two days at a stretch in a crisis. Even at the ballpark he made sure he could communicate at will with all his enterprises by having a telephone installed in his third-base box. He once irrupted into a broadcast booth personally to tickle a diskjockey who was falling somewhat short of the “infectious enthusiasm" of standing orders. He countered an indignant quizzing about ( KEY by the Board of Broadcast Governors with insultingly helpful expansiveness, leg cocked over chair-arm: “Who is in the position to say this is good taste or that is bad taste?"
In good or bad taste, all his enterprises were shamelessly noticeable: ( KEY in Toronto with its slogans, its formula sound, its disk-jocke> "stars" and. latterly, its contests and clamour: Liberty magazine with its gee - whiz stories from Hollywood for audience-
compensation and its resourceful use of Canadian place - names for audience - identification; the Maple Leaf ball club with its diapering contests at home plate, its kiddy nights, ladies' appreciation nights, taxi drivers’ nights, streetcar operators' nights and free admission on Friday 13 to anyone accompanied by a black cat.
As a businessman Cooke's preferred arena was clearly the lively arts and his characteristic activity not so much that of financier and corporate director as that of exploitation man and impresario — neither of which professions is exactly indigenous to Canada. His basic approach to management, in fact, can perhaps best be suggested by his dazzling notion, amounting to an insight, that the correct editor for Saturday Night would be Whittaker Chambers. This was shortly after Cooke acquired Saturday Night in 1952 and also shortly after Chambers had turned professional ex-communist, testified against Alger Hiss and topped the best-seller list with a book. Witness, full of intrigue, pumpkins and apologetics. Chambers' credentials as an editor were, of course, first-rate but Cooke was still the only magazine publisher anywhere to appreciate so explicitly the delicious benefits of notoriety. Unfortunately Chambers turned him down.
“Skulduggery" cost him one plum
Cooke had had other turndowns in Canada. Canadian law had blocked him all along from owning more than one radio station. The Toronto city fathers had gone coy when he asked their support for the new baseball stadium that might have attracted a major league franchise to Canada. The Canadian government had dragged its heels for years about granting private TV licences—and then awarded the Toronto plum to. it was charged, a political favorite as promised. ("Such skulduggery," said Cooke recently, resurrecting the charges.) Cooke's attempts to buy the Toronto Telegram, the Globe and Mai! and the Argonaut football team had all been fruitless.
This history of frustration made the news of Cooke's impending emigration particularly intelligible. As Canadians waiting out the intermission saw the plot: Cooke, balked in Canada, had quietly laid his plans; now he w'ould show what he could really do, in the freer, more congenial air of the U. S. big time. One reporter bidding him a somewhat premature farewell echoed the prevailing opinion: "Washington," she warned in print, “is only beginning to discover he is five-footeight of thunder god."
Well, all that was four years ago and something seems to have gone wrong with the second act.
Cooke has. indeed, systematically disposed of his holdings in Canada. He sold ( KEY in April 1961: Liberty and Saturday Night in August 1961: he sold his French townhouse in Toronto in April 1962. This January he sold his last major Canadian property, the Toronto Maple Leaf hall club: it is currently being run by nine Toronto businessmen who arc offering ownership to the public at one dollar a share. Cooke made a profit on everything except the ball club on which
he is reported to have lost some three hundred thousand dollars.
As of this May all Cooke had left of his ten-million-dollar Canadian empire was a plastics company in London, Ontario, and a personal holding company, Aubyn Investments Limited, which owned a small commercial recording studio in Toronto, a vacant office building on downtown Richmond Street, a vacant lot near Bronte, Ontario, and enough office space (labelled Consolidated Frybrook) to shelter the accountant, Neil Watt, who was presiding over the liquidation. The plastics company w'as a straight investment, and currently profitable, hut everything else w'as for sale.
There had been absolutely no compensating acquisitions in the U. S. — except a quite uncharacteristic minority share (twenty-five percent) of a football club, the Washington Redskins, bought in November 1960, and a pink Italianate summer-palace next door to the Jerry Lewis estate in Bel Air, California, bought in July 1962. Indeed Cooke has even sold one U. S. company he owned at the time of the move: a New York recording firm called Strand Records. Why did he sell? "That's a pretty good question,” he says with the smooth guardedness that seems second nature these days.
He still owns, as he did before he left Canada, half of a New' York-based firm of broadcast representatives, run by his brother and co-owner, Donald. He has also owned all along a company called Broadcast Equipment Corporation w'hich in turn owns the transmitter and equipment of radio station KREA in Pasadena, California. Donald Cooke acquired the licence to KREA and began running it in May 1959, using the physical facilities leased to him by his older brother Jack. Then, after proceedings that lasted four years, the Federal Communications Commission relieved Donald of his licence on charges of conducting fraudulent contests and altering program logs with intent to deceive the commission. He is still operating the station on a week-to-week basis, for permanent applications to take over the licence were being accepted until May 1 of this year. The final FCC decision among them may take years and the necessary interim operator has not yet been named. But under the circumstances Broadcast Equipment Corporation can scarcely be considered the cornerstone of a new Cooke empire. This is particularly so since improper involvement by Cooke in
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K RI.A's operation w as itself an issue early in the hearings.
Indeed, about all the news that has filtered back to Canada about Jack Cooke’s life in the Land of Opportunity has concerned this public embarrassment-by-association. Otherwise, tor all anyone has heard, he has simply sett led down with his family in C alifornia, richer than ever, as a private citizen. Even in Los Angeles his reputation is no more than run-ot-themillionaire. The Los Angeles limes morgue has only tw'o clippings on him. both concerning out-of-date sports rumors. IJ is name does not appear in the gossip columns. He has a three-room office, with a girl to do typing, on the ground floor of the new Bank of America building in Beverly Hills anil he is sometimes there all day; more often he is only in for part of the day or not at all. No name appears on the door anil the office has no telephone listing. "I am not involved in ;my active enterprise." says Cooke. He and his wife, Jean, see a few expatriate Canadians like Lome (ircene; a few bankers and brokers and lawyers; a few members of the movie colony like Nick Mayo and Janet Blair, and Bette Davis, whom the Cookes had met before they left ( tinada, and a few old friends from the world of sports like Dan Reese of the I os Angeles Rams and Bob Cobb, ex-owner of the Hollywood Stars. Cobb, who now operates the Hollywood Brown Derby, says stoutly, "Jack hasn't been here long enough to have met all the people he's going to meet." James Bishop of Bishop and Associates, a fashionable Beverly Hills advertising agency, comments, "He's tin enigma down here." Back in Canada, an erstwhile rival in Canadian publishing and broadcasting dismissed him scornfully, not long ago: "Cooke has sunk without a trace."
Cooke does not admit that anything happened. According to him he moved to the U. S. because he had fallen in love with California "... with the climate, greatest climate in the world." he says pugnaciously, “and with the opportunities, one of the greatest growth countries in the w'orld, this state.
"But," he adds, "you must understand the background. I'm taking a breathing spell. 1 have no reason to be aggressive in the pursuit of money, properties or anything material at all. |Cooke does talk like this.] I've worked awfully hard for a long time and now I'm just relaxing." He waves aside the KRI.A business as inconsequential. “If 1 applied for a broadcast licence over here I see no reason why I wouldn't get one, " he says and adds blandly, "I have no plans at the moment for applying."
Since Cooke is only fifty-two. belligerently fit and so full of restless energy that he works it off in long solitary walks, his protests are braver than they are wholly credible. But this is the version he sticks to and as long as this is so the story can onlv be pieced together from inference, analogs and certain uninflected facts in the public record. But if a gixxl plot should have conflict, what seems to emerge is really a better second act than the slick one the Canadian public expected.
The first thing to know is that as early as 1950 Cooke — blocked from expanding in radio in Canada and stalled indefinitely in any entry into TV — inquired in Washington about the legalities of owning a U. S. radio station. He was told that as a Canadian citizen he could not do so. It was only after this that he turned to buying ball clubs and magazines in Canada. and making offers on newspapers and assorted major league teams. He has said, significantly, that from the start his ambition to get into broadcasting was “almost irresistible.'' Meanwhile he renewed his drive towards a private TV licence in Canada.
The short search for a U. S. citizen
But in 1958 Cooke heard an authoritative report that the Toronto TV licence had privately been pledged to the John Bassett-John David Eaton group. He said recently that when he filed his own application at the I960 hearings he was "simply going through the motions.” He went back to his Washington lawyers and asked if there were any circumstances under which he could invest in radio in the U. S. He was told that a leasing arrangement with an eligible licensee, that is to say a U. S. citizen, would make it possible. One of Cooke's two brothers, Donald, lived in New York and had been a U. S. citizen for ten years. Cooke promptly started shopping for a suitable property and, after scouting stations in Philadelphia. St. Louis, Louisville and Miami, found a negligible little radio station in Pasadena that could be had for nine hundred thousand dollars. It w'as a low-pow'er community station, programming hillbilly music and commercial religion, and it was owned by a man named Loyal King, whose chief distinction was that he had given Tennessee Ernie Ford his start. But it had one quiet asset: King had already applied to the FCC to step up his signal to fifty kilowatts. With the power boost KRLA — as the Cookes later christened it —
would be transformed from a hick to a metropolitan station, beamed right at the number tw'o market in the U. S.. Los Angeles. Cooke set up a deal w ith King. Donald Cooke, still in New York, made application to the FCC for the licence to KRLA sight unseen. There w'as a small hitch in the proceedings. The FCC rather coldly questioned the fact that all but ten thousand dollars of the purchase price was to be furnished or underwritten by Jack, an alien. They further questioned Broadcast Equipment's contractual option, good until November I, 1965, to buy Donald out always providing it or its assignee "possessed the necessary qualifications to be a licensee." The FCC is touchy about overt evidence of deals or "understandings." Donald hastily mortgaged his own house and car in order to manage more acceptable financing and the option clause was struck out of his agreement with Jack. Nevertheless, unsurprisingly, the FCC later came to the conclusion that, "While it was to be bought in the name of Don, a man of limited means. Jack ultimately was to become licensee of any station to he acquired.” Donald, by the way, had been legally running KRLA for four months before he actually visited it in person.
The second thing to notice is that no fewer than twenty applicants are elbowing and shoving, right now', to get the KRLA licence. Until the FCC deadline for application this May 1 it was easy to miss the fact that KRLA could have been the cornerstone of a newer, bigger Cooke empire. But it is now' public that hopefuls ranging from Bob Hope to Art Linkletter and covering some of the canniest communications experts in between want the station badly: they estimate the station can earn up to a million and a half dollars a year. Using the traditional broadcasting rule of thumb that a station is worth anywhere up to ten times its earnings, Donald lost his brother a property potentially worth anywhere up to fifteen million dollars when he
lost his licence. (Actually, the station would probably fetch about five millions if it were on the open market today.) And in the U. S. — unlike Canada — a broadcast licensee can own as many as seven radio stations, plus six television stations.
The third thing to know is that Cooke didn't actually bother to become a U. S. citizen until August 28. 1962. (He made his physical move to California in November 1961; he is not a registered voter.) This is, in its way, as telling a clue to thw'arted hopes and plans as any public admission. For between May I960, when it was revealed to a waiting world that Cooke had plans to go to the U. S., and September I960, when the private bill was actually adopted, the FCC ordered a hearing into the affairs of KRLA. Donald Cooke fought a delaying action right up until December of last year, but from July 1960 on the licence was in obvious jeopardy and U. S. citizenship must have lost its urgency for Jack and, indeed, its point.
The poignant part is that Jack helped lose Don's licence himself — and he only did it to be helpful or, as the FCC put it, “to lend Don the benefit of his broadcast experience.’’
To a man of Cooke's history it must have seemed harmless enough. Donald had become effective owner of the station on May 1, 1959, but the stepup in kilowattage wasn't due until the fall. The plan, therefore, was to keep the station a sleeper through the summer, with the same old hillbilly music, and then let it explode overnight -power boost, new call letters, star disk-jockeys, Top Forty and all. Jack had already been very helpful in finding a station manager and general manager to carry out the changeover but when Donald finally got himself out to California to see his property ten days before the changeover was due he decided that what his new staff had perpetrated was “a mess.” Jack arrived almost simultaneously and he did just what he had alw-ays done in Canada in a crisis: rolled up his shirtsleeves and pitched in. About the first thing he did was listen to tapes of the disk-jockeys who had been hired and express, well, dismay. Then he went through tapes of the rejected diskjockeys listening for something more to his taste and among the rejects came upon one Perry Allen, of WKBW in Buffalo. Allen had been turned down because his delivery was "too frantic.” Cooke telephoned him at once and offered him the prime spot on KRLA.
Next Cooke turned his attention to inventing a roman-candle sendoff for the new KRLA. He achieved it. Starting at midnight on September 1 the station went on the air for fiftyfour solid hours broadcasting nothing but clues to a “Golden Key" contest. (This supercharged fare was interrupted only by supercharged exchanges with listeners, twice every quarter hour, who were competing in two lesser, telephone contests. “Don’t Say Hello, Say KRLA” was one.)
The Golden Key contest was a real blast. The hidden key was supposed to unlock the new transmitter for KRLA's fifty-kw operation and the finder was supposed to get fifty thou-
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sand dollars if he guessed its location on the first clue. The more clues needed the less the money would he. Several days after the contest started Cooke decided Marineland would be a good place for the key to be found. He seems also to have settled on Labor Day as a good date and five thousand dollars as an adequate prize. He didn't actually bother having the key hidden at Marineland till September 3. In the circumstances the oversight didn't matter much: nobody bothered telling the man who was writing most of the seven days' worth of broadcast clues where the key was, or even where it was supposed to be, until he got dowm to writing the clues for Labor Day.
In the meantime, on September 3, the Find Perry Allen contest had also been launched. It had turned out that Allen, who was to be KRLA's star disk-jockey, couldn't get out of Buffalo to start work in Los Angeles until September 12, which would diffuse the single-burst opening effect Cooke was after. Cooke quickly improvised a way of suggesting Allen w'as nonetheless right on the spot there in Los Angeles. He had Allen put on tape in Buffalo enough clues to his appearance, dress and probable whereabouts in “the city” to cover the time until his real arrival; these were broadcast from KRLA along with adlibs urging the listeners, in effect, to comb Los Angeles for Perry Allen. A sleuth successful on the first day would get ten thousand dollars, on the second nine thousand dollars, and so on.
How Perry Allen gave his game away
The contest didn’t get past the second day. Unfortunately Allen had been over-liberal with his job applications in the Los Angeles area. Two employees from a rival station, KFWB. heard the name of the game, got themselves to Buffalo as fast as they could and claimed the prize on September 4. As the FCC reports drily, “After extended negotiations . . . $10,000 was paid to Purcell (one of the finders) on behalf of station KFWB.”
What with one thing and another, the Los Angeles correspondent for Broadcasting magazine, the highly respected, Washington - based trade publication, filed some stories on KRLA. The FCC, whose members can read, shot off a letter to the station asking for some information, explanations and program logs. The logs it got back turned out to have been falsified in the direction of piety and public service and that was that.
The FCC hearings considered three concrete issues: the fraudulent contests, the falsified logs and the possibility that Donald Cooke had surrendered effective control of his station to Jack. Their findings on the first two issues led the commission first to abbreviate the licence's renewal period and then to withdraw the licence altogether. The third charge was in effect dismissed, on the basis that Jack had simply stepped in in a crisis, as any brother might do.
Now that he is a U. S. citizen there is no legal or moral reason why Jack should not apply for his own broadcast licence: all three issues in the
KRLA hearings were, after all, raised against Donald, the licensee. But practicality is another matter. Not long ago someone wrote the FCC to inquire whether Cooke was at present an applicant for a broadcast licence. An employee replied, “As an American citizen Mr. Cooke is entitled to apply. But because of his involvement with KRLA we would not like to predict the decision of the commission.”
The last time Cooke faced a blank wall in radio and television — back in 1950 — he turned his energies into the most closely allied fields he could find. Has he been trying the same thing this time?
On the available evidence, the answer is yes.
Take the Washington Redskins. Cooke’s real equity in the football club is not just the quarter interest he purchased four years ago; it is also an agreement among the shareholders that if one decides to sell his stock the others will have first chance at it in direct proportion to their holdings. The fifty-two percent owned by the ailing George Preston Marshall will undoubtedly be on the market sooner or later and Cooke's share of this block, along with his own holdings, would give him controlling interest in a club valued now' at some seven million dollars. Since last December 1 3 a series of legal actions and counteractions has been undertaken, involving the minority shareholders minus Cooke, to establish permanent conservators for Marshall’s estate, it being alleged that Marshall is unable to care for his own property and interests. Permanent conservators could, subject to court approval, get right along with the disposal of Marshall’s foothall stock — though not, of course, to themselves. It is therefore to be noted that Cooke is the only shareholder not risking ineligibility by being involved in the litigation.
But quietly setting himself up to take over the Redskins doesn't seem to be all: it is known, for example, that when Dick Powell died early last year Cooke investigated Powell’s Four-Star Revue as a possible purchase. This May, w'ithin tw'o weeks of an announcement by Stafford Smythe of the Toronto Maple Leafs that Los Angeles would get a National Hockey League franchise as part of an NHL expansion plan for 1966-67. Cooke was on the phone to Smythe to ask about his chances of getting in on it. (The suggested expansion began to look unlikely almost immediately after Smythe's speech when the members of the Western League, w'hich it would have threatened, arranged in effect to fine any defector to the NHL three-quarters of a million dollars.)
Besides his self-prompted investigations Cooke has been listening to proposals, at the rate of one a week, from all sorts of people with plans for his money ranging from mining deals to shuttle air services. Cooke says, “There'll be a move very soon now. Very soon.”
Cooke also says, "It will not likely be in any field outside communications and sports." But that’s all he says.
He's not a man to spoil the third act by giving away the plot. ★