During the 1950s, two Toronto millionaires embarked on separate journeys to become sports tycoons. Jack Kent Cooke, a charming high-school dropout, owned a string of Canadian radio stations and magazines, as well as the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team of the old International League. Harold E. Ballard, an overbearing private-school dropout, inherited his father’s sewing machine manufacturing business and was the president of the Ontario Hockey League Junior A Toronto Marlboros. Both men realized their dreams—Cooke by moving to the United States and eventually buying the Washington Redskins of the National Football League, and Ballard by staying in Toronto and gaining control of Maple Leaf Gardens and the National Hockey League Maple
Leafs. Through it all, Ballard, now 85 and estimated to be worth $100 million, and Cooke, 75 and worth about $2 billion, have remained friends, two overachievers who have much in common. Now, in another parallel, the tangled personal lives of both men are attracting widespread public attention in their respective cities.
Cooke, whose $48-million divorce settlement in 1979 with first wife, Barbara Jean, was once listed in the Guinness Book of World Records, is currently suing his 31-year-old third wife, Suzanne, for divorce. She wants $15 million for damages and child support and recently disclosed the details of her two-year relationship with Cooke to writer Kitty Kelley in last month’s Washingtonian magazine. She claimed that Cooke abused her verbally and that Cooke—who did not want
to have children—made her agree before their marriage not to have any babies. Suzanne Cooke subsequently defied the agreement and gave birth to a daughter in January.
Reports of squabbles between Ballard—who is in poor health—his middle-aged children and his mistress, the former Yolanda MacMillan, 56— who was convicted in 1981 of conspiring to forge a will—have lit up Toronto sports pages. Last month, Yolanda Ballard, who legally changed her surname in 1987, was briefly locked out of Ballard’s apartment in Maple Leaf Gardens. A few days later, Ballard, who was recovering from a heart bypass operation, ran notices in Toronto newspapers renouncing “any debts, charges or expenses incurred by or on behalf of Yolanda Ballard.” As well, the Ontario Securities Commission confirmed in August that it was investigating trading of Maple Leaf Gardens stock, which rose sharply in value during the week of Ballard’s operation.
Then, on Aug. 15, Yolanda, who was back in Ballard’s apartment, complained to Gardens officials about three handguns kept in Ballard’s bedroom. Toronto police, who later seized the weapons, refused to comment on the circumstances of the request. But last week, the two Ballards were reported back together. Harold’s son William, 42, by Harold’s wife, Dorothy, who died of cancer in 1969, said, “I neither know nor care what either of them are doing.”
Meanwhile, Jack and Suzanne Cooke are living apart and preparing for divorce hearings scheduled to begin in October. The former Suzanne Martin is an admitted former cocaine addict who met Cooke beside the swimming pool at a Miami country club in 1985. “Do you know who I am?” Cooke asked the hazel-eyed beauty. “I own the Washington Redskins. I’m Jack Kent Cooke.” A romance quickly began.
Cooke has had a reputation as a ladies’ man since his Toronto days. In the early 1950s, Cooke parlayed a partnership with future newspaper magnate Roy Thomson into a small radio and magazine empire, which included Saturday Night and the nowdefunct Liberty. Cooke bought a yacht, wore sailor’s whites, displayed an erudition gained from reading dictionaries and was reputed to have had several affairs with beautiful women even though he had a wife and two young sons at the time. “He was so full of life and joy,” recalls Kay Starr, now 66, a popular American singer of the period who dated Cooke in 1953 and 1954. “I loved him.”
Searching for fresh fields to con-
quer, Cooke moved to Los Angeles in 1959 and attained U.S. citizenship the following year. Among his acquisitions over the next two decades were three Los Angeles sports teams—the Los Angeles Lakers of the National Basketball Association, the NHL’s Kings and the Zorros professional soccer club. He also bought the Redskins— last year’s Super Bowl champions— founded a successful cable television company and built the 17,000-seat Los Angeles Forum, which he sold in 1979. Now he says that he will build a new football stadium beside the Robert F. Kennedy complex in Washington.
Cooke’s personal life was often unrewarding. In 1976, his first wife, Barbara Jean, wrote to her husband, complaining that “I can’t measure up to your competitive nature. With you I am always guilt-ridden.” Divorce proceedings lasted for 2Vi years, with the court eventually ordering Cooke to give his wife half of his estimated $96-million net worth. To do that, he had to sell his three Los Angeles sports teams. The following year, Cooke married Jeanne Wilson, a young Las Vegas casino employee and sculptress. That marriage lasted 10 months.
Suzanne Cooke’s affair with the tycoon was, by her account, unpleasant. “He went crazy because I’d buy $2,500 outfits,” she told Kelley. She also claimed that she once found Cooke in bed with a female magazine reporter, and that he forced her to abort two pregnancies that occurred because she forgot to take her birth-control pills— and married her only on condition that she terminate a third pregnancy.
Although Suzanne Cooke has been effusive in her revelations, Yolanda Ballard so far has said nothing publicly about her five-year liaison with Harold Ballard. According to friends, the blond and buxom Thunder Bay, Ont., native became Ballard’s companion five years ago and receives a $25,000-ayear salary as an employee of Maple Leaf Gardens’ publicity department. Dick Beddoes, a Toronto sports broadcaster and friend of Ballard’s, said that she carefully looks after her 185-lb., diabetic common-law husband, pushing his wheelchair and making sure he takes his insulin. Said longtime Ballard friend and Toronto Star sports columnist Milt Dunnell:
“She is completely attentive, and Hal likes being with her.”
But several acquaintances of the Ballards say that Yolanda’s recent banishment from Ballard’s mementoladen Gardens apartment resulted from pressure by Ballard’s three adult children—William, Harold Jr. and Mary—whose relations with their father have sometimes been uneasy. Ballard has publicly expressed contempt for his children. Ballard, who gained control of Maple Leaf Gardens in 1971 and later served a one-year prison term for fraud and theft from
the public company involving more than $200,000, told reporters last year that he will leave his holdings to charity rather than let his children take over. The younger Ballards control $120 million of the Gardens’ common stock, while their father owns the controlling preferred stock. “I’m not going to retire,” Ballard declared in one outburst last year. “They’re going to have to carry me out on a stretcher. And when my body’s outside on the sidewalk, my kids’ll be picking at my carcass.”
Still, friends insist that Ballard does not necessarily mean what he says. William Ballard lives rent-free in his father’s house in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. Despite the pub-
lic acrimony, father and son are reported to be close and were never far apart during Harold’s bypass operation. But the Ballard children say that they do not like Yolanda, who they consider to be an opportunist. Both William and Harold Jr., 41, a Toronto artist, exchanged sharp words with her when their father was in hospital.
Later, William was quoted in newspapers as saying that Yolanda had given friends financial advice. William said that he had been misquoted.
But that exchange evidently led to Ballard’s making peace with Yolanda— and turning his anger on his sons. For his part, Beddoes said that at least some of the charges and countercharges over the years among the feuding Ballards grew out of Harold’s fondness for arousing—and confusing—the media. Added Beddoes: “I have never bought quite so much of the gossip about these rifts as the media have.”
Harold Ballard once said of his friend Jack Kent Cooke that “he is bombastic, never takes no for an answer, thinks positively all the time. I have great admiration for him.” His admirers say many of the same things about Ballard. They share another quality—a knack for generating controversy, which the two swashbuckling entrepreneurs seem destined to go on doing to the end of their colorful lives.
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