SPORTS

The lion in winter

How Jack Kent Cooke pursues his lust for life

MARCI McDONALD January 27 1992
SPORTS

The lion in winter

How Jack Kent Cooke pursues his lust for life

MARCI McDONALD January 27 1992

The lion in winter

SPORTS

How Jack Kent Cooke pursues his lust for life

The yardage is modest—barely a challenge to a quarterback confronting a third down. But with his usual eye for opportunity, Jack Kent Cooke was making the most of it. Above the 50-yard line at Washington’s Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, he paced the meagre confines of his private fiefdom, 64 wooden seats in one of the least glamorous owner’s boxes in the National Football League, which he has turned into the hottest property in the American capital. In a city satirically known as “Powertown,” where each status shift is calibrated in the national press, no invitation is more coveted, not even one to a White House dinner, than a summons to join him watching his beloved Washington Redskins.

Senators and political commentators routinely vie for the favor of the ex-Canadian who owns the conglomeration of gristle and grit that social columnist Diana McLellan has termed a local “obsession—about the only thing in this town that everybody can agree on.” Now, with the Redskins on their way to Minneapolis for their fifth Super Bowl appearance on Jan. 26, Cooke’s social cachet has soared even higher. Said McLellan: “Jack Kent Cooke has the most-kissed ass in Washington, especially during the football season. These people certainly bow themselves stupid to get into that box.”

At 79, with the power to host Vice-President Dan Quayle or Secretary of State James Baker at whim, he enjoys apparently robust health and a stunning Latin fourth wife, Marlene Ramallo Chalmers, variously reported as 36 or 39, and better known to his friends as the “Bolivian Bombshell.” The Redskins’ proprietor might well be basking in the spoils that he has accumulated in the twilight of his life. Not only has every Redskins game been sold out to season ticket-holders for 25 years, but with a 40,000-name waiting list, that situation stands little likelihood of changing in the new $ 175million Jack Kent Cooke Stadium he is currently negotiating with the city to build. Even his old rival, Toronto broadcasting czar John Bassett, a former owner of the Toronto Argonauts football team, hailed Cooke as a model NFL owner who, unlike himself, has avoided meddling with his coaches. “Probably his greatest contribution to the team,” Bassett said in an interview, “is that he has kept his hands off it.” Race-track enthusiasts rate Cooke’s Elmendorf Farms outside Lexington, Ky., as one of the top breeders of thoroughbred horseflesh in the country. And with the Los Angeles Daily News and New York City’s landmark 77-storey Chrysler Building also in his portfolio, Forbes magazine ranked him number 51 on its annual list of the 400 richest Americans last year, estimating his assets at $1 billion.

But Cooke still prowls his box like a lion in winter, restless and unsated. Even his millions have been unable to bring him peace in his colorful personal life or the kind of press clippings he would like. Last week, he was so furious about an unauthorized biography called The Last Mogul, published in Canada this month by McClelland and Stewart Ltd., that he sent out letters urging friends “not to bother spending a nickel to buy the book. It is trash.” He signed off with a patriotic “God Save the Republic.”

Written by Adrian Havill, a Virginia stockbroker who was a regular guest in Cooke’s Redskins box in the early 1980s, the book has prompted Cooke to snub friends he suspected of defying his orders not to co-operate with the author. Havill has chronicled some of the darkest chapters in the romantic life of the septuagenarian who once declared himself “the Goddamnedest romantic you’ll ever meet.” And in exhaustive detail, Havill has documented the February, 1986, arrest of Ramallo Chalmers at a Washington airport with members of a Bolivian drug ring. Five months later, in exchange for co-operating with federal drug-enforcement officers, she pleaded guilty to conspiring to import cocaine and was sentenced to 18 months in a West Virginia federal penitentiary. She served only three months before being paroled.

According to Havill, Ramallo Chalmers emerged from jail and borrowed $6,000 from a girlfriend for plastic surgery, which soon dramatically improved her social life. Within two years, she had supplanted that friend, by then Cooke’s estranged third wife, Suzanne, at his side in the Redskins box. There, on Oct. 2, 1988, Ramallo Chalmers helped him welcome First Lady Nancy Reagan for the celebration of a “Just say ‘No’ to drugs” ceremony.

Havill traces the career of the Toronto highschool dropout christened Jack Kenneth Cooke, who slogged his way through selling encyclopedias and soap to become a multimillionaire radio tycoon at 31 after teaming up with mentor Roy Thomson. But in the process, Havill has underscored Cooke’s bittersweet relationship with the country of his birth. In 1960, when Ottawa’s then-Board of Broadcast Governors turned down his bid for the first private Canadian television licence, awarding it instead to Bassett, the rejection stung him. Within months, an unprecedented act of Congress, signed into law by President Dwight Eisenhower on Sept. 14,1960, granted Cooke the right to immediate U.S. citizenship.

Soon after, ensconced in a pink Italianate showplace in Los Angeles, Cooke promptly began building a sports empire that outstripped his most extravagant Toronto dreams. Buying the Lakers basketball team for $5 million and winning the L.A. Kings franchise in the 1967 NHL expansion, he housed them both in his new $ 16-million Forum, a pseudo-Roman coliseum with usherettes in miniskirted togas.

Cooke has admitted that his drives and appetites are more American than Canadian. But he has occasionally betrayed a nostalgic streak. Last fall, when Joan Burney, the wife of Canadian ambassador Derek Burney, found herself seated next to him at a Washington dinner, she mentioned that she had grown up in the Northern Ontario towns of Port Arthur— now part of Thunder Bay—and Rainy River.

Cooke’s face lit up as he reminisced about how he had covered that territory as a young, itinerant Colgate-Palmolive salesman. Only days later, the Burneys received their first invitation to his box, where, most recently, during the Redskins’ Jan. 12 NFC final, they rubbed shoulders with Baker, columnist George Will and retired Lakers superstar Magic Johnson. As Burney acknowledged, “It’s a diplomat’s dream.”

A handful of other invitees credit their entrée to Cooke's passion for books—which has inspired him to peruse dictionaries like novels. When he first invited CBS correspondent Lesley Stahl, she presumed that he had noticed her on television. But she arrived at the stadium to discover that the person he had aspired to meet was her husband, writer Aaron Latham, whose Crazy Sundays recounted the Hollywood sojourn of Cooke’s favorite author, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

That passion for Fitzgerald in a self-made man who might have stepped straight from The Great Gatsby may show Cooke’s shrewd selfawareness. In fact, with a title that makes a knowing bow to Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon, Havill’s The Last Mogul recounts how Cooke’s dazzling material success has been constantly undercut by a tragic personal life. Friends claim that Cooke will never get over his acrid 1976 divorce from his first wife, Jean, who they say remains the love of his life. But after 42 years of marriage and two sons, she won a $48million settlement that made The Guinness Book of Records and forced him to sell his California holdings for $81 million.

Cooke’s bitterness over that breakup may help answer a question that fascinates some of his guests as much as any football play: what makes Jack Kent Cooke still run so hard? Said one friend, who requested anonymity: “Jack’s hunger is for more than just wealth. He is accepted, but not loved—and maybe he doesn’t even try to be anymore. He tried it once and it turned out to be dangerous.”

Over the past decade, Cooke’s amorous odysseys have been grist for the tabloids, climaxing during the Redskins’ last Super Bowl victory, in San Diego in 1988. Six days before the game, his estranged third wife, Suzanne, a blonde 44 years his junior who married him six months earlier on the condition that she have her third abortion the next day, instead gave birth to a daughter and defiantly named her Jacqueline Kent Cooke. Joyce Davidson, a former CBC television star who was Cooke’s date at the San Diego Super Bowl, recalls Suzanne’s constant calls to Cooke’s suite from the hospital—which Cooke refused—a telephone minuet that continues to this day. Cooke accidentally met his daughter when she scampered into a legal hearing two years ago. But he has otherwise refused to see the blue-eyed look-alike, who will turn 4 the day before this year’s Super Bowl.

Since Suzanne Cooke lost her $17.5-million suit for additional child support last year, she has waged her battle against Cooke in the media, publicly fretting that her daughter will not get to know her celebrated father before he dies. But Cooke’s sporting pals, who have heard him refer to death as merely hypothetical, have reported no sign that his irrepressible appetites are flagging. Said longtime friend Davidson: “He is one of these bulldogs who has grabbed life in his teeth from the beginning. And Jack will never let go of that bone till he’s gone.”

MARCI McDONALD in Washington