Jack Kent Cooke always knew how to make the sale.
Whether it was encyclopedias, soap, plastics, newspapers or music, he always has possessed the knack of knowing how.
As an intrepid youth, he advertised his dance band in the high school annual.
As a prominent entrepreneur in 1960, he got his U.S. citizenship in one day -- through an act of Congress.
As an audacious sportsman in 1966, he took a dare and built The Fabulous Forum, with its Greek columns and circular design, in 15 months.
When he was finally about to be recognized as one of the world's "five greatest salesmen," Cooke offered a thoroughly predictable response. "Sir," he told his selector, "I am not one of five anything."
This is a man who has always been able to build monuments to himself. In his native Canada, he was a media mogul, resurrecting radio stations and newspapers. In Los Angeles, he not only built the Forum, but also laid the foundation for the Los Angeles Lakers' dynasty. In Washington, he turned Joe Gibbs loose on the NFL and hauled in three Super Bowl trophies.
Even Cooke can grow old and ineffective, though. Now, at the spritely age of 81, the owner of the Washington Redskins has at last hit a slump. For more than five years, he has been pitching a new football stadium for his team -- to be built with his own money -- and nobody's catching.
He was rejected in Alexandria, Va., put on hold in the District of Columbia. Now Cooke, the man who knows how to make a deal, wants to bring his privately funded stadium to Laurel.
He's a deal-maker, and a risk-taker, who won't give up the fight.
"I'm more than frustrated," he said of his inability to make the stadium sale. "I'm completely thwarted."
But is he serious about Laurel? Or is this simply a wedge in negotiations for a stadium in downtown D.C.?
"I think he's serious, dead serious," said Dave Kindred, columnist for The Sporting News and a friend of Cooke's. "He's always serious. I think anybody who thinks he isn't serious should study the history of how The Forum came to be built."
Cooke owned the Lakers, and was about to launch the NHL Kings, when he became embroiled in a dispute with the Coliseum Commission about playing in the Sports Arena. He wanted arena exclusivity for 365 days of the year. The commission said no dice. He said he'd build his own arena. The commission laughed. He built his own arena.
"Everyone he was opposing said it was just a threat," said Pete Newell, who was general manager of Cooke's Lakers for four years. "He ended up building one of the nicest buildings in the country."
Why Cooke -- at 81 -- wants to construct an East Coast bookend to his Forum creation is a subject of some debate. Says Cooke: "I've always admired the New York Giants' stadium. It's almost a matter of envy. I would dearly love to have Redskins fans, who are so fanatical in their support of the club, have something equally as good. My son and grandson are interested in working for the club here. It's going to be passed down the line."
And so, apparently, is the anguish he has suffered while %J attempting to put together his stadium deal. Count Joe Theismann, the former quarterback who won a Super Bowl for Cooke, among those who see a strategy evolving here.
"Mr. Cooke has said he wants to build a stadium in Washington," Theismann said. "Mr. Cooke has looked at property in Virginia. Now Mr. Cooke wants to move to Maryland.
No love for D.C. mayor
"It's painfully obvious Mr. Cooke does not like the mayor of D.C. [Sharon Pratt Kelly], and is trying to make her life miserable."
Paybacks aside, there are more pragmatic reasons for Cooke's insistence on a stadium. They have to do with economics. Analysts say a new, 78,600-seat stadium that replaces antiquated 54,000-seat RFK Stadium will add some $50 million to the Redskins' franchise value -- wherever it is located. And that's what registers most with the man who has always had a Midas touch, according to Kindred.
"I think it's good business for him," Kindred said. "He's a great businessman. It'd be nice to leave a stadium named Jack Kent Cooke Stadium, too. Ego and business meet in Cooke's mind. That's why he'd want to get it done."
Cooke's knack for closing a deal has translated into overwhelming wealth. He was a self-made millionaire by 32. As recently as 1989, Fortune magazine estimated his net worth at $1.6 billion. In this year's issue of "The Forbes Four Hundred: The Richest People in America," his holdings were estimated at $800 million.
Sometimes, Cooke's deal-making collides with business associates. Jack Tobin, a former marketing vice president with the L.A. Coliseum Commission, is not one of his fans.
"He's a very shrewd businessman," Tobin said. "He's a guy who made fortunes and fortunes. Nothing stands in his way. He doesn't care who's in front of him. . . . He's going to use anybody he can use to benefit Jack Kent Cooke."
Describing Cooke as "ruthless" and "devious," Tobin added, "I wouldn't work for him for a jillion dollars."
Newell worked for Cooke without complaint. It was an era when Cooke signed players such as Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It was a time when Cooke had the pressure of trying to rescue a failing cable system in New York while he was running the basketball team in Los Angeles.
"He demands a lot when you work for him," Newell said. "You work under pressure, but he paid you to do that. He works under pressure, too. But I found him easy to talk to. We didn't always agree, but he wasn't one of those owners who say, 'I own the team, this is what we're going to do.' He wanted everybody to be on the same page and he wanted to be on the page."
Even Cooke's friends admit that he plays only by his own rules, that he can make a sale by sweet-talk or intimidation.
"He's a very arrogant man at times, when he needs to be," said Morris Siegel, a columnist for the Washington Times and a friend of Cooke's. "He can charm you out of your shoes the next week. He gets things his way usually or he doesn't play. If he can't bat fourth, he ain't going to play. The rules are his rules. And he is bright as hell."
Cooke acquired a reputation as a tightfisted negotiator while operating the Lakers from 1965 to 1979. Hall of Famer Jerry West had his share of battles with Cooke as a player and coach with the team. Even though they haven't spoken in years, West, now general manager, says the two men still exchange Christmas cards.
"He was a tough man, but I felt reasonably fair," West said. "I personally had some differences of opinion, but as you get older, you realize some of those were probably for the wrong reasons. He was tough."
Newell said Cooke won almost all of his negotiation showdowns, either through sheer will or obstinacy. That was a lesson Redskins fullback John Riggins would learn in 1980 when he wanted his contract renegotiated. Riggins spent a season on the sideline before giving in. You don't renege on a contract you've made with Cooke.
"He would ask for the moon and want to give you some stardust, maybe," Newell said.
Cooke impressed Newell in other ways, too. There was the ever-expanding vocabulary, and the day-to-day homilies that always flowed from the curmudgeon owner.
"He's a brilliant man," Newell said. "He's got the best command of our language of anybody I run into. He could have been a great Shakes- pearean actor with that resonant voice. And I swear he memorized the dictionary."
One time, a player ripped Cooke in the media after Cooke had just helped the player out of a jam. Newell commiserated with Cooke, saying the player had no gratitude. Said Cooke, "Peter, ++ you'll find gratitude under 'g' in the dictionary."
Kindred says Cooke has an intuitive sense for making the right decision in personnel, as well. A prime example was when he chose to keep general manager Bobby Beathard over coach Jack Pardee. Beathard promptly hired Gibbs and launched a golden era for the Redskins.
Cooke also gets credit for persuading Sparky Anderson to become a manager while playing baseball for the minor-league Toronto Maple Leafs, whom Cooke owned. Anderson, a journeyman infielder at the time, is bound for the Hall of Fame as a manager.
"Those are decisions a great leader makes," Kindred said. "Those are things that distinguished him forever."
Cutting his losses
For all of his successes, Cooke has not been without his failures. He tried unsuccessfully to bring a National League baseball team to Washington. He bought the Elmendorf thoroughbred farm in Lexington, Ky., with the idea of producing a Kentucky Derby winner, but he hasn't had one yet.
Then there is his personal life, the four marriages, three divorces and a lifetime of acrimony. Cooke's first marriage, to Barbara Jean Carnegie, lasted 42 years, many of them troubled. In 1979, she was awarded a $41 million divorce settlement by a judge named Joseph Wapner. It was then the largest award in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. Not long after that, Cooke sold his California holdings to Dr. Jerry Buss for $67.5 million, and eventually moved East to take over the Redskins.
Cooke stayed married to his second wife, Jeanne Maxwell Williams, for 10 months, and his third wife, Suzanne Martin, for 73 days. When Martin refused to have an abortion, she was history. Because of a pre- nuptial agreement, Cooke made out much better on this divorce, though. In January 1990, he was ordered to pay Martin $29,000 a year to support the couple's then 2-year-old daughter. She had sought $110,000.
That led to wife No. 4, the current Mrs. Cooke. She is Bolivian-born Marlene Ramallo Chalmers, who is 40-some years younger than Cooke. Her past includes a 3 1/2 -month stretch in federal prison for conspiracy to import less than a kilo of cocaine.
Increasingly, Cooke has made headlines for his personal affairs as much as for his Redskins.
"I think he's the smartest man in sports, maybe in anything, that I've ever known," said Kindred. "He's not an oddball. This whole gossip column thing in Washington is not the Jack Kent Cooke I know. . . . his personal life has been a scramble. I don't see that in his business life."
His business life is focused on a stadium that has been the ultimate hard-sell. Is Cooke a fading power broker in the world's power center?
"Obviously, while he's rich and powerful, he's not rich and powerful enough to make it happen," Kindred said. "This one is strange."
Said Theismann: "Football is the most important thing to Jack Cooke. If it's connected to football, it has a priority in his life. This has little to do with dollars at this point in his life. What he does now is for the enjoyment, the action, and to orchestrate the power that he has."
THE COOKE FILE
Born: Oct. 25, 1912 in Hamilton, Ontario
Owns homes in: Middleburg, Va., a 640-acre estate; Washington; Bel Air, Calif.; and Acapulco.
Holdings: Owns Washington Redskins; Elmendorf Racing & Breeding Farm in Lexington, Ky.; Los Angeles Daily News and weekly newspapers in Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona; cable TV systems; and leases space in the Chrysler Building in Manhattan
Previous holdings: Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Kings, The Forum in L.A., Toronto Maple Leafs minor league baseball team, a soccer team, a plastics company
Marriages: to Barbara Jean Carnegie in 1934 (lasted 42 years), to Jeanne Maxwell Williams in 1980 (lasted 10 months), to Suzanne Szabados Martin in 1987 (lasted 73 days), to Marlene Ramallo Miguens Chalmers in 1990
Other careers: musician, singer, songwriter, fight promoter, magazine editor