Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
Jack Kent Cooke always fancied himself a lady’s man, so he’d be pleased to know that even though he’s gone, a couple of women are still after him. Marlena Cooke overcame a rock-solid pre-nup and managed to squeeze millions out of the estate. And now, Cooke’s former cook, Katherine “Katie” Thrift, 33, has sued Cooke’s estate, asking for monetary damages for what she described as chronic sexual harassment from a perpetually horny Cooke.
“What will it take to get you to fuck me?” she says he ranted on the day before he fired her in 1996. “New clothes? A car? Money? A house? Name your price.”
Whenever Thrift refused the Redskins owner in her 14-month tenure there, she says, he would rub up against her yet again to show off his enduring virility. She says she never gave in to his demands, including a request for oral service that had nothing to do with food.
Katie Thrift’s description of her servitude in Cooke’s Virginia horse-country hell, which became public last week, is far more salacious than anything third and fourth (and fifth) wives Suzanne and Marlena have ever described publicly or to friends. According to Thrift, she was not only required to be the mogul’s chief cook and bottlewasher, but was also ordered to tuck him in at nightwhereupon he tried to paw at her private parts before falling asleep.
Thrift says she put up with the propositions from the ancient Cooke because of his repeated promises that he would make sure that she and her two small children would be taken care of financially “for the rest of your life.” Cooke, according to Thrift, told her that she and both of her children had been written into his will. (Thrift gave much the same account to City Paper three days after Cooke died. See “The Lion in Winter,” 5/30/97.)
Thrift’s suit, coming on the heels of Marlena’s play, has raised eyebrows because of its timingit’s not very often that a cadaver is accused of harassment. But Thrift says she deserves something for what Cooke put her through. And she says that the timing of her suit has nothing to do with Marlena’s successful assault on the Cooke fortune, pointing out that she was seriously ill for much of the last year and eventually hospitalized.
“I was married to an abusive husband for 11 years,” says Thrift. “The 14 months I was [at Cooke’s country house] was a hundred times worse. I still cry at night. When I left my husband, I drove a U-Haul from Charlotte, N.C., back here with $70 in my pocket and my kids on the front seats. We headed back [to Washington] because this is where I was born.”
Spotting a blind ad for a position that included free housing, she was sent out to Far Acres, Cooke’s estate in Middleburg, unaware that she was seeking employment from the owner of the Washington Redskins. She interviewed with Wanda Wiser, one of his top lieutenants.
“I told her I was a very good cook, that I’d learned how from my mother and my great-grandmother Annie, and that what I didn’t know I’m smart enough to look it up in a cookbook,” Thrift says. “I didn’t know I would be working for Mr. Cooke until I saw a picture of him on the wall behind her desk. I was a Redskins fan, and so I recognized the picture.”
A few hours after the interview, Wiser called and offered her the job at $20,000 a year, plus a health-care plan and a small house on the estate.
“When I got that job, I thought God had answered my prayers,” Thrift says.
She moved in the next day, and after the first dinner, for which she made a pineapple cheesecake for dessert, Cooke burst into the kitchen and offered lavish praise. (The late Redskins owner was bonkers for anything pineapple, according to friends.)
But after that auspicious start, Thrift says, she soon found herself catering to the whims of a tyrant. Servants on the estate say that the Redskins owner kept a master book of recipes at his office and a copy in the estate’s kitchen. Each day he’d call Thrift from his office and bark out a bank of numbers to her that corresponded to the recipes in the book.
“‘D-88, C-4, D-42,’” Thrift says Cooke would yell into the phone, by way of ordering his dinner. “I would read the number back to him. Then later he’d sometimes say [when he was served], ‘That’s not what I ordered!’” says Thrift.
One night, after he’d ordered strawberry Jell-O five nights in a row, Thrift decided to surprise him with a freshly baked banana cream pie. Bad idea.
“You stupid bitch,” she says Cooke screamed at her.
Thrift’s complaint states that Cooke would not stop screaming until she “wept and pled with him to stop….Then I had to go around walking on eggshells wondering when [the calm] would end each day.”
Cooke, she says, liked watching her walk.
“‘Look at those legs,’” Thrift claims Cooke would comment to guests as she served them drinks. “‘She’d be beautiful if she had her teeth fixed.’ And he’d carry on and on about my cookinghow I cooked like his mother, from the Fanny Farmer cookbook. She used it, too.”
But Thrift says Cooke did not content himself with admiring from afar. Two months into her employment, Thrift says, Cooke began copping random feels of her bosom and butt. When she resisted and ran away, Cooke would, according to the suit, “pressure her to cooperate in these unwelcomed touchings by stating that he could make her life more comfortable if she submitted to his sexual advances.”
Cooke was mercurial in the extreme, according to Thrift. After getting a background report on her, he began demonstrating familiarity with her past and suggesting her future could be brighter if only she played along with his games. Thrift, who has less than a high school education, says she bought it all the way.
“I slapped his hand once, and I nearly got fired,” she explains.
Her allegations have been called “scurrilous” by McGuire, Woods, Battle & Boothe, the estate’s law firm, in press reports. The firm did not return calls requesting comment.
Behind Thrift’s tale of a verbally and sexually abusive millionaire, a picture emerges of a pathetically lonely man who became more and more like his favorite fictional character, Jay Gatsby, each day.
For instance, although Cooke’s box at RFK Stadium was filled with VIPs (few of whom attended his funeral) during home games, he would watch the away games alone at his estate, unable to find an equal willing to make the trek out to Middleburg. Thrift says she was forced to watch the games with him, along with houseman and chauffeur Bill Anderson and his wife, Barbara. According to her, Cooke would drink several bottles of wine while sitting at his bar above them. When the Skins’ play turned ugly, so did Cooke, Thrift says. He would smash crystal wine glasses against the wall in frustration. “I’d have to do the cleanup,” Thrift recalls, reliving the moment and weeping.
“He’d take [the losses] out on me,” she remembers. “Or, worse, he would treat me nicely and ask the Andersons to wait on me [during the games] as well. I’d turn to them and whisper, ‘I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.’ Everyone resented his attention to me. And sometimes Mr. Cooke would ask me, ‘Should I fire that son of a bitch [referring to another employee]?’ And then he’d change and be real mean to me. He’d ridicule me for the kind of questions I would ask about the game. It was not fun.”
Midway through her tenure, Cooke married Marlena Ramallo Miguens Chalmers Cooke for the second time after a year-long divorce. Thrift prepared the requested feasthamburgers and hot dogsfor the wedding, held at Far Acres.
“I thought I was saved when he got married. [Marlena] stayed that night, but no more.”
Thrift’s suit maintains that “although Mr. Cooke remarried Marlena Cooke, she rarely came to Far Acres to be with Mr. Cooke. As a result…[Cooke] began treating [Thrift] less like a domestic worker and more like a surrogate for his wife.”
“When I had an evening off and had plans, he’d make me come to the house so he could see what I was wearing. Then sometimes he would make me cancel my plans and stay at the house with him, and dismiss Barbara and Bill, though I’d ask them not to leave me there,” recalls Thrift.
Cooke’s estate doesn’t dispute that Marlena was a wife in name only. In fact, Thrift says, it was she who rode with him to the groundbreaking ceremony for the new stadium, and it was she who accompanied him to the annual Redskins picnic, to which she was instructed to “wear something low-cut and your shortest skirt.”
But life with Cooke wasn’t all butt and boob pinching, Thrift says. When the 82-year-old multimillionaire came down with pneumonia in the fall of 1995 and refused to be hospitalized, Thrift maintains it was she who nursed him back to a semblance of health:
“He had fired the entire household staff except for me. I had no choice,” recalls Thrift.
Thrift says she had to monitor Cooke’s oxygen tanks and tubes around the clock, lying and sleeping on his bed “because he ordered me to, ‘Stay, dear!’…There were instances when he was turning blue. I’d ask the others to take turns staying with him. [They refused.] He promised to make it ‘worth my while.’ I’d take his blood pressure. I’d work like a dog, being a nurse,” Thrift says.
Thrift says that she had to serve as nurse and playmate for Cooke because his real family was unwilling to spend much time around the often crabby and abusive tycoon. According to Thrift, Cooke’s son, John Kent Cooke, never spent a night in the house caring for his father. Nor did Cooke’s adult grandsons or any other member of his family during that time. She said John Cooke visited only once for longer than an hour during the elder Cooke’s entire illness. “[Donald Knowlan, the team doctor] told me Jack Kent Cooke wouldn’t have made it without me,” says Thrift.
Cooke eventually rallied, but Thrift says it only made matters worse: “He would get better, and he’d start back with the sexual shenanigans.”
“I just wanted to work….He was like a time bomb. He’d be vicious, and the next minute, he was grabbing all over me. He said he’d make my life very comfortable, that I was ‘very stupid and very foolish [for refusing him].’”
Finally, says Thrift, on May 6, 1996, Cooke made one final move. After trying to get her drunk on wine, he asked her to shower in Marlena’s bathroom and commenced foreplay by having her model his wife’s evening gowns. She says she refused. After grabbing her breasts a few times and giving her yet another feel of his woody, Thrift says he eventually fell asleep in his king-size bed.
Four days later, he fired her.
Thrift’s lawyer, Debra Katz of Bernabei & Katz, is said to have told the Cooke estate’s legal team that she “lives for cases like this.” Thrift is asking for no less than $3 million, according to the suit. Sources close to the case say that Thrift has seven witnesses who will corroborate portions of her allegations.
Cooke continues to father controversy more than a year after the anniversary of his death. There’s an $825 million pot still to be divvied up. Marlena now sits atop $20 million, according to the Washington Post. (The real number is $8.5 million, according to other lawyers involved in the case.) The sum will be parceled out to her over 20 years. Other claimants remain, including two Canadians, now adults, who claim to be illegitimate children of Cooke’s. And friends of Suzanne Cooke, Cooke’s third wife, say that she’s more than miffed that her daughter, Jacqueline Kent Cooke, got just $5 million, a fifth of what her older brother John got. John Kent Cooke himself is said to be less than happy with his $10 million plus a $15 million trust fund for enduring his father’s abuse at close range.
But should Thrift, who is now on welfare, get her cut?
Publicly, Cooke’s legal team is saying absolutely not and that it will “defend his excellent reputation.” What’s left of it, anyway.CP