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On Jan. 10 of this year, a very frail Jack Kent Cooke ventured out in below-freezing weather wearing nothing but his pajamas and a bright yellow bathrobe. Cocooned in the leather seats of his BMW and covered with a blanket, he commanded Bill Anderson, his houseman, to drive him to Raljon, Md., the zip-code appellation he’d fashioned from Ralph and John, his two sons’ names. It was the third time he had used that contrivance. The first Raljon had been a 13,000-acre ranch he had once owned in the California Sierras; the second was Raljon Corp., his company that controlled the Los Angeles Lakers and Kings in the late ’70s.
Pulling up to Raljon, he saw the steel skeleton of his new stadium, which now reached 10 stories high. At that moment in January, he was negotiating with NationsBank to name it after the banking chain, a deal that could have netted him several million dollars. NationsBank had entertained Cooke and his wife Marlena in Atlanta over four days during the 1996 Olympics. He’d left the track and field events early, complaining later to a family member that “all that walking made me very tired.”
He lowered the window for a better view, letting the cold rush in, his breath making small clouds of fog until he pushed the button that scrolled the window back up. He stayed just a few minutes before returning to his home in Washington, which he called Marabella or “beautiful Marlena.” Once inside, he dashed off a letter to his 9-year-old daughter Jacqueline. He boasted about the bravery he had felt by exposing himself to the weather, which he told her was “10 degrees.”
“I have the heart of a lion,” he wrote to her, enclosing a crisp $10 bill for spending money. The lion, now in the depths of his winter, still believed he would never die, a statement he had once made quite seriously a decade before to an old crony, Morrie Siegel of the Washington Times.
When Siegel asked Cooke in 1991 over dinner if he was going to leave him something in his will, the then-78-year-old Cooke chortled and gave Siegel an enigmatic answer.
“My will, dear Morrie, is a magnificent surprise,” he said.
And what a surprise it was. John Kent Cooke, the son who took great pains never to cross his dad will get just $10 million outright and $15 million in a trust fund. Five grandkids will get a million each in trust. Dozens of friends and employees will receive tokens of affection that start at $10,000 and run to $500,000. The real beneficiaries are thousands of young people he never metthe bulk of his estate will finance the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which will be a national charity designed to give gifted and underprivileged young people access to education. A high-school dropout, Cooke managed to amass nearly a billion dollars, but he never lost his esteem for the power of education. And finally, the biggest surprise of all, Marlena Cooke, the wife he loved so much that he married her twice, gets nothing.
So let’s get right to it. What egregious act, after years of what can only be termed outrageous public behavior, could Marlena Ramallo Miguens Chalmers Cooke have committed to compel her husband to cut her off without a single centavo? What sin was left? She served time in a federal slammer for cocaine importation, wrote bad checks, and got in a tiff with a younger male admirer and zigzagged through the streets of Georgetown with him on the hood. It’s worth mentioning that she was also rushed to George Washington Hospital after shooting off a portion of her finger in a struggle at Cooke’s home with one of her sons, ran over a policeman’s motorcycle in an alley outside a late-night club, and was charged with having marijuana in her purse just a few months after the man-on-the-hood incident. None of these very large straws broke Cooke’s considerable tolerance. In the end, it turned out to be something far less public, something far more intimate, than those celebrated misdeeds.
In a modification of the will that Cooke made last November when he was gravely ill, Marlena’s future was assured in the event of his deathshe was to receive substantial cash, salary, and trust funds, along with Cooke’s estate, Far Acres, located near Middleburg (but not the several hundred acres of land that surround it). But household staff suggest Marlena was subsequently dispossessed not because of her well-documented lifestyle lapses, but because she left Cooke alone over the New Year’s holiday.
“Mr. Cooke looked the other way when she stayed out all night. But she knew enough to be with him when he went out to a restaurant. And she was always around on holidays,” a staff member told me. Until last New Year’s Eve, that is.
Marlena flew off to Acapulco the day after Christmas 1996, according to Barbara Anderson, who was part of Cooke’s household staff until February of this year. In 1990, he had purchased a $1.5-million villa for her in the exclusive Las Brisas hills in Acapulco, when they were on marriage numero uno. Marlena did not return until Jan. 6, according to Anderson. Absenting herself from him on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day sparked a lonely depression in Cooke and led to her downfall, several household attendants believe. Cooke changed his will for the last time on Jan. 3, leaving her with nothing. Even the jewelry she wore remained his property, according to Katy Thrift, who was an assistant in the household for years.
“Mr. Cooke was careful to register all the jewelry in his name,” claims Thrift. “She had the combination to the closet safe where the jewelry was kept and could take anything she wanted to wear, but the jewels aren’t hers.”
Marlena apparently had no knowledge that she had been deleted from Cooke’s will. She reportedly danced until dawn at the Bachelors’ and Spinsters’ Ball on the night before he died. At her husband’s funeral on April 10at which the politicians and pundits who populated his Redskins box were noticeably lackingshe sat in the front row, looking very relaxed, smiling and joking with Cooke’s loyal staffer, Debbi Ramey. Before the funeral, Marlena had even spoken graciously by phone to Suzanne Martin Cooke, Cooke’s third wife and mother of his only daughter, to assure her that Cooke had indeed “taken very good care of Jacqueline [in his will].”
But she did not play the part of grieving widow for long. A week later, friends of Suzanne’s say Marlena was at a private club inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel with a young man who appeared to be half her age. She seemed without a care in the world that night, despite a many-times-appealed deportation order hanging over her head. Those Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) proceedings are now in their 10th year and at last are inching closer to resolution. Last Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals threw out a trial judge’s order barring the INS from deporting her. (Marlena did not return phone calls requesting an interview.)
Marlena has since discovered that the squire left her without the proverbial pot to pee in and will undoubtedly fight for what she believes to be hers. Brendan Sullivan, defender of Oliver North and one of Washington’s most prominent criminal defense attorneys, has no problem with Marlena’s current lack of funds. He will represent her interests and her quest to claim a portion of Cooke’s fortune with enthusiasm, according to a source in his law firm, Williams and Connolly. Sullivan, a protege of the late Edward Bennett Williams, is said to want to win this one “for the Gipper,” meaning the now-deceased Williams.
There was abundant bad blood between Williams and Cooke when Williams died on Aug. 13, 1987, and Williams’ friends haven’t forgotten. Williams, who advised Cooke in his divorce from first wife, Jean, in the 1970s, believed that Cooke low-balled him when he bought Williams’ small share of the Redskins in 1985. Williams needed the money at the time and accepted the deal, but the perceived injustice stayed with him, his associates say.
“[Cooke] said some vile and reprehensible words to Ed when he was down,” Williams’ close friend, former Baltimore Orioles president Larry Lucchino told me in 1991. “He could have buried the hatchet, but he didn’t. Instead, he sent a letter to Ed as he lay dying, revoking his tickets to his Redskins box at RFK Stadium.”
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For his part, Cooke believed it was Williams who had played the part of Brutus. He once loaned Williams $3.5 million to help him buy the Orioles, with the tacit understanding that he would be allowed to buy into the Orioles at a later date. Williams never came through on his pledge in Cooke’s estimation, which earned him Cooke’s lifelong enmity. Cooke forbade Redskins employees from attending the well-liked Williams’ funeral, according to sources at the Redskins. And the bad blood between the two men still lingers after their deaths.
“This suit is going to be a joy for Brendan to litigate,” an attorney at the firm, who wished not to be named, told me.
In the matter of the will and the subsequent codicilsthere are eight in all, which means Cooke amended his will even more times than he was marriedMarlena’s fortunes rise and fall according to Cooke’s feelings at the moment. By the seventh codicil, drafted in November 1996, Cooke bequeathed Marlena cash payouts of $5 million over five years, a trust of $10 million, and an annual salary of $150,000. By the eighth codicil, on Jan. 3 of this year, Cooke had changed his mind again, and Marlena back out of was out. (Even a clause that would allow her to divide Cooke’s library with son John was eliminated.)
Virginia law dictates that a wife automatically receives one-third of her husband’s estate, regardless of what the will says, but that right is waived if the wife signs a prenuptial agreement. Sullivan’s chances for a successful lawsuit will hinge on interpretations of the prenuptial agreement signed by Marlena. He will doubtless argue that because Marlena was in imminent peril of being deported and signed the agreement a day before she was married, she was under duress. Cooke’s lawyers have already filed papers in Fauquier County Circuit Court suggesting that Marlena “did not comply with the requirements of the premarital agreement.”
The prenuptial agreement is not public, but the amendments to the will provide some insight, saying that Cooke’s bequests are “conditioned on requiring that Marlena Kent Cooke and Jack Kent Cooke being married and living together as man and wife at either Far Acres or Marabella at JKC’s death.” Several of the household staffers have suggested that Marlena was more visitor than wife, although they say she was around more frequently after Cooke became ill in November.
And even if they were living together as man and wife at the time of Cooke’s death, things were far from pleasant in the Cooke household. Members of Cooke’s household staff say that Marlena often mocked her husband behind his back, rolling her eyes at them when he would go into a rant and sometimes calling him names. According to Anderson, there was one particular argument, which she said was really “too ugly to discuss,” that caused a group of servants to report it to Jack’s son John.
Despite the intimations of the household staff, which seems eager to criticize Marlena, Sullivan still may be able to tie up distribution of much of the Cooke estate for years. Protracted litigation could eventually force the Cooke family to sell the Redskins, an event that would not sadden the friends and associates of Edward Bennett Williams.
While it seems as if Marlena, long under attack by the INS and disowned by the man she married twice, is finally running out of lives, her instinct for survival may save her yet.
Certainly John Cooke, the only immediate family member to remain loyal throughout his father’s life as well as the sole surviving son, has to be disappointed as well. He received 3 percent of an estimated $800-million fortune despite serving his father and doing all the thankless tasks for more than three decades. That 3 percent is still a tidy sum, but it leaves him a long way from having the funds to buy and own the precious Redskins, something he had clearly hoped to do.
And while he may be the team’s chief executive officer and a member of the trust, he has to answer to the other officers who have fiduciary duties in running the newly minted Jack Kent Cooke Trust. It will be the trust that will employ John. Unless his father made substantial gifts to John during his lifetime, the son will have to fight to hang onto his father’s team.
It must seem like a small payoff after hearing his father call him “stupid” so many timesonce when he suggested firing the team’s legendary coach, Joe Gibbs. John quietly suffered countless indignities over his father’s lifetime, including having to pay rent to live in a series of houses owned by Cooke.
John rarely, if ever, said no to his father. As the younger of Cooke’s two sons, he allowed himself to be sent to the hamlet of La Crosse, Wis., in 1966 to manage one of Cooke’s initial cable outlets after first working for his father as an entry-level cable installer. And it was John who was made to work in a windowless basement office at the Forum in Los Angeles, selling Lakers tickets in the early 1970s. John was the son who stayed by his father’s side during the three-year divorce battle with his motherCooke’s first wifeacting at times as an emissary for his father and urging Jean to settle for $2 million when she had asked for $7 million. It was John who said to her at one time, according to court testimony, “My god$2 million! You can’t help but live well on $2 million.” And when his mother refused, John chastised her and accused her of being “possessed by greed.”
His mother was wise to keep her own counsel. She eventually received $42 million.
There seemed to be nothing John wouldn’t do for his father, even changing his name to please his him, deleting his middle name of Peter and replacing it with Kent, a mimicry that drew no applause from the family patriarch.
And then there was Ralph, a prodigal of epic proportions. Ralph refused to work for his father until after filing for bankruptcy, and sided with his mother during the divorce battle. For that alone, he was removed from his father’s listing in Who’s Who, and for years it appeared that Cooke had but one child. But Ralph’s financial abasement eventually sent him scurrying back to Redskins Park in 1984, hat in hand. Ralph tumbled through life, picking up drug charges along the way, and died of liver cancer last year. It was a sad end, but at least he didn’t have to face his father’s posthumous apostasy.
As much as he tried to hide it, the curtain had been coming down on Jack Kent Cooke for many months. After the Redskins’ losing effort against the St. Louis Rams last November, Cooke, suffering from painful arthritis and a racing heart, was rushed to Georgetown University Hospital. When he was well enough to leave, he returned to his Washington house at 2801 Rock Creek Drive, just behind the Shoreham Hotel. Except for intermittent excursions to his new stadium, Cooke, known for holding court at upscale watering holes like the Prime Rib and the Palm, stayed in. On good days, he would call a favorite sports columnist or broadcaster, and in his gravelly voice attempt to assure them that all was well and that he’d soon be fully recovered.
Confined to a wheelchair and attended around the clock by nurses, dressed and undressed by them, and even tucked into bed by them, he told anyone who would listen that he was getting better. As if saying it would make it true.
“I’m going to be as fit as a fiddle with five strings,” Cooke predicted confidently to one family member. But in his last weeks, his body continued to betray his lifelong optimism, and he could no longer even sign his name. Instead, his secretary Ramey wrote his name on his typed correspondence, adding her three initials, DBR, to the side of that signature.
While his final few months seemed an exercise in familial and marital churlishness, his soft spot for children had never been more evident. Cooke was nobody’s fool, but he was a sucker for kids and his will reflected those values. If the foundation does its job, a lot of kids are going to know who Jack Kent Cooke was.
“He wanted to begin building a boys-and-girls orphanage last year,” says Thrift. “He wanted construction to begin when the stadium did.”
Thrift remembers that Cooke often encouraged her to bring her daughter Megan to work with her. “He loved playing with the children,” she said.
Anderson, another member of the Redskins’ owner’s household staff, said that Cooke’s legendary imperiousness faded when the subject was children. When he was told that Anderson’s 13-year-old son’s handicap was incurable, he wept.
“He always provided Easter baskets for all the children of the employees,” she remembers. “I have four kids, and he loved having them around him.”
The service staffers who saw him every day all say that Cooke’s huge educational gift to needy youths comes as no shock to them. Like many self-important men, he shrank to life-size whenever someone small came around.
Which brings us to the final person in all these machinations: Jacqueline, the child he finally not only acknowledged, but in his last years embraced with all his heart. Near the end of 1996, Cooke was seeking increased visitation privileges, which her mother Suzanne feared would soon result in his attempting to move for full custody of their daughter. Members of the household staff say he wanted to groom the child to run his business empire.
“He used to walk around the estate last year wondering out loud if Jacqueline could grow up to actually run a big business,” Thrift says.
Jacqueline’s $5-million trust fund will not be available to her until she’s 35, and the $245,000 life-insurance policy he left her is controlled by Cooke’s in-house counsel, Stuart Haney. Money for schooling and other expenses will be paid directly to the institutions themselves. These fiscal maneuverings were designed to deny Suzanne, whom Cooke despised for defying himironically in retrospectbecause she refused to end the pregnancy that was to become Jacqueline. Cooke divorced her less than three months after the media-celebrated birthSuzanne’s only marriage and only child. The Redskins’ owner never forgave her for defying him, and he was adamant in making certain that his 40-years-younger third wife would never financially benefit through their daughter.
Jacqueline bears an uncanny resemblance to her father and is said to have inherited his idiosyncratic mannerisms. His household employees say that Jacqueline’s first meeting with him at Far Acres when she was 6 brimmed with portent and irony.
“Mr. Cooke had a way of putting his hands on his hips and staring at people when he met them,” a staff source told me. “When Jacqueline met Jack, she did the same thing, and he was clearly taken aback.”
Later that day, Jacqueline further charmed her father by asking everyone at the dinner table to join hands and say grace. It was a ritual she had learned at a Catholic kindergarten.
“Remember the children who don’t have enough to eat,” Jacqueline is said to have recited. Jack Kent Cooke took her advice.CP
Adrian Havill is the author of The Last Mogul, The Unauthorized Biography of Jack Kent Cooke (St. Martin’s, 1992).