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Had Jack Kent Cooke been rummaging through his pile of newspaper clips last week, he would have encountered a Dec. 7, 1981, Washington Post piece that detailed plans for a domed multipurpose stadium in Laurel as a new home for his football team, the Baltimore Orioles, and anyone else willing to pay the rent.
The 12-year-old article, “Cooke May Build Laurel Dome” by Dave Kindred, detailed the Squire of Kalorama’s plans to build a “Meadowlands-like” sports facility in the Maryland town. Cooke’s old proposal is a dead ringer for his current one, right down to the day he picked to pitch it to the gullible press: Dec. 7.
Like his summer ’92 pact with Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder to build a sports palace at the old Potomac Yards in Alexandria, Cooke’s promise to build his stadium in Laurel is as trustworthy as a head-fake from Art Monk. Even reports that he has plunked down $2 million for a parcel of land next to the prospective site should be dismissed. The fact is, Jack Kent Cooke isn’t going to build a stadium in Laurel or anywhere else because he can’t—or won’t—pay the $200 million it would cost.
How else to explain Cooke’s strategy of the District today, Virginia tomorrow, the District the day after, and Maryland the day after that? The Squire was very close to a final deal in the District; the Environmental Protection Agency had just approved most of its soil study on the stadium site, meaning it was almost time to move dirt. So Jack Kent Cooke did what he had to do. He scratched the deal and moved north.
He has purposely dragged his heels on building a stadium anywhere. He refused to publicly lobby for the stadium in D.C.; he failed to show up for a congressional hearing two months ago and was chastised for his absence by the shiny poly-wool suits in their leather easy chairs; and he continued to brush aside demands that he change the team name, an unpopular position in PC D.C., especially on Capitol Hill.
That he chose Maryland this time around is not significant. He could have picked Virginia again, specifically Loudoun County where the incoming governor was prepared to push the deal through in weeks, but the idea of actually breaking ground gives Cooke chest pains. He’s a shell-game artist whose bluff should be called.
When he made his famous “I’ll build it” speech in 1987, Cooke’s business enterprises were thriving: Forbes listed his net worth at more than a billion bucks. But since then, Forbes has demoted him to mere millionaire, giving him a net worth of just over $800 million. And many of his holdings are sucking wind.
Forget the volatile issue of red skin—Cooke’s real problem is red ink. Most of his trophy real-estate and media properties have been ground up by the long recession. He purchased his signature real-estate property, the 77-story Chrysler Building, for $87 million in 1979. Though it could be worth as much as $500 million today, Cooke has extracted much of that equity through refinancing. There’s a ton of vacant real-estate space available in New York City (at last count, some 60 million square feet), particularly in older buildings like the Chrysler Building, which was finished in 1929. One Manhattan real-estate leasing agent guesses that the Chrysler Building, which was more than 90 percent leased in the mid-’80s, is “probably just over 70 percent today.”
Cooke’s Los Angeles Daily News tells a similar business story. He overpaid for it in 1987, spending $176 million for a newspaper in a silent bidding process where the next highest offer was just over $100 million. Then he poured in $100 million in plant improvements. But at least it was turning a small profit. Since then, the Daily News has cut staff, gone into the red, and waged a costly circulation war with the bigger Los Angeles Times. Newspapers have yet to fully recover from the recession, and Cooke owns a half-dozen or so more, though none is as large as the Daily News.
Or consider the case of Elmendorf Farms, the venerable century-old horse-breeding farm near Lexington, Ky., that Cooke bought for $44 million in 1984. Those were the days when Arab sheiks were paying top dollar for horses and Reaganites were touting thoroughbreds as one of the few legal tax scams from which one could actually make money. New tax laws passed in 1986 changed that, and now Paris Pike, the road that Elmendorf is on, has been littered with “For Sale” and “Bankruptcy Auction” signs. Paris Pike, once called “the Park Avenue of the Bluegrass State,” could now be termed the Eighth Avenue of Kentucky. Elmendorf Farms probably isn’t benefiting from the leadership of Jack’s bumbling elder son, Ralph, who has led at least one company he ran into bankruptcy.
The long recession has not been kind to Jack Kent Cooke, a man who made his earliest fortune through leveraged deals, sometimes paying as little as 5 cents on the dollar. It’s no wonder that he would avoid a solid stadium deal unless some sucker (read: government) is willing to give away the store fully stocked, as well as its parking lot.
Cooke has too much pride to say he doesn’t have the money, so he strings us all along until business gets better. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly is onto Cooke’s shell game—and his financial problems. When the Alexandria deal was crumbling, WWRC-AM asked her why Cooke hadn’t begun to build that stadium, and she pointed out that “economic conditions were different for Mr. Cooke in ’87.” Last week, when Cooke threatened to move his team to the city made famous by Arthur Bremer, she almost yawned.
So now comes 1994 and the Cooke soap opera continues. The team has gone to the dogs, making the drive home from RFK Stadium a breeze and radio traffic reports superfluous. Wife No. 3, Suzanne, remains in New York, where she serves subpoenas on her ex for increased child support whenever he visits the Waldorf Towers, his Manhattan residence. Suzanne Cooke’s alimony has run out and she now jokes about having to “spend the winter in a box on the street.” Jack and Suzanne’s child, now 5, has her father’s looks, smarts, and autocratic manners.
The fourth Mrs. Cooke, Marlene, has become a story all to herself. Her “Boyz on the Hood” trial is scheduled for January, and she has posed fetchingly for February’s Vanity Fair, according to Judy Bachrach, who interviewed the Bolivian national for the accompanying story. Bachrach acknowledges that Mrs. Cooke was photographed in nothing but a Redskins jersey, carrying a strategically placed football. And then there is her ongoing deportation drama.
Cooke himself may have lowered his profile because he’s physically fading. If you believe that the D.C. rescue unit rushed to his Kalorama house in early December to treat a digestive problem caused by “too many hot dogs and hamburgers” (his words), then I have a lead-contaminated piece of property next to RFK Stadium you might want to buy.