Obituary: Jack Kent Cooke

Click to follow
The Independent Online
In a place of politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats mostly painted varying shades of grey, Jack Kent Cooke stood out like the Washington monument in a dime store. One reason was his ownership of the Washington Redskins football team, the one successful and universally loved institution in a city riven by failure and racial segregation. More important, though, he brought unpredictability, flamboyance and excitement wherever he went.

His life of 84 years spanned a continent. Born in Canada of parents who had emigrated from South Africa, he abandoned university to become a door- to-door encyclopaedia salesman. Quickly he teamed up with another emerging magnate called Roy Thomson (later to own the Times newspapers in Britain), and by the late 1940s the pair had gained control of a chain of newspapers and radio stations.

But Canada could never satisfy so competitive and ambitious a man. He moved south to the United States, and began a second career in the business for which he will be best remembered - owning major league sports teams. He started on the west coast in Los Angeles, acquiring first the Lakers basketball team and then the Los Angeles Kings hockey franchise. He was an innovator too in sports broadcasting, inventing the closed-circuit broadcasting to theatres of major boxing events which began with the first Ali-Frazier heavyweight championship fight at Madison Square Garden in 1971.

But ever restless, Cooke moved again in the mid-1970s, this time to the East Coast and Washington, where he already owned a 25 per cent interest in the Redskins. Soon he became sole owner and as the team flourished, so did Cooke's celebrity. He could be rude, charming, vengeful, cantankerous, pompous or breathtakingly extravagant - often several simultaneously. In a city where getting on the right guest-list is the supreme social skill, no invitation was more coveted than to join Cooke in the owner's box at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium for a Redskins game, and rub shoulders with senators, Congressmen, ambassadors and members of the capital's media aristocracy paying court to Washington's unofficial monarch.

If that was not enough for the gossip columns, Cooke's roman-tic career provided extra spice. His first marriage to Jeannie Carnegie, his childhood sweetheart from Canada, lasted 42 years, and its conclusion in 1979 earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records for the then largest ever divorce settlement, of $49m. His second marriage survived 10 months, his third just 10 weeks. In 1990 he married Marlene Ramallo Chalmers, a vivacious Bolivian half his age, who had served 3 months in a US federal prison for cocaine offences. They divorced four years later, but remarried in 1995, and Marlene was with him when he died of a heart attack in the library of his Washington home.

Jack Kent Cooke, in short, was a man who lived life to the hilt. "I am in a state of ecstasy," he declared in 1983 after his Redskins won the first of three Superbowls. "Never mind that nonsense about euphoria and so on. This is sheer unadulterated, uncompromising ecstasy." Politicians, lawyers and bureaucrats never talk like that. Washington will be drabber without him.

Jack Kent Cooke, businessman, sports team owner: born Hamilton, Ontario 25 October 1912; married 1937 Jeannie Carnegie (one son, and one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1980 Jeanne Maxwell Williams (marriage dissolved), 1987 Suzanne Martin (one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1990 Marlena Ramallo (marriage dissolved), 1995 Marlena Ramallo; died Washington DC 6 April 1997.