Die? Then who would be there to have the mot juste at the most delicious moment? Who would be the best dressed, the most charming, the very center of the room? Who would sit down at the piano and knock out one of the hundreds of tunes he'd written? Who would call at two in the morning without apology? Who would stand in his luxury box and know that at the patched elbow of his fine tweed jacket was a collection of guests who could fill a month's worth of Face the Nation? And who would be there as living proof that a high school dropout who once was down to a trunkful of encyclopedias, a mud-stuck car and a pocketful of lint could rise above them all?
Forget dying. Jack Kent Cooke doesn't even have time for old age. He tried to retire once but loused it up. He was 50 years old, and he moved to Pebble Beach, Calif., where he got his handicap down to five—scratch anyplace else—and his sanity even lower. Oh, god, we're going to play golf again today? Cooke could not live without the sweet symphony of the ringing telephone and the chattering Olivetti. So, for a "diversion," as he puts it, he paid an outrageous $5,175 million for the L.A. Lakers, then a $2 million expansion fee to found the Kings, and he built a very nice hobby chest to put them in, the Fabulous Forum.
Now, that was industrial-sized happiness. Mel Durslag, the veteran L.A. Herald-Examiner-columnist (Cooke loves columnists), met Cooke outside the Forum one night in the late 60's and asked, "Hey, Jack, why do they call this place Fabulous?"
"Dear Mel, that's the most stupid question ever to pass through your lips," Cooke answered. The Forum was packed. Chandeliers hung high over customers ordering drinks from lovely, toga-draped waitresses. A highly paid basketball team cavorted below in its underwear. "What else could they call it?"
Damn right it was fabulous. One, it was gorgeous. Two, it was perfectly round. And three, it had Jack Kent Cooke at the very center.
Jackie, everybody called him, but his real name was Jack Kent Cooke II, and he loved two things more than anything else in the world—his grandfather and the L.A. Kings. Since his grandfather owned the Kings, Jackie's world was as close to perfect as an eight-year-old could dream. Sometimes his grandfather would put his arm around his shoulder and say, "Jackie, someday the Kings will be your hockey team."
So what if he was lousy in school? The other kids loved him. He was funny. And when the doctor told his mother, Carrie, that her son had severe dyslexia, dyscalculia and other learning disabilities, what did it matter? He was the future president of the L.A. Kings, wasn't he?
They say that once you're dead, you're dead for a long time, and Jack Kent Cooke lives as if he has got that inscribed in his hatband. Why eat breakfast and lunch? Cooke doesn't. No time. Why watch just one channel? Cooke's house can suck up almost any transmission in the world, and he gives them all a whirl. Why work eight hours? Cooke works even in bed. If Cooke is at your table, the conversation is steered his way. "Christ, if Cooke isn't interested in the topic at hand," says Siegel, "he'll change it."
This is a man who, when he wanted to become a U.S. citizen in 1960, persuaded Congress to grant him citizenship almost overnight. You think Cooke was going to spend five years waiting around, memorizing the names of cabinet members? He was the only kid in the history of Toronto's Malvern Collegiate high school who took out an ad in the annual for his night job: "SPECIAL RATES for Parties-Dinners-Banquets-Weddings JACK COOKE and HIS BAND."
Cooke never had time to wait around for his ship to come in. He swam out and roped it. The Depression took the picture-frame business for which his father worked, leaving the family nearly broke. Jack gave up football (he was a quarterback), a hockey scholarship (to Michigan) and his band (he was the handsome one on sax and clarinet and the Rudy Vallee megaphone) and went to work. First he sold encyclopedias, and then soap. He wasn't worried. Cooke could sell sunlamps on Waikiki Beach. So it was that in 1934 he set out for western Canada in a red-and-black Ford roadster with his bride, a pretty Ontario girl named Jeannie Carnegie, determined to be odorously rich by the time he got to Vancouver. He was 21.