Somewhere between prosperity and the Manitoba border, though, the roadster got stuck in the mud. Flat busted, the Cookes spent the night in the car. The next day, while Jeannie waited in a hotel kitchen, Jack beat the streets with his encyclopedias. By 4:30 in the afternoon, he hadn't had a bite. He latched on to a high school principal who wouldn't give yes for an answer; Cooke wouldn't take no. The poor principal left school and walked home. Cooke tagged along. The principal went into his house. Cooke stuck to him like gum to the bottom of a desk. The principal's wife served dinner. Cooke watched. Finally, just to digest in peace, the principal gave Cooke $5 down toward the infernal encyclopedia. Cooke got his wife and got his roadster out of the mud. He has been running from the mud ever since.
Vince Lombardi called it "contest living," in which every facet of life is nothing but a game, to be won or to be lost, no ties. Cooke subscribes to a kind of contest living—his idol is Ty Cobb—and it has been very, very good to him. In the early 1940s he began investing in dying radio stations, sprucing them up with his own brand of hype and spit and polish. He was a millionaire by 31, and it wasn't nearly enough. He took nearly defunct magazines and made them shine. He bought a fading plastics company and revitalized it. He took moribund cable companies and breathed the Joy of Cookeing into them.
Sports just went along for the ride. The face of sports without Cooke would be like pizza without pepperoni. You could still enjoy it, but it would be a lot less spicy. Without Cooke, there might not be the Toronto Blue Jays, since Cooke woke up baseball in Toronto in 1951 by taking a nearly dead minor league team, the Maple Leafs, and packing the house with 3-for-1 Nights (a pregnant woman got in free with a paying spouse or "friend"), Friday the 13th Nights (bring a black cat, get in for nothing) and complimentary boxing matches staged on the infield grass before and after games. The Kings franchise might never have been granted to L.A. without Cooke, and lord knows, the Lakers wouldn't be the same without him. For one thing, it was Cooke who kicked the press from courtside to make room for the legendary leers and celebrity cleavage that populate it now. You'd rather look at sportswriters?
Cooke can pick people. He gave professional basketball its last three eras—Wilt, Kareem and Magic. He gave Sparky Anderson and Dick Williams their first managerial jobs. He gave football probably its best coach of the last 10 years, Joe Gibbs, who calls Cooke "the greatest owner in the NFL." No wonder. Every player Gibbs has wanted, Cooke has delivered.
Of course, it is one thing to hail Napoleon, it is another to have to fix his lunch. "I didn't like him as a person," says former Laker color man Hot Rod Hundley, now with the Utah Jazz. "Nobody did. He wouldn't let you. The man didn't know how to relax." Says Bill Nicholas, a former member of the Los Angeles Coliseum Commission, which runs the L.A. Sports Arena as well as the Coliseum, "Jack Kent Cooke was the most arrogant man I ever dealt with in my life." Says former Laker All-Star Rudy LaRusso, "Cooke was affable, but it was a phony affability. You'd go to lunch and it was, 'Rudy, you order this. Joe, you order that.' Just overbearing." Of course, Hundley quit on Cooke, Nicholas and his Sports Arena were rejected by Cooke (so Cooke built the Forum), and LaRusso was traded by Cooke. Enemies all. Then again, when it comes to Cooke's enemies, you can throw a bucket of birdseed in any restaurant in L.A. or Washington and hit a dozen. Cooke fired so many people at the Forum that the pink-slipees formed their own association: the Forum Alumni. They said they felt the same way Patton's soldiers did—just happy to be alive.
Nothing was too minuscule to put arch in Cooke's eyebrows. According to Kings broadcaster Bob Miller, the standing rule around the Kings' offices was that if the phone on your desk rang three times before you answered, you could start packing what was in your desk. You were fired. Cooke would often call just to test. If you answered in under three, Cooke would nonetheless quiz you on starting times and other facts about upcoming events. If you fail, hit the trail. No wonder Forum employees would station a lookout at the door to watch for Cooke's car. "When you'd get the signal, you'd bury your head in your typewriter or your office," remembers Miller. "Because if Cooke saw you, he'd think of some reason he was mad at you."
Of course, even being on Cooke's good side wasn't all that great. One afternoon, according to a former Kings player, a Cooke aide was standing with Cooke and his dog, Coco, in a very cold arena. "Give me your coat," Cooke snapped. The aide whipped it off in an eyeblink. Cooke put it around Coco. (Cooke says this is nonsense.)
For all his millions, Cooke can be tighter than a bass drum. According to Mo Siegel, Cooke once convinced United Airlines to give him blankets for his private jet, lest Cooke suddenly stop chartering United for his football team. (Cooke says this is folderol.) As late as 1976, Cooke was paying his houseman $8,400 a year. And then there was the day Laker announcer Chick Hearn suggested to Cooke that he call his new building the Fabulous Forum. Cooke was pleased mightily, so he said to Hearn, "There will be a little something extra in your paycheck this week." There was indeed. A wallet-sized photo of Cooke. (Cooke says this is balderdash.)
Oh, Cooke can be generous. One Christmas, according to Hundley, Cooke gave all his employees engraved silver-plated coffee warmers. Typically, Cooke engraved them with his name. (Cooke says this is bushwah.) He is a one-man parade who tends to smile all over you and call men "dear" and women "pet."
Anyway, you can imagine being married to the man. By 1970, Jeannie was no longer keeping up with the endless dash from the mud. She tired of going to sporting events 80 nights a year. She wrote Cooke, "I can't measure up to your competitive nature." She tried to file for divorce but says Cooke forced her to back off. Four times between 1965 and '76 she tried to kill herself, and four times she failed. Finally, on July 1, 1976, Jeannie stormed out of their vacation home in the Sierra Nevadas and got in her Chevy Nova to leave for good. Cooke burst out of the house and ran up to the car as it sped away, banging him on the arm. "She tried to kill me," Cooke screamed to the housekeeper. His wrist was broken, and so was the marriage. In '79 a judge stuck Cooke with a $41 million divorce settlement, then the largest in history, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The judge's name: Joseph Wapner. One and the same. You've got to admit it: Whatever Cooke does, he does it big.