The day Jack Kent Cooke dies, nobody will be more surprised than Jack Kent Cooke. Said so himself. Eating chopped liver at Duke Zeibert's restaurant one day in Washington, D.C. He was going on as only JKC can, when he threw in this little beauty: "However, if I die...."
Now, you do not snatch a plump chicken from a skinny coyote, and you do not interrupt Jack Kent Cooke in midaddress. But Mo Siegel, a Washington Times columnist and a Cooke crony, could not help himself. He interrupted.
"Wait a minute, Jack," said Mo. "Whaddya mean, if?"
Cooke looked as if somebody had just put a thumb in his mustard. He arched his back, pulled back his shoulders, straightened an ascot that didn't need straightening and stared holes in Siegel's eyeballs. There was a torturous pause.
"Dear Morrie," sniffed Cooke. "I don't intend to die."
The crazy thing is, you almost believe him. If there's one guy on the planet who might be able to remove death from his life's Filofax, it's Cooke, 79 years old and set to turn 30 again next October. Check out Cooke in this, his eighth decade of squeezing life right down to its very rind: In the last 11 years, he has begotten a daughter, married three women (13, 44 and 40 years his junior), made an estimated $1.15 billion and kept up a pace that is still too fast for most people. If it can be done with money, charm, smarts, power, gall, white lies, blue eyes or sheer stare-down will, then Cooke will find a loophole in this death thing.
Besides, Cooke doesn't have time to die. There's a new $2 million house in northwest Washington to break in, not to mention the one in Acapulco and the one in Los Angeles and the one in Middleburg, Va., to keep warm. There's Cooke's latest wife, Marlene, the Bolivian Bombshell, to attend to. There are her two kids, one of whom he's trying to adopt. There's the Chrysler Building in Manhattan, the Daily News in L.A., the Elmendorf thoroughbred farm in Kentucky and the Redskins in Washington. Not bad for a claustrophobe who hates to fly.
O.K., O.K., there are nettlesome little problems with being Jack Kent Cooke—just life's little gnats, really. There's the son he hardly spoke to for seven or eight years. There are the three ex-wives, two of whom tried to commit suicide because they either loved him or hated him. But he has found the right bride now, don't you agree? Any woman fresh from 3½ months in the Hard Time Hotel on a cocaine conviction isn't going to bolt a setup with a billionaire, is she? There is that little unpleasantness about the four-year-old daughter he refuses to see. But can't you see he was trapped into having her? And there's always his grandson Jackie—poor Jackie. But one can't live a life this big and satisfy everybody, right?
Cooke's life is so big, he doesn't have time for interviews. He told SI he was "too dreadfully busy" to talk, and he refused again four separate times. Still, when SI's fact checker called to confirm dozens of anecdotes from Cooke's friends and enemies, Cooke's calendar suddenly cleared. He spent an hour and a half denying nearly every story.
Oh, Cooke's life has been big. On his deathbed, Errol Flynn said, "I've seen everything twice, and I'm ready to go." Well, Cooke has been everything, sometimes twice or even thrice—an athlete, musician, singer, husband, newspaperman, magazine editor, father, radio whiz, cable magnate, businessman, entrepreneur, songwriter, grandfather, plastics tycoon, land baron, baseball owner, hockey bigwig, fight promoter, basketball mogul, yacht racer, soccer owner, NFL honcho and, soon perhaps, stadium eponym—and he's still not ready.