By Jack Limpert
While editing The Washingtonian from 1969 to 2009, I had one really tough year—it was 1989 and we were hit with two expensive lawsuits. The magazine then was at its most profitable—in 1989 The Washingtonian averaged 332 pages each month with advertising well over half the pages. Were we a legal target because we looked so successful and prosperous, was it because we were doing good journalism—including winning a series of National Magazine Awards—or were we feeling so good about ourselves that we weren’t paying enough attention to the legal risks that are part of journalism?
Looking back, the answer is probably yes to all three questions.
The most expensive of the lawsuits was filed by Jack Kent Cooke. Jack had made a billion dollars in cable television and he bought a majority stake in the Washington Redskins in 1974, becoming sole owner in 1985. He was a character—colorful, bombastic, very full of himself. With Joe Gibbs coaching the Redskins, he’d won Super Bowls in 1981 and 1987 and was riding high.
But he did have woman problems. In 1988, at the age of 74, he went to the altar for the third time, marrying Suzanne Martin, then 31. Soon there was a baby, Jacqueline, and then a divorce. In August 1988 we ran a cover story by Kitty Kelley about Suzanne’s life with Jack. Suzanne supplied Kitty with the kind of details that would drive any man crazy.
Not quitting while we were ahead, we came back in December 1989 with a story, “Driving Mr. Cooke,” in which his onetime chauffeur disclosed to our writer some dirt about what it was like working for Jack. This was followed by a lawsuit.
It would take 10,000 words to capture the drama, the size of the legal bills, and the emotional drain of that lawsuit. Jack seemed more interested in making our life miserable than in any settlement. On and on it went, with Jack playing offense.
The favorite legal moment: We were taking the deposition of Marlene Cooke, also known as the Bolivian bombshell, who had become Jack’s fourth wife. On one side of a long table I sat with Sam Wood, our attorney. On the other side were Marlene, Jack , and six lawyers, including Milton Gould, the name partner of Shea & Gould, a prominent New York firm. Among the other five lawyers was Washington’s leading African-American lawyer. Sam, our lawyer, was with a Baltimore firm. He was in his 30s and had a boyish look
As we were taking a noon break from the deposition, the stenographer turned off her machine and as we started to get up, Jack said, “Mr. Wood, my friends in Baltimore tell me you have been educated beyond your intelligence.”
Without missing a beat, Sam said, “Mr. Cooke, my friends in Washington tell me you’re an asshole.”
Jack didn’t have all that much to say the rest of the day.