Washington’s NFL Team, Jack Kent Cooke, and My Favorite Lawyer Story

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Jack Kent Cooke loved owning the Redskins and he knew how to win. Photograph by Tom Wolff.

By Jack Limpert

Washington’s NFL team is having another down year—it lost 27-7 today to a Tampa Bay team that had won one game this year. The losing has been almost constant since Dan Snyder bought the Redskins in 1999—and many Washington fans look back to the good old days when Jack Kent Cooke owned the team. Jack’s Redskins won three Super Bowls and while he made a lot of noise he let smart guys like Bobby Beathard and Joe Gibbs run the team.

At the Washingtonian we wrote a lot about the Redskins—I paid a couple of NFL beat reporters to feed us inside stuff and Jack hated it. Two or three times a season he’d call to berate me and the magazine. Despite the stories and the calls, he invited me a couple of times to sit in the owner’s box.

That ended in 1990 when Jack sued the magazine. Here, as described earlier, is what happened next.
While editing the Washingtonian from 1969 to 2009, I had one very tough year—it was 1989 and we were hit with two expensive lawsuits.

The magazine then was at its most profitable—in 1989 the magazine averaged 332 pages each month. 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. 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 the lawsuit.

It would take 10,000 words to capture the drama and the size of the legal bills. 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. Sam, our lone 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 much to say the rest of the day.
The suit was settled with the magazine making a five-figure donation to a charity—that payment was dwarfed by the magazine’s seven-figure legal bill.

Jack Kent Cooke died in 1997 at the age of 84. He left his NFL team to the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation with instructions to sell it. In 1999 the team was bought by 35-year-old entrepreneur Dan Snyder for $800 million, then a record price for a professional sports team.

In 1999 the Redskins won 10 games and lost 6. After Snyder took over, the team then went 8-8, 8-8, 7-9, and 5-11 in the next four years. Last year Snyder’s NFL team won 3 games and lost 13 and this season it has a 3-7 record and seems in another downward spiral.

Jack was very colorful and difficult but he knew what he didn’t know.






  1. John Corcoran, Jr. says

    “Washington’s NFL team is having another down year.”

    I believe that is what they call a “dog bites man” story. But what follows is not, it is a fascinating look at Jack Kent Cooke, an owner everyone would prefer seven days a week and twice on Sunday over the man who followed him.

    For those of us who spent many a Sunday afternoon at RFK and loved the great teams of what seems ages ago, it appears, finally, that era is over. There was hope when Gibbs came back, and after the extraordinary rookie season of RGIII. But it appears the weakness is not the players on the field but the man in the owner’s box.

    I am hard pressed to think of a good football decision by Dan Snyder. From the absurd early trades, to the show-boaty giveaway to get a QB now being devalued daily, he has let fans down.

    While few of us have access to day-to-day decisions and his input, Snyder’s stubbornness about keeping the name gives us a good clue. The coaches he brought in were flawed from the get-go (Gibbs II was not the same workaholic as before and lacked Bobby B). The GM is a “named legacy” who essentially let stand the two greatest team weaknesses from last year to this—O-line and safety.

    A fix here a patch there and they’d be back in contention used to be a Washington mantra. No more.


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