Jack Kent Cooke (1912-1997)

Year Born: 
1912
Year Died: 
1997

Pioneer

Cooke, Jack Kent (1912-1997)

Legendary, flamboyant, swashbuckler, entrepreneur extraordinaire, mean, ornery, and generous have all been used to describe Jack Kent Cooke. He was born in Hamilton, dropped out of high-school, and went on to become a media owner, almost-billionaire major league franchise owner, and to leave his name on a stadium, on scholarships, in the 1979 Guinness Book of World Records (for the largest divorce settlement to that time) and in more than one legal book on divorce as a result of his five marriages to four women.

In 1937 Jack Kent Cooke was selling encyclopaedias when Roy Thomson employed him for $25 per week to run CJCS Stratford, one of three radio stations Thomson owned. Soon Cooke was representing Thomson's little empire from a Toronto office and he became manager as the empire grew. In 1941 they entered into a business partnership.

With his share of the profit from the sale of three Quebec stations, Cooke bought CKCL Toronto in 1944 and renamed it CKEY. CKEY became hugely profitable with what was a new commercial radio format of block programming like Make-believe Ballroom and All-time Hit Parade. Cooke sold CKEY in 1961.

In 1946, he and Thomson had bought the magazine Canadian Liberty, which they renamed New Liberty, together with a chain of drive-in movie theatres. In 1948 Cooke bought New World Illustrated, based in Montreal and therefore permitted to carry liquor ads, which he combined with Liberty, which could not carry liquor ads because it was based in Toronto. At the same time Thomson sold his half of Liberty to Cooke. In 1952, Cooke bought Consolidated Press, which included Saturday Night. But Cooke lost money on magazines and finally sold them.

It was shortly after Thomson sold his half of Liberty to Cooke that they parted company when Cooke was signed by Southam Press to a personal contract to manage CKOY Ottawa, which Southam had bought in 1949. It was a profitable deal but Cooke later said taking it on alone was one of the great mistakes of his life.

Cooke was a millionaire by 30 and a multimillionaire when the U.S. House of Representatives, in an unprecedented move in 1960, waived normal citizenship requirements for him. Discouraged after failing to receive a TV licence, he sold his Canadian assets and moved to California. He had owned baseball's Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and went on to own the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team, the L.A. Kings of the National Hockey League and the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. In 1971 he underwrote the first fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, billed as the fight of the century, and sold closed-circuit viewing rights around the world.

He moved to the Washington area in 1978. He had found it hard to win acceptance by the Toronto establishment but a Canadian Press obituary described him as "arguably the most powerful man outside politics in the U.S. capital."

In 1997, Jack Kent Cooke died an American citizen. He had two sons and one survived him - John Kent Cooke.

Written by Jerry Fairbridge - August, 2002

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