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Barbara Berwald was known for a pleasing personality that complemented her first husband’s aggressive nature.
Barbara Berwald was known for a pleasing personality that complemented her first husband’s aggressive nature.

Obituary

Divorce settlement gave her a headline-grabbing $41-million Add to ...

Soon after the Los Angeles Kings clinched the Stanley Cup in June, team owner Ed Roski picked up the phone and dialed a number in Purchase, N.Y.

The call left Barbara Jean Berwald delighted.

The Kings win “was something she had always dreamed of,” Roski said. “She was a big hockey fan.”

Naturally. She was Canadian. And she certainly had a keen personal interest in the team: Her late ex-husband, Jack Kent Cooke, founded the Kings in 1967. “I had the opportunity to tell her we’d finally done something they had started 45 years ago,” Roski said.

Berwald, known by loved ones as Jeannie, told family members she was glad she lived long enough to see her beloved Kings win; she died of heart failure on July 20 in her home. She was 94.

She was born Barbara Jean Carnegie in 1917 in Port Perry, Ont., but didn’t stay there long. After moving to St. Catharines, Ont., with her family, she met Cooke, whom she married in 1934. He quickly swept her westward, and sold encyclopedias as they travelled toward the Pacific on their honeymoon.

Upon their return to Ontario, Cooke was fiercely determined to build a business empire: He worked with Roy Thomson to build an Ontario radio network, culminating with Toronto’s CKEY. Soon a millionaire, he became publisher of Saturday Night and Liberty magazines, and entered the sports world by purchasing the International League’s Toronto Maple Leafs baseball team.

Frustrated by an inability to expand his holdings in Toronto – Cooke was unable to secure a television licence or acquire a daily newspaper – he sold his Canadian assets in 1960 and moved with his wife to California.

Settling in Bel Air, Cooke vastly expanded his holdings as a sports mogul, acquiring the Lakers, building the Forum, founding the Kings and buying the Washington Redskins.

The marriage delivered a colourful life, but Cooke was an aggressive and incredibly demanding partner; media reports indicate Berwald attempted suicide four times. Her role in his business dealings was well-acknowledged by the courts after she requested a divorce in 1977: It was, quite literally, a case for the record books. The eventual $41-million (U.S.) settlement, reached after two years, forced Cooke to sell his Los Angeles sports assets – including the Kings, the Lakers and the Forum built to house them – and was, at the time, believed to be history’s most expensive divorce.

Cooke openly regretted the breakup; despite marrying four more times before his 1997 death, he called his split from Berwald “the biggest mistake of my life” in a 1989 interview with The Globe and Mail. He held on to the Redskins until his death.

But a woman driven to divorce and suicide attempts by a fiercely competitive and aggressive husband is not how Berwald is remembered by family and friends.

“She had what I would call an unwavering, intangible sense of humour,” said John Stauss, a Four Seasons executive, who met Berwald when he was a hotelier in Newport Beach, Calif., in the 1980s. They remained friends until her death. Stauss recalls his friend’s “wonderful ability to laugh at any situation, which puts people immediately at ease.”

Jim Lacher, a long-time business partner and confidante of Cooke, said Berwald could maintain her civility in any circumstance – including divorce. “Even through that difficult time, even though I was working for [Cooke], she was always very pleasant to me, very charming.”

She had two children with Cooke: Ralph Kent Cooke, who died in 1995, and John Kent Cooke. In some ways, John says, his mother’s personality was complementary to his father’s.

“He rubbed people the wrong way, but she was always smooth,” John says. Long the assumed inheritor of his father’s Redskins, John lost the franchise through an auction soon after his father’s death. He now runs a Virginia winery.

Barry Haywood, a lifelong friend of John’s from his time at Toronto’s Upper Canada College, recalls Berwald as beautiful, happy and optimistic. “When we got in trouble, she certainly would discipline us, but at the same time, not be unfairly strict.”

Berwald’s grandson, John Kent Cooke Jr., is a newsman in North Carolina, running the family’s newspaper assets in that state; the family also owns papers in Florida. “I still hear that sweet voice, and will never forget it,” John Jr. says. “I miss her terribly.”

She leaves her husband, graphic artist Thomas Berwald, whom she married in 1983, her son John, five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

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