BY ALL ACCOUNTS, JACK KENT Cooke and his fourth wife, Marlene, deserved each other. He was Washington's "billionaire bully," as former mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly once put it, the temperamental owner of the Washington Redskins, and a womanizer who shed spouses as easily as he skewered business opponents. She was a Bolivian-born beauty 40 years his junior, a party girl with a prison record who reportedly bragged that she could "get any man in town." After she got him—they married in 1990—they butted egos endlessly. In 1994, angered at her frenzied socializing and penchant for taking off without him, Cooke had the union declared void. A year later she charmed him into remarrying. "He was smitten with her," says his friend Tommy Jacomo, general manager of the Palm restaurant in D.C., "but they'd get into these crazy fights."

He saved the biggest one for last. Just 13 weeks before he died of congestive heart failure on April 6, Cooke, 84, amended his will to shut out his 44-year-old wife altogether. True to form, Marlene (who got the bad news after he died) isn't conceding defeat. Launching one of the juiciest legal tussles of the year, she has filed suit in Virginia (where she lived), demanding a full third of her husband's estimated $825 million estate, the usual percentage Virginia law accords widows. Cooke's estate—his 55-year-old son, Redskins president John Kent Cooke, is an executor—has responded by canceling both Marlene's Visa card and her account at her local Giant supermarket. The estate also dismissed the four servants at Cooke's $2 million Washington mansion, Marbella, where Marlene now resides.

Though a prenuptial agreement specified that she would be eligible to receive a little over $5.2 million and a portion of Cooke's properties, both Marlene's and Cooke's lawyers hope to discount that—for very different reasons. Marlene claims she signed under duress, making the contract invalid; the Cooke camp insists that Marlene, who lived in her own three-bedroom Alexandria, Va., apartment, abandoned and deserted Cooke by violating the prenup's stipulation that they live as "man and wife."

With an initial court date set for Aug. 13, neither side is talking. But those who know Marlene say she's as carefree as ever. "She's in great shape—she's pretty cheerful," says Franco Nuschese, owner of one of Marlene's favorite D.C. nightspots, the chic Cafe Milano. After Cooke's death, Nuschese adds, "She didn't go out for a long time." But on July 10, she was with friends at her usual Cafe Milano table, having replaced her Chanel suits and careful coiffure with a halter top and tousled tresses. Though the $10,000 a month she requested to tide her over until the legal battle is resolved has not come through, a lack of income does not seem to cramp her style; since Cooke's death she has thrown at least two parties at Marbella.

Neither adversity nor overcoming it is new to Marlene. Though evasive about her past, she has said that she and her son Rodrigo, now 25, the product of an early relationship, first came to the U.S. from Bolivia in 1972. She worked as a cocktail waitress at Washington's Loews L'Enfant Plaza Hotel and fell in with drug traffickers (one of whom fathered her younger son, Alejandro, now 18). In 1985 she married Houston oil magnate David Chalmers, who, alas, bowed out of the union the next year when his bride pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to import cocaine. She spent almost five months in a federal correctional institute in West Virginia.

Cooke too was born for drama. The son of an Ontario picture-frame salesman, he was a self-made magnate—the owner not only of the Redskins but of New York City's Chrysler building and the Los Angeles Daily News. His 1979 divorce from Jean, his wife of 42 years and the mother of his sons Ralph (who died in 1995 at 58) and John, cost him $42 million (the Guinness Book of World Records called it the largest divorce settlement at the time). And neither his second marriage, to sculptor Jean Wilson, nor his subsequent dalliances lasted. In 1987 he headed off the threat of a $2 million lawsuit by marrying Suzanne Martin, a then 31-year-old socialite who claimed that he had coerced her into getting two abortions.

Enter the Bolivian bombshell. Fresh out of prison, Marlene, an old pal of Suzanne's (Suzanne claims Marlene had even borrowed almost $6,000 from her for a tummy tuck and buttocks lift), was back in town and dealing with Immigration and Naturalization Service officials out to deport her for her felony conviction. She was also, she told friends, "shopping for a rich husband." So when Jack filed for divorce in 1987 after Suzanne refused a third abortion (their daughter Jacqueline is now 9), Marlene called him to offer more than sympathy. "She often called up old rich married men and said, 'Poor baby, I'll come over,' " says one of her former neighbors. "A lot of women were relieved when she married Cooke." Says Suzanne, who, with Jacqueline, now lives in Middleburg, Va.: "I felt like a fool. I warned Jack she was trouble."

Apparently bored with Far Acres, the 641-acre estate in northern Virginia that was Cooke's primary home, Marlene was soon partying hard among Washington's glitterati. She was reportedly linked to man-about-town Christopher van Roijen (he denies any affair) and, in 1993, she made headlines after she was arrested for driving drunk with a dashing young waiter clinging to the hood of her Jaguar.

Her ailing millionaire husband, meanwhile, could usually be found at home nursing his degenerative arthritis. "Mr. Cooke was so lonely," says Barbara Anderson, a former house-keeper who, at her boss's insistence, kept a log of Marlene's comings and goings. "If she came during the day, Mrs. Cooke always had an excuse to leave for the night." Even when Marlene was on hand, tempers flared. Restaurateur Jacomo, who'd hung her picture in the Palm dining room, remembers that when the couple fought, Cooke "would call me and shout into the phone, 'Take down that portrait!' [Later] he'd call and ask me to hang it up again."

Jack was no less capricious about his will. Worried for his life after he was rushed to Georgetown University Hospital with a racing heart last November, he wrote codicil No. 7 from his bed, ensuring that Marlene would get $5 million over four years and a $10 million trust. (Then, as now, an additional $42.7 million went to various family members and friends; the rest went to a youth charity.) But he recovered, and when Marlene jetted to their $1.5 million Acapulco estate after Christmas, Jack secretly called in the lawyers for what turned out to be a final revision. Oblivious of the change, Marlene danced into the wee hours at the splashy Bachelors and Spinsters Ball at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington the night before he died.

Suzanne Martin Cooke, for one, is counting on the battle of wills to be Marlene's downfall. "I think she should be deported back to Bolivia," says Suzanne, who claims that her successor has seized $1 million worth of jewels bequeathed to daughter Jacqueline (who was also left a $5 million trust). However it turns out, the story's denouement promises to be as gaudy as the personalities involved. "When this finally goes to trial," sighs an attorney familiar with the case, "it's going to be a zoo."

KIM HUBBARD
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington and ANNIE GOWEN in Middleburg

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Annie Gowen.