November 14, 1988 12:00 PM

Jack Kent Cooke was a twice-married Croesus in his waning years; Suzanne Martin was a comely blond of 29. They met by a swimming pool at Miami’s Palm Bay Club, and within days he was plying her with flowers and billets-doux. She soon moved into his Middleburg, Va., estate, and at an interesting point in their relationship, he agreed to marry her on the condition that she sign a prenuptial agreement and abort the first-trimester fetus she was carrying. (It would have been her third such operation in two years.) After the wedding, she told him she wanted to keep the baby. He insisted that she end the pregnancy, and they separated four weeks later. She carried the infant to term, and her lawyers used the child as a wedge in a hard-fought divorce struggle.

Call it a modern romance.

Chirping merrily, Jacqueline Kent Cooke, nine months, is crawling about on the floor of the frilly nursery in her mother’s town house in Washington’s fashionable Georgetown. On her white dresser is a framed photo of the 76-year-old titan who fathered her. By her mother’s account, she is the very image of the aging bon vivant; when she was born, says Suzanne, “I took her in my arms and saw that face and said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Jack’s face.’ ”

Jack Cooke—a Canadian-born billionaire whose properties include professional football’s Washington Redskins, New York’s Chrysler Building, a cable-TV company in Washington State and a $44 million Thoroughbred horse farm in Kentucky—has yet to see his infant daughter. “When I gave birth, he didn’t send a flower or a card,” says Suzanne. “Every child of an employee or a friend of his gets a little silver cup with the child’s name engraved on it, and he sends a cute letter. He never even called me or said, ‘Is the baby all right, is everything okay?’

“This little girl would have brought him all the happiness in the world,” her mother continues. “This is a human life—happiness that the Chrysler Building can’t give you.”

Silver cups and paternal devotion are not, of course, the only points of contention between the Cookes. The quarrels that marred their May-December marriage have escalated into a bitter legal battle and a public airing of whole hampers of scandalously dirty linen. When Jack’s divorce petition was granted in Fauquier County Circuit Court last month, Judge William Shore Robertson rejected Suzanne’s pleas that he tear up parts of the prenuptial agreement and grant her a lump sum of $15 million, plus $18,000 a month in alimony and child support. At the moment, she is receiving a $75,000 annual stipend, a 1983 Jaguar (“a lemon,” says Suzanne) and the use for five years of Jack’s corporate apartment in the Watergate complex.

In light of Cooke’s immense wealth, estimated at $1.5 billion, Suzanne considers her settlement a virtual pittance and is determined to improve her lot and her daughter’s. The terms of child support for Jacqueline are to be set Dec. 12, when her parents’ lawyers face off at another hearing in Virginia. Aside from providing her daughter with “a lot of love,” says Suzanne, “I want to make sure I give her every opportunity in life and every advantage that she rightfully deserves being [Jack’s] daughter.” A handsome trust, she believes, would be in order. “He doesn’t want to put $3 million in trust in his daughter’s name, but he says he’ll give $150 million to build a new Redskins stadium,” Suzanne observes tartly. “That says something about his values.”

While the reluctant father declines comment, his lawyers have made his position clear. During pretrial maneuverings in the Cookes’ divorce case last June, New York attorney Milton Gould accused Suzanne of unvarnished greed. “This is a conspiracy to try to use a little kid as a means of getting money,” he said. “Well, we’re not going to abandon this child. She will get money, but the woman doesn’t deserve any…. There have been few courtesans in the history of the world that have been as well rewarded as this one.”

Suzanne sees it all somewhat differently. She says it was love, not avarice, that led her into Cooke’s arms in February 1985. She had been in a kind of limbo when they met; raised in comfortable surroundings in Washington, D.C., she was a Mount Vernon College dropout who had joined her family in West Palm Beach five months earlier. Suzanne was living in a small apartment at the elite Palm Bay Club. A six-year relationship had ended, and the still-unwed Suzanne had yet to meet another man who held her interest.

Enter Jack Cooke. “I was swimming,” Suzanne recalls. “It was a cloudy day, and I got out of the pool and went over to my chaise longue, bundled up. There was an elderly man sitting two chairs over from mine and he started talking.” Suzanne told him she was from Washington and had lived for a time in Middleburg, Va., where Cooke owns a 640-acre estate. “He said, ‘Oh, my God, you’re kidding me,’ ” Suzanne says. ” ‘You know who I am? I’m Jack Kent Cooke.’ I said I didn’t—I didn’t follow football.”

By that time, of course, Cooke, then 72, had long been famous among those who followed money. The son of a Toronto picture frame manufacturer who had lost everything during the Depression, Cooke had supported himself with odd jobs until he was 24. Then he bought into a radio station and went on to control a newspaper chain, magazines, a movie production company and an ad agency. By the time he was 32, Cooke was a millionaire. He started selling his business interests in Canada and moved to the U.S. in 1959.

In Los Angeles, where he lived with his first wife, Jeannie, and their two sons, Cooke made himself conspicuous by buying a basketball franchise—the Lakers—and, in 1967, building the L.A. Forum. His marriage to Jeannie broke up in 1976, and after a 2½-year property-settlement wrangle, Jeannie received a $41 million award that made the Guinness Book of World Records. Cooke remarried 18 months later, but that marriage, to hotel executive Jeanne Williams Wilson, ended within a year.

After moving his headquarters to Middleburg, Cooke submitted the winning bid for the Elmendorf Thoroughbred farm in the Kentucky bluegrass country. Then, in 1985, he became sole owner of the Redskins, consolidating his standing with Washington’s football-besotted power elite. He was in Florida, staying with Miami Dolphins owner Joe Robbie, when he turned, at poolside, to chat with the young woman two chairs away.

That afternoon Cooke asked Suzanne Martin to join a group of his friends for dinner. She accepted, with some trepidation. “With the age difference, I felt a little uncomfortable at first,” she says. “I’d never been with a man who was that much older than myself. [But] he was a lot of fun, full of life and personality and had a good sense of humor.”

After Cooke left Florida at the end of the week, Suzanne began visiting him at Far Acres, in Middleburg. “He’s very much a charmer,” she says. “He was constantly flattering me and saying, ‘I’m crazy about you.’ He started writing me these beautiful notes about how much he missed me. He sent flowers. It was very quick. I was scared to death.”

Less than two months after their first meeting, Martin says, Cooke urged her to move to Washington, where he offered to put her on his public relations staff for $20,000 a year. Soon after they began living together, Suzanne learned that she was pregnant. The subject of birth control, she claims, had never been discussed.

When she broke the news to Cooke, “He said, ‘Go and terminate the pregnancy,’ ” she says. According to Suzanne, her lover never explained the order and she didn’t protest. Cooke found a suitable doctor, and his driver took her to the Washington Hospital Center.

After she returned from the appointment, Cooke gave his mistress a hug and told her he had a surprise for her. While she rested in bed, he brought up a breakfast tray, telling her he had prepared it himself. “I told him I didn’t feel good,” says Martin. “I said, ‘I can’t eat that.’ ” Cooke promptly flew into a rage, she says, and accused her of being ungrateful.

By Suzanne’s account, this was not their first fight. Cooke, she says, had very specific preferences about her behavior. He wanted her to dress in flannel slacks and tweed jackets befitting the mistress of a country house, and he called her Susan, which he seemed to find preferable to Suzanne. He also expected her to keep detailed records about their meals—the time they had eaten, where they ate and what was served—and to supervise his household staff. “He was very fussy, very particular, very set in his ways,” she says. “I was always afraid of what I’d say, or what move I made that was going to be wrong.” One evening, when she was due back at Far Acres at 5 p.m. and arrived 10 minutes late, “The whole house came down,” she says. “He started screaming, ‘You are irresponsible. After everything I’ve done for you, the least you could do is be on time.’ ”

In March 1986, Suzanne became pregnant and had another abortion—this one secretly—and told Jack about it in a moment of anger. He shrugged it off, she says. A more pressing concern was his discovery that Suzanne had been arrested in 1982 and charged by federal prosecutors with possessing cocaine and intending to distribute it. (After pleading guilty to a lesser charge, she had been sentenced to three years’ probation.) “He was very upset about it because he owned a football team, and I understood why he was shocked,” says Suzanne.

As their wide-ranging quarrels grew fiercer, Suzannne left Far Acres to live at Cooke’s corporate apartment. By July 1986 the two were estranged. “I was devastated,” says Suzanne. “I’d been living with this man, I’d given up two of his children, and he was my mentor, my Svengali. I think I was brainwashed by him quite a bit. He always made me feel very dependent.” In October 1986, she says, “I took an overdose of sleeping pills and almost died. I was trying to get help, going from one psychiatrist to the next. My medical bills were outrageous.”

But their affair wasn’t over. On Valentine’s Day 1987—a few weeks after Suzanne’s lawyer sent him a letter mentioning her two abortions and suggesting a $2 million settlement—Cooke sent her an impressive bouquet and a love note, then called to ask her to dinner. A few weeks later he had promised to marry her, and Suzanne had moved back to Far Acres.

But Cooke was dragging his feet over the wedding plans, and Suzanne discovered in late May that she was pregnant again. This time, she says, she apparently had skipped a birth control pill or two. As she remembers it, the pregnancy spurred another round of fighting; after she refused his order to have an abortion, she says, Cooke offered her jewels from Sotheby’s and Christie’s as an inducement to end the pregnancy. “He said, ‘You’re crazy, Susan. We could be so happy together if you would just have an abortion. Then we’ll be married.’ I said, ‘No. We’ll be married, then I’ll have the abortion after.’ ” Court documents later filed on Cooke’s behalf made it clear “that he did not want children due to his age and…he already had grown children.” Cooke’s lawyers also charged that Suzanne “fraudulently induced [Jack] to marry her by intentionally becoming pregnant.”

On July 24 the Cookes took their vows before a judge in Alexandria, Va. Suzanne wore a pearl-gray Chanel suit that hid her three-month pregnancy. The occasion, however, was less than festive; the newlyweds dined that evening at a steakhouse with Cooke’s friend sports columnist Morrie Siegel, and the men discussed sports and business, ignoring the bride.

The evening went downhill from there. “When we walked into the apartment afterwards,” says Suzanne, “Jack started going through the kitchen drawers and saying, These aren’t organized, Susan.’ He started yelling at me and picking on me for every little thing.” Suzanne, who claims she had rejected his suggestion that she have her abortion on their wedding day, says she threw herself on the couch and sobbed until her Chanel suit was spotted.

The drama reached its climax the next day, at the Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, where she was to have the abortion. “I got on the table, and my doctor came in, and I just burst out in tears,” she recalls. “I said, ‘Doctor, I just can’t do this.’ ”

Jack exploded, she says, when she confessed after the honeymoon that the abortion had not taken place. She tried to explain why she couldn’t end the pregnancy. “My time clock was running, I loved him very much, and I realized what I’d given up with the [previous abortions],” Suzanne says. But Jack was unforgiving. A month later, driving to Far Acres from Washington, the two were having another argument about the pregnancy, says Suzanne, when Cooke ordered her out of the car. Although the driver returned for her after depositing Cooke at his door, Suzanne, who was hysterical, refused to get into the car. About two hours later, Suzanne reached the estate after walking six miles. Cooke telephoned her mother to come for her, she says, instructed her to pack her bags, and gave her a check for $100,000.

When Suzanne gave birth January 25, Suzanne’s mother, her sister, a high school friend and a local television reporter were at the hospital. Afterward, Suzanne posed for photographers in her hospital bed; Jacqueline wore a tiny Redskins suit. In February, 200 of the couple’s friends and associates received birth announcements on creamy paper adorned with a small pink bow: Jacqueline Kent Cooke was born “to Mr. and Mrs. Jack Kent Cooke on January 25, 1988.” Suzanne insists the announcement wasn’t meant to needle her husband. “I didn’t send them out to embarrass him,” she says. “It was the proper thing to do.”

With the issue of child support still pending, Suzanne is waiting for the next roll of the dice. She spends much of her time in her three-bedroom, $4,000-a-month town house, which is furnished with a few tasteful pieces given to her by her parents and a few items from Jack’s apartment. Propped on a chair nearby is a dainty pillow embroidered with the words, “Any man can be a father—but it takes someone special to be a Daddy.”

Suzanne holds a squirming Jacqueline on her lap as the baby grabs her necklace and begins enthusiastically teething. “I’m giving her twice as much love, and I feel I can make up for the father she doesn’t have,” says Suzanne. “I just hope what her father has done to her is not going to affect her later in life. I will never say anything bad about Jack to her. I will say, ‘Your father was very sick and is to be pitied more than anything.’ ”

She has, she says, no plans to remarry.

—Michelle Green, and Linda Kramer in Washington, D.C.