An Unlikely Friendship with Dan Rostenkowski
A FRIENDSHIP IN WINTER: How a 34-year-old high-school dropout and recovering alcoholic found inspiration and a buddy in the irascible, imperious Dan Rostenkowski, the fallen political giant
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Marty Cook in Dan Rostenkowski’s Chicago office: a dramatically changed course. For more photos, launch the gallery »
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dan Rostenkowski died on August 11th at his home in Wisconsin. This story appears in Chicago magazine's August issue, currently on newsstands.
The thought filled him with cold dread. Fresh off a rehab stint for alcohol abuse, he wondered whether the tender shoot of recovery he’d nourished was ready to withstand the harsh storms of the real world. And for him to make this phone call felt like stepping into a monsoon.
Just months before, in the late summer of 2003, Marty Cook had bottomed out. Saddled with more than $50,000 in gambling debts, he was floundering financially. Recent gastric bypass surgery had helped him shed more than 70 pounds, but the physical benefits of the weight loss were overshadowed by the acute mental disorientation he felt at the sudden and radical change in his appearance. When it came to friends and family, he’d burned enough bridges to shroud the Chicago River in smoke. “You went out to a Fourth of July party,” one of his buddies told him, “and didn’t come home until Labor Day.”
The low point came when his brother Jack delivered a message from the family: They wanted him out of the Edgebrook house where he’d grown up—the only home he’d ever known—even though he’d been the primary caretaker for his seriously ailing parents. Better a stranger take over, his siblings told him, than to force his mother and father to watch the horrors of their youngest son imploding.
He’d spent a month in rehab at Keys to Recovery, an alcohol abuse treatment center in Des Plaines. Now, at age 34, down to his final few weeks in a halfway house, he was sober but desperate. He needed a place to live, but with his lousy credit and dried-up prospects, who would have him?
“Why don’t you try my dad?” suggested Stacy Rosten-McDarrah.
“Seriously?” Cook said. “Me? Ask him?”
“He’s normal, Marty. He will talk to you.”
Cook had met Stacy’s father before, when Stacy and her husband, Bob McDarrah, had invited Cook to their summer home on Lake Benedict in Wisconsin. The three stayed in the “little house,” a two-bedroom dwelling about 50 yards from the far grander main house, where the father and his wife, LaVerne, lodged.
Some encounters were pleasant—such as the time in 1994 when Stacy’s father invited Cook to pull up a chair in the garage and the two watched a Bulls playoff game over beers. Other times, the father was cold, moody, terse, and intimidating—muttering wonderingly (before Cook’s gastric bypass) who was that “fat guy who keeps showing up and drinking all my beer?”
The father’s fire-and-ice temper was no surprise. It was, in fact, legendary. For this, Cook knew, was no ordinary dad. He was Dan Rostenkowski, once one of the most powerful men in Washington—he of the heavy jowls, the profane, imperious temperament; pal of presidents; the very embodiment of Capitol Hill clout and Chicago political might; the man who had ridden that same gruff persona to the top of the heap before an ignominious fall. In short, the last guy Cook felt comfortable asking for help. Couldn’t Stacy call on his behalf? he pleaded. No, she said. “You’re going to have to do this yourself, Marty.”
Finally, he dialed, praying a secretary would answer.
“Hi, Mr. Rostenkowski, this is Marty Cook. Stacy’s friend.”
“Yes, Mr. Cook,” he said pleasantly enough. “What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if I could rent one of your apartments.”
“Oh? Where are you living now?”
“I . . . uh . . . a . . . um . . . halfway house in Des Plaines . . . for recovering alcoholics.”
A pause. “I see. . . . Well, Mr. Cook,” Rostenkowski said, “what happens if you relapse and get drunk, then fall down my stairs? I have a lot of stairs in this building. Then you’re going to sue me.”
“Oh, no,” Cook replied. “I’m done drinking.”
“That’s what you say now.”
There was one other thing, Cook said. “Um . . . I have a dog. Do you allow pets?”
“NO!” Rostenkowski roared. “They piss all over everything, they stink up the whole building, and then I have to pay to put carpeting in. No way.”
“Give me your number,” Rostenkowski said, with lowered volume. “I’ll have to discuss this with Mrs. Rostenkowski. She’s the landlord.”
Cook recited his number. Then—click.
Well, he thought, so much for that. But who could blame the famous man? This was, after all, Dan Rostenkowski—no saint, to be sure. But honestly, what would a man like that have to gain from taking in a stray like Cook—a nobody trying to pick up the pieces of a horrible fall?
* * *
Hunkered on the corner of Noble Street and Evergreen Avenue, across from St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, the three-story square brick building that Rostenkowski called home was not so much a warren of rooms and offices as an artifact, a relic, a museum. It housed a family history stretching back to Rostenkowski’s grandfather Peter—who once ran a building and loan association out of the front parlor—reaching down to Dan’s father, Big Joe Rusty, the clout-heavy alderman who turned the block-long three-flat into a combination saloon and real-estate insurance business (as well as the 32nd Ward Democratic headquarters).
Rostenkowski had grown up here, using an office on the first floor as his base of operation when he was in Chicago on breaks from Capitol Hill, where he served as a congressman from the Eighth District (now called the Fifth) from 1959 to 1995. And he had retreated here after his fall from grace, which included guilty pleas in 1996 to federal corruption charges and the accompanying 15-month stretch in federal prison.
Over the years, Rostenkowski had converted the long, low-slung insurance office space into a carpeted and mirrored party room. In the adjacent wet bar, he’d hung a brass “Rosty’s Rotunda” plaque, a sign that once graced his reserved booth at Morton’s, his favorite Washington haunt.
A polished oak desk—his nameplate front and center (as if people needed reminding of who he was)—dominated the office. Framed and inscribed photos of Rostenkowski rubbing shoulders with the likes of Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush filled the walls—an impressive and intimidating tribute to the company he kept during his four decades in the corridors of power. An old kitchen and an enormous storage room filled with boxes of his personal papers rounded out the first floor of the suite. In the back of the building were a handful of apartments, which Rostenkowski rented to people he knew for a few hundred dollars a month.
Once upon a time, the place bristled with activity. Those were the days when he wasn’t just a player in national politics, he was a giant—a feared, fierce force of nature on whose word and judgment rested the fate of massive projects and major legislation. Irascible, tough, immensely talented, deeply charismatic, Rostenkowski not only had his hands on the levers of power as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee but strode the halls of Capitol Hill as powerful and influential domestically, it could be persuasively argued, as the president himself.
By the time Marty Cook applied for the apartment, however, Rostenkowski largely worked alone, running his new enterprise—a consulting firm he christened Danross Associates—with occasional help from his longtime administrative assistant, Virginia Fletcher. The raucous dinners of his halcyon Washington days, settings where multimillion-dollar deals were discussed and consummated, were a faded memory. But he was no less intimidating.
After two weeks and no word, Cook phoned Stacy’s husband, Bob. “They have concerns,” Bob told him. “But Stacy is really lobbying for you.”
“Who has the concerns? Dan or LaVerne?” Cook asked.
“I don’t know.”
When the return call finally came, Cook missed it. The rules of the halfway house forbade residents from taking phone calls at dinnertime. But the message said he could move in on the first of December. He was to bring the first and last months’ rent. No dog. Cook would have to turn his beloved golden retriever, Bailey, over to his brother and sister-in-law.
His new landlord, still physically imposing at 75, waited for Cook on his stoop at 1347 North Noble Street. “Okay, Mr. Cook,” he grunted. “Do you have a check for me?” Cook handed him the $1,400 check his parents had entrusted to him, a last-chance stake. “The rent is due on the first of the month.” Dan Rostenkowski slammed the door and was gone.
* * *
Photograph: Bob Stefko