The ups and downs of John Jay Hooker are the stuff of Nashville legend.
Friend of Muhammad Ali, socialite, lawyer who moved in the Kennedys’ circle, Hooker also lost businesses, millions of dollars and high-profile political campaigns. In his later years, he has earned the moniker gadfly, mostly for losing battles, and seemed to be fading into irrelevance.
Then he got cancer and everything changed.
Being told he was dying breathed new life into the 85-year-old Hooker as he rallied to the cause of physician-assisted suicide. Now he calls it “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
“It’s transformed my life in the sense that when I first got the news that I had only six months to live, it was a jolt,” he said. “But now that I have sort of shifted gears I feel it’s an honor to have the credentials to get into this fight.”
During a recent trip to his oncologist, a woman in the waiting room introduced herself, declaring how wonderful it was to meet him and saying she wanted to sign on to his latest crusade.
“You should see all the people who come up to me when I’m walking down the street,” Hooker said in an interview at his retirement home apartment, where framed newspaper clippings from his political campaigns, business enterprises and social engagements filled the walls. Looking a little out of place was a 200-year-old oil portrait of his ancestor William Blount, a signer of the U.S. Constitution.
Another time, leaving a court hearing in his assisted-suicide lawsuit, he faced a media scrum and quipped, “Y’all wouldn’t even be taking my picture unless you thought I was going to die.”
And so, what to make of this news? Thanks to a cutting-edge treatment, Hooker’s doctor now says he is getting better. He may live for several more years, or even longer.
For someone like Hooker, who only really thrives when he has a cause, this development raises interesting questions. Will the news that his death may not be imminent cast him back into the shadows? Does his improving health play into the hands of the right-to-die opposition? Will he lose credibility as an advocate?
Asked all of these questions, he declined to really hear them, focusing instead on his new project.
“The fight is on,” he said.
Hooker is a talker, and to accompany him on a given day is to be bombarded with one fantastical tale after another.
Muhammad Ali gave him a shout-out on television after winning the heavyweight championship fight known as the “Thrilla in Manila?” Yes. They met one Kentucky Derby weekend while both were houseguests of former Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr., and they are still friends.
Actor-director Warren Beatty is calling at lunch? Why yes. They have known each other for years, and Hooker even had a role in Beatty’s Oscar-winning film “Reds.”
Once named to an international list of the best dressed men in the world, the 6-foot-4 Hooker no longer wears three-piece suits with a gold watch chain. He still wears a hat, tie and jacket, but they are often a bit rumpled and stained and sometimes accompanied by bluejeans. On his tie he wears a pin from his 1970 campaign, a tiny clock with the slogan, “Hooker for governor. It’s time.”
And the Kennedy connection?
Hooker enjoyed a quick rise to prominence as a young law school graduate when he got tapped in 1958 to prosecute the impeachment of a Chattanooga judge accused of accepting bribes from racketeers. That case put him in the orbit of Robert Kennedy, who was investigating the Teamsters union and its then chief, Jimmy Hoffa.
Hooker later worked as special counsel to Kennedy after he became U.S. attorney general, even living in Kennedy’s house for a time.
In the late 1960s, Hooker gave up a successful law career in an attempt to duplicate the success of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Minnie Pearl’s Fried Chicken was a spectacular failure, but just as the business crumbled, Hooker won the 1970 Democratic nomination for Tennessee governor.
He lost the election after a bruising campaign complete with accusations that fraudulent accounting had brought down the restaurant franchise — and the idea that some still think he is dishonest bothers him to this day. He has continued to run for office, including regularly for governor, but has never again come so close to winning.
Reflecting on his life recently, he said, “I lost it all. I lost my money, which was painful. I was worth a lot of money. Second thing is, I lost my dream. I had thought I had a real chance to be the president of the United States.”
Hooker would never again equal the success and popularity of his early life, and yet ups always seem to follow downs.
In 1979, despite declaring that he was broke, Hooker negotiated a $25 million a deal that made him publisher and part-owner of the newspaper that had been his most ruthless critic, the Nashville Banner. Later, shortly after selling his interest in the paper, he became chairman of United Press International.
In the 1990s, as headline-grabbing projects dwindled and irrelevance threatened, Hooker took on a new endeavor: Convinced that most state politicians and appellate judges were violating the Tennessee Constitution, he started filing legal challenges against campaign financing and judicial appointments. He kept at it for nearly two decades, losing battle after battle and eventually earning a 30-day suspension of his law license for “frivolous litigation.”
It was in this context that cancer, in some respects, reinvigorated him.
At a legislative hearing this summer for a physician-assisted suicide bill, Hooker spoke from a wheelchair and at times struggled to catch his breath. The following month, at a court hearing on the issue, Hooker was shaky but standing. And afterward he told reporters, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come. This idea — the time has come.”
Although Hooker is feeling better these days, he says there is no guarantee he will beat cancer. He still feels weak and unsteady much of the time, but that doesn’t stop him from having a Bud Light with lime at lunch.
In the car on a recent trip to a restaurant, he kicked off his shoes and put his sock feet up on the dashboard with his hat on top of them. He did not wear his seat belt.
“He’s always been chasing a dream and reaching for it,” former Gov. Brown said of his friend. “While he hasn’t always obtained it, he’s been very impactful in some cases and had a meaningful life.”
And he continues to campaign for his cause, recently dictating a long denunciation after a judge ruled against him on assisted suicide. He has appealed.
Also, he never stops having new ideas. Riding in the car, he passed a restaurant selling the Nashville specialty hot chicken — and the line of customers stretched out the door.
Hooker was in the middle of talking about his favorite subject, the Tennessee Constitution, but stopped his narration mid-sentence to stare at the phenomenon.
“If I had longer to live, I’d get in this business,” he declared.