Cook’s home base was Summerville, about 90 miles from Atlanta in northwest Georgia. For decades every Saturday morning, he opened the doors of his law office on Commerce Street and welcomed anyone needing assistance. He’d call in one person after another and try to help them solve some thorny legal problem, often free of charge.
But make no mistake, when retained by deep-pocketed clients, Cook routinely commanded six-figure fees, usually upfront. He used those retainers to buy a vacation home on exclusive Sea Island, fine works of art, his mountain retreat in Cloudland and a chauffeured Rolls-Royce, where he often read and highlighted passages of advance sheets — pamphlets of recent court decisions.
A gregarious — and often hilarious — raconteur, Cook wore custom-tailored suits with a gold watch and chain attached to his vest. He sported a bristly white goatee, parted his hair down the middle and kept his small, gold-rimmed spectacles perched at the bottom of his nose so as not to shield his intense blue eyes. He once puffed on a trademark pipe, but had to retire it years ago for health reasons.
Cook was born just outside of Summerville where he lived in a house with no running water. A young hell-raiser, he was sent to a military school by his parents to get straightened out. A stint in the Navy followed.
Cook met his future wife, June Cook, after being invited over to a friend’s house to play a game of Parcheesi. They married in 1948, had three children and were married 67 years. She died in 2015.
He attended the University of Alabama and Vanderbilt University law school, although he took the bar exam and passed it before graduating. At 21, he successfully ran for a seat in the state House of Representatives and later served in the state Senate, representing Chattooga County.
After an unsuccessful run for Congress in the conservative 7th District, Cook focused on his legal career in earnest. It wasn’t long before he was walking defendants outside of courthouses across North Georgia, having obtained one not guilty verdict after another.
In an interview for his induction for the Trial Lawyer Hall of Fame, Cook explained why he became a lawyer. “I was convinced that it would give me the opportunity to do something good for people and to be in an area where rights had been deprived for many people over such a period of time,” he said.
In the 1950s, this included being one of the few lawyers in Georgia to represent unions at a time labor groups were considered to be Communist.
Decades later, he represented the Rockefeller and Carnegie families, contending the U.S. government shorted them when it made them sell their land on Cumberland Island. When the Rockefeller case went to trial, Cook was representing one of the wealthiest families in the country before rural, low-salaried jurors. They awarded a $5.5 million judgment to the Rockefellers.
Jurors loved him, said former Gov. Roy Barnes, who tried numerous cases with Cook.
“When he entered a courtroom, his personality just enveloped it,” Barnes said. “In politics, we call it ‘the gift.’ And he had it — the charm, the charisma, the self-confidence. In many ways, he was larger than life.”
Former Gov. Roy Barnes, speaking in 2018. (Hyosub Shinfirstname.lastname@example.org)
Cook was well known for his cross-examination skills. At times he could be enchanting, others withering.
“The cross-examination is the greatest legal engine that’s ever been devised for the discovery of the truth,” Cook said in a 2002 interview for the Georgia State University law review. “I also believe that cross-examination in and of itself is almost the bulwark of liberty and justice.”
He once said, “There’s a time and place to be genteel. Church. Weddings. Funerals. Be genteel there. But not in court.”
It’s long been believed — and repeatedly reported — that Cook was the inspiration behind “Matlock,” the TV series starring Andy Griffith as lawyer Ben Matlock. But in an interview almost three decades ago with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the show’s co-executive producer said that wasn’t true.
Still, the stories of Cook’s ingenuity, antics and legal prowess abound. Many have been repeated so many times over the years, lawyers take them as gospel although some are hard to completely verify.
Like the time Cook was defending a man accused of murder and the state’s star witness testified he was certain Cook’s client had fired exactly two shots. Expecting this testimony, Cook stationed a friend outside the courthouse and had him fire off six rounds. When asked how many shots had just been fired, the state’s witness couldn’t say for sure. Cook’s client walked.
Or the time in a moonshine case where Cook was cross-examining the local sheriff. When Cook accused the sheriff of not arresting another moonshiner because he’d been accepting bribes from him, the sheriff threw a Coke bottle at Cook, narrowly missing him. Cook dragged the sheriff down from the witness stand and began pummeling him.
After a few moments, the trial judge told Cook to let the sheriff get up off the floor, saying, “I think he’s had enough.” The jury acquitted Cook’s client in that case, too.
In the late 1970s, Cook defended multimillionaire pornographer Mike Thevis, the so-called “Sultan of Smut,” who was ultimately convicted of racketeering and murder conspiracy. After he was arrested, Atlanta lawyer Ed Garland, who was also in the case, was given the key to Thevis’s safety deposit box and told he could take all the money in it for his fee.
Brimming with excitement for his big payday, Garland ran over to the bank and was led to a large deposit box, which only heightened his anticipation. After sliding in the key and opening the box, Garland found only a handwritten note inside. “Bobby Lee Cook was here first,” it said.
“It’s safe to say that Bobby Lee demanded just compensation for his talents,” Garland said, laughing at the memory of the empty safety deposit box.
Atlanta criminal defense attorney Ed Garland. (HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM)
“He was a lion of advocacy who brought strength, fearlessness, determination and brilliance to the cause of every client,” Garland said. “He had no peer.”
Garland said he once asked Cook if he worried what rural jurors would think of him when he showed up at a courthouse in a chauffeured Rolls and dressed like an English squire.
“No, Ed, I do not,” Cook replied, as recounted by Garland. “I want that jury to know I’m the smartest person in that courtroom and that I’m successful and rich because I know what I’m talking about. If so, they will look to me to tell them what to do.”
More often than not, jurors did just that.
Cook is survived by daughters Kristina Cook Graham, chief judge of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit, and Sara Cook Williams; and several grandchildren. Funeral services are being arranged.