The House of Cottrell (Part II)
So has the illusion of a big, prosperous, and happy family. The jurors who assembled in U.S. Magistrate Judge Jeff Kaplan's federal court in Dallas on January 9, 1996, were in for a bizarre spectacle. Before them sat well-known Dallas businessman Comer Cottrell and his wife Isabell, defendants in a lawsuit brought by Keats and Ernest Morrison, cousins of the couple and former employees of Pro-Line.
The plaintiffs, a father-and-son team representing themselves, had driven up from Mobile to air some disturbing allegations about the respected couple--and they imparted their sordid charges with relish. Keats, Comer's 33-year-old second cousin, alleged that Isabell Cottrell had "assaulted" him several times by making sexual advances when he worked as a photographer for Pro-Line in 1990--and later harassed him into having sex with her in the Cottrells' North Dallas home.
Comer Cottrell fired him out of jealousy, Morrison alleged, and then Isabell fired him from her cosmetics company, Ethnic Gold, because he refused to put out.
Ernest, Keats' 59-year-old father, sued because, he said, Comer accepted $7,000 in installment payments on an old Mercedes in 1990, then snatched the car from him when he complained about Isabell's sexual advances toward his son.
The one-day civil trial was a culmination of five years of efforts on the part of the Morrisons to get restitution for the alleged misdeeds of their rich relations. Finally, here was their day in court--and the whole truth about the Morrisons' rich kinfolk would supposedly spill out.
"I trusted that man," Ernest Morrison would complain bitterly after the trial. "I trusted him because he was my relative, and I worked hard to show that I appreciated what he was doing for my family and myself. I never thought he would do me the way he did me. Too many people in Dallas knows that nigger's lying."
The one-day trial in January turned out to be little more than a comedy of errors for the Morrisons, however, the cheapest of cheap theater.
"Isn't it a fact that you had a personal interest in me?" Keats Morrison asked Isabell Cottrell after calling her to the stand, with much drama.
"No," she said flatly.
"If I name certain parts on your body that was personal to you, how would I know that?" Morrison continued.
The Cottrells' attorney, Robert C. Gibbons, objected.
"Isn't it a fact that you on several occasions called me while we were alone and touched me about my persons?" Morrison continued.
"Didn't we register in the Hollywood Roosevelt across from the Chinese theater, and isn't it a fact that you grabbed me at that restaurant in the bar overlooking California? You would then grab me about my person...inside that restaurant, while we were sitting down at that bar?"
"Yes you did."
Gibbons objected again.
The entire day of testimony unfolded in a like manner. Keats recounted several incidents in which he alleged Isabell Cottrell came on to him, and he spoke in detail about the episode in which he claims he gave in to her pressures.
The Morrisons' testimony was rambling and confusing, as they struggled to make the jury believe a 42-year-old woman could sexually assault a 33-year-old man. The Mobile men seemed to have taken their cues from Hollywood courtroom dramas: They were annoyingly long on histrionic flourishes and woefully short on knowledge of the law. Gibbons, the Cottrells' attorney, capitalized on the Morrisons' ineptitude, objecting frequently and ridiculing their assertions, his voice oozing sarcasm.
"Is she stronger than you?" he asked Keats Morrison.
"Did she pull a gun on you?"
"She put a knife to your throat?"
"Uh, did she use karate and break some of your bones?"
"But you stayed through every one of these assaults, right?"
When the Morrisons took the stand, they could barely finish a sentence without Gibbons objecting strenuously to their babbling testimony. The Cottrells seized the offensive, claiming that Ernest was fired for sexually harassing three female employees, and that Keats was fired for going about Dallas representing himself as Pro-Line's model agent in an attempt to pick up girls. Both Keats and Ernest denied those allegations.
Then, in a countersuit, the Cottrells pressed libel and slander charges against the Morrisons. The Morrisons had told friends and family members lies about the Cottrells, the suit alleged, including a charge that Comer Cottrell was gay, which supposedly explained why Isabell had sought sexual solace from the younger Morrison. The countersuit also alleged that the Morrisons sent letters containing such lies to several national publications, including supermarket tabloid The Globe, in an effort to destroy the Cottrell name. The whole affair was, as one courtroom observer called it, "juicy"--at least as good as the most popular day-time soap opera.
The Morrisons' motivation was money, Gibbons told the jury.
"Ernest and Keats Morrison are two greedy individuals," he said, "who through the charity and generosity of the Cottrells...received this wellspring of money and loans and gifts and you name it over the years, and then, when the well dried up, they decided, 'I have been on the dole a long time; I want to keep that going.' And so they come in here today, trying to steal money from the Cottrells and the company and to try and steal their good name."
Furthermore, the Cottrells maintained in court, Ernest Morrison still owed about $300 on the Mercedes and they wanted him to pay it.
The couple also had a trump card: Joel Morrison, Ernest's son and Keats' 31-year-old brother. Gibbons told the court that Joel, who replaced his father as Pro-Line's security director, was prepared to take the stand and call his father and brother liars.
But he never had to.
Magistrate Judge Kaplan dismissed the jury that same day, stating that the Morrisons had failed to prove their case. Both sides agreed to drop their lawsuits, and the cases were closed, at least in court.
In the hallway, Comer Cottrell spoke to his cousins, but the two sides' accounts of the conversation are quite different today. Keats says Cottrell apologized to him, saying, "'If I knew then what I know now, it would not have gotten this far.'" Cottrell remembers saying only, "You know, you guys have cost me more than $150,000 over the years with this bullshit."
The Morrisons, vexed at losing the battle against their wealthy cousin and smarting from Joel's perceived betrayal, made a quick exit to Mobile.
A week after the trial, the men were still fuming. Ernest Morrison, back at the small grocery store he runs in the depressed Crichton area of Mobile, said Comer sought to destroy him when Morrison, as the company's security director, stumbled across some uncomfortable truths about the Cottrells and Pro-Line. "I had stepped into an arena of secrecy," he claims. Comer, he adds, ignored family ties when he set out to crush his bothersome kin.
Comer disagrees. "Bud [Ernest Morrison] is crazy," he said dismissively a few days after the trial.
He also defended his wife against the Morrisons' tawdry allegations. "I don't believe that," Comer said. "I mean, that is not Isabell's character. Isabell has her problems...but that's not her. I mean a man knows his wife."
Both of his cousins are ungrateful, Comer says, and he is not the only family member who thinks so. "We did a lot of things out of sympathy and love and caring," Comer says. "I feel sorry for them and I am embarrassed for us as a family, but sometimes it seems the more you help people, the less they help themselves."
Back in Mobile, Ernest Morrison, a former Mobile police officer, is now seeking investors for his own hair-care venture. He plans to start small, selling private labels from his storefront. "If Comer can do it," he says, "we can do it."
On the Morrison side of the family, the name of Joel Morrison--who sided with the Cottrells--is Mud.
"The boy is telling some untruths," says his grandmother, Pearline Morrison, a gentle, soft-spoken woman. "I'm sorry, but he may find himself outside one day."
Joel, for his part, is unrepentant.
"I did the right thing," he says. "Everybody knows what my father used to be and what he has become. They are full of greed. If you knew...the court did the right thing."
He called the lawsuit his brother and father brought against the Cottrells "an injustice."
"It's terrible to see this happen to good people," he says. "I mean, Mr. Cottrell takes homeless people off the street and gives them jobs. Mrs. Cottrell, she would grab people's hands in the parking lot and pray. I mean, they are good people, and that's the sad part of it."
Sometimes it seems like Isabell and Comer against the world. In the 20 years of their marriage, the businessman and his wife, now 42, have often bonded together like a cement wall to protect each other, even when the two were enemies themselves.
The Morrisons' civil trial was a good example of that. The epitome of a devoted couple, Comer and Isabell Cottrell sat in quiet dignity under the onslaught of seamy charges hurled by the Morrisons. Robert Gibbons, their attorney, took great pains to note the Cottrells' contributions to the community, and seemed mortified that they were required to be there at all.
The jury would not know that Isabell was in the process of suing her husband for divorce, that the two were legally separated, and that Isabell had sued for divorce 14 times during their 20-year marriage, by Comer's reckoning.
"She has filed for divorce many times, and we always reconcile," Comer says. "It's the way she communicates. She always says, 'I love you, but I had to get your attention.' I sit here just like this every time she goes through this."
Friends say many of Comer's troubled relationships come from people's struggles not to be eclipsed by him. "He's bigger than life," says his assistant, McNeely.
The couple, despite their differences, continued to work on the marriage. They raised two boys, Comer III, 18, and Aaron, 16. Comer III, after running away several times--according to Dallas police records--has settled into Paul Quinn College, the school his father bailed out, to study business law. Aaron, the more settled and studious of the two, is an aspiring writer.
According to county court records, at least nine of Isabell's divorce suits were dismissed when she declined to press her case. She also filed for divorce in Los Angeles, and those suits evidently were also dropped.
She wanted to be her own person, Comer says: "She never wanted to be Mrs. Comer Cottrell. She wanted to be Isabell Paulding Cottrell."
To that end, Comer invested heavily in Isabell's cosmetics company, Ethnic Gold, which she opened to much fanfare several years ago. Based in DeSoto, the company--according to Comer-- has not been successful.
"Shit, she owes Pro-Line close to $2 million. She's not doing anything with it. It's just a front for her ego. She brings people out there and tells them she is a businesswoman and gives them advice, and they all come back to me and say, 'Man, what's wrong with your wife?'"
This time, Isabell has shown no signs of wanting to drop her divorce suit. She would not comment on the financial state of Ethnic Gold or the divorce, saying only that she is concerned about the safety of her children and her home.
The children's upbringing was always a sore spot with the couple, Comer admits. He worked too hard, spending little time with the boys during their formative years. Isabell, he says, was a lenient but doting mother who often left the rearing of the boys to hired help.
One day, Comer bought a small auto-service shop in South Oak Cliff for the boys. He wanted them to learn how to run a business. "She didn't want them working at a car shop," Comer recalls. "I thought it would be a good idea."
In 1994, at the age of 16, Comer III rebelled. While the Dallas Can! Academy honored Isabell Cottrell as one of three high-society Mothers of the Year, young Comer was out of control, taking his parents' cars and running away to hang out with friends in the projects, according to police reports.
Comer Jr. describes Comer III as having been spoiled and rebellious, but after a serious car wreck this year, he is now struggling to find meaning in his life. (Comer III could not be reached for comment.)
Comer entertains the notion that Isabell may drop her latest divorce suit, as she has all the others. "I love Isabell and she loves me," he says. "And I'm a damn good provider. She still lives a luxurious life. She's got homes in Alabama where she was born, real estate in California, a home down in Cayman Island."
But Comer acknowledges that a reconciliation this time around doesn't seem likely, or for the best. "I married her with the intent of being with her the rest of my life," Comer says. "But if we get a divorce, I think we can be friends."
On the other side of the family divide, Jim Cottrell watches his chestnut colt prance proudly about a corral on El Rancho Cottrell, his 116-acre horse ranch on the outskirts of Cleburne.
It's a clear, glorious day, but Cottrell, a slim, youthful 60-year-old, seems not to notice. The ranch, almost deserted, is too large for just Jim and his wife, Gloria, which is one reason he's considering selling it. The couple's children are all grown and moved away, and Jim has long since severed ties with Pro-Line. There is nothing keeping Jim in Texas anymore; he wants to move to Arizona.
Still, the 2-year-old chestnut colt, "He's a Groovy," likes the day just fine. He whinnies and amuses himself with a canter along the corral fence.
Cottrell will begin conditioning He's a Groovy in April, and the horse will race at Louisiana Downs later this year. Reminiscent of the days when they owned Pro-Line together, the Cottrell brothers share ownership of the promising young racehorse.
"We split shares, Comer and I," Jim says, before correcting himself. "Well, I own 60 percent, and Comer owns 40 percent. One thing I learned with Comer is never to give him controlling interest."
Jim says that with only a hint of resentment; he mostly seems resigned. He struggles mightily with feelings of bitterness toward his older brother. When he looks at Pro-Line now, he sees a company built in part on his ideas, and simmers when news reports credit only Comer with the success of the Curly Kit and other products. "He has neglected those people who truly put Pro-Line on the map," Jim says.
"I forgive him for everything he's ever done to me," he adds. "I have to forgive him. I can't keep it on my conscience."
If Comer has neglected to include his brother in the past when he talks about Pro-Line's success, he now freely acknowledges his brother's contributions. "He was vital to the company's success," Comer says. "I couldn't have done it without him. When we were together, we were a great team."
In a way, many things that Jim had foretold about the business--and about the hair-care industry--have come true.
Yet another distributor has declared bankruptcy. Black hair-care distributors are dropping out almost as soon as they appear, and they almost always owe money to manufacturers like Comer Cottrell.
Likewise, young manufacturing companies muscle into the market with insanely low prices but don't make enough profit to sustain themselves. They burn out and crash. The manufacturers that remain--the old companies like Pro-Line and Luster Products--suffer because they can't compete, in the short term, with the low prices of their now- or soon-to-be-defunct rivals. To drop prices is to follow a fool, Comer says. Not to drop prices means poor sales.
The ethnic hair-care industry is in grave danger, to hear Cottrell and other insiders describe it.
"The problem with these young blacks is they don't know the difference between cash flow and profit," Comer says. "I tell you what. I look at this business today and when I was out in California doing about $12 million [in sales], and I had more profit there than I have today at $40 million."
Comer has set his energies on an industry association he helped form more than 15 years ago--the American Health and Beauty Aids Institute, or AHBAI. "My plan was to get some sanity back into the industry," he says. "Because too many new guys were coming in and doing crazy things."
But he is unhappy with AHBAI. The association has not been successful sharing its simplest message with consumers: If a product sports AHBAI's "proud lady" symbol, then it is made by a black company with a commitment to giving back to the black community. Since consumers don't know any better, explains Ed Gardner, president of Chicago-based Sof Sheen, they have no product loyalty. With all the crazed competition, nobody wins.
Comer's forays into Africa also have not been successful, by and large. He has forsaken his attempts to export to South Africa because the duties and tariffs are too high. He considered building a factory there, but with the volatility of the domestic market and the cost of establishing a plant on another continent, he has retreated and is now looking for franchisees instead. He has begun slashing the budget in Dallas, eliminating donations to many charities, hoping to preserve the company's dwindling profits. He has pledged not to lay off any of his 236 employees, but keeps a wary eye on the bottom line. "Some of the things that have happened to us," says Comer, "we just can't have it."
Comer Cottrell is hunkering down.
He still manages to give to Tom Weise, a hometown Catholic priest whose lifetime work is to save inner-city, predominantly minority Catholic schools. Weise, ironically, is pastor to the Morrisons at Most Pure Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Mobile.
The qualities that got Cottrell where he is, Weise says, will see him through difficult days: "I think after all is said and done, he will emerge stronger in every possible way."
As Comer slow-ly relinquishes control of Pro-Line's daily operations to Rene Brown Cottrell--his daughter from his first marriage--and her husband Eric Brown, the dean of the industry is now taking care of business on both fronts. His office seems like a family meeting place, where he alternately teases relatives and friends who drop in or ignores everyone in the room to study documents. He spends more time with his boys, and goes on occasional, friendly outings with his wife.
Now that the marriage between Isabell and Comer appears to be over, the brothers Cottrell spend more time together and have reconciled some of their differences. "We are closer now than ever," Comer says.
Comer Cottrell Sr. passed away February 3 after a long illness; the family held a private ceremony for him in Dallas. On one side of the chapel sat Comer, Isabell, and the couple's children. On the other side sat Jim, Gloria, and their family. The funeral ceremony was short and quiet, and everyone seemed to defer to Comer.
After the funeral, Comer made his way to Atlanta, where he met with other ethnic hair-care manufacturers and distributors. Surprisingly, a discussion there turned to the subject of the much-maligned jerry curl, in which consumers seem to be showing a renewed interest. The businessmen began toying with the idea that the curl could be gloriously resurrected.
As the black hair-care industry's most irrepressible entrepreneur, Comer was already getting excited about the possibilities. He knows this volatile business, and anything can happen. "It might be coming back," he muses today.
If the speculation proves true, he says, Pro-Line--the industry's survivor--will be in a position to capitalize on it. After all, the Curly Kit has been the most profitable product in Pro-Line's 25-year-history.
"There's never been anything like it," Comer says wistfully.
The jerry curl is dead. Long live the jerry curl.
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