Alistair Cooke is a national treasure: one of our most distinguished broadcasters,he has been writing his 'Letter From America' for more than 50 years. Now 87, he rarely gives interviews, but he invited Sue Gaisford to meet him in New York
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The Independent Culture
Here's a story. In 1931 the Oxford and Cambridge Players went touring to Germany. They took Young Woodley, a play which was wildly popular in England at the time. It was a colossal mistake.

The plot concerned a school prefect who fell in love with the headmaster's wife. It opened with the villain lounging in a chair reading a racy magazine called La Vie Parisienne: he springs to his feet and flings back the door to reveal a younger boy guiltily peeping through the keyhole. He utters the immortal words: "What! Scrimshanking, you little tick!" It's a pretty baffling line for an English audience; to the people of Munich, it was incomprehensible. The theatre filled with confused whispers: "Schrimschanker? Tic? Was ist eine schrimschankinger Tick?"

The actor who played the villain was the 23-year-old Alistair Cooke. He chuckles, remembering it, and then continues with the story of that summer. They had taken a musician on tour with them to be their stage- manager, a man of Polish-Jewish descent named Lionel Grunbaum. After the show, Cooke and Grunbaum ordered a couple of drinks in a beer-garden, but they didn't arrive. "I don't think they like my face," said Lionel. It was Cooke's turn to be baffled. "I was a total political innocent, and Lionel told me about this man called Hitler who planned to throw all the Jews out of Germany. I was astonished. Well, eventually, our beers arrived - and then we heard this rustling the other side of the hedge."

Now the focus changes. By chance, the beer-garden was right beside the Braun Haus, Hitler's headquarters. They moved, to see what was happening. About 30 people were gathered around a soap-box, with a Red Cross van and a nurse. Soon, Hitler himself appeared and began speaking. His theme was that it was five minutes to 12. He never explained what would happen at 12, he just kept mentioning the time. At first, he was gentle, quiet and explanatory, then furious, and shouting: "Funf Minuten vor zwolf!" "He played with that audience: he had pathos, tenderness, decisiveness, frightfulness. I thought, wow, who is this guy? He was one of the three or four most impressive speakers I ever heard. I never knew anyone who could really imitate him except Chaplin - when I got to know him, later. By the way, the nurse was there because women always fainted at these things, he was so hypnotic, so frightening."

Cooke pauses. He sits back in his chair in the comfortable round dining-room of the Carlyle Hotel, in Manhattan. For a moment, he is quiet. Didier, the attentive maitre d', bustles up with the wine list, and Cooke is delighted to discover a chardonnay made by Kendall Jackson, the California co-op to which his son's vineyard contributes. "My son runs it," he informs Didier, who, predictably impressed, hurries off. Later we agree that it really is an excellent chardonnay, though he admits he might be biased. A woman comes up just to say hello, "in memory of Ben". He is gracious. "No idea who she is," he remarks after she's gone, "but I do remember Ben." And sighs. Who Ben was, it suddenly seems intrusive to inquire.

ALISTAIR COOKE was born in Salford in 1908, the son of a gentle, unassuming art-metal designer and a formidably tough Irish mother. He likes to think he has inherited these qualities from both parents, but he laughs disarmingly as he makes such a boast. He went to Blackpool Grammar School, where the headmaster, Joseph Turral, was a formidable influence on him, though at the time the boys thought him a figure of fun. Turral was obsessive about the rules of grammar, and of etiquette: "I am going to produce gentlemen!" he would declare. In Cooke's case, he succeeded. At 87, he is impeccably turned out, his white hair neatly parted, his large, heavy-lidded eyes sparkling, his manners perfect. He wears a navy blue blazer suit, a white shirt and a striped tie, with which he occasionally fiddles, turning the tip of it over so that it doesn't dangle, like an old man's, over his trousers.

For he is not, ridiculously, an old man. Despite the fact that he can remember women handing out white feathers to anyone not in uniform during the First World War; that he was at Cambridge during the reign of Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, whom he remembers with great affection for his simple humanity (as compared with the brisk academic rigour of the newly fashionable guru IA Richards); that Charlie Chaplin agreed to be best man at his wedding; that he once invited the 19-year-old Peggy Ashcroft to have tea with him; that his friends included HL Mencken, Rita Hayworth, Humphrey Bogart, Bertrand Russell, Duke Ellington, PG Wodehouse - despite all this formidable fund of memory, he is not trapped in a miasma of nostalgia. He is bang up to date.

Ask him about the forthcoming American elections and he replies that the Senate has lost a valuable senator in Bob Dole, a man who always understood that legislation is a matter of compromise, and that you'll never get the whole loaf. He doesn't believe that voters will be fooled by Republican promises of tax cuts, but he has been wrong before. "I wrote a piece once called 'Harry S Truman - Portrait of a Failure' - and then he won."

His memories of elections go back a long way. "There are white-haired reporters here who boast that they go back to Kennedy," he says, "but I go back to Grover Cleveland." Sorry, who? "Let me tell you about Cleveland. They found that he had a growth in his throat, so they took him out in a boat onto the Potomac and operated on him. Then they kept him quiet for a couple of weeks in the White House and nobody ever knew he'd had throat cancer, not for 30 years. He lost the next election but came back the one after that: the only President ever to do that. Now, the other day there was a whole page in the New York Times devoted to Dole's state of health, his tri-glycerides, his cholesterol, his blood-pressure, his sedimentation-rate: they have to do that kind of thing now." And he chuckles again.

He is interested in things medical and would like to have been a doctor. At a guess, his own medical report would be shorter than Dole's. He had trouble with a knee, but has had it replaced: the arthritis in his hands he keeps at bay with ascriptin, so that he can still play jazz on his piano. His sight and his hearing are demonstrably near perfect. His golf handicap is not what it was, but he's still working on his swing.

When he was a young man, he followed his father's advice and took out some health insurance with the Britannic, in the Edgware Road, for pounds 500. He forgot all about it. Six months ago, some 60 years on, they wrote a Dickensian letter telling him that he had amassed pounds 7,600 - but that if he cared to keep it going, it might grow to pounds 8,100. He replied that, on reflection, he'd have the cheque now.

It was after midnight. The evening had begun, as do all his evenings, with a glass of scotch. Three hefty courses had been rounded off with a creme de menthe and it was time to go. One of us was slightly tottering, and it wasn't the gentleman.

THE NEXT morning, reluctantly, Cooke was to be photographed at home. He lives in a 15th-floor apartment overlooking Central Park. When I arrived, the shot was already being set up. He produced a picture taken by Cecil Beaton, and remarked glumly that Beaton hadn't needed so much equipment. We talked in his study.

In this relaxing, red-painted room, there are about a thousand books, nearly all history and biography. On the walls are Low caricatures of Shaw and Chesterton, a cartoon by the New Yorker's Dana Fradon, a comic Staffordshire figure of The Death of Nelson, nudes by Gwen John, by Georg Grosz, and one drawn by his wife Jane, when she was a student with Grosz. He is very proud of Jane, and rightly so. A fine portrait painter, she was the first woman to win the Rome Fellowship, in 1937, and the apartment is full of her brilliant, glowing paintings. She recently gave it up, having decided that she didn't want to produce anything less than her best, but she is clearly a resourceful and witty woman. On the sofa is a little cushion she embroidered for him, all jokes and cryptic symbols of his career.

He married Jane, his second wife, in 1946, when she was a war widow. He had made his home in America in 1937 and become an American citizen in 1941, but, asked where he feels he belongs, he replies that he is a Lancashire Irishman who lives in New York. "I'm bilingual: I feel comfortable in both countries, but I always notice what is particularly American when I'm here, or particularly English when I'm in England." They brought up four children, of whom he speaks very warmly. Their daughter Susie, a mother of five, is about to be ordained to the priesthood. Wistfully, he says that she is marvellous with people in trouble, and wishes he had her faith. A lapsed Methodist is how he describes his own position. He feels that he could have been a better father, played football with his children and helped them with their homework, but his conversation frequently returns with delight to their achievements and ambitions, and to his beloved grandchildren.

Asked what he's proudest of, he replies that it's a television series he made about one of his great heroes, Mark Twain. It has never been shown on American television, because of the nervousness of American networks still dominated by the descendants of those whom Twain derided. A braver British producer might follow that up.

In this study, he reads and watches the news programmes that - together with the New York Times - keep him in touch with politics, and the memory- stretching quiz shows that help keep his mind agile. In fact he loves some of the factual, biographical programmes that appear on American TV, which is something his English friends don't always understand - but then we don't have 75 channels to choose from.

In this room, too, on a 30-year-old Royal typewriter, he writes his Letter From America. He sees it as his raison d'etre. It has been going for more than 50 years and is now approaching its 2,500th edition. Helen Wilson, the outgoing Controller of Radio 4 who worked with him in New York, says that he is a magical writer for radio, that his weekly talk is regularly among the top 10 programmes in terms of audience enjoyment, that he appears to know everybody and everything. Michael Green, her predecessor, agrees, adding that the straight talk is the very essence of radio, but beguilingly difficult to pull off. He is the supreme master of the form, says Green, adding the observation that, in a world obsessed with instant punditry, his historical perspective is uniquely valuable. How does he do it?

Well, it all seems very easy. Freud, he says, had the idea that the subconscious has a logic all its own. Cooke never knows what he's going to say; he gets an idea and then lets it rip - he describes it as automatic writing. Then he cuts it back to the required length and it's done. "The thing that makes it possible is memory: the only thing I have to offer is that I can suggest comparisons with things that happened way back." And his memory is phenomenal. Not once did I hear him pause and hunt for a name or an anecdote: it was all available to him, on instant recall.

He is adamant that the Letter is not an essay or a lecture, but a talk. Few people have even tried to do that. Harold Nicolson succeeded, and Priestley, to some extent, but others have failed horribly. He remembers hearing great people like Gide, Claudel and Auden, but they didn't achieve it. He doesn't say that he is proud that he can, but he does say that he came to regard everything else, even his many years of work on the Guardian, as "something on the side".

THEY HAD set up the shot, and we walked down the gallery, lined with pictures by Chagall and Renoir, Rowlandson and Beerbohm, into the sitting- room. It is a long, green-carpeted room, painted in a shade between apricot and ochre, full of a lifetime's collection of old furniture, and hung with more of Jane's gorgeous portraits. There, by his piano, he sat and chatted and smiled patiently for the camera.

We talked more about the radio. He has appeared on Radios 4, 3 and even 2; after the News, his Letter From America is the most widely recognised programme on the World Service. Radio is the best of all media, he says, because it's up to the broadcaster, the story-teller, to conjure up all the suspense, colours and pictures he needs. And the best thing the BBC does is the World Service. "It set itself a standard 50 years ago; it's got something precious to hold on to; it's a proud thing to belong to."

In 1994, at a Media Society dinner, Marmaduke Hussey read out a BBC memo recommending that Cooke should be replaced. It caused a stir, until he gave the date of the offensive note: November 1936. Sixty years on, not even the new BBC management would dare to suggest anything so foolish.

'Letter from America' is at 9.15pm Fri (repeated 9.15am Sun) on R4. A BBC Radio cassette collection, 'Letter from America 2 (The 1970s)', is now available.