The man of letters who became Britain's favourite correspondent

As the extracts on these pages show, the work of Alistair Cooke spanned some of the most dramatic moments in modern American history. Rupert Cornwell pays tribute
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The initial run would be 13 weeks, with 13 more if the programme was a success. But that would be it, given the strict rules on the export of sterling in the post-war years.

The initial run would be 13 weeks, with 13 more if the programme was a success. But that would be it, given the strict rules on the export of sterling in the post-war years.

"So even if you're the biggest thing that ever happened, at the end of 26 weeks, no more," Alistair Cooke was told by the first producer of Letter from America . More than half a century later, he said drily: "Someone must have forgot."

Finally, alas, both the letter and the man who was a listed national monument of public broadcasting on both sides of the Atlantic, are no more. Mr Cooke died yesterday at 95. His death, at his home in New York, was barely a month after his final Letter from America , the weekly radio talk for which he was best known.

In a tribute yesterday, Tony Blair said the letters were "extraordinary essays", which "brought an enormous amount of insight and understanding to the world". The Prime Minister described Mr Cooke as "one of the greatest broadcasters".

The programme began in March, 1946, when Mr Cooke was a BBC correspondent in New York. "Why don't you talk about the things you talk to me about," his producer said. "American children, the chemistry of the New England fall, out west, anything?"

'Anything' would turn into one of the longest-running shows in radio history, continuing without interruption for 58 years until the last broadcast on 20 February. Mr Cooke missed the following week's edition because of illness, and a few days later the BBC announced he was retiring on medical advice.

His biographer Nick Clarke told Sky News yesterday: "I think he thought retirement a very bad idea and when he was forced to stop work three weeks ago, I thought, this won't be long now, because here was a man living for this one task." Mr Cooke's idiosyncratic weekly take on events great and small in the US was only one part of his output. Over the years, his face became as familiar to Americans as his rich and mellow voice was to radio listeners in Britain.

In the 1950s, he presented Omnibus , a cultural show which broke new ground on US television, before moving to public television's Masterpiece Theatre , which brought upmarket British TV dramas to a US audience. With his elegant looks, dry humour and well cut tweed suits, Mr Cooke became the epitome of the sophisticated Englishman.

His biggest commercial success was the 1970s documentary Alistair Cooke's America, a smash on both sides of the Atlantic which generated a best-selling book and earned its author an invitation to address Congress in bicentennial celebrations in 1974.

Mr Cooke, who had become a US citizen in 1941, was given an honorary knighthood. He also received four Emmy awards and three George Foster Peabody awards for broadcasting. "He will always be associated with the best of Britain," William Farish, the US ambassador in London, said.

Mr Cooke was born Alfred Cooke in Salford, near Manchester, and spent his early years in a Blackpool boarding house. He took a degree in English at Cambridge and joined the BBC as a film critic in 1934. Two years earlier, he had made a first trip to the America.

"That trip was an absolute eye-opener for me," he said. "Even then, even in the Depression, there was a tremendous energy and vitality to America. The landscape and the people were far more gripping and dramatic than anything I had ever seen. It truly changed me. You see, from then on my interest in the theatre began to wane, and I began to take up what I felt was the real drama going on, namely, America itself."

The first broadcast

Spring 1947

On my first summer vacation after a year at Yale as a graduate student, sometime in August 1933 I went to see my first Indian, what I then called a Red Indian. I knew exactly where you look for an Indian. Skyscrapers were in New York, waterfalls were in Niagara, fine buildings were in Washington, the countryside was called New England, and Indians were in Santa Fe. I knew that Indians were in Santa Fe because I had read DH Lawrence who wrote wonderful books about the Indian view of life and had gone to live in Santa Fe ...

The land was bared in a blinding light. Last night's brooding mountains were now as solid as crocodiles, red and purple crocodiles, lying sullen in the heat. We came to the pueblo, a little cluster of mud houses and in the clearing that faced them were great half-spheres also made of mud - these were the ovens. [The high priest] was a big, copper-coloured man in blue jeans. He had long black hair knotted behind his neck, kindly black eyes and a face pitted and scarred like the Grand Canyon ... Then his grin vanished and he looked hard at the government agent. 'You brought them?' he asked in a deep, expectant voice. 'Sure,' said the Southerner, and he went out to the car and brought back three baseball bats, a catcher's gloves and pads. The high priest gurgled over them and ran his big hand around the bat. 'Fine, fine,' he said. 'Now everything OK.'

America in space

February 1962

The 20th of February 1962 is a day anybody who lived through it will never forget. For 20 minutes after the launching of Colonel John Glenn, in Friendship 7, from its pad at Cape Canaveral, the New York Police Department reported that not a single call had come in to any police station. Even crime stood still.

At Grand Central Station in New York, the concourse was entirely filled, by an audience that stood like an Easter crowd in St Peter's Square, all facing the same way, looking up to a giant television screen.

And for long stretches they stood in a cowed, inhuman silence, that we never see in life, but always see in movies showing people outside Ford's Theatre on the night of Lincoln's assassination ...

Robert Kennedy

June 1968

Only by the wildest freak is a reporter actually present at a single accidental convulsion of history. Last Tuesday night, for the first time in 30 years, I found myself by one casual chance in a thousand, on hand, in a small narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles, a place that, I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory as a sinister alley, a Roman circus run amok, and a charnel house.

It would be quite false to say, as I should truly like to say, that I am sorry I was there. It's more complicated than that. Nothing so simple as a conflict between professional pride and human revulsion, between having the feelings and then having to sit down and write them. Yet because I saw it not for once, as an event to comment on, but as a thunderbolt, an assault on the senses, my view of this catastrophic episode is probably strange and I ought not to ascribe to anybody else the shape and colour of the opinions that floated up later from my muddled sensations.

There was suddenly a banging repetition of a sound that I don't know how to describe. Not at all like shots - a sound like somebody dropping a rack of trays. Half a dozen of us were startled enough to charge through the door and it had just happened ... It was a howling jungle of cries and obscenities and flying limbs.

There was a head on the floor ... and the blood trickled down like chocolate sauce on an ice cake. There were flash lights by now and the button eyes of Ethel Kennedy turned to cinders ... and down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child, lying on a cathedral tomb.

I had and have no idea of the time of all this ... I heard somebody cry, 'Kennedy, shot,' and heard a girl cry 'No, no, not again'.


June 1972

"And then this week it came. As undeniable as a summer lightning storm.

"The Supreme Court of Recall ordered him to give to the courts more tapes. His lawyer heard them and was amazed. He had never been told what was in them.

"He told the President that if he didn't release them, one in particular, he the lawyer, would quit the case.

"So with ghastly reluctance the President released the thunderbolt. The tape on which he clearly heard about Watergate and then ordered Haldeman to get the CIA to stop the FBI investigating it. Positively, clearly, in pretty rough language. The date of that talk was June 23, 1972, only six days after the break-in. Nine months before the President claimed he first heard about it.

"In itself it's damning in the extreme, but it also casts a new and damning light on many, many ambiguities of the tapes already out.

"He knew. He covered up. He lied, steadily and unblinkingly to the press, to many a public audience, to the people.

"Within 24 hours, the 10 hold-outs on the judiciary committee, Republicans and some Southern Democrats, reversed themselves and said they would vote for impeachment. The head count in the house showed an overwhelming majority against him. His support in the Senate had dwindled lower than the one-third he would need to save him.

"So he could resign and save himself over $156,000 a year in pensions and allowances, or be impeached, convicted and have $18,000 pension as an old congressman and an old sailor.

"He could still face criminal prosecution once he was restored to ordinary citizenship, so he might bargain for immunity as Vice-President Agnew successfully did. He might go on believing against all the omens that he'd salvage one-third of the Senate.

"These were the awful alternatives he faced as the leading conservatives in the Senate met to decide whether to tell him he had to go. And the rest you know.

"In the enormous reverberation of his downfall we should remember that what doomed him in the end was the eight to nothing verdict in the Supreme Court three weeks ago that he must deliver up what turned out to be the fatally incriminating tape.

"It was the assurance the country sadly needed that in a show down about the supreme power in the land, the court representing the people of the US is supreme and not the President, whoever he is."

11 September

September 2001

I make no apology for beginning yet again with a memory that has never faded of the First World War. The late Dr Sigmund Freud said, "the unconscious has a long memory and a logic all its own" and the memory of a small child between the ages of 6 and 10 are here to prove it.

When last week I first saw what so many firemen, doctors and nurses, who are moving about in the huge raw landscape of fog and rubble and twisted steel and what we now call, without a wince, "body parts", my memory immediately matched the scene with the newsreel pictures we saw 80 odd years ago every week, in what to me was known as the local picturedrome. A rotted landscape, no foliage, no leaves, trees shot down to matchsticks in a miles wide tangle of barbed wire decorated with body parts. In the midst of one thundering battle there appeared in the night sky a glowing figure in a frame of blinding light ... It became known as The Angel of Mons. Hundreds of soldiers ... swore they had seen in it an angel of deliverance.

Mons was where the British first engaged the Germans and Mons was recaptured by the British on the last day of the war. On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918. Ever since there has been an annual memorial service in Mons dedicated to St George who, you recall, slew the dragon.

Well, while on that Tuesday morning a week and more ago we lay or stood in the first terrified days seeing the hellish scene, there arose, to be less poetic, but more correct, I think I should say popped up, a figure, pointing, taking charge, in a suit, in a sweater, in a helmet, in the downtown hill, in the uptown church, a well known figure, not hitherto thought of as an angel. A fallen angel perhaps, with a rather messy private life, known to most Americans as a very quick-witted public prosecutor and active public servant ... the mayor of New York City ... Rudolph Giuliani.

The last broadcast

February 2004

Propped up there against my usual three pillows, and reluctantly having just finished a favourite bed book - the collected ribald musings of an old friend, Charles McCabe - I was feeling chipper enough to glance across at two bedside piles and hope for a perfect lullaby before drifting into sleep.

I found it on one page of a pocket reference book. A very brief history of a short war. So short, so well and briskly fought, the villain so effectively punished, the peace treaty so fair, but demanding enough to put an end to any remaining fears about the war-waging villain. It was a model of how all United Nations exploits should begin and end.

Listen, it's very short and very satisfying. Saddam Hussein, declaring that ... Kuwait belonged to him, sent his army into that country in August 1990 ... In late November, the [Security] council urged the UN members who were willing, to use all means to expel Saddam. He ignored the UN, and 29 countries volunteered to go to war.

Note that all United Nations use of arms must be voluntary. The great weakness of the United Nations from its birth has been that it has no forces of its own. It can only ask members if they're interested ... In January 1991, under an American general, American, French, British and Saudi aircraft bombed Saddam's bases.