Veteran journalist and for 58 years broadcaster of 'Letter from America'
Wednesday 31 March 2004
Alistair Cooke delivered his last
Letter from America after 58 years on Friday 20 February (repeated, as ever, on Saturday and Sunday) and, having unusually missed the following week through illness, retired only this month. It was the 2,869th of his series of radio despatches for the BBC.
Alfred Cooke (Alistair Cooke), journalist and broadcaster: born Salford, Lancashire 20 November 1908; BBC Film Critic 1934-37; London correspondent for NBC 1936-37; Commentator on American Affairs BBC 1938-2004; Special Correspondent on American Affairs, The Times 1938-40; American Feature Writer, Daily Herald 1941-43; UN Correspondent, Manchester Guardian (Guardian from 1959) 1945-48, Chief Correspondent 1948-72; Master of Ceremonies, Omnibus 1961-67, International Zone 1951-67, Masterpiece Theater 1971-93; Hon KBE 1973; married 1934 Ruth Emerson (one son; marriage dissolved), 1946 Jane Hawkes (née White; one daughter); died New York 30 March 2004.
Alistair Cooke delivered his last Letter from America after 58 years on Friday 20 February (repeated, as ever, on Saturday and Sunday) and, having unusually missed the following week through illness, retired only this month. It was the 2,869th of his series of radio despatches for the BBC.
In Britain Cooke was renowned for the radio Letter from America, in America he was renowned for the television Masterpiece Theater. He was also a newspaper reporter of distinction and the author of many successful books - from Douglas Fairbanks: the making of a screen character (1940) and A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. v Alger Hiss (1950) to Around the World in Fifty Years: a political travelogue (1966), Alistair Cooke's America (1973), Six Men: [Charles Chaplin, Edward VIII, H.L. Mencken, Adlai Stevenson, Bertrand Russell, Humphrey Bogart] (1977), America Observed: the newspaper years of Alistair Cooke (1988) and Memories of the Great & the Good (1999).
Thirty-four years ago WGBH, the Boston station of the new American public-television network, wanted to buy a huge backlog of assorted BBC classic serials to form a continuous weekly Sunday-night showcase of British drama to be called Masterpiece Theater. But each programme was 50 minutes long, designed to occupy an hour with the insertion of commercials, and the non-commercial WGBH wanted Alistair Cooke to fill that gap with a personal introduction.
Cooke had refused. He was in the last stages of filming America, his 1972-73 television history of the United States produced by the BBC which later earned him seven major Anglo-American documentary awards and, in book form, turned him into a rich man. He was damned, he said, if he was going to act as a barker for someone else's drama programmes just before his own America was to be shown in the US. WGBH had warned the BBC that without Alistair Cooke as host the whole lucrative deal was off.
A telephone call from London to my BBC office in New York asked me to try to persuade Cooke to change his mind. I reminded him that he had not been seen regularly on American television since his arts programme Omnibus had ended a decade earlier. I suggested that taking part might act as a good trailer for his America series. Moreover it would not take much time or trouble and he would be well paid. Cooke reluctantly agreed to give it a short trial. The short trial ended nearly a quarter of a century later in January 1993.
Masterpiece Theater eventually also screened many ITV serials such as Upstairs, Downstairs. Cooke's urbane charm produced the cohesive link that gave to American public-service television its first mass audience, to the BBC many plaudits (several, undeserved, for ITV productions) and to Cooke himself nationwide recognition in America.
The Boston station had plumped for Cooke because he was regarded there as the quintessential Englishman. Yet for decades he had been broadcasting his weekly Letter from America to a British radio audience which regarded him as a particularly sympathetic kind of American. Therein lay a problem of national identity that troubled Cooke for many years.
He had sailed to America in 1937 on an immigrant visa, having already decided to become an American citizen. When his naturalisation papers finally came through, Britain was not only at war but very near to defeat. Indignant voices denounced Cooke as a rat who had deliberately chosen that dark moment to renounce his British heritage. British Information Services in New York showed him a very cold shoulder. This official displeasure was publicly expunged only in 1973 when the Queen awarded him an honorary knighthood. It was one of many honours, from both sides of the Atlantic, civic, academic and professional, which Cooke received.
For Americans, however, this New York-based journalist, who for more than three decades had written despatches in turn for The Times, the Daily Herald and the Manchester Guardian, and had broadcast regularly for the BBC, must be typically British. Hence Cooke's personal mid-Atlantic rootlessness. Sometimes self-justification led him to paint too rosy a picture of developments in the country to which he had transferred his allegiance.
Cooke's love affair with the US began in 1932 when he crossed from Cambridge to the Yale Drama School, later moving on to Harvard to study the history of the English language in America. From Blackpool Grammar School Cooke had won a scholarship to Jesus College where Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, one of his schoolboy heroes, was then a professor.
His five-year career at Cambridge was spectacularly successful. He read English, founded the Mummers - the first university dramatic society to recruit members of the women's colleges for the female roles - and edited The Granta. He was the Cambridge dramatic critic of The Nation and Athenaeum, he wrote sketches and played music for revues. At the age of 23 he was awarded a coveted Commonwealth Fund Fellowship for two further years' study in America with instructions to spend the summer of 1933 travelling through as many states as possible.
Cooke went, mostly by car, the length and breadth of the US, spending several weeks working with Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood. He later wrote that this trip, when Americans were beginning to crawl out of the pit of the Depression, marked "the twilight of my life in the theatre and the dawn of the idea that a foreign correspondent's was a better trade for me".
While at Harvard Cooke saw a startling newspaper headline, "BBC Fires Premier's Son", and read the rather less startling news that the BBC had decided not to renew the programme contract of its film critic Oliver Baldwin, the radical son of Stanley Baldwin, and was looking for a successor. He cabled Broadcasting House offering to catch the first liner back if shortlisted for the post, having prudently first confirmed with the Commonwealth Fund Trustees that they would pay the fare. So began one of the most successful, and certainly the longest, career in broadcasting.
In addition to reviewing Hollywood films Cooke was soon giving talks about other aspects of American life, and some of these BBC programmes were relayed in the US by the National Broadcasting Company. The NBC representative in London at that time was Fred Bate, a close friend of King Edward VIII. When the story of the King's affair with Mrs Simpson, and the possibility of an abdication, suddenly broke on a startled world, Bate had the misfortune to be on holiday in New York. The fastest way back to London then took five days. Hastily he telephoned Cooke and asked him to race to Broadcasting House and beam over a news despatch for NBC before the midnight circuit which the rival radio network, CBS, had booked. Cooke did so, and for the next 10 days of the abdication crisis he broadcast to America six or seven times a day.
Cooke perfected his broadcasting technique in the heyday of the scripted talk; the art of colloquial writing and informal delivery that concealed the art of reading. Like Harold Nicolson, J.B. Priestley and Ed Murrow he was a graceful essayist of the air. On his return to the US in 1937 and throughout the Second World War he continued to contribute talks to the BBC. On St Valentine's Day 1946 he proposed the idea of Letter from America, describing it as
a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside about American life and people and places in the American news . . . The stress will tend always to be on the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines, rather than the bright headlines themselves.
Addressing the Royal Television Society in New York in 1997, he remembered the "routine" of the then BBC talks producers: "They said, 'First you must say what you are going to talk about, secondly you must talk about it, and then you must say what you talked about.' " That was "a prescription for a non-broadcast", said Cooke,
if ever there was such a thing. Because I discovered very early on that broadcasting is the control of suspense. No matter what you're talking about - gardening, economics, murder - you're telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence people have a right to switch off.
He also, at the beginning, made the prescient suggestion that the BBC should broadcast his letter on Sundays "indefinitely". The BBC, short of dollar exchange, limited the initial series to 13. Nevertheless Letter from America did carry on indefinitely, becoming in due course the longest-running series of talks broadcast by any organisation in the world. Sometimes he preserved the continuity by pre-recording timeless pieces to cover planned absences, as in February 1997 when, at the age of 88, he had a pacemaker fitted.
I once heard Harold Macmillan tell Alistair Cooke that his Downing Street driver used to request a punctual departure from Chequers, where the Prime Minister had spent the weekend, because he liked be on the road in time to hear on the car radio Letter from America, then repeated on Monday mornings. Other people, especially ladies of leisure, used to listen to the repeat in the bath. One said, "He sits on the edge and chats away most urbanely - except once, when he fell in and fizzled out!" Each Letter from America was re-broadcast at least five times for equally avid listeners in countless countries besides the United Kingdom.
For several days beforehand Cooke might ponder what to include in his weekly talk, but he seldom - until the last years - sat down at his manual typewriter more than an hour before he left home to record it. Then began the elaborate rigmarole of putting down what would sound like extempore conversation; the opening paragraph apparently wondering what to talk about or recalling some minor but fascinating incident he had once witnessed in his newspaper reporting days. Then he would seem to stray down irrelevant bypaths, groping at times for the exact word to employ, but always managing to get back, somehow, to the point he had started from 13 and a half minutes earlier, having elegantly articulated much shrewd observation and sage comment along the way.
Cooke was always fascinated by words - not only how they should be used but also whence they were derived. He had worked with H.L. Mencken on the famous Dictionary of the American Language. He was equally interested in American history and greatly appreciated his invitation to address a joint session of the United States Congress in 1974, the bicentenary of the first Continental Congress. His broadcasts and journalism produced some 18 books and many regarded him as the greatest interpreter of America to Europe since de Tocqueville.
Alistair Cooke and his beautiful second wife Jane White, an artist, lived in a high Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park in New York. In the summer they would drive to their beach house at Nassau Point, Long Island, where Cooke played golf, a game he adored with all the enthusiasm of a late convert. His other loves included San Francisco, New Orleans jazz, milkshakes for lunch and, above all, talking.
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