Sue Gaisford: My dinner date with Alistair Cooke

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The Independent Online

The envelope was addressed in a resolute, if scratchy, hand that I didn't recognise. Turning it over, I saw to my astonishment the printed name and New York address of Alistair Cooke. It was, indeed, my first Letter from America.

The envelope was addressed in a resolute, if scratchy, hand that I didn't recognise. Turning it over, I saw to my astonishment the printed name and New York address of Alistair Cooke. It was, indeed, my first Letter from America.

As radio critic on this paper, I had written in appreciation of his previous week's broadcast. He had been sent the cutting by a friend and now he wanted to thank me. It was, he said, the first time he had written to an English journalist in 50 years. Happily, it wasn't to be the last. Our correspondence began.

A year or so later a sceptical call came from the editor's office. "Do you actually know Alistair Cooke?" I was asked. "The thing is, various newspapers want to interview him and he says he'll do it only for us, and he'll talk only to you." This proved to be Alistair's typically generous way of repaying what he saw as a favour. As we now know, thousands if not millions of listeners hung upon his every word, every week. Yet amid all the posthumous praise, it is sobering to remember that even during the late 1990s - his own very late 80s - he was still anxious to be reassured that he was doing well, still very grateful for printed appreciation.

It was arranged. I would interview him one morning in his apartment. A photographer (selected for his speedy technique) would follow me and that would be that. Then, at home in Sussex, while I was busy getting the family supper, the phone rang. "Sue? It's Alistair. You can't come all this way for a couple of hours. Will you have dinner with me?"

So it was that I rolled up, as bidden, to the Fifth Avenue apartment at six on a sultry September evening. He opened the door smiling warmly, a tall figure, lanky and slightly stooped, wearing what he described as a "blazer suit". We went into his study, which was, as you'd expect, full of books. (Everyone, he later told me, described his study as "book-lined". Once, he had collected lots of drawings and paintings of nudes and put them in front of the books, wickedly hoping the room would be described as "nude-lined". "But no," he sighed, "book-lined it remained.")

We drank whisky. It was his favourite evening tipple and it seemed easiest to join in. This was a good move. "These days, most women under 50 drink nothing," he observed, chuckling, "but dry white wine." I asked if I could tape-record our conversation and he enthusiastically assented, adding that the last person to interview him (a famous English writer) had relied on memory and had made 34 errors of fact.

We took a taxi to the restaurant. It wasn't far, but he was embarrassed not to have $5 in cash for the fare. We settled at a table and he began to talk. Soon, we got on to his heroes. Of the many people he admired Mark Twain was a special case: he had made a TV programme about him that had never been aired, though he thought it the best thing he'd ever done.

The public side of our conversation later appeared at length - in this paper. It was fascinating to listen to him, like having instant, vivid access to the entire 20th century. He had watched soldiers drilling for the Great War, in 1914 on Blackpool beach. Outside the Braun Haus in Munich in 1931 he had overheard Hitler - then practically unknown - not ranting but, more sinisterly, whispering. He had served on a committee with George Bernard Shaw, been a friend of Charlie Chaplin and interviewed P G Wodehouse. He had, famously, witnessed the death of Bobby Kennedy - by chance, at his feet, in a hotel pantry. All these opportunities he grasped with gusto and turned into unparalleled essays and broadcasts. News became gold in his alchemist's hands.

Yet what I remember now was what a nice man he was, how appreciative of his family and of his long and serendipitous life - and how grateful for it all - to England, to America, to the BBC and to a God he very nearly believed in.

As midnight approached, we left. In the bar, on the way out, he paused. "How about a little crème de menthe?"

A fortnight later, at home in Sussex, my next letter came. The envelope contained a picture postcard of Mark Twain. And, in settlement of his debts, a five-dollar bill.

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