Ben Hills

If it happened in or around America in the past half a century, chances are Alistair Cooke or, at least, his golden voice was part of it. In 1946, the BBC’s augustly titled Director of the Spoken Word suggested to Alistair Cooke that he start a weekly radio broadcast from New York, “… about, well, all the things in American life you’ve talked to me about. Anything and everything.” Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America is broadcast on Radio National at 11.45am and 7pm on Sundays.

He warned, however, that Britain’s national broadcaster could not guarantee its new correspondent much of a future. “Even if your Letter is a sensational success, we can’t finance it beyond two series, namely 26 weeks,” was the only commitment he was prepared to give.

Fifty-seven years later, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America is still being broadcast to countless millions of listeners in Australia and 51 other countries, far and away the longest-running and most successful radio series in history.

His fan club includes journalists everywhere, presidents and even the Queen, who honoured him with a knighthood in 1973 for his “outstanding contribution to Anglo-American mutual understanding”.

In 1988, he pulled one letter from his sack of correspondence and said: “The last, most moving, letter I had last week was from the President of Estonia, who had listened to the talk in exile, in Siberia, in prison [and] wanted to say that it helped him to keep going in hard times.”

At 95, Cooke is the unchallenged doyen of British foreign correspondents, his erudite, elegantly crafted essays on American mores and manners, delivered in urbane and mellow tones, fulfilling weekly the goal he set himself half a century ago “To explain, to a large audience ranging from shrewd bishops to honest carpenters, in the simplest and most vivid terms, the passions, the manners, the flavour of another nation’s way of life.”

In the process, he has been showered with more awards and distinctions than any journalist of any generation: four Emmys, three honorary degrees (on top of the three he earned), a Peabody Award for international news reporting, a Writers’ Guild of Great Britain award for best TV documentary. And so on, and on.

Cooke came from a humble background, the son of an iron-fitter and lay preacher in grimy Salford, a suburb of Manchester. He did not take long to escape from his roots, changing his name from Alfred to the more upmarket Alistair, taking honours in English at Jesus College, Cambridge, then winning a Commonwealth Fellowship to study in America.

He had no idea, when he arrived to study theatre his first love at Yale University, that America would become his adopted country and journalism his life’s work. It was a requirement of the scholarship that each student take a “summer trip”. Buying a car and touring as many states as possible, Cooke plunged himself into an America never reported in Britain and, at the end of the trip, “decided then and there that that would be his career”, according to his biographer, fellow BBC hack Nick Clarke.

Returning to London, Cooke joined the BBC as a film critic, and, in 1935, was hired by the American network NBC to broadcast a weekly Letter to America. But he longed to go back to America. In 1937, he moved to New York, broadcasting for the BBC and writing for London’s The Times and the Manchester Guardian during and after World War II. He took out American citizenship in 1941.

And there he has remained, alternating between his apartment in Manhattan where he lives with his second wife, the portrait painter Jane White and the holiday house on Long Island, where he spends the summer (not far, he reminds us in one broadcast, from where Albert Einstein wrote his prophetic letter warning America of Hitler’s nuclear ambitions).

Little of Cooke’s personal life emerges in either his Letters or in his biography. According to Clarke, he has an “occasionally tense family life” (he’s been married twice and has two children) and is “notoriously unable to handle money” though he must have made millions out of his books alone.

So this wouldn’t look too much like a hagiography, I did an exhaustive internet search, but the only “dirt” I turned up on Cooke was an attack on him by some British feminists who thought he was endorsing sexual harassment in the US armed forces when all he really appears to have done is point out, in his own languid way, that if you put young men and women together in the same barracks, some hanky-panky is inevitable.

Cooke’s venerable age is part of the magic. He is a living archive, able to bring to life the events of almost a century ago and put them in the context of today. It raises the hairs on your neck to hear him describing Franklin Roosevelt’s trashing of Wendell Willkie at the tumultuous 1940 Republican convention in Philadelphia, with the aid of the mysterious “voice from the sewer” chanting for “one more term”. Cooke mentions, almost in passing, that he had been there.

Or to hear him report on the signing of the United Nations charter in San Francisco, quoting the cynical prophecy of the British delegate, Sir Alexander Cadogan: “The idea of the five permanent members [of the Security Council] having a veto on the use of force to stop aggression means that the new League [of Nations] will be a parody of the old, with most of its disadvantages.”

Or to listen to his memories of being an eight-year-old in Manchester in 1916 when news of the Battle of the Somme reached the city, and how the streets were filled with widows wearing black, as he watches real-time TV coverage of the war in Iraq and concludes that it “raises the profound question of whether any nation not under a dictatorship can ever again fight a war with a steady spirit”.

He has reported on America at war and in peace, on the detonation of the first atomic bomb, on the Cuban missile crisis, Vietnam, Watergate and the World Trade Centre attack, Marilyn Monroe’s life, and John F. Kennedy’s death there is not a major political, economic or social event in the second half of the century in America on which Cooke did not offer us his wisdom.

And his eye was just as acute for the detail of daily life. For instance, his report on the Mayo Clinic trying to find the cause of a golfing affliction called “the yips”. Or his wonderful observation about Las Vegas being a cut-price Babylon, quoting a sign over a roadside lunch counter “proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution: Topless Pizza Lunch”.

To Americans, he is better known as a television presenter than a radio broadcaster. He was the presenter of Omnibus, a relaxed and thoughtful show on popular culture, which screened on Sunday afternoons across America in the 1950s and achieved the distinction of being picked up successively by all three networks.

And then, for 22 years until he “retired” in 1992 at 83, he was, as he put it, the “head waiter” of a cult show called Masterpiece Theatre, which was a showcase for Americans’ British theatre, ranging from Jane Austen’s Emma to Upstairs, Downstairs.

His sweeping personal history of America from the time of European settlement 13 hour-long episodes that screened in prime time during the 1970s was a masterpiece. It spawned a book (Alistair Cooke’s America) that sold more than a million copies and has recently been republished with a post-September 11 update. That, incidentally, is just one of the 15 books he has written, many of them still in print, which range across American history and culture, from his great passion of golf (Fun and Games with Alistair Cooke) to a biography of Douglas Fairbanks and the trial of the traitor Alger Hiss. The Times once remarked: “He writes as well as he sounds.”

Cooke has listed the people he most admires as the golfer Robert Tyre (Bobby) Jones jnr; H. L. Mencken, whom he knew and wrote about in a wonderful essay for his book Six Men; and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. “And my wife,” he added.

But it is as a broadcaster on the BBC’s World Service that Cooke will be best remembered outside America. His is still one of the great radio voices such a welcome relief from the fruity, over-produced tones and the pumped-up sports-jock hysteria affected by so many broadcasters here and in America. He once said: “I talk to my typewriter, and that is what I have been working on for 40 years how to write for talking.”

Who else could link, with such effortless artifice as Cooke did in one recent broadcast, such diverse strands of culture and history as Nazi Germany’s nuclear plans, vegetarianism and tornadoes, concluding with this wise observation on America’s floundering attempts to remake Iraq: “Normal in Iraq is a chaos of factions and tribes and religions, each of whom, in the frenzy of liberty, is looking forward to shoving into power their own dictator and that is all they have ever known. It is left to a few scholars, lawyers and intelligentsia theorists to think about this weird fetish of George W. Bush called how’s that again? democracy.”

On his 60th birthday, Cooke received a letter from his mother in which she asked if he had any plans for retirement. “I wrote back and told her that it was dangerous for journalists to retire. They are apt to grow stupid. No more was said in our house, or has been said since, about retirement.”

That was 35 years ago, and the world is a far richer place for Alistair Cooke having ignored his mother’s hint.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 10 January 2004
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 8
Word count: 1657
Classification: People/Name/Cooke/Alistair/Journalist Broadcaster
Keywords: Profile