Alistair Cooke

Alistair Cooke titles: Alistair Cooke at the Movies, Alistair Cooke Letter from America, Alistair Cooke on Golf, Alistair Cooke Reporting America, Alistair Cooke's America, Alistair Cooke's American Journey, Six Men.

Alistair Cooke enjoyed an extraordinary life in print, radio and television. Born in Manchester in 1908 and educated at the universities of Cambridge, Yale and Harvard, he was the BBC's film critic from 1934 to 1937. He then returned to America and became a US citizen in 1941. Cooke was the Guardian's Senior Correspondent in New York for twenty-five years and the host of groundbreaking cultural programmes on American television and of the BBC series America, which was a huge hit and led to the international bestselling book Alistair Cooke's America (deemed so valuable that copies were put in every US public library). Cooke was made an honorary KBE in 1973 for his outstanding contribution to Anglo-American mutual understanding, and received many other awards including the Peabody Award, the Dimbleby Award, four Emmy Awards and the Benjamin Franklin Award. He had a passion for films, jazz and golf, and was a talented pianist.

Alistair Cooke was, however, best known both at home and abroad for his weekly BBC broadcast Letter from America, which reported on fifty-eight years of US life, was heard over five continents and totalled 2,869 broadcasts before his retirement in February 2004, far and away the longest-running radio series in broadcasting history. He wrote many of his Letters in his New York apartment overlooking Central Park, where he brought up his family and lived with his wife Jane White until his death on 30 March 2004.

In November 2012, BBC Radio 4 released over 900 of Alistair Cooke's original radio broadcasts on a specially dedicated web archive. Listen to the recordings here.

Visit the Alistair Cooke Archive at Boston University's Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.



Cocktails with Cooke (taken from Publishing News)

Colin Webb's association with Alistair Cooke began some twenty years ago, and when he and his wife visited for drinks just days before his death, Cooke told him he'd been appointed his literary executor.

JUST TWO WEEKS ago, Alistair Cooke telephoned our New York hotel room and complained that we had not deigned to call him. "Are you indeed still coming up this evening for drinks [as had been planned some weeks before] or have you decided to ignore me and take yet another holiday instead?" In his world, everybody else was on vacation while he was at work. Of course, sensitive and alert to his ailing circumstances, Pam and I had elected to await the call rather than seem intrusive. He recognised immediately the 'English' discretion that he so disdained and we were duly summoned.

As one of his few surviving book editors (and perhaps one of his youngest friends), I had paid many visits to his exquisite eyrie, the fifteenth-floor apartment on 96th Street, overlooking Central Park. He took so much inspiration from the changing seasons viewed from his study window, with even on occasions a bird of prey landing on the ledge. One daily ritual was the all-important Huntley-Brinkley hour, commencing at six, when the delectable sound of ice chinking into glasses would be heard and the 'wine of Scotland' would be poured to coincide with the evening news (Huntley and Brinkley were for years the seasoned TV news anchormen on NBC). We were well used to a chiding in the event that we arrived even a few minutes late, and sometimes the Dewars and soda - preferred tipple for him and male chums - would already be prepared and positioned on the side table awaiting one's attendance. Women were warmly expected to take a gin and tonic (white wine was frowned upon as 'not a real drink'). Then, with Alistair sitting in his red leather chair (a legacy from Masterpiece Theater), pen, pad and remote control in both hands, we were treated to a remarkable feat of dexterity as he attempted to take in the news, note anything of interest or importance, stifle with the remote the frequent bursts of advertising, and enjoy a drink and stimulating conversation. We were firmly told to keep quiet if anything riveting caught his attention within the broadcast. As arthritis increasingly took a grip of his hands and fingers, the frustrations were immense. He was a man who wanted to be in control of such things.

We realized this would be the last Huntley-Brinkley hour we would spend with him. Fortunately the pain he'd recently experienced had been brought under control and the night before he had even been able to enjoy an engaging early evening chat with his old friend Bill Buckley Jnr. He thrived on such moments; the pleasures of old and new friends, gossip and good humour were succour to him alongside the Dewars. He had an aggressive appetite for all subjects. His medical knowledge was precise and intense. He knew in every detail his changing physical circumstances and, astonishingly, predicted his life expectancy almost to the week. He would not allow for anything vague to be imparted and, ever the quintessential reporter, would press for more detail on subjects that interested him.

This last evening, sitting in agreeable company with Jane his truly astonishing wife, Susie their daughter down from Vermont, Patti his redoubtable assistant, and Pam, the conversation ranged across such diverse subjects as holidays in France, jazz, Tony Blair, James Dean and Einstein... Quite how we got to talk about all that remains a mystery, but he, as always, was the ringmaster, guiding us through the extraordinary arc of topics, while remaining interested, provocative, and always willing to tease us about our own apparent lack of knowledge.

Apart from some difficulties with mobility, the only real indication of his great age was that he would not allow that there had been any significant cultural achievements in the arts since the war. Computers, rock music, the latest movies were largely ignored. On being shown the benefits on a computer keyboard, of 'cut and paste', he had asked 'why would I need to do that?' He continued to craft his weekly Letter upon his sturdy manual typewriter. I had once taken him to the then new Ian Schrager/Philippe Starck-designed Royalton Hotel on 44th Street, which he was appalled to discover had been hideously transformed, as he thought, since the glory days of the Forties and Fifties when it was inhabited by many of the writers from the New Yorker, just down the street. I think he secretly liked the new hotel but was reluctant to admit it, and certainly he enjoyed the ice cream. But he did remain fully up to date on the world of sport and now that he couldn't attend in person would avidly view the great moments on television. He was a great admirer of Tiger Woods and, in her prime, Gabriela Sabatini would make him dewy eyed.

His views and responses often refreshingly ran counter to established opinions. I had managed to purchase that day a letter he had written in 1957 to Wesley Hartley, a long-time educator and teacher. Advising Hartley's students, Alistair had written: "All the high schools and colleges in the world cannot turn a bad writer into a good one. But I do believe that good teaching can teach you how not to write. There is no substitute for grammar, considered not as a weary discipline but as a detective game." When I reminded him of his response, he was more impressed that I had paid $100 for the letter, but I can even sense him now, looking over my shoulder and correcting my grammar.

His legacy will be in the many words he has written and these ought to become required reading for all students of American cultural history, although he would hate anything quite so burdensome to be inflicted upon the young. His broadcast Letters went out to 22 million people worldwide, but the essential secret and magic of radio was that we each thought he was talking to us alone. New York will not be the same without him - it will feel rather like entering the harbour without the reassuring presence of the Statue of Liberty.

Alistair Cooke's legacy (taken from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

This year the library at Whitgift School, South Croydon, in association with the Percy family, initiated an annual essay prize for its pupils to consider the legacy of an individual, born 100 years ago, who is included in the Oxford DNB. The first competition was won by Alex Forzani who chose for his subject the broadcaster and writer, Alistair Cooke (1908-2004).

Here we reproduce an edited version of Alex's winning essay.

You can also read the Oxford DNB entry on Alistair Cooke, or listen to the biography as a podcast (also available to download from the OUP website):


The legacy of Alistair Cooke today
Alex Forzani



In the run up to the Second World War anti-American sentiment in Europe, and particularly in Britain, was rife. Recently it has been stated that 'anti-American feeling had been the Establishment's secret vice' (A Marr, A History of Modern Britain, 2007, 9). It is also fair to say that this sentiment was the commonly held opinion of the majority of ordinary Britons. There was a desperate need for someone to bridge the cultural and political fissure between the United Kingdom and the United States of America?someone who could embody both perspectives.

The person who was well equipped to act as moderator between the UK and the USA was the broadcaster and writer Alistair Cooke. At a distressing time in British history Cooke was able to help the British people to understand the benefits of what Winston Churchill described in 1946 as Britain's 'special relationship' with the USA. Cooke's legacy in modern times is twofold. Firstly, he can be credited with effectively opening up post-war America to the average Briton. He ensured that the two countries better understood one another by providing a common journalistic link. Secondly, his brilliance and longevity as a journalist brought an innovative approach to radio broadcasting through which he endeavoured to promote knowledge, and a sense of the potential, of the post-war world. He also pioneered a groundbreaking television broadcasting technique which is still mirrored in contemporary reporting and journalism.

The first element of Cooke's legacy is that he exposed Britons to America, a country that many in the mid-to-late 1940s regarded as strange but also of great international importance. Prior to the Second World War the majority of British people had little concern for events in the USA, due in part to the belief that Pax Britannica still reigned supreme. But the post-war situation was remarkably different; as Andrew Marr puts it, 'the country was broke' and now both militarily and economically dependent on the United States. The new 50-year loan of $3.75 billion, negotiated by John Maynard Keynes, was a prime example of Britain's post-war dependence on its transatlantic ally. In this new international climate Cooke's aim as a journalist who had recently arrived in America may be likened to that of an earlier European commentator, Alexis de Tocqueville. In Democracy in America (1835, trans. 1835-40), de Tocqueville had provided European readers with a pioneering description of the country and the experiences and values of its people. Alistair Cooke likewise sought to prepare his British audience for a new phase in the transatlantic relationship by sharing with them his enthusiasm for and fascination with post-war America. Both writers addressed the fears of their countrymen and endeavoured to eradicate common prejudices. Cooke's journalism was also characterized by the reassurances he offered a British public anxious about what to expect from an American-dominated world.

Cooke's determination to help Britons better understand modern American proved crucial in the years that followed. His weekly radio correspondence - originally entitled American Letter (and later renamed Letter from America) - offered an impartial insight into American current affairs and trends. His impartiality stems from the fact that Cooke was uniquely placed to offer the British public reassurance because of his accent, but was also able to convey the subtleties of American life thanks to the American citizenship that was granted to him in 1941. He could therefore ensure that Britons could, at the very least, begin to appreciate what kind of a country the USA actually was.

To Britons Alistair Cooke will always be best known for his Letter from America broadcasts (initially fortnightly, and then weekly), which began on the 24 March 1946. In the first episode Cooke used his journalistic flair to contrast the United Kingdom, a nation mired in post-war austerity, with the USA, a country that was filled with possibilities and potential. Apart from the contrast between the relative economic positions of the two countries, Cooke endeavoured to explain the American way of life with reference to everyday events. He described the game of baseball, for example, as follows: 'I find baseball fascinating. It strikes me as a native American ballet - a totally different dance form. Nearly every move in baseball - the windup, the pitch, the motion of the infielders - is different from other games. Next to a triple play, baseball's double play is the most exciting and graceful thing in sports.' This understanding of baseball may seem somewhat trivial, but this and other illustrations helped his British audience identify with the 'regular' American - not least by highlighting shared interests. However, Cooke's principal achievement was that these simple explanations of the American way of life, and of the hopes and aspirations of the 'American dream', inspired Britons to inquire about the world and to be less constrained by their pre-war prejudices.

The second part of Cooke's legacy is his ability as a journalist. It would be incorrect to remember Cooke simply for bonds he forged between Britain and America. His weekly 15-minute radio letter was amazing, and stands as the cornerstone of Cooke's journalistic legacy. The programme ran (with a short interruption in 1965) for 58 years, making it the longest-running spoken radio programme in the world. However, Cooke's contribution to journalism and broadcasting far exceeds the durability of his celebrated radio programme. Indeed, the way in which the letters were presented was novel in itself. They were narrated in a relaxed, talkative style with the archetypal civility, wisdom, and wry humour that defined Alistair Cooke.

At the same time Cooke significantly shaped the development of broadcasting in his adopted country, notably through his television series, Omnibus. Broadcast across the USA, the programme introduced a blend of culture, science, and technological innovation into the American way of life. Cooke appeared with renowned figures such as Leonard Bernstein and Orson Welles, which helped many viewers to appreciate civilization, art, and technology, and to embrace new experiences. Cooke supplemented this notion with his series Masterpiece Theatre which is credited with introducing Americans to high-quality British drama. Omnibus and similar programmes were designed as a new form of broadcasting, one that was intended to educate, inform, and - without an overriding political message - relate to Americans what was happening in the wider world. Omnibus revolutionized American television during the 1950s, influencing its production and appeal to a wide and diverse audience. It is perhaps fair to say that Cooke pioneered the earliest form of purely altruistic broadcasting. The aim of both Omnibus and later series such as America (Cooke's 'personal history' of the country) was to engage with his audience, but also to educate and to foster Americans' interaction with other parts of the world. As Cooke's official biographer, Nick Clarke, has stated: 'this series [America] so impressed his adopted homeland that the tapes were placed in every public library in the land; a stream of successful books culminating in America, which sold two million copies.'

Cooke's legacy is one of subtlety and intricacy. He facilitated communications between Britain and America, at a time of mutual suspicion and unease. He readied the British people and helped them better to understand the United States, which was unfamiliar to many. Cooke was important, therefore, for nurturing and protecting the transatlantic 'special relationship'. At the same time, he also gave his American audience new perspectives vis-a-vis cultural and technological events. His two lasting achievements - Letter from America and Omnibus - gave hope to Britons who were mired in post-war depression and hope to Americans about future developments in their country. Cooke's ability as a journalist meant that he understood the intricacies of the British and American mindset. On account of his unique and distinctive insight into the attitudes, interests, and concerns of everyday Britons and Americans, it may be argued that Cooke contributed more to post-war transatlantic relations than very many politicians have done. In Britain, of course, this legacy rests principally on his radio serial, Letter from America. It was in this correspondence that Cooke displayed both the archetypal wit and civility of an English gentleman, and the passionate enthusiasm of his adopted homeland. This combination of civility and ardent understanding is the reason that Alistair Cooke is synonymous with the bridging of cultural divides and the exploration of possibilities.