Born in Manchester
in 1908, the son of a metal craftsman and lay preacher, he was
educated at Cambridge, Yale and Harvard. He joined the BBC as a
journalist in 1934. In 1937 he moved permanently to New York,
continuing to report for the BBC on U.S. politics, and after 1939 on
the American perspective on World War II.
After the war
the BBC Director of the Spoken Word suggested:
don't you start a series about — well, all the things in American
life you've talked to me about: anything and everything?
in March 1946, Alistair Cooke’s Letter from America was born,
but with this proviso:
if your Letter is a sensational success, we cannot finance it beyond
two series, namely, twenty-six weeks.
quite a six-month assignment, though, was it? Letter from America
is the longest running one-man series in broadcasting history, heard
in over 50 countries. He’s been at it now for over 51 years. How
long can he keep it up? You see, about this time next year — all
being well — he will turn 90.
and his wife, portrait painter Jane White, live in New York City and
Long Island. It is long ago now that Cooke became an American citizen
(1941), but in all those years he has faded neither from the airwaves
in England nor the hearts of the English, and in 1973 he was made an
honorary KBE, to honour "his outstanding contribution to
Anglo-American mutual understanding".
Some of the Letters
have found their way into essay anthologies. They make ideal essays,
too, for that intimate yet scholarly and digressive yet well-directed
literary genre shares much with the style, length and format of Cooke’s
unique radio broadcasts.
Described by Booklist
as “an international treasure”, Cooke has also written numerous
books, including Alistair Cooke's America, A Generation on
Trial, Fun & Games with Alistair Cooke (on sport — he’s
a mad golf fan) and The Vintage Mencken (as editor).
Cooke's America is a particular favourite of mine. It is the Letter
writ large, and is in fact the text of a TV series he made for the
BBC. The book was a best-seller in the United States in 1973.
In the U.S. he also
became well known to millions of Americans as the host of the pioneer
cultural television program Omnibus, and later as the host of Masterpiece
In 1990, the North
America Center of the Royal Television Society instituted an annual
address which they named The Alistair Cooke Lecture. Each
lecture concerns some aspect of television. The inaugural speaker was
Robert MacNeil, who retired in 1996 as co-anchor of the PBS MacNeil/Lehrer
NewsHour (seen in Australia on weeknights on SBS TV). In 1994 the
speaker was Australian-born Robert Hughes.
A double cassette
album of some of Cooke’s early broadcasts of Letter from America
(1947-68), selected by Cooke himself, was issued by the BBC in 1993.
You can buy it from any ABC shop. Listen, for example, to the graceful
way he presents his information in A Baby Is Missing (1950) or Alcatraz
(1959) or Watts 1965. A lot of the pleasure is Cooke’s voice,
of course. Mind you, because once heard it’s never forgotten, to
read Alistair Cooke's America, say, carries the same magic
resonance. As The Times put it, “Mr Cooke reads as well as he
laudatory epithets have been used over the last half-century to
describe Alistair Cooke’s presentation in his Letter. Believe
me, they all apply. Absolutely marvellous stuff, every sentence he
utters: urbane, charming, informed, informal, shrewd, erudite, witty,
perceptive, enlightening, elegant.
In late 1996 Cooke
suddenly ran foul of special powers-that-be, possibly for the first
time ever. I am indebted to John Corry of The American Spectator
for the following information, which I found on the Internet.
It seems that Cooke
was commenting on recent sexual harassment scandals in the U.S. Army,
and remarked that “the men had shown remarkable restraint”.
Immediately, certain British radical feminists leapt to the attack,
demanding an inquiry . . . the BBC launched an internal investigation.
Cooke had not advocated rape, of course. He only had pointed out, in
his civilized way, that when the Army puts young men and women into
unisex quarters, sensible people know what will happen. It is unlikely
the BBC will now can him for this -- Cooke is a popular fixture . . .
Speaking of radio
Aunties, by the way, the ABC is the place where we Australians can
enjoy Cooke’s weekly broadcast. You have several choices on Sydney
Radio National: Tuesday 11.45 am, Sunday 1.45 pm and 7.10 pm.