That Old Feeling: Cooke's Tour

  • Share
  • Read Later
This wasn't supposed to be an Obit. I came to work early this morning hoping to finish a tribute to Alistair Cooke and his BBC series "Letter from America." The weekly chat began March 31, 1946, 58 years ago tomorrow, and continued for 2,869 episodes until last month, making it the world's longest-running program of its kind. When Cooke's retirement was reported on March 2nd, the journalist whom Harold Nicholson had called "the best broadcaster on four continents" issued this statement through the BBC: "I can no longer continue my 'Letter From America.' Throughout 58 years I have had much enjoyment in doing these talks and hope that some of it has passed over to the listeners, to all of whom I now say thank you for your loyalty and goodbye." He was 95.

When I mentioned the news about Cooke to my TIME colleague Richard Lacayo, he said, "This is a classic example of 'you mean he isn't dead?'" Well, I knew Cooke wasn't dead — and not just because it's the job of this column to take EKGs of venerable celebs who'd been around since my youth. (I was a Cooke fan from 1952, when he began hosting the TV arts show, "Omnibus.") For the last few years I'd been a faithful listener to his chats, aired in New York on the National Public Radio station WYNE-FM. I'd also been reading his speeches and dispatches, originally for a possible celebration of his 95th birthday last November, then to write a tribute in case ... something happened.

Indeed, I could have told Lacayo that Cooke had considered the peril of outliving his fame. In 1977, when the author of a 20s novel "The Wild Party" died, nearly 50 years after his brief notoriety, Cooke described a gathering of old-timers, adding, "We were not shocked that Joseph Moncure March was dead, but that until yesterday he had been alive."

So Cooke was very much on my mind and, I suspect, the minds of his 22 million listeners to the BBC World Service. On hearing that he would be stepping down, we naturally expected a valedictory address. Having interested the editors of TIME Europe in a Cooke tribute that week, I tuned in on Friday night for a last blast of oracular nostalgia. No new Cooke — just a rerun of a December 2001 "Letter." Rumors spread that he'd been annoyed by BBC's announcement, that he's wanted to drop the news at the end of his next and last broadcast, and angrily refused to warble his own swan song.

We now realize that Cooke, who had suffered a fall in his Manhattan home last October, was simply too ill to continue. He died last night. And now my surprise is as naive as Lacayo's. He couldn't believe Cooke was still alive. I can't quite accept that the man who has represented civility and urbanity for 70 years is dead. Neither could Nick Clarke, author of a scrupulous Cooke biography published in 1999. "I always assumed he would died in the harness," Clarke said today. "Retirement was a dirty word. He didn't really ever contemplate it, because his mind was so active that he thought he would just go on until he stopped."


That December 2001 broadcast contained this recollection: "Nearly 50 years ago I had the rare, weird pleasure of introducing the Messiah to Leonard Bernstein." He meant the Handel oratorio, but it would hardly have surprised his listeners if he'd arranged a meeting between the great conductor and Jesus Christ. Cooke, you see, knew everyone. Even before he was famous, which he was for nearly 70 years, he had a charm that magnetized the famous to him. And like any man who had learned self-confidence, he was never afraid to write a letter, ring a doorbell, flash a smile and say, "Might I have a moment?" Being Alistair Cooke, he got it. So when he reminisced about the famous, he was looking back but not up. These were celebrities who might brag that, yes, they knew Alistair Cooke.

As a Yale graduate student fresh from Cambridge University, he took a shine to the richness of American dialects; soon he was helping H.L. Mencken on his monumental study "The American Language." On a vacation, he thought he'd interview some Hollywood stars; in no time, Charlie Chaplin was asking him to collaborate on a script and volunteering to serve as best man at his wedding. (Neither offer was fulfilled, but blame that on Chaplin's mercurial nature.) Later, in New York, he "sat on a love seat and lit, through a long evening, the cigarette chain of Greta Garbo." Bertrand Russell, meeting him in 1950, announced, "I asked you here, Cooke, because I wanted to tell you that whenever I read your pieces in the Guardian I say to myself: That is probably the way it happened." Bogie and Betty paid affectionate tribute to his easy erudition with the nickname Aristotle.

Americans know him as the baronial eminence and emcee of "Masterpiece Theatre" from 1970 to 1992, and as the presenter of "Alistair Cooke's America," the 1972 11-hour series for which he happily hopscotched across this vast nation, then expanded his script by four for a best-selling book version. His renown was such that it was borrowed for "Peanuts" (Alistair Beagle) and "Sesame Street" (Alistair Cookie for "Monsterpiece Theatre). The rest of the world knows him for his BBC series "Letter from America," which ran for 2,958 episodes. In 1968 he wrote: "I was staggered to discover, only four years ago, that these 'Letters' are heard on every continent but this one." His reach was later extended to North America, so the locals could hear what Cooke was saying about us. Nice things, mostly.

The hosting gigs (which he called "an acting job — acting natural") gave America its comfortable image of Cooke: a genial fellow, his skin, jacket and tie often in perfectly matching shades of tan, who used his gift for personalizing literature to soft-sell British TV imports to the PBS audience. But that was Cooke's second job; his third, actually. (No, his fourth, if you include his 20 or more books, most of them collections of his written and spoken journalism, and all available from,) As he said of his weekly BBC chat, "The talks were done once a week when I was busy with other things. For twenty-five years I was writing a daily report for The (Manchester) Guardian as its chief correspondent in the United States."

The raconteur was first and always a journalist, though one with the widest brief. Not limited to national politics or the police blotter, this untiring traveler wrote about anyone and anything that sparked his curiosity — and everything did — from an Indian medicine man in Taos to a San Diego tattooist, from autumn in New England to prize fights and the Army-McCarthy hearings.


This laissez-faire agenda allowed Cooke to wander into all manner of terrific stories, which he covered with a novelist's sense of sweep and a portraitist's eye for the telling detail. And when talent or curiosity or connections didn't help rub him shoulders with history, serendipity stepped in.

In the summer of 1931, while in Munich on a college theater tour, he heard Hitler, then a fringe radical, speak before a small outdoor crowd. "A small ambulance standing by seemed [an] unnecessary come-on, but at the end of the twenty-minute speech I heard, two or three women had fainted, for the good neurological reason that he could hypnotize even a small audience with omens of a dire future. He did this not with the hysterical bawling which was all we saw in the newsreels before and throughout the Second World War but with a style of the most artful variation of mood, from tenderness to whimsy to outrage. He convinced me, for one, that we had had it."

For a 1935 broadcast from London that was meant to simulate a Broadway opening night, he needed a phonograph record of Ethel Merman singing "You're the Top." A friend sent him to the apartment of an American who would have the record. She was "a small middle-aged brunette [with] coiled braids pinned above her ears, darting blue-black eyes, and a determined square jaw." Her name was Wallis Simpson, and a year or so later her affair with King Edward VIII would cue the tumultuous end of his reign — an event that NBC radio assigned him to cover in a ten-day, 400,000-word, ad-libbed stint, for which his leg man was a young Rhodes Scholar named Walt Whitman Rostow.

He stumbled into a blind alley at Harvard's 300th anniversary celebration in 1936 and got a shock (and a scoop, if he'd dared pursue it) at his first glimpse of F.D.R. Two Secret Service agents "made several swift and inexplicable passes, like jugglers, toward someone inside the car, and on a count (of three, I suppose) one cried 'Now' and they lifted and held aloft a massive human figure crumpled into a squatting position, since one man had his arm crooked under the figure's knees, and the other under his upper back. It was Franklin Roosevelt, as inert as a sack of potatoes. His head could move and did so as he acknowledged the motions of the third man, who had dived into the car and emerged with a cane and a hat. Roosevelt was then deposited on the ground, his back straightened, the cane was put into his right hand, the hat stuck on his head. With a tug or two from his helpers, he braced himself, linked arms with one man and limped stiff-legged toward the side entrance door. ... All this happened in much less time than it takes to tell, a trauma with two strokelets: the first registering the name — the president of the United States! The second, that he was a cripple. The president of the United States was a paraplegic!!"

  1. Previous
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3