Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004

Alistair Cooke

POSTMARK, AMERICA Obituarists like to say the world will not see the likes of their subject again, and the phrase is usually tosh. In the case of Alistair Cooke it is, sadly, all too true. Not just because, in an age when people hop like sparrows from fad to fad, he did one thing supremely well for 58 years; not just because the art form at which he excelled-the spoken essay-has all but passed into history; much more because he epitomized a view of America in all its wondrous generosity that few Europeans now seem able to muster. Cooke arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s and loved its size, its openness, its absence of snobbery, as only a scholarship boy from the northwest of England could. To Americans, he became known as a TV presenter, first of Omnibus, later of the 13-part series America and then as the avuncular host of pbs's Masterpiece Theatre. But in his native land it was his radio letters-weekly homilies on everything from Watergate to 9/11 and on everyone from Bobby Jones to Bobby Kennedy-by which he was known. If there were those who complained that he ignored his adopted country's faults, there were millions more of his listeners (myself among them) who heard Cooke's descriptions of New York City, Washington and San Francisco and determined to come to America. His sendoff was fitting: his memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey and his ashes scattered in Central Park.