Cooke, (Alfred) Alistair 1908-2004

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COOKE, (Alfred) Alistair 1908-2004


See index for CA sketch: Born November 20, 1908, in Manchester, England; died March 30, 2004, in Manhattan, NY. Journalist, broadcaster, and author. Cooke, who was fascinated throughout his life with American culture though he was a born Brit, was well known as an erudite and entertaining narrator and host of such programs as Letter from America, Masterpiece Theater, and Omnibus. Originally entertaining thoughts of becoming a teacher or being involved in the theater, he attended Jesus College, Cambridge, on a scholarship; it was there that he changed his name from Alfred to Alistair and transformed himself into a popular socialite. He edited the college's literary magazine and was involved in theater, cofounding the Cambridge Mummers. He earned a B.A. in 1930 and a diploma in education the next year. A theater fellowship allowed him to travel to the United States in 1932, where he attended Yale University's School of Drama, visited jazz clubs, and even played piano, recording a jazz album for Columbia Records. The next year, he went to Harvard University, where he studied history and English and met H. L. Mencken, with whom Cooke would become friends. This trip caused his fascination for America and Americans, an interest he had fostered since World War I, when his family housed some U.S. troops, to blossom. Though he returned to England in 1934 to work as a film critic for the BBC, he would be back in the United States by 1937, gaining U.S. citizenship in 1941. Making his home in New York City, Cooke maintained ties to England, nevertheless, as a correspondent for the London Times, LondonDaily Herald, and then the Manchester Guardian, for which he served as a United Nations correspondent for three years and worked as the Guardian's U.S. correspondent until 1972. In 1946, Cooke began hosting Letter from America, a thirteen-minute program for the BBC in which he delved behind the headlines to offer his British audience insights into American life, culture, and politics. The program, which Cooke confessed he did not believe would last very long, remained on the air until illness finally led him to retire in 2004; selections from the broadcasts were published in Letters from America (1951), Talk about America (1968), and The Americans: Fifty Talks on Our Life and Times (1979). Cooke was also the host of the program Omnibus, a show about the arts that ran from 1952 until 1961 and for which he won an Emmy Award. In the United States, however, he is most often remembered as the host of Masterpiece Theater, a role he began in 1971. Though sometimes he was spoofed for this part in shows ranging from Saturday Night Live to Sesame Street, his work on the program was highly regarded. Cooke also won a second Emmy in 1973 for his part in the history miniseries America. In addition to his broadcasting work, though, Cooke was critically acclaimed for his books, most especially for his A Generation on Trial: U.S.A. v. Alger Hiss (1950; second enlarged edition, 1968). Honored with a Peabody Award for International News Reporting in 1952, and named a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1973, Cooke was the author of numerous other books, including Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character (1940), Alistair Cooke's America (1973), Six Men (1977), Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre (1981), America Observed (1988), and Memories of the Great & the Good (2000).



Chicago Tribune, March 31, 2004, Section 3, p. 9.

Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2004, p. B9.

New York Times, March 31, 2004, p. C12.

Times (London, England), March 31, 2004, p. 29.

Washington Post, March 31, 2004, p. B7.