(b. 20 November 1908 in Salford, England; d. 29 March 2004 in New York City), author, journalist, broadcaster, and television host who received four Emmy awards.
Cooke was born Alfred Cooke to Samuel Cooke, an art metalworker who became an insurance agent and a Methodist lay minister, and Mary Elizabeth (Byrne) Cooke, a landlady. He grew up in Blackpool, England, where he attended Blackpool Grammar School. Cooke did very well in school and won many scholarships and awards.
In 1930 he graduated from Jesus College, Cambridge University, England, with a BA in English. At Cambridge, Cooke founded a theater group, the Mummers, the first to invite women to perform. He also reviewed theatrical productions, wrote for Granta magazine, and did artistic sketches. Cooke changed his name from Alfred to Alistair at the age of twenty-two.
Having received a Commonwealth Fellowship to Yale University, Cooke arrived in the United States in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression. He transferred to Harvard University as a means of exploring the English language. As part of his fellowship Cooke was required to travel in the summer and began writing about his experiences across the United States. Cooke’s travels took him to Hollywood, California, where he befriended the comic actor Charlie Chaplin, also an immigrant from Britain. Cooke soon was collaborating with Chaplin on a screenplay. Although the screenplay was never completed, the friendship allowed Cooke to get to know Chaplin and write about his influence. Cooke began hobnobbing with film stars, writing profiles, and reviewing their work.
Cooke married Ruth Emerson in 1934; the couple had one son. Cooke returned to the United Kingdom in 1934 and became a film critic for British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Radio. He returned to the United States in 1937 and became a U.S. citizen in 1941. Cooke was criticized for the timing of this decision because it contrasted with the decisions of those returning to England to join military service. Cooke continued to write for newspapers in Great Britain, including the Times (London) and the Guardian (Manchester), and to report for BBC Radio and for the National Broadcasting Company in the United States. He wrote a monograph about the movie swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks and edited Garbo and the Night Watchmen (1937), a collection of the work of several film critics. Like his friend William F. Buckley, Jr., Cooke began to write about politics. His book on the influence of McCarthyism, A Generation on Trial (1950), is credited for interpreting the meaning of the anti-Communist movement.
In Six Men (1977) Cooke punctured stereotypes by describing the differences between the public and private lives of individuals many people thought they knew though their work. Among those profiled were Chaplin, the actor Humphrey Bogart, and the Democratic presidential candidate and later United Nations ambassador Adlai Stevenson, to whom Cooke would become a friend. Cooke also wrote about the Duke of Windsor, who had given up the British throne for the American divorcée Wallace Simpson. Six Men set the tone for later essays on individuals such as the celebrated entertainers Bing Crosby and Groucho Marx.
Cooke divorced his first wife in 1944. In 1946 he married Jane Hawkes White, who had two children from a previous marriage. Cooke and White had one daughter. The family lived in a rent-controlled apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City and spent summers in Nassau Point, New York. They often stayed in San Francisco at the Huntington Hotel on Nob Hill in quarters eventually dubbed “the Alistair Cooke Suite.”
In addition to reporting on American culture for BBC Radio and in the Guardian, Cooke served as host of Omnibus (1952–1959), an early television series in the United States. The program is remembered for its eclectic artistic approach in television’s first decade and for the fact that Cooke competed against the actor and later U.S. president Ronald W. Reagan for the hosting position. Cooke was considered too British but still won the job. Produced by Robert Saudek, the weekly program included segments on Broadway musicals and the fine arts and delved into an occasional science experiment or highly technical demonstration. The series aired on all three major commercial networks.
Because of his interest in politics, Cooke developed ties to the legendary American iconoclast and journalist for the Baltimore Sun H. L. Mencken, whom he considered a mentor. Cooke poked fun at romantic stereotypes of the foreign correspondent and enjoyed participating in politics from the standpoint of an interpreter who takes the broad, comparative view. Not considered a deadline reporter, Cooke sometimes wrote about the conventions and restrictions of reporting on deadline. An example is his dispatch on 9 June 1968 from the scene of the shooting of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated during a presidential campaign appearance in Los Angeles. Cooke later described that twist of fate as follows: “Only by the wildest freak is a reporter, after many years on the hop, actually present at a single accidental convulsion of history.”
Cooke’s conservative worldview was couched in early influences. In his writing Cooke continued to contrast old and new, unusual and commonplace. He discussed observations from his reporting days, including glimpses of President Franklin D. Roosevelt being lifted in a wheel-chair for speaking engagements, something never reported by the press. An avid golfer, Cooke wrote about the influence of sports on American life and about major sports figures, particularly his golf hero, Bobby Jones, the boxing great Joe Louis, and the dominant values the two athletes represented.
On the eve of the American bicentennial Cooke’s special perspective on his adopted land was reflected in America (1972–1973), a thirteen-part documentary television series he wrote and hosted. The program was produced by the BBC but was aired by the National Broadcasting Company in the United States. Alistair Cooke’s America (1973), the book based on the series, made Cooke rich. Among Cooke’s other books are Talk about America (1968), The Americans (1979), and Fun and Games with Alistair Cooke (1994).
In America, Cooke examined the American Revolution, the Civil War, and the development of the West. He compared the British position in the American Revolutionary War to the quagmire in Vietnam. He compared the Boston Massacre to killings at Kent State University and the Civil War to the civil rights movement one hundred years later. Cooke often described what he loved most about his adopted land, including the nation’s geography from Plymouth Rock to the Grand Canyon. Cooke explored the spirit of discovery, including innovations in medicine and science. He visited the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, and went to New Orleans to report on American jazz. Cooke traveled to Chicago and a crime scene of the Al Capone era as well as to San Francisco, where he summarized that city’s history. In a segment titled “The Arsenal,” Cooke visited underground bunkers of the Strategic Air Command and discussed the potential for worldwide nuclear destruction.
America received Emmy awards from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for Excellence in Entertainment and Best Documentary, the first program to be honored in both categories. Cooke received a Peabody Award and the Benjamin Franklin Award from the Royal Society. Cooke also was honored by and spoke to the U.S. Congress and in 1973 was made honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Cooke broadcast Letter from America to five continents over BBC Radio for fifty-eight years, making it the longest-running radio program hosted by one person. He was known for his skill at writing as one speaks and for his role as an interpreter of American culture. While continuing his radio series, Cooke began hosting Masterpiece Theatre (1971–) aired by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on U.S. television. He introduced and commented on dramatic programs imported from Great Britain. Cooke referred to the position as “head waiter” but held it for twenty-one years. He gained a unique stature in American poplar culture when the PBS children’s program Sesame Street parodied him as “Alistair Cookie” and the popular comic strip Peanuts dubbed him “Alistair Beagle,” a take-off on Cooke and his influence as the erudite British expatriate observer of all things American.
Cooke’s last broadcast of Letter from America aired 20 February 2004. In the letter Cooke discussed how he decided the Iraq War and domestic issues would be critical elements in presidential elections. He died a few weeks later on 29 March 2004 in New York City. A memorial service was held in Westminster Abbey, London, and Cooke’s ashes were scattered in Central Park, New York City.
Cooke’s papers are housed at the Mugar Library, Department of Special Collections, Boston University. A biography is Nick Clarke, Alistair Cooke: The Biography (1999). An obituary is Michael D. Murray, “Alistair Cooke Remembered,” Television Quarterly 35 (Fall 2004): 51–56. For broadcasts that have been collected on tape and compact disc, see the BBC Radio Collection, Alistair Cooke: Letter from America, The Early Years, 1946–1968 (1993); and BBC World Service, 50 Years of Letters from America (1996), which includes an editor’s cut of an interview with Cooke for the radio program Outlook.
Michael D. Murray