Alistair Cooke R.I.P. (1908-2004)

The Guardian in the UK and The New York Times were among many English-language newspapers today publishing obituaries of Alistair Cooke. A cultural bridge across the Atlantic, he lucidly wrote for one and perceptively read the other. The Guardian‘s Media section today published a variety of tributes and the Times’ Editorial page published a special ‘Appreciation’ (as does Times columnist William Safire). Worldwide audiences of the BBC knew Cooke for his weekly Letter from America radio commentary (13-minute narratives that was originally supposed to air for 13 week in 1946 but were so popular that the BBC had Cooke continue commenating weekly for 58 years!). American knew him primarily for hosting public television’s Masterpiece Theatre series for decades (the Muppets TV puppet show then fondly satirized him as the erudite ‘Alistair Cookie’).

The dapper Cooke lived large. After winning scholarship to Cambridge University to become a teacher, he took interest in the dramatic arts and in 1932 won a fellowship to cross the Atlantic and study at the Yale University School of Drama. He fell in love with America, visiting its artistic soireés and becoming friends with Duke Ellington, Humphrey Bogart, and Charlie Chaplin (even declining Chaplin’s offer to be his assistant director on Modern Times), and recording a jazz piano album for Columbia Records. But it was a friendship with legendary journalist H.L. Mencken that led to Cooke’s interest in journalism. He returned to London as the BBC’s film critic and a correspondent for the American NBC network. Cooke returned to America for good in 1937, became a citizen there four years later, and began reporting for the BBC and the Guardian from his adopted country. Although in 1973 he cease reporting for newspapers, only earlier this month did Cooke, a venerable age 95, cease his BBC commentaries, clear and lucid to the end.

What brings me to mention all this (to use a phrase that he might have favored), is that Cooke wrote like Fred Astaire danced. Americans, such as myself — particularly those under age 50 — may know him as a television host, but don’t know his real work. Just take a look at these superb samples of his reportage. I know of no journalist today who writes with the clarity, verve, color, objectivity, and apparent effortlessness that Clarke did. That’s why we mourn his death. Let’s hope that the 21st Century will produce as brilliant a talent in new media as Alistair Cooke was in 20th Century print and broadcast journalism.
          [Note: The Guardian and Times sites require registration to access.]