Broadcaster Alistair Cooke dies at age 95

He eloquently delivered `Letter From America' on BBC 58 years


March 31, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - There are many people who can speak with authority and many who can write with eloquence, but what set Alistair Cooke apart from others - so many others - is that he could do both.

He did so in a style he probably invented and certainly perfected, writing not in precisely metered sentences but with an ear for the way people talk. It was a personal style that, as it turned out, would make people listen.

Cooke died at his home in New York yesterday, according to the British Broadcasting Corp., whose airwaves carried his Letter From America program for 58 years before his retirement earlier this month. He was 95 and had suffered from heart disease.

Most Americans familiar with Cooke's work knew him as the quintessential British host of Masterpiece Theatre. To generations of Britons, though, Cooke was a treasured and trusted observer and interpreter of that peculiarly fascinating country called the United States, a man who became so enmeshed in his adopted homeland that he was seen by many here as emblematic of America itself.

He was wry without being condescending, friendly but shrewd, intelligent without being pompous, and insightful while frequently confessing that sometimes, though he loved America with all his heart, he had difficulty getting his arms around so complex a country.

For all those gifts, mostly, however, Cooke impressed with his ability to paint a portrait with words. He used a concise and descriptive vocabulary as his brush strokes, to bring color and shape to his stories, and he never underestimated the value of white on his canvas, which he achieved with perfectly placed and impeccably timed pauses.

By chance, he was in the Los Angeles hotel where Robert Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, and his broadcast, among his most memorable, was vintage Cooke.

Here is what he wrote and said: "Down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes, and staring out of it the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child, lying on a cathedral tomb."

Of John Glenn's orbit around the Earth, he marveled at the spectators at Cape Canaveral, Fla., watching the launch on a giant television screen, standing silently, "like an Easter crowd in St. Peter's Square."

Over time, Cooke became acquainted with a number of prominent Americans, including H.L. Mencken, with whom he corresponded and formed a friendship. Later, the two men covered the 1948 presidential conventions in Philadelphia; Cooke for the Manchester Guardian and Mencken for The Sun. In 1977, Cooke included an essay about Mencken (that originally appeared in The Atlantic Monthly) in a book titled Six Men.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1941 and in subsequent years would use it as license to criticize the country's shortcomings, though he did so rarely.

"In America," he once said, "the race is on between its decadence and its vitality. And it has lots of both."

Cooke was not immune from criticism despite his stature or, perhaps, because of it. Critics accused him of humming about the pleasantries of lemonade on Long Island during his show when U.S. troops were being killed by the thousands in Vietnam.

Cooke, though, seemed to recognize that however prominent an issue, even a war on another country's soil, people are rarely consumed by it every minute of every day, and he chose to send his letters about life in America - wars and lemonade.

He wrote and spoke about the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs attack, both Gulf wars, the impeachments of presidents Nixon and Clinton - and Vietnam. And he had a fondness for telling remarkable stories - stories with a beginning, a middle and an end - about everyday people, like the young mother who had given birth to stillborn twins, kidnapped another from an intensive care ward and kept it alive after doctor's had nearly given it up for dead.

Cooke closed the letter explaining the woman was found, diagnosed as insane, and that, "the baby is, at this writing, a year old, and very fit, and laughing its head off."

In addition to Letters From America, which the BBC believes is the longest-running radio show in history presented by a single person, Cooke hosted a score of other radio shows, authored about a dozen books and worked in television and newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, including as a London correspondent for the NBC network.

It was his Letter From America, though, that he loved doing most. When he signed off the air for the final time Feb. 20, Cooke had presented 2,869 letters - a total of 717 hours - missing just three weekly broadcasts during the show's run.

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