Alistair Cooke KBE (November 20, 1908 – March 30, 2004) was a British/American journalist, television personality and broadcaster. Outside his journalistic output, which included Letter from America and Alistair Cooke’s America, he was well known in the United States as the host of PBS Masterpiece Theater from 1971 to 1992. After holding the job for 22 years, and having been in television for 42 years, Cooke retired in 1992.
Born in Salford, Lancashire. He describes himself as a “Lancastrian Irishman” – his mother was from Co. Sligo, as Alfred Cooke, he legally added the name “Alistair” at the age of 22. He was educated at Blackpool Grammar School and was awarded a scholarship to study at Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained an honours degree in English. He was heavily involved in the arts of the college, becoming the editor of The Granta, the student magazine, and setting up the Mummers, the first co-sex theatre group, from which he notably rejected a young James Mason, telling him to stick to architecture.
While still in Britain, Cooke became engaged to Henrietta Riddle, the daughter of actor Henry Ainley and the novelist Bettina Riddle, also known as the Baroness von Hutten; but as a graduate student, he went to Yale and Harvard universities in the United States for two years on a Commonwealth fund fellowship, and his fiancée was to desert him while he was away on this trip, in January 1933. However at the end of this year he met Ruth Emerson, who was a great-grandniece of Ralph Waldo Emerson. They were married the following year. Originally Charlie Chaplin, whom Cooke had befriended in Hollywood, was supposed to be his best man, but the mercurial actor vanished at the last minute. Cooke divorced Ruth (by whom he had a son, John) in 1944. In 1946 he married Jane (White) Hawkes, a portrait painter, daughter of William Penn White and former wife of A. Whitfield Hawkes, thereby acquiring two stepchildren (Holly and Stephen) and subsequently a new daughter (Susan).
In 1934, at the end of his study fellowship, Cooke saw a newspaper headline that Oliver Baldwin, the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s son, had been fired by the BBC as film critic. Cooke sent a telegram to the Director of Talks, asking if he could be considered for the post. He was invited for interview and took a Cunard liner back to England, arriving twenty four hours late for his interview. He suggested typing out a film review on the spot, and a few minutes later, he was offered the job. He also sat on a BBC committee headed by George Bernard Shaw for correct pronunciation. The fact that Shaw spoke with a strong Dublin accent caused Cooke some amusement.
Cooke was also London correspondent for NBC. Each week, he recorded a 15-minute talk for American listeners on life in Britain, under the series title of London Letter. In 1936, he intensively reported on the Edward VIII abdication crisis for NBC. He made several talks on the topic each day to listeners in many parts of the United States. He calculated that in ten days he spoke 400,000 words on the subject. During the crisis, he was aided by a twenty-year-old Rhodes Scholar, Walt Rostow, who would become Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security advisor.
Move to the United States:
Cooke began what was to become a permanent emigration in 1937, although his claim for citizenship took over four years to be processed. He swore the Oath of Allegiance on 1 December, 1941, six days before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Shortly after emigrating, Cooke suggested to the BBC the idea of doing the London Letter in reverse: a 15-minute talk for British listeners on life in America. A prototype, Mainly About Manhattan, was broadcast intermittently from 1938, but the idea was shelved with the outbreak of World War II in 1939. During the war, he broadcast a weekly American Commentary on the BBC about the war.
During this time, as well, Cooke undertook a journey through the whole United States, recording the lifestyle of ordinary Americans during the war – and their reactions to it. The manuscript did not arouse much interest immediately after the war, but it was discovered a few weeks before his death in 2004 and published as The American Home Front: 1941-1942 in the United States (and as Alistair Cooke’s American Journey: Life on the Home Front in the Second World War in the UK) in 2006. Accompanied by strong reviews, it stands as the only incisive first-hand journal of the American home front ever published, even though the account is confined to the early stages of the war.
The first American Letter was broadcast on March 24, 1946 (Cooke said this was at the request of Lindsey Wellington, BBC’s New York Controller); the series was initially commissoned for only 13 instalments. The series finally came to an end 58 years (2,869 installments) later, in March 2004. Along the way, it picked up a new name (changing from American Letter to Letter from America in 1950) and an enormous audience, being broadcast not only in Britain and in many other Commonwealth countries, but throughout the world by the BBC World Service. In November 2008 it was announced that searchable digitised versions of the complete broadcast scripts will be made available to the public through an electronic archive at the University of East Anglia. The original scripts are held at the BBC and at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center of Boston University.
In 1991, Alistair Cooke received a special BAFTA silver award for his contribution to Anglo-American relations.
The staff reporter:
In 1947, Cooke became a foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian newspaper (later The Guardian), for which he wrote until 1972. It was the first time he had been em-ployed as a staff reporter; all his previous work had been freelance. He also served as a foreign correspondent for The Times.
In 1952, Cooke became the host of CBS’s Omnibus, the first commercial network television series devoted to the arts. It featured appearances by such personalities as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Gene Kelly, and Leonard Bernstein. The series marked Bernstein’s first-ever television appearances.
Mid to later years:
In 1968, he was only yards away from Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated, witnessing the events that followed.
For more than 50 years, Cooke lived in a rent-controlled apartment in Manhattan, New York City, outliving several property owners and all fellow tenants.
In 1971, he became the host of the new Masterpiece Theatre, PBS’s showcase of quality British television. He remained its host for 22 years, before retiring from the role in 1992. He achieved his greatest popularity in the U.S. in this role, becoming the subject of many parodies, including “Alistair Cookie” in Sesame Street’s “Monsterpiece Theater” (“Alistair Cookie” was also the name of a clay animated cookie-headed spoof character created by Will Vinton as the host of a video trailer for The Little Prince and Friends); Alistair Quince, from The Carol Burnett Show, introducing the “The Family” sketches, which eventually became Mama’s Family; and, arguably, Leonard Pinth-Garnell, in Saturday Night Live’s “Bad Conceptual Theatre”.
In 1973, Cooke was awarded an honorary knighthood (KBE). However, having relinquished his British citizenship during World War II, he could not be called “Sir Alistair”.
America: A Personal History of the United States (1972), a 13-part television series about the United States and its history, was first broadcast in both the United Kingdom and the United States in 1973, and was followed by a book of the same title. It was a great success in both countries, and resulted in Cooke’s being invited to address the joint Houses of the United States Congress as part of Congress’s bicentennial celebrations. After the series’ broadcast in Ireland, Cooke won a Jacob’s Award, one of the few occasions when this award was made to the maker of an imported programme.
Alistair Cooke said that, of all his work, America was that of which he was most proud; it is the result and expression of his long love of America. (Cooke was once asked how long it took him to make the series. “I do not want to be coy,” he replied, “but it took 40 years.”)
Later life and death:
On March 2, 2004, at the age of 95, following advice from his doctors, Cooke announced his retirement from Letter from America – after 58 years, the longest-running speech radio show in the world.
Cooke died at midnight on March 30, 2004, at his home in New York City. He had been ill with heart disease, but died of lung cancer, which had spread to his bones. He was cremated, and his ashes were clandestinely scattered by his family in Central Park.
On December 22, 2005, the New York Daily News reported that the bones of Cooke and many other people had been surgically removed before cremation by employees of Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, New Jersey, a tissue-recovery firm. The thieves allegedly sold the bones for use as medical-grade bone grafts. The cancer from which Cooke was suffering had spread to his bones, making them unsuitable for grafts. Reports indicated the people involved in selling the bones altered his death certificate to hide the cause of death and reduce his age from 95 to 85. Michael Mastromarino, a former New Jersey-based oral surgeon, and Lee Cruceta agreed to a deal that resulted in their imprisonment. Mastromarino was sentenced on June 27, 2008, in the Supreme Court in Brooklyn to 18 to 54 years’ imprisonment.
The Fulbright Alistair Cooke Award in Journalism:
After Alistair Cooke’s death the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Award in Journalism was established as a tribute to the man and his life and career achievements. The award supports students from the United Kingdom to undertake studies in the US and for Americans to study in the UK. It is offered for a Masters in Journalism or specialist study (e.g. Middle Eastern Studies) leading to a career in journalism.
The Fulbright Program, sponsored by the US Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, was created in the aftermath of World War II through the efforts of US Senator J. William Fulbright.
UK recipients of the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Award are listed below.
2008-9 Simon Akam (Oxford University) and Dan Walker Smith (Edinburgh University)
2007-8 Peter Cardwell (Oxford University)
2006-7 Archie Bland (Cambridge University)
2005-6 Ewan Jones (Cambridge University)