The shy Brit who became an American icon

Both in his appearance and his writing Alistair Cooke was the quintessential foreign correspondent

Although Letter from America was not widely listened to in the US, except by Anglophiles and Brits in exile who tuned in to the BBC Overseas Service, Alistair Cooke was nevertheless one of America’s favourite Brits.

This was largely because for so many years he hosted Omnibus, the first cultural series on US television, and the popular Sunday night TV series Masterpiece Theatre. He was also known for the many books he wrote on America, and his annual lectures under the auspices of the Royal Television Society were “hot tickets”.

Most Americans did not realise Alistair had become a US citizen in the Forties. One would never have known it.

I first met Alistair when he was still working for The Guardian, or the Manchester Guardian as it was then called. He was The Guardian’s man in New York for 26 years, and in those days something of a man-abouttown, lunching regularly at 21 and joining in the piano playing at the jazz clubs on Manhattan’s 52nd Street.

Most of the other newsmen from Fleet Street papers regarded him as an essayist rather than a hard-news competitor, but he was not to be underrated. He happened to be in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Robert Kennedy was shot there and turned in a graphic account that outdid most of colleagues.

Alistair was – both in his appearance and his writing – the quintessential foreign correspondent, but always a little shy. When I was reporting for World at One and PM, we used the same BBC studio in the Rockefeller Center.

Alistair liked his privacy. He insisted on the window shades being drawn while he was taping.

In later years, when his health deteriorated, Alistair worked from his apartment on Fifth Avenue overlooking Central Park. For three days a week he tapped out the 1,700 words of his weekly letter on an old Royal manual, until arthritis made typing too painful.

It was possibly a sign that he had become an American icon when he was parodied on US television. On the popular children’s programme Sesame Street, he was known as Alistair Cookie, the star of Monsterpiece Theatre.

It is not widely known that Alistair once spent a summer in Hollywood working with Charlie Chaplin on a movie about Napoleon, which never made it to the big screen.

Also probably not well known is that his first Letter from America, broadcast in March 1946, was about a voyage he made on the Queen Mary with a boatload of GI war brides on their way to the US. Tony Blair led the tributes to Cooke, whose death was announced on Tuesday. Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme, the Prime Minister described him as “one of the greatest broadcasters of all time”.

BBC acting director general Mark Byford called Cooke “an outstanding commentator of the 20th century”. He added: “His insight, wisdom and unique ability to craft words enabled millions of listeners in the UK and around the world to understand the texture of the United States and its people. All of us at the BBC are saddened today.”

Jenny Abramsky, director of BBC Radio, said: “With his superb voice and masterly turn of phrase, he was the most brilliant radio chronicler of his age. BBC Radio is grateful for the decades of contributions from Alistair Cooke and we will miss him greatly.”

Radio 4 controller Helen Boaden said: “Millions of listeners over many years have enjoyed his Letters from America. Many of us charted our lives through them. He was wry, wise and always insightful. We shall miss him very much.”

Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News, said Cooke was “a wonderful broadcaster combining intelligence, shrewd judgement about the affairs of the world and elegance in his writing. For generations of listeners he was a bridge across the Atlantic. We’ll all miss him.”

According to the BBC, Cooke’s daughter contacted his biographer, World At One presenter Nick Clarke, on Tuesday morning, confirming his death at midnight local time at home in New York.

Cooke, 95, broadcast his final Letter from America last month after 58 years. He retired from the world’s longest-running speech radio programme on the advice of his doctor.

After joining the BBC in 1934 as a film critic, Cooke presented his first Letter in 1946, going on to broadcast 2,869 shows.

As a tribute, Radio 4 and the World Service recently began broadcasting a selection of his programmes from the archives.

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