Alistair Cooke, who died this week at the age of 95, was eulogized with respect on this side of the Atlantic (including in Slate’s ” Obit”), but the British papers’ extensive coverage reflected a true end of an era. While Americans knew him mainly from his TV programs or his books—volumes published over the past half-century, most looking at slices of American life—Brits heard him on the BBC every week for the past 58 years. What began as a 13-week series back in 1946 was eternally renewed, until old age forced Cooke to cease his broadcasts just a few weeks before his death.
This week, British papers recounted Cooke’s glorious career in pages and pages of tributes and retrospectives. The Guardian, which was his home from 1947 to 1972, examined his career in a lengthy article titled “Our Man in New York,” calling him “sometimes difficult but never less than remarkable.” An editorial in the same paper, wondered why so many Britons named Cooke (or Cook) change their names. (Alistair was born Albert.) Unable to solve the mystery, the editors left it at this: “All that can be said with any certainty is that only in the kitchen can there ever be too many of them.”
As any Brit can tell you today, Cooke’s 13-week stint with the BBC ultimately stretched into 2,869 broadcasts of his famously popular Letter From America. Of course, Cooke had no reason to expect this would be literally a lifelong gig; the Independent recalled that the first producer of the Letter told Cooke that, at most, it would run for one additional 13-week block. Citing strict British foreign-currency regulations in the postwar period, Cooke was told, “Even if you’re the biggest thing that ever happened, at the end of 26 weeks, no more.” Decades later, Cooke noted, “Someone must have forgot.”
The Daily Telegraph remembered that, back in 1957, when he delivered his 500th letter, it was observed that “Probably no correspondent since St. Paul has reached such a wide audience over the years.” And he was only getting started.
Despite his prominence and popularity, the Telegraph noted that “the BBC remained oddly indifferent to their star correspondent, and for years paid him a derisory wage. Yet such was Cooke’s dedication that, from May 16, 1965 until December 17, 1999, when he was laid low by bronchitis, he never missed a single week of Letter From America.”
His style made him legend, though the Guardian’s tributes make clear that Cooke’s style of reporting was by no means universally accepted. He happened to be present when Robert Kennedy was assassinated and filed an amazing report, but, the paper said, “Most months, most years, especially towards the close of his Guardian career, Cooke wasn’t there. He was sitting in Fifth Avenue glory, watching the burgeoning marvel of network news TV and reading his newspapers.”
Initially his Letters provided a major source of information about the US for the British—one of his aims was to persuade people that not all Americans were cowboys. Later his own experience enabled him to give context and depth to events in the US. The traffic was not all one way.
And the Guardian noted that, despite some rumblings that his reports were too bland, nobody rivaled Cooke, even at the very end:
In extreme old age, the laughing cavalier could do so much more than remember He could reach back, reach forward: and make the connections. He was always, triumphantly, in touch.