Alistair Cooke

I watched two BBC documentaries about Alistair Cooke that got the memory juices flowing. He is a legendary figure in Britain, not least thanks to his longevity. He died in 2004 at the age of 95, having only just announced that he would no longer be broadcasting his “Letter from America” (the longest-running speech radio program in history).

Cooke started broadcasting his weekly 15-minute insights into American life in 1946. So he was another thread in the tapestry of my life, growing up and beyond. I have no idea when I first heard his program but his voice has remained ingrained in my memory. He visited America as a young man and soon became enthralled with the country, eventually settling there and becoming a U.S. citizen. Perhaps one reason why I came to enjoy his insights so much was that my own life became intertwined with America as I reached adulthood.

Cooke reported on all the big stories (and many small ones too).  He was only feet away from Bobby Kennedy when he was murdered and filed a story almost at once (he was also a reporter for the Manchester Guardian). He captured the mood of the people when JFK was shot – “disappointment,” he called it, a very interesting word to choose. He was referring to how people felt robbed of the promise of a better world. He had high regard for Bobby Kennedy, considering him capable of achieving much more than his brother. I think, with hindsight, most people would agree with him.

Americans regarded Cooke as the quintessential English gentleman (they came to know him through TV, as the presenter of Masterpiece Theater).  He never was that, I think, but a much more layered human being. He had a passion for jazz, his first wife was a descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson and he became a great friend of Bogart and Bacall. He met generations of the rich and famous (from the early 1930s onwards) and spent the last 50 years of his life living in an apartment overlooking Central Park in New York, where his ashes were scattered. A fascinating individual.

I believe Cooke may have found Britain stifling and the vastness and diversity of America both breathtaking and a breath of fresh air. It is ironic that many people today think America has a more classist society than the UK (based on wealth rather than birth).

PS: Cooke was obviously an Americophile. I had to look that word up to be sure it was the correct term. It made me wonder why we hear the terms Anglophile and Francophile all the time but not Americophile.

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