Alistair Cooke: An Introduction and an Appreciation

Alistair Cooke: An Introduction and an Appreciation

My pre­vi­ous note was about Alis­tair Cooke on Churchill in the 1930s. I here reprise my intro­duc­tion to his 1988 speech, and a per­son­al epi­logue. Sir Alistair’s remarks, at the Mount Wash­ing­ton Hotel, Bret­ton Woods, 27 August 1988, are avail­able by email. RML

Sir Alistair Cooke KBE

When, in what we must regard as a stroke of bril­liance, we thought to invite Sir Alis­tair Cooke to talk about Win­ston Churchill, we wrote him with trep­i­da­tion. We were told he had a rep­u­ta­tion for being very hard to get.

To our delight, he defied the odds. “This is the time of year when I turn down every­thing,” he wrote. “But your let­ter gave me pause. And, after due con­sid­er­a­tion of all the insu­per­a­ble obsta­cles, I am, like the char­ac­ter in Ten­nyson, ‘say­ing he would ne’er con­sent, con­sent­ed.’ But peo­ple who know me only through my intros to ‘Mas­ter­piece The­ater’ must won­der what I’m doing talk­ing about Churchill.”

Now we admit, Sir Alis­tair, that your intros to “Churchill: The Wilder­ness Years” on “Mas­ter­piece The­ater” prompt­ed our invi­ta­tion. But we also admire your back­ground as a reporter, your grasp of affairs among the Eng­lish-Speak­ing Peo­ples. You’ve con­veyed them sen­si­tive­ly back and forth across the Atlantic for fifty years. They caused us to won­der what you per­son­al­ly observed and thought of Win­ston Churchill.

Here I must note that I advised Sir Alis­tair not to avoid neg­a­tives if he deems them appro­pri­ate. As Churchill told an awestruck young edi­tor in the 1930s, “Do not be afraid to crit­i­cise, young man—I am a pro­fes­sion­al journalist.”

Never retire!

Born in Man­ches­ter, Alis­tair Cooke first sight­ed North Amer­i­ca in 1932 at the age of 23. He expect­ed to be here only briefly, but nine years lat­er he became a U.S. cit­i­zen. He was Amer­i­can cor­re­spon­dent for The Times of Lon­don from 1938 to 1942. Unit­ed Nations cor­re­spon­dent for the Man­ches­ter Guardian, 1945-47. And U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for The Guardian from then until 1972 when he “retired.”

But AC has an impor­tant max­im (which I have since vowed to fol­low). “I shall nev­er retire, because I have observed that most of my friends who do imme­di­ate­ly keel over.” Sir Alis­tair viewed retire­ment with much the same dis­dain as Win­ston Churchill.

So he con­tin­ues his week­ly BBC 15-minute broad­cast, “Let­ter from Amer­i­ca.” First beamed only to Britain, it end­ed up in fifty coun­tries. That start­ed in March 1946, and over the past forty-two years he hasn’t missed a week.

“My entire career from the age of 28 to 79,” he wrote, “has been that of report­ing Amer­i­ca, first to Britain and then to the rest of the world.” His great­est TV achieve­ment, in 1972, was “Amer­i­ca: A Per­son­al His­to­ry of the Unit­ed States.” It earned four Emmies and led to his best-sell­ing book, Alis­tair Cooke’s America.

His accep­tance sent me to Amer­i­ca and his six or eight oth­er books. I found pen­e­trat­ing obser­va­tions and a ready wit. But most impres­sive was the relaxed, con­tem­pla­tive tone with which his audi­ences are famil­iar. With Alis­tair Cooke it is like hav­ing an old friend to chat with. When he talks of what Lady Soames called “the storms which have rocked our civ­i­liza­tion,” he reminds you of an old say­ing: “A friend is some­one who knows all about you, but likes you.”

The Bomb and the Marshall Plan

Here for exam­ple is what Sir Alis­tair broad­cast on 4 August 1970. It was the 25th anniver­sary of the atom­ic bomb­ing of Japan.

With­out rais­ing more dust over the bleached bones of Hiroshi­ma and Nagasa­ki, I should like to con­tribute a cou­ple of reminders. The first is that the men who had to make that deci­sion were just as humane and tor­tured at the time as you and I were lat­er. And, sec­ond­ly, that they had to make the choice of alter­na­tives that I for one would not have want­ed to make for all the offers of redemp­tion from all the reli­gions of the world.

And here is anoth­er, 16 Octo­ber 1971, on what he called “the mag­nif­i­cent and munif­i­cent idea of the Mar­shall Plan.” Dean Ache­son, who large­ly devised it, had just died, most­ly for­got­ten. AC’s audi­ence large­ly com­prised peo­ple who had nev­er heard of Acheson’s scheme:

Alistair Cooke
Dean Ache­son, 1893-1971. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

The Mar­shall Plan was a vast sys­tem of loans and gifts to bat­tered old Europe that made pos­si­ble, not only her recovery—but also, as Sec­re­tary of State Dean Ache­son was well aware—the healthy growth of a gen­er­a­tion of young Euro­peans with lungs pow­er­ful enough to exer­cise in with­er­ing denun­ci­a­tion of this Sec­re­tary, who looked like a Span­ish grandee and was, they swore, an Amer­i­can impe­ri­al­ist who had spawned the Mar­shall Plan as a fat insur­ance racket.

 Churchillian optimist

Though always real­is­tic, Alis­tair Cooke was the kind of opti­mist Churchill was. Both sought sil­ver lin­ings to clouds how­ev­er stormy. His is the qual­i­ty William Safire rec­og­nized, review­ing Sir Alistair’s Amer­i­ca Observed: The 1940s to the 1980s. “He inter­prets Amer­i­ca bet­ter than any for­eign cor­re­spon­dent since Toc­queville.”

My favorite Cooke-book is his Six Men—a rather briefer ver­sion of Churchill’s Great Con­tem­po­raries.” He knew all six per­son­al­ly: Chap­lin, Menck­en, Bog­a­rt, Adlai Steven­son, Bertrand Rus­sell, and Edward VIII. It is about the lat­ter that I offer my final Cookeism. I’ve dined out on it. Despite many biogra­phies, and the Duke of Windsor’s own apolo­gia, it is an unmatched sum­ma­ry. Every­one who has read Six Men remem­bers it:

The most damn­ing epi­taph you can com­pose about Edward VIII—as a prince, as  king, as a man—is one that all com­fort­able peo­ple should cow­er from deserv­ing. He was at his best only when the going was good.

(That is rather the oppo­site of a def­i­n­i­tion of Win­ston Churchill.)

Ladies and gen­tle­men, it is my hon­or to present, minus cardi­gan and golf clubs, but equipped by unpar­al­leled expe­ri­ence to remem­ber Sir Win­ston Churchill, Sir Alis­tair Cooke, Knight Com­man­der of the Most Excel­lent Order of the British Empire.


Alistair Cooke
Alis­tair and Jane Cooke, Karen and David Samp­son, Bret­ton Woods, 1988. (Pho­to: Bar­bara Langworth)

The mag­ic name of Win­ston Churchill has done a lot for Bar­bara and me. Among oth­er things, it allowed us to meet mem­o­rable peo­ple. Alis­tair Cooke and his wife, Jane White Hawkes, were cer­tain­ly among them.

The friend­ship that began in Bret­ton Woods last­ed six­teen years until AC’s death in 2004. We nursed a ful­some cor­re­spon­dence, now among my papers in trust for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project.

Some let­ters were seri­ous, some jol­ly, some embar­rass­ing. The worst came when I ran a piece on polit­i­cal car­toon­ist David Low—enti­tled “Sid­ney Low.” Imme­di­ate­ly arrived the inevitable rebuke:

Dear Richard: What an unbe­liev­able & utter­ly appalling error! Like writ­ing a piece about Hen­ry Bernard Shaw or Franklin D. Kennedy! Sid­ney Low was an edi­tor-jour­nal­ist of very lit­tle fame. David Low was, indeed, the great­est car­toon­ist of this cen­tu­ry. You must apol­o­gize open­ly & pro­fuse­ly. With (oth­er­wise) kind regards – Alistair

The only thing to do was reply in kind:

Dear Alger­non: I apol­o­gize utter­ly and pro­fuse­ly. Of course I have all of Low’s books and car­toons, and I knew per­fect­ly well. Bol­lox­ing Chris­t­ian names is my noto­ri­ous fault. I am sure that in future I shall nev­er for­get the dis­tin­guished name of Derek Low as among the great­est scrib­blers of our time. With regards to you and Jan­ice. Yours ever, Fred Langworth

Christmas at Fifth Avenue

Our last vis­it was in Decem­ber 2003, to his Fifth Avenue flat over­look­ing Cen­tral Park. He proud­ly told us it pre­vi­ous­ly belonged to William Shawn, immor­tal edi­tor of The New York­er “I have been house­bound for eigh­teen months,”AC said, “but I do set aside a half hour in the evening for enter­tain­ing friends.” Two hours lat­er we final­ly left, Alis­tair eject­ing us. “I must eat at a set time every night, or every­one gets upset.”

He was still the man we remem­bered, stooped and tot­tery now, but the same wit­ty, bril­liant mind. There was the fine grasp of events, the viva­cious wife, her­self 91 but look­ing more like 70. An accom­plished artist, Jane had set down her brush­es. “At the moment I’m into full-time maintenance.”

None of our con­ver­sa­tion was what one might expect with a 95-year-old. Noth­ing about med­i­cine or doc­tors or age. Alis­tair spoke of his­to­ry, past and cur­rent. The elec­tion cam­paign; the Howard Dean phe­nom­e­non; prospects for Pres­i­dent Bush. What would hap­pen in Iraq; how Iraq was formed (with Churchill’s assis­tance). Thought­ful­ly, sad­ly, Alis­tair jux­ta­posed the “soft brown eyes” with the hard ter­ror of Osama bin Laden.

A jour­nal­ist eight decades on the scene, he spoke with panache, and much less ret­i­cence than he would in pub­lic. (“___ ___ is a horse’s arse.”) He was mulling over his next Let­ter from Amer­i­ca. When he left the room Jane said: “He lives only for the Let­ter. If he ever has to give that up he will die.”

“Always, triumphantly, in touch”

Not three months lat­er we heard his announcement:

Through­out fifty-eight years I have had much enjoy­ment in doing these talks. I hope some of it has passed over to the lis­ten­ers, to all of whom I now say thank you for your loy­al­ty and goodbye.

Alis­tair had final­ly retired. And I remem­bered what he’d said about that.

His friend William F. Buck­ley, Jr. wrote that Churchill Col­lege, hear­ing that he had “put his feet up,” invit­ed Alis­tair to be a Trustee. AC replied:  “Thank you for your invi­ta­tion. In about two months, I will put my feet up per­ma­nent­ly.” He thought this “very fun­ny, which indeed it was,” Buck­ley wrote, “very near­ly, though not quite, dis­pelling the gloom in his visitor’s heart.”

His old paper, The Guardian, knew him best:

Was he a great jour­nal­ist? Just read his cov­er­age of Kennedy in Dal­las: the ques­tion answers itself. He could reach heights few oth­ers could aspire to. But did he—for the mil­lions who tuned in, decade after decade—reflect any Amer­i­ca but his own, a mix of nos­tal­gia, Menck­en and Rock­well reheated?

That is a hard­er ques­tion…. 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.

Which for me makes his death no less easy to accept. As Churchill wrote of Arthur Bal­four: “I felt also the tragedy which robs the world of all the wis­dom and trea­sure gath­ered in a great man’s life and expe­ri­ence and hands the lamp to some impetu­ous and untu­tored stripling, or lets it fall shiv­ered into frag­ments upon the ground.”

“Game Called…

…Upon the field of life, the dark­ness gath­ers far and wide.
The dream is done, the score is spun, that stands for­ev­er in the guide.
Not vic­to­ry, nor yet defeat, is chalked against the player’s name.
But down the roll, the final scroll, shows only how he played the game.”

Grant­land Rice


2 thoughts on “Alistair Cooke: An Introduction and an Appreciation

  1. Good evening. That retort is a gem. “My moth­er… often”.
    Won­der­ful web­site. A trea­sure trove, really.

  2. Love­ly piece. I had for­got­ten that The Guardian was Alis­tair Cooke’s paper. Which, to me, makes what The Guardian has become all the sadder.

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