Masterpiece Theatre was a relatively short run for Alistair Cooke, and his intros mere appetizers. For more of Cooke, as he turns 90, sample some of his half-century of BBC essays.
Some journalists make reporting seem easy, almost effortless. They express wise and frequently complicated ideas with directness, intelligence and wit. Their manner is both straightforward and entertaining — and above all, informative. They are uniquely talented and very few in number. Alistair Cooke is one of them.
This sort of reporting is not, of course, easy. But now, with his 90th birthday approaching Nov. 20, Cooke has had a lot of practice. His Letter from America, a weekly one-man report on every conceivable dimension of life in this country, has been produced by the British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC) for more than 50 years without interruption. It is the longest-running radio series in the history of broadcasting.
Since the broadcasts began, three collections of the Letter have been published (all by Alfred A. Knopf). Now the BBC has produced two double audio cassette packages of the essays, selected and spoken by their author: “The Early Years: 1946-1968″ and “The Middle Years: The 1970s,” with a third collection on the way. These typically, almost perversely, austere BBC titles reveal no hint of the journalistic skill and understated excitement the broadcasts contain.
One of the most surprising aspects of Cooke’s Letter is that they were all written and “performed” (his word) when he was fully engaged in other literary and broadcasting pursuits. Many will remember him as the urbane host and writer for Robert Saudek’s Sunday afternoon Omnibus series in the 1950s, probably the best cultural anthology ever produced by commercial television [article], or Alistair Cooke’s America, a series of hour TV documentaries commissioned by the BBC in 1969 and broadcast in this country by NBC and public TV.
In 1971, and for 22 years thereafter, Cooke’s charm, insouciance and casual erudition opened and closed each episode of the PBS drama series, Masterpiece Theatre, produced by WGBH/Boston. Here, cosily ensconced in a wing chair in the library of some imaginary English country house, he explained plots and illuminated character, interpreting British cultural life for a U.S. audience in a manner not altogether unlike the way he has explained Americans to a radio audience in the U.K. and, through the BBC’s World Service, to listeners on every continent.
Cooke calls his 131/2-minute radio essays “literature for the blind,” in the tradition of British broadcasting “talks,” programming that had its origin in the brilliant writing and presentation of Harold Nicholson and Max Beerbohm.
Through the years Cooke’s chief audience has been in the British Isles, listening to the Home Service. But ever since when the Letter also went out on the World Service, Cooke has been aware that what he writes and says must be understood equally, as he says, “by Lancashiremen and Texans, Germans and Thais.” In the U.S. the BBC’s World Service programs — including Letter from America — is distributed to public radio stations through Public Radio International (PRI).
“The challenge,” says Cooke, “is not to write for your friends or the intelligentsia, or your newspaper editor, but an audience that spans the human gamut in very many countries.”
Mary Ahearn met Cooke when she was a feature editor for Omnibus in 1952. Concerning the Letter she says, “The range is so extraordinary. It was what he did for Omnibus, he could introduce all these [disparate] subjects to which he could bring his intelligence and, many times, his own experience.
“He’s one of the great conversationalists of all time. He has an incredible memory and tells wonderful stories— and an ability to relate things, to make connections.”
In the 1953 introduction to his first collection of Letters, Cooke observes, “In the theatre an American audience leans forward, while a British audience leans backward … The British audience for a radio talker is both compliment and threat…It would be witless not to sense a challenge to be as artful as an actor but as sincere as a friend.
“The speaker need not expect competition” (clearly, this was written before television sets settled themselves permanently in the living room), “but he must plot his talk with care. “Print journalists are given more slack. Read their stuff aloud and it is most likely ill-digested and labored. The radio essay, spoken in one country for hearing in another, asks [the journalist] to be a superior Steele or Lamb, or be switched off.”
Cooke’s descriptive powers are formidable, something important for a writer/broadcaster desiring to provide his overseas audience with a sense of American places, as well as how we look and act. Here is the opening of his 1959 Letter concerning Alcatraz Island:
“In the middle of San Francisco Bay there rises an island built like a battleship. In one direction it looks across a mile and a tenth of thrashing water to the docks and the white city rising on the hills. In the other it looks toward the Pacific in the break between two tawny hills which are spanned by the red arch of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Summer is the coldest time in San Francisco, and on dank summer nights when the Pacific fog comes whirling in, the vertical struts of the bridge actually twang and wail [as if] played by the witches in Macbeth.”
(Down the years, more than a few subjects of the Letter have been drawn from San Francisco. Cable car conductors and journalists come to mind. He and his wife visit here regularly, a second home he has said, where they occupy an apartment in the Huntington Hotel.)
His observations of men and women — not a few of whom are, in some sense, against-the-grain — are no less acute. In an essay about a remarkable man, a 1959 Letter that very nearly defines the words “modesty” and “forbearance,” Cooke describes Gen. George Marshall:
“Imagine now, a sturdy, well-knit man, stiff-necked, it would be fair to say, in the physical sense, with sandy hair and mild blue eyes and a homely underslung mouth from which issued unspectacular remarks in a throaty voice.”
Cooke insists that his talks are not prepared in any conventional fashion: “I have little idea when I sit down at the typewriter what I am going to talk about. This, I believe, is the proper psychological condition for composing a talk.”
Interviewed by Charlie Rose in May 1996, Cooke described the development of his most recent Letter: “I suddenly had a memory of being on the Kitty Hawk, an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.” He was there to observe missile firings. A vice admiral he had known many years before escorted him to a tiny darkened room with a huge flashing console where he was astonished to find President Kennedy sitting in his famous rocking chair.
“Well,” says Cooke, “I started there and this took me all through the whole business of disability — Grover Cleveland, Franklin Roosevelt — ending with the auction of [Kennedy's] chair…I think that if you just tap your unconscious, the stuff comes out.”
Still, once embarked upon an essay, craft appears to take over the writing as well as the spoken presentation: “Any meandering [or casualness] must be calculated.
houghtfulness must distribute the elements of suspense. Ideally, everything that is said must flatter, excite or tease the ear.”
And a good story helps. Cooke commences a 1962 Letter (“Glenn in Orbit”) with these words:
“The 20th of February 1962, is a day anyone who lived through it will never forget. For 20 minutes after the launching of Colonel John Glenn in Friendship 7 from its pad at Cape Canaveral, the New York Police Department reported that not a single call had come in to any police station: even crime stood still.”
His account of Glenn’s flight correctly emphasized the strong possibility that the colonel might be burned to a cinder — warning lights showed that the heat shield might be tearing away. The report is nearly as heart-stopping now as was the short, suspenseful flight itself.
Broadcast time restrictions force Cooke to weigh his words carefully. Contemporary talk show hosts listening to him must marvel at what discipline can bring to understanding. One of his cardinal rules is “Make your point and sit down.”
Heather McClean has been Cooke’s producer in New York for the last six years. She comes from the BBC London’s popular News at One on Radio 4.
“The best thing about it,” she says, “is that Alistair and I have become best friends, and that was a totally unexpected bonus. I went into producing this very warily because he had a bit of a reputation of being tough on producers. He seemed to be reaching the end of his tether, I think, with different producers coming out from London every six months. They kept trying to make him do different things, and he wasn’t going to. He’d been [doing the program his way] for many years, and he wasn’t going to change every six months.
“But almost from the beginning we hit it off very well. Now we’re great friends — I’m sort of an honorary grandchild.”
Alfred Alistair Cooke was born on November 20, 1908, in Manchester, England, and spent much of his childhood in the seaside town of Blackpool on Britain’s northwest coast. In a prologue to his book, Alistair Cooke’s America, he describes how he first learned about the U.S. by becoming a regimental mascot for American soldiers who came to England on their way to fight in France in World War I. Seven of them were billeted in the Cookes’ home: “It was a rare experience for a middle-class English boy,” he writes, “to encounter a Yank in the flesh, not in the silent films of Buster Keaton, Mary Pickford and William S. Hart.”
“To a wide-eyed nine year-old, everything about them was peculiar and fascinating. They all seemed to have the same table manners and wore what looked like Boy Scout caps. They were formal with adults but addressed children as equals.” His father explained that their biscuity complexions were due to skyscrapers that shadowed their faces year ’round.
Later, Cooke explains, after reading American literature — “including the incomprehensible Tom Sawyer,” his idea of America became sharper but no more accurate. Its geography, which he was to explore tirelessly during his adult life, consisted of “New York, with red men in its suburbs, a huge prairie beyond, with a river, the great Mississippi, thrashing with steamboats and gamblers, another yawning prairie, the Rockies and eventually the Pacific and San Francisco” (which he was told had been founded by Australian convicts).
In September 1932, soon after graduating from Cambridge, he sailed for New York with a two-year commonwealth Fellowship enabling him to pursue graduate studies at Yale and Harvard. One of the obligations of the fellowship was to tour as many states as possible in a car supplied to him for this purpose. This was during Franklin Roosevelt’s first 100 dramatic days in office.
In 1934 he was 26 and near the end of his visit to America. Walking out one morning in Boston, a newspaper article caught his eye: “BBC Fires PM’s Son.” He knew this to be the BBC’s film critic, Oliver Baldwin, son of Britain’s then Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. Hastening to the nearest telegraph office, he wired London urging his interest in the position. What followed — a series of lucky breaks expedited by Cooke’s own enterprise — established him as a journalist. When he returned to the U.S. in 1938, this time on an immigrant visa (he became an American citizen in 1941), he soon became a second-string correspondent for the BBC and the London Times. Later, and for many years, he was chief foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian.
“For 35 years,” he writes in Alistair Cooke’s America,”I covered everything from the public life of six presidents to the private life of a burlesque stripper, from the black market in beef to the Back Panthers, from the Marshall Plan to Planned Parenthood, from Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s last stand to the massacre of Muhammad Ali by Joe Frazier.”
During his life in the U.S. he has made dozens of automobile tours throughout the U.S. On his early travels he would pack in an orange crate the federal guides to all the states through which he would be passing, many written by gifted authors associated with the Writers Project of the Works Project Administration (WPA).
By 1946, Cooke had been talking to the British about America for 12 years. Much of this described America’s World War II efforts. It was called “Sunday Night American Commentary.” Now he was recalled to London to discuss broadcast reports in peacetime. People need not suffer instructions in U.S. Senate procedures, he felt, or the subtleties of the country’s hog-corn ratio. What they wanted to hear about was “everyday life.” Happily, the head of the BBC’s Home Service not only agreed but suggested that he forget about politics altogether and talk about anything and everything in America that interested him.
As Cooke recalled later, “A great friend of the BBC who’d been running things in this country, said, ‘We’re so fed up with the war and everything to do with it. Why don’t we start something quite new?’ When I asked what about, he replied, ‘Just talk about all the things you talk to me about — the history of ice cream, American children, the chemistry of the New England fall.'” He was told the BBC would try it for 13 weeks and if it became a wild success it might be extended for 26 weeks. In March, 1946, the BBC commissioned the first Letter from America and set in motion its run of more than 50 years and more than 2,600 programs.
The audience was large and varied — ranging, Cooke says, “from shrewd bishops to honest carpenters.” He would have to explain “the passions, the manners, the flavor of another nation’s way of life. It was a formidable assignment.” He recalls thinking that “It may never have been done except by minstrels, the great religious teachers and comedians of genius.”
From the beginning he took seriously the invitation to write about anything and everything. For this he found himself criticized and, no doubt, envied. While no contrarian, Cooke rarely follows the lead of other journalists. In response to a reporter who chided him for presenting a Letter about American football in the midst of a world crisis concerning the Suez Canal, he replied, “I feel no embarrassment in maintaining in a war-like time, a civil tongue.” Later, during the tension-filled atmosphere of the Cold War, he wrote, “Even the prospect of early annihilation should not keep us from making the most of our days on this unhappy planet.”
He has kept his promise to write about what he believes most people outside the U.S. want to know about Americans. In a preface to a published collection of Letters (Talk about America, 1968), he writes, “People are permanently curious about how other people live — and all the politicians and propagandists in the world, working three shifts a day, cannot forever impose their line on two people sitting in a room.” The first Letter in Cooke’s “Middle Years” collection of broadcasts is illustrative. Entitled “Making a Home of a House” (1969), it describes presidential preferences, our leaders’ efforts to make the White House conform to their personal lives.
Though the presidents have had different political styles, Cooke believes that other kinds of variations among them are more fascinating: “I mean, quite simply, the way the man lives, what he does with his day, the gadgets he likes to have around him, the sort of midnight snack he chooses to steal from the refrigerator.”
His chief reference for this broadcast is Ike Hoover, for 42 years the chief usher at the White House, who set down his reminiscences in a book. He is, like Cooke, himself, “a sharp-eyed man who makes small observations about character and taste” — a Cooke specialty.
Here we meet Herbert Hoover, who never notices his staff or says good morning, good evening or Merry Christmas. Here, too, are variations on presidential laughter, food fads, egotism and sleeping habits: the Trumans nibbling away at cold, hard dinner rolls for weeks until Bess finally summons up the courage to request a change to “the bread of their fathers — hot and crumbly.” Here is the huge electric console Johnson had rigged up in his office — “winking and blinking and telling how many people wished to reach him.”
Theodore Roosevelt is found festooning the walls with the heads of moose and bison: “His successor couldn’t wait to ship them away and walk through the White House standing up straight.” Nixon’s desire for a small office where he could put his feet up is noted, with (“a moving note,” says Cooke) “an open fire, even with the air-conditioning turned way up in the blistering days of summer.”
In a passage that sums up much that is typical of Cooke’s reportorial manner, he describes Johnson’s fondness for the work of the artist Frederick Remington, who painted realistic pictures of the West — horses, cattle, cowboys, and soldiers. At Johnson’s insistence, two such paintings were shipped to the White House and hung in a room outside his big office. “Johnson,” says Cooke, “would look at them as other men look at a Rubens or a photograph of their grandmother, and a tear would form in the corner of one eye. He’d sniff like a gusting wind and brush away the tear with the back of his hand the size of a cod.”
As Cooke says of Ike Hoover, and might accurately say of himself, “He puts down whatever comes to mind — always with propriety but never with censorship.”
“I don’t know anyone who can produce such fine work in such a short time,” says Heather McClean. “No one I know can knock out six or seven pages of script in one or two hours and make it sound so personal, as if it was a letter to you. It’s an amazing opportunity to work with somebody so incredibly brilliant at his art. I believe he still has the largest audience on domestic [U.K.] radio. After all these years.”
“I love doing it,” Cooke told an interviewer in 1996, “more than all the years in print and television…and I always feel, each time, you’re trying to master this art of seeming to talk off the top of your head.”
It is a great disadvantage, in the absence of his own voice, to describe the way Cooke presents his material. Those who watched him introduce dramas on Masterpiece Theatre will have some idea of his courtly, rather patrician and civilized style. In this role he wrote all the program openings and closings and, although a TV prompter was available, chose to memorize them all for the camera. He once produced 13 of them (for Poldark) in one day. Russell Baker, his Masterpiece replacement, when first estimating the task of introducing the often complex dramas for the series, commented, “To say anything that was interesting in that cramped space would be like trying to stage a ballet in a telephone booth.”
The Letter is, of course, a much different writing assignment, offering the author/presenter more time to make his point before sitting down. They are less formal, but no less concise and elegant, than his TV presentations. The radio delivery is crisp and clear in his signature trans-Atlantic accent. There are also sighs; he is far from a talking machine. These are not the sighs of despair or disgust; ruefulness, perhaps, or a genuine world-weariness, the exhalations of a man who has just discovered, poking about in his wine cellar, that he is down to the last three bottles of his favorite 1961 claret. Cooke’s audible breathing causes him to sound unlike most professional broadcasters. It seems possible that this is part of the artfulness, the guile, that he cheerfully acknowledges. The slightly confidential, but less than intimate, manner creates an atmosphere one might find in the small bar of a London club where formality mingles with coziness and the expectation of hearing some good stories. This is how Cooke begins his 1971 Letter describing the achievements of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson:
“On a fall evening as the twilight came on, the control tower at Kennedy Airport stacked up the incoming jets to allow a flight of wild geese to go on their way unharmed to the south. As they passed over Tidewater Maryland, an old man with a noble head and a bristling guardsman’s moustache was sitting in his study on his farm. One minute he was a vigorous man, the next moment he slumped over, and at nightfall the news went out from Washington that Dean Acheson, Harry Truman’s champion, friend and Secretary of State, was dead.”
Cooke goes on to chronicle Acheson’s difficulties in the McCarthy period and his plan to salvage Europe’s economy after World War II, a scheme he outlined for George Marshall, insisting that Marshall make it his own in a Harvard speech. Near the end of this talk, in the resigned reflection of a thoughtful and experienced journalist, he says, “I suppose it’s only part of the common tragedy of the passing of time that those who know what such a man as Acheson did, don’t need to be reminded, and the rest are either too bored or too skeptical to care.”
Here and elsewhere in Cooke’s reporting there are echoes of an earlier journalist, the Baltimore Sun‘s H.L. Menken, the subject of a Cooke biography. Menken, he acknowledges, had the largest influence upon his own journalism.
Inevitably Cooke sometimes contrasts American lives with those of his British audience, as in “The Retiring Kind,” first broadcast in September 1977, a comparison between British and American ways of work and retirement. The Americans, he observes, are frustrated by years of the rat race and can’t wait for their annuities, after which they mope and putter about aimlessly. The British, by contrast, “assume that any job carries with it daily stretches of boredom. They jog along, then retire on an inadequate pension, then are galvanized into doing what they’ve wanted to do all their lives: to collect butterflies, collect stamps, collect match books, read all of Trollop or grow turnips.” (Cooke makes passing reference to the woman he met who had, in retirement, seen 79 performances of The Sound of Music and longed for more.) “Boredom to mania in Britain, the other way around in America.”
Many of Cooke’s social commentaries are not, in the end, what they seem to be at the outset. His 1957 broadcast, “The American Neurosis: Instant Health” is highly informative but essentially a spoof on the frequent pomposity of “the scientific method.” “Incidentally,” he says, not so incidentally, “a famous statistician, the father of modern statistics, doubting the statistical method recently employed by the American Cancer Society in its studies of cigarette smoking, says that the decline in the sale of female corsets exactly parallels the rise in the number of bald heads who frequent burlesque shows.” After examining the potential hazards of drinking milk, jogging and cross-cultural shock, he concludes that “sometimes it hardly seems worth hanging on, does it?”
Although these broadcast essays are, most of them, informed by optimism and worldly amusement, a strain of irony, of fatalism, is never far to find. They appear to be written by a modest, and moderately cheerful realist. His Letter on a failed attempt to assassinate John F. Kennedy is as chilling as his account of Robert Kennedy’s death.
For a writer of Cooke’s skill and insight, it’s hardly surprising that soon after his Letter broadcasts began, requests for printed copies seriously strained the capacity of the mimeograph machine in the BBC New York office. And soon there were offers from major publishers to put them out in book form. Cooke explains: “This has the same effect on a broadcaster as a nomination for the President of the United States on a first-class cement manufacturer. The thing is patently absurd, except to his cronies. But the idea first flatters then haunts him, and he ends by feeling he must accept a sacred duty to save the Republic … “Publishers began to massage me and lonely widows to cajole me, until it seemed churlish to resist.”
During the time he was making choices for the first of his three collections of published broadcasts, Cooke estimated his success rate (“when I managed to convey some human emotion in language most people could understand”) at about one in five, but not necessarily the ones that looked good in print. By the time the series ran to 200 he decided there was a good handful that would survive the translation to black and white.
At least one criterion must also have guided the choice of broadcasts chosen for the audio tape collections. “I have,” he says, “naturally succumbed to the pieces that have produced the heaviest fan mail.” “A Baby is Missing” is one among many now appearing in both media. About this harrowing story he explains, “…though I can find no justification for including a piece of reporting that is no practical help to anyone but a kidnapper, the mail was enormous after the talk.”
One of the most conspicuous reasons for the continuing popularity of his talks over 50 years is that he is a splendid storyteller. Even when he is concentrating his intense articulation and literary deftness upon an American “personality,” he has a story to tell. A fan of Duke Ellington for 40 years, Cooke finally encounters him personally for the first time in Ellington’s apartment. It is 2 p.m. The place is messy from a late-night party. Cooke recalls the Duke’s splendor on the bandstand; white tie and tails, “sleek as a seal.” Ellington finally appears, walking out of his bathroom in underwear shorts, looking like a swami with his head wrapped in a towel, ordering a breakfast “both tasty and medicinal.” Amidst this deluge of details, Cooke never allows us to forget that he is here on a difficult mission — to persuade the musician to permit the BBC to film a rehearsal of his orchestra.
On another occasion he is invited by a friend to a small and, as it develops, rather bibulous luncheon at the San Francisco Golf Club to discuss golf with the Russian consul general. Says Cooke, “This is like being invited by a rabbi to lunch with the Pope to discuss stud poker. I accepted instantly.”
The son of Bobby Jones, the golf course designer, is co-host. It occurs to Cooke just before “the party goes off in electric carts like a little mobilized battalion” that he is expected to assist in persuading the burly diplomat that Russia would greatly benefit from the construction of its first-ever golf course. Cooke applies himself to the task over numerous vodkas with results that the writer/broadcaster/storyteller does not fully reveal, needless to say, until the end.
Although Cooke frequently observes the habits of average Americans — foresters, government land agents, tattoo artists — some of his most perceptive journalistic talents are reserved for celebrities, persons the popular media have persuaded the public it “knows.” In his 1977 broadcast, “Two for the Road,” he talks about Groucho Marx and Bing Crosby, men, it is fair to assume, he has known personally and for a long time. The sketch of Crosby is engaging and revealing in the arresting way a swiftly produced, seemingly artless, sketch can be moving.
A description of his physical appearance sets the scene and makes us feel at home: Crosby, with “big ears, looking like a taxicab with both doors open,” is kidding around on the set, manic really, with Bob Hope and others in a film production crew. Then the lights dim and the forever-recognizable Crosby suddenly droops. He’s someone who “looked you in the eye, but with the gray, tired eyes of a man who’d seen everything. A lot of fun, but also a lot of grief and was never going to be surprised by anything said or done…His butler couldn’t recall that he’d had any close friends.”
“I can’t think of another man with anything like his fame,” continues Cooke, who has cast his perceptive eye on an army of famous people, “who was so unrattled by it.”
To demonstrate this modesty, Cooke describes the singer’s interview with Barbara Walters in which she finally says, “Are you telling me that’s all there is? A nice, agreeable shell of a man?” To which Crosby, “unfloored,” responds, “Sure, that’s about it. I have no deep thoughts, no profound philosophy. That’s right. I guess that’s what I am.”
“It was so startling,” muses Cooke, “so honest and probably true, that it explained why, through hard times he’s been able to stay on an even keel. Perhaps he was one of those people who, though not at all selfish, are deeply self-centered — what they call ‘a very private person.’ Because he couldn’t identify deeply with other people’s troubles, he was able to appear, and to be, everybody’s buddy.
“He was the least exhibitionist celebrity I’ve ever known, and because death is so dramatic, so showy, some of us cannot believe he won’t show up in the locker room tomorrow and say, ‘Well, skipper, how’s tricks?'”
Cooke rarely writes about himself and discourages most others from doing so (although Nick Clark of BBC Radio 4 is at work on a biography with his cooperation). Much of what we know about him must be inferred by what he chooses to write about. In a 1977 introduction to his book “Six Men” (Knopf) — “A Note on Fame and Friendship” — he gives us a glimpse of himself through his choices. The six are Chaplin, Bogart, Adlai Stevenson, Bertrand Russell, Edward VIII and H.L. Mencken. Only Chaplin was still alive when the book was first published in 1956, reflecting Cooke’s aversion to writing about “living eminences.”
He says he took an immediate “sympat” (quoting Max Beerbohm’s word) to each of the six men, and goes on to say “…they all seem to me to be deeply conservative men who, for various psychological reasons, yearned to be recognized rather as hellions or brave progressives. Perhaps that is their real link to this writer.”
An irony that Alistair Cooke would be the first to fully appreciate: at a time when broadcasting makes information ubiquitously accessible, his Letter from America is nearly unknown in the country he has been so keenly observing for more than 60 years. Perhaps U.S. public radio will find a place for a retrospective series of these extraordinary talks. Until then there are Cooke’s selections on tape.
In any event, future historians, sifting through the complexities of American 20th century life, will almost certainly find Cooke’s weekly broadcasts and be generously rewarded by their penetrating and entertaining insights that, as he says, “run up and down the human scale” and are understood by an audience throughout the world.
Copyright 1998 American University