Alistair Cooke

by Tom on March 8, 2004

I’m saddened by the news that Alistair Cooke has decided that the ‘Letter from America’ he read on the 20th of February would be the last one. If Cooke had decided that, at ninety-five, he simply didn’t want the hassle of the damn thing anymore, that would be one thing, but it seems that the decision to stop was prompted by the outrageous medical advice that it’s usual and desirable for ninety-five year-olds to slow down a bit. Fair enough, but I was rooting for Cooke to be making me smile when he’d made his century.

Nonetheless, I hope that AC enjoys the time left to him, and that his health leaves him able to share with his family and friends the humour, humanity and learning, always lightly-worn, he’s been sharing with the rest of us since 1946 when the ‘Letter’ was first broadcast.

I’ve been fascinated by American politics since my teens, and if, hypothetically, one had such an interest and was for some reason unable to find something more conventionally adolescent to do on a Friday night, one might imagine that Cooke’s letters, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8:45 PM, would be something to look forward to and to savour.

Better yet: the fact that transcripts of certain of his greatest hits going back to the ‘forties are available from Penguin enables one to take a step back more than half a century to sample some superbly shrewd, stylish writing on the kind of stuff that one would have to read incredible amounts from all over the place to cover otherwise.

For instance, consider Cooke’s piece about Colonel Robert McCormick, the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, on the event of the latter’s death in the 1955. AC gives a preliminary sketch of this ‘self-appointed defender of the Midwest against its perpetual legendary rival and persecutor, the financial East’, and indicates that McCormick’s public persona was that of the

… rugged, downright rough diamond, unaffected, unlettered, but unbowed, the very archetype of the Irish and Germans and Poles and Swedes and Czechs who built the railroads and ran the factories and sowed the prarie soil and intermarried to produce a new man in the world whom we know as the Midwesterner.

Cooke then turns on a sixpence to point out that McCormick was in fact just as effete, coddled and frankly Eastern in his personal life as his contemporary at Groton, Franklin D. Roosevelt:

He took tea at precisely four thirty in the afternoon, a custom indulged in in this country only by the most rabid Anglophiles. His voice could hardly boast a single Midwestern vowel, uvula r, or cadence. In horrid fact, he had more than a trace of a British accent. So that if you went to Chicago looking for that archetypal Midwesterner you would never have found him. He looked indeed like a Tory clubman, a Bond Street polo player, of the vintage of 1912. Freud, thou shouldst be living at this hour!

Before Cooke is done, we’ve had a thumbnail history of the Tribune, an explanation of its role in the inculcation of American customs and manners in the immigrants pouring into Chicago in the first half of the last century, and the nice dig that, to this day, ‘it is impossible not to notice the Midwestern chip on the shoulder, which Colonel McCormich elevated to the dignity of an epaulette’. All in fifteen minutes.

Another favourite of mine is the talk Cooke did when John Nance Garner died in 1967. (Garner was FDR’s Vice-President in his first two terms for those who would otherwise need to google for him, as indeed would I if I hadn’t read Cooke). AC says that Garner ‘would not have claimed to understand or sympathize with the trouble in the cities, the missions to the moon, or the turn of American life much after 1934’, and traces this back to Garner’s origins in post-Civil War Texas, of which AC then gives this pungent description:

[This was] a frontier which was riddled with army deserters, cattle thieves, claim jumpers, and strangers who came in and settled down to a farm on the general presumption of their neighbours that they had shot an uncle or sired an untimely baby someplace in Tennessee or the Carolinas. I well remember… sitting at the bedside of a very aged lady in Alpine, Texas. She would have been about ten or fifteen Garner’s senior, but she talked with that intense concreteness of the very old when they are recalling their childhood and youth. She talked about the feuding families and the silent types who settled in the Davis Mountains; and she spoke with contempt of an expansive jolly man who came through in the 1870s, was full of praise for the bare landscape, and said he meant to settle there for the reason that he liked the people and thought it great farming country. Evidently, he had not shot or ravished anybody. ‘From then on’, said the old crone, ‘he was a suspicious character.’

Cooke is, unsurprisingly in a protege of H.L. Mencken’s, capable of some lovely wit when he feels like it. One of the talks is entitled ‘The Summer Bachelor’, and covers the mid-century tendency for wives and children to depart Manhatten during the hottest summer months, leaving the mouse to to play, so to speak. (Does this still happen? I’ve no idea.) AC offers us this droll little thing about the possible effects of the invention of air-conditioning on this custom:

Two days ago, a Wednesday, I pressed the elevator button of my apartment house and as the door slid back it revealed the capacious frame of a neighbour of mine from the twelfth floor. He is a retired old gentleman, a notable fisherman and a solid but saucy character. I asked him what kept him in town in mid-week. ‘Are you kidding’, he said. ‘It’s like the basin of the Ganges out there. I retreated to this wonderful apartment. And you know what? My wife showed up this morning. God damn!’

‘If this goes on’, I said, ‘it’s going to play the devil with fishing.’

‘Fishing nothing’, he said. ‘It’s going to play hell with marriage.’

Perhaps one of the most glorious things about Cooke is that, though he wrote superbly about politics, he was adamant that politics was not the amongst the most important things in life. (I suspect I may not be alone amongst Crooked Timber readers in needing to be reminded of this fact from time to time.)

The preface to the first volume of talks has this passage:

Politics will undoubtedly bedevil us till the day we die, but… even the prospect of early annihilation should not keep us from making the most of our days on this unhappy planet. In the best of times, our days are numbered, anyway. And it would be a crime against Nature to take the world crisis so solemnly that it put us off enjoying those things for which we were presumably designed in the first place, and which the gravest statesmen and the hoarsest polititicians hope to make available to all men in the end: I mean the opportunity to do good work, to fall in love, to enjoy friends, to sit under trees, to read, to hit a ball and bounce the baby.

In a later talk entitled ‘Politics and the Human Animal’, Cooke quotes Justice Holmes’ line that ‘the purpose of civilised argument between friends is to arrive at the point where you agree that some day it might be necessary to shoot each other’, and concludes:

Let us take our stand on the Middle East, or Vietnam, or whatever, and in the process perhaps lose a friend or shoot a friend, or agree to differ and do neither. Then let us get down to life and living.

Cooke’s work was a wonderful argument for doing exactly that, and I thank him for it.



nick 03.08.04 at 12:45 am

I’ve always been a little ambivalent towards Cooke; in part, because of the increasingly crabby and reactionary sensibility on display in his later years. Admittedly, at his age, it’s unsurprising; but I can remember him discussing the campaign to admit women to the Augusta National, and realising that his gofers’ love of that old bastion of prejudice quite blinded him to modernity.

Ah well.


keef 03.08.04 at 12:56 am

I, too, am saddened that Alistair Cooke has departed the BBC. His elegant distillations of American mores and moods were the most intriguing parts of BBC as played on New York public radio (WNYC), even in recent years. His letters after September 11 were simply beautiful.

And, during the trans-Atlantic tensions surrounding the Iraq war, he seemed to describe to Brits (and Europeans) aspects of the American national character that I needed related to me, too — and I am a born and raised American.

And, he could even raise my interest about things I cared not a whit. For instance, I could care less about golf, but his rendering of the life of Bobby Jones which I heard not long ago has stuck with me.

He was occasionally a bit out of step with the times, but that he could step at all at his age is the amazing thing.

Godspeed to you Alistair Cooke.


(PS: On a side note, I believe some of the upper crust may still have wife and kids bundled off to summer homes while the husband stays in the city during the summer, but it’s much more common for the middle class Manhattanites to have weekend places or summer vacations they share together. Things are different from 1955, when the movie The Seven Year Itch used summer disappearances by wife and kids to place Marilyn Monroe in conjunction with a temporarily solo Manhattanite.)


Tom Runnacles 03.08.04 at 1:04 am

Agreed that Cooke’s views clearly placed him in a different age by the time he signed off for the last time…

But I actually rather valued that: right to the end he was incredibly smart, and obviously well-intentioned, and if you read enough of his stuff you know that he was, in his guts, a liberal. So I couldn’t write him off as any kind of flack or fool: I had to think through what the guy had to say.

One way of putting it would be to say that Cooke was the best possible spokesman for a generation whose sensibility I for one would otherwise find pretty incomprehensible.


Mr Ripley 03.08.04 at 2:13 am

Oh, dear –it’s important to have “the opportunity to do good work, to fall in love, to enjoy friends, to sit under trees, to read, to hit a ball and bounce the baby”? I’m sorry, but three out of the last four are beyond me –I consistently miss the ball and drop the baby, whereas the birds in the tree I sit under never miss me with what they drop. Now I know why I think too much about politics instead.


JX 03.08.04 at 2:38 am

Have the Hamptons sunk into the sea?

No? Then yes, there are still summer bachelors in New York City.

IIRC, there was a feature on it in the New York Times only a few years back.


teebolt 03.08.04 at 2:51 am

Back in the day, I think, his Letter from America gave not simply a wonderful view of the U.S. but one uniquely filtered through his immense experience. I remember him flittering from one subject to another, ending on some obscure experience he had during the Bank Holiday of 1933, etc.

It was a truly worthwhile program. Nevertheless, in the past year or so, he has kind of hardened in his approach and politics — it’s hard to say where he stood politically prior to this. Now there’s no doubt and it overwhelms much of what he still has to communicate.

This is unfortunate. The BBC needs someone without the usual ideological brassness to put all things American in their proper context. Unfortunately, it’s no longer AC. I wish him well.



bob mcmanus 03.08.04 at 4:55 am

I seem to remember Cooke getting a great deal of credit for helping build a friendship between America and Britain before America entered the war. I have even heard him described as having help save Britain. Maybe we are all too young to remember. As an American, I somehow feel I owe him for our best friend in the world.


neil 03.08.04 at 7:03 am

It’s disappointing to hear that Cooke is at last retiring. On the other hand, I chose him in a dead pool for 2004. and this appears to make it more likely that I’ll win a point.


VJ 03.08.04 at 9:56 am

The man was well past his prime and going on fumes for the last few years. That was obvious. Yes, he still consistently wrote well. What he wrote about was usually reasonably interesting. His perspective was universally crabbed, conservative to the core, pedantic, and typically ‘cootish’. He was the old coot he had become sometime during the Reagan era. He hated the Clintons, loved the Bushs and admired most of the Repug. agenda over here. Needless to say these are neither ‘enlightened’ nor ‘liberal’ viewpoints. He may have once been a ‘war liberal’ during WW11, but then again so was Reagan. I had stopped listening to him years ago for his consistent old fashioned fartishness. Clearly a man who over stayed his welcome by some 20 years here.


Dave F 03.08.04 at 10:35 am

vj: What an ageist, pompous, patronising and meanspirited comment. Still, perhaps before you’re 95, you’ll be compulsorily silenced by euthanasia.

Bad cess to you from an old fart still talking, and not requiring any welcome by you to do so.


harry 03.08.04 at 1:32 pm

bq. I’ve been fascinated by American politics since my teens, and if, hypothetically, one had such an interest and was for some reason unable to find something more conventionally adolescent to do on a Friday night, one might imagine that Cooke’s letters, broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 8:45 PM, would be something to look forward to and to savour

Tom, what you don’t consider is the possibility that if you were already addicted to listening to the radio aged 3 your subsequent interest in American politics might have been *caused* by listening to AC. I’m sure that’s the case with me. I listened to the Sunday morning broadcast, along with the Archers, On Your Farm, and the programme for Asian listeners (I must never have seen my family on Sunday mornings). From about age 3 till I left England at 22. For the US.

I think his doctor is giving him spectacularly bad advice, btw.


JX 03.08.04 at 2:21 pm

My grandfather is much more reactionary than Alistair Cooke and I still indulge him.

And Alistair Cooke is much more charming.


Sean 03.09.04 at 12:37 am

He is a great man who loves a great country. A thing of rarity in these ‘modern’ times…


VJ 03.09.04 at 9:13 am

I still say ‘yer all wet, and that few of you here have listened to him recently with an ‘American ear’. Yes, he wrote beautifully, fine. But to me, it came out sounding so damn… well, Republican as in the party of theocrats and autocrats. That turned me off for good after hearing that type of condescension for years. Give him a medal for past service, but he certainly stayed too long at the party. We all remember grand-dad fondly, but knew he was crackers when he went on about how swell Hitler looked in his uniform and how he only wanted ‘better’ for Germany. I don’t need any more damn apologists for a cravenly runious Republican agenda to take over the world by force of arms or crony finance. We mint more than enough of our own damnable apologists!

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