Alistair Cooke KBE (20 November 1908 – 30 March 2004) was a British journalist, television personality and broadcaster.
Outside his journalistic output, which included Letter from America and Alistair Cooke’s America, he was well known in the United States as the host of PBS Masterpiece Theatre from 1971 to 1992.
After holding the job for 22 years, and having worked in television for 42 years, Cooke retired in 1992, although he continued to present Letter from America until shortly before his death.
He was the father of author and folk singer John Byrne Cooke.
Cooke was born in Salford, Lancashire, England, the son of Mary Elizabeth (Byrne) and Samuel Cooke.
His father was a lay Methodist preacher and metalsmith by trade; his mother’s family were of Irish Protestant origin. Originally named Alfred, he changed his name to Alistair when he was 22.
He was educated at Blackpool Grammar School, Blackpool and won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained an honours degree (2:1) in English.
He was heavily involved in the arts, was editor of Granta, and set up the Mummers, Cambridge’s first theatre group open to both sexes, from which he notably rejected a young James Mason, telling him to stick to architecture.
Cooke became engaged to Henrietta Riddle, the daughter of Henry Ainley. While he was attending Yale University and Harvard University on a Commonwealth fund fellowship, she deserted him. He met Ruth Emerson, a great-grandniece of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1933, and they married on 24 August 1934. Their son, John Byrne Cooke, was born 5 October 1940 in New York City, New York.
Alistair Cooke divorced Ruth in 1944, and married Jane White Hawkes, a portrait painter and the widow of neurologist A. Whitfield Hawkes, the son of Albert W. Hawkes, on 30 April 1946. Their daughter, Susan, was born on 22 March 1949.
Cooke saw a newspaper headline stating that Oliver Baldwin, the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s son, had been sacked by the BBC as film critic.
Cooke sent a telegram to the Director of Talks, asking if he would be considered for the post. He was invited for an interview and took a Cunard liner back to Britain, arriving twenty-four hours late for his interview. He suggested typing out a film review on the spot, and a few minutes later, he was offered the job. He also sat on a BBC committee headed by George Bernard Shaw for correct pronunciation.
Cooke was also the London correspondent for NBC. Each week, he recorded a 15-minute radio dialogue for American listeners on life in Britain, under the series title of London Letter.
In 1936, he intensively reported on the Edward VIII abdication crisis for NBC. He made several talks on the topic each day to listeners in many parts of the United States. He calculated that in ten days he spoke 400,000 words on the subject. During the crisis, he was aided by a twenty-year-old Rhodes Scholar, Walt Rostow, who would become Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security advisor.
In 1937, Cooke emigrated to the United States, he became a United States citizen and swore the Oath of Allegiance on 1 December 1941, six days before Pearl Harbor was attacked. Shortly after emigrating, Cooke suggested to the BBC the idea of doing the London Letter in reverse: a 15-minute talk for British listeners on life in America. A prototype, Mainly About Manhattan, was broadcast intermittently from 1938, but the idea was shelved with the outbreak of World War II in 1939.
During this time, as well, Cooke undertook a journey through the whole United States, recording the lifestyle of ordinary Americans during the war and their reactions to it. The manuscript was published as The American Home Front: 1941–1942 in the United States (and as Alistair Cooke’s American Journey: Life on the Home Front in the Second World War in the UK) in 2006.
The first American Letter was broadcast on 24 March 1946 (Cooke said this was at the request of Lindsey Wellington, the BBC’s New York Controller); the series was initially commissioned for only 13 instalments. The series came to an end 58 years (2,869 instalments) later, in March 2004.
Along the way, it picked up a new name (changing from American Letter to Letter from America in 1950) and an enormous audience, being broadcast not only in Britain and in many other Commonwealth countries, but throughout the world by the BBC World Service.
In 1947, Cooke became a foreign correspondent for the Manchester Guardian newspaper (later The Guardian), for which he wrote until 1972. It was the first time he had been employed as a staff reporter; all his previous work had been freelance.
In reporting on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, begun by Rosa Parks and led by Martin Luther King, Cooke expressed sympathy for the economic costs imposed on the city bus company and referred to Mrs. Parks as “the stubborn woman who started it all … to become the Paul Revere of the boycott.”
In 1952, Cooke became the host of CBS’s Omnibus, the first commercial network television series devoted to the arts. It featured appearances by such personalities as Hume Cronyn, Jessica Tandy, Gene Kelly and Leonard Bernstein. Jonathan Winters was the first comic to appear on the show.
Cooke took up golf in his mid-fifties, developing a fascination with the game, despite never attaining an extraordinary level of skill.
He was driven by his love of golf to devote many of his Letters from America to the topic, speaking once of the thrill of learning “how much more awesome was the world of golf than the world of politics.” Cooke became close friends with many of the leading golfers of the era: Jack Nicklaus, in the introduction to a compilation of Cooke’s writing on golf, recounts his many notable achievements, but describes him as “most of all … a friend.”
In 1966 he was invited to deliver the MacMillan Memorial Lecture to the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland. He chose the subject “The Jet Age and the Habits of Man”.
In 1968, he was only yards away from Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated, witnessing the events that followed.
In 1971, he became the host of the new Masterpiece Theatre, PBS’s showcase of quality British television. He remained its host for 22 years, before retiring from the role in 1992.
He achieved his greatest popularity in the United States in this role, becoming the subject of many parodies, including “Alistair Cookie” in Sesame Street & No.39’s “Monsterpiece Theater” (“Alistair Cookie” was also the name of a clay animated cookie-headed spoof character created by Will Vinton as the host of a video trailer for The Little Prince and Friends); Alistair Quince, portrayed by Harvey Korman who introduced many episodes in the early seasons of Mama’s Family.
America: A Personal History of the United States (1972), a 13-part television series about the United States and its history, was first broadcast in both the United Kingdom and the United States in 1973, and was followed by a book of the same title.
It was a great success in both countries, and resulted in Cooke’s being invited to address the joint Houses of the United States Congress as part of Congress’s bicentennial celebrations.
After the series’ broadcast in Ireland, Cooke won a Jacob’s Award, one of the few occasions when this award was made to the maker of an imported programme.
Later the same year, Cooke was awarded an honorary knighthood (KBE) for his “outstanding contribution to Anglo-American mutual understanding.” Cooke was reportedly happy to accept, because in the words of Thomas Jefferson, it did not involve “the very great vanity of a title.” Having relinquished his British citizenship during World War II, he could not be called “Sir Alistair”.
On 2 March 2004, at the age of 95, following advice from his doctors, Cooke announced his retirement from Letters from America – after 58 years, the longest-running speech radio show in the world.
Cooke died at midnight on 30 March 2004, at his home in New York City. He had been ill with heart disease, but died of lung cancer, which had spread to his bones. He was cremated, and his ashes were clandestinely scattered by his family in Central Park.
On 22 December 2005, the New York Daily News reported that the bones of Cooke and many other people had been surgically removed before cremation by employees of Biomedical Tissue Services of Fort Lee, New Jersey, a tissue-recovery firm.
The thieves sold the bones for use as medical-grade bone grafts. The cancer from which Cooke was suffering had spread to his bones, making them unsuitable for grafts. Reports indicated the people involved in selling the bones altered his death certificate to hide the cause of death and reduce his age from 95 to 85. Michael Mastromarino, a former New Jersey–based oral surgeon, and Lee Cruceta agreed to a deal that resulted in their imprisonment. Mastromarino was sentenced on 27 June 2008, in the New York Supreme Court, to 18 to 54 years’ imprisonment.
The entire story of the theft featured in a documentary aimed at educating the public about modern day grave robbery. On the morning of 7 July 2013, Michael Mastromarino died at St. Luke’s Hospital after suffering from bone cancer. He was 49.
After Alistair Cooke’s death the Fulbright Alistair Cooke Award in Journalism was established as a tribute to the man and his life and career achievements. The award supports students from the United Kingdom to undertake studies in the United States, and for Americans to study in the United Kingdom.