ALISTAIR COOKE: The Biography
By Nick Clarke
London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Available from News Weekly Books
For over half a century, readers in Britain and other countries have tuned the dials of their radios to listen to Letter from America (originally titled American Letter), composed and read by Alistair Cooke, a native of Britain who emigrated and settled there. Some may also remember Cooke for his entertaining TV series America and/or the book based on the series, which dealt with the history of the United States of America.
Despite being a nonagenarian, Clarke’s biography appears to be the first lengthy treatment of this prolific writer and contemporary affairs commentator. Part of the reason for this is Cooke’s reticence hitherto to assist in the writing of a biography. Indeed, Cooke acquiesced only after Clarke had gathered considerable material, particularly on Cooke’s early life: if the book were to be written, it would be better to ensure that the biographer had his facts straight (intro. p. xii).
Cooke came from a humble English background. Born Alfred Cooke in 1908, he spent most of his childhood in the seaside town of Blackpool. Raised in a strict Methodist family, from his early adult years onwards, Cooke was to be an agnostic. Whilst his older brother Sam was to be apprenticed to a butcher, Cooke’s academic abilities enabled him to complete his secondary education under the tutelage of some exceptional teachers and to obtain a scholarship to Cambridge.
Cooke spent much of his undergraduate life cultivating other interests, particularly the theatre. Whilst his failure to obtain First Class Honours compromised his chances of a fellowship or an academic position, the award of a two-year scholarship to study at Harvard and Yale Universities gave Cooke his first entrée to America. As a condition of the scholarship, Cooke spent the holidays travelling around the US, the first of a lifeline of trips around his adopted country.
Cooke also met his first wife, Ruth, and they were married towards the end of his sojourn. He returned to London in the mid 1930s, where he began his broadcasting career with the BBC, returning within a few years to the US. Cooke’s early professional life was marked by uncertain, short-term contracts, and a variable relationship with the BBC.
In 1946, Cooke married his second wife, Jane. During this period, he began to broadcast his American Letter. Initially intended to be only a short-run series by the BBC, the Letter from America has become one of the longest running programmes in the history of broadcasting. Each week for over 50 years, Cooke has provided insights into American culture, people and history.
Most of these insights seem to be the products of Cooke’s observations, insights gained whilst travelling around America and meeting Americans from all walks of life. In more recent years, many of the instalments of Letter from America have contained interesting reminiscences of famous world events that Cooke either witnessed first-hand or remembered well.
The popularity of Cooke’s series America, and the book based on the series were, Clarke argues, what finally made Cooke a rich man. The book initially envisaged as a means of supplementing revenue from the series was so popular that it went into a number of reprints within months of publication. To this day, it is arguably the most readable introduction to the history of the US. Cooke’s other works, particularly articles that appeared in the Guardian and his TV series Omnibus, are also discussed at length.
Alistair Cooke: The Biography is a very thorough portrait of one of this century’s most interesting journalists.