Peter Preston on Alistair Cooke

From 1947 to 1972, Alistair Cooke, who died yesterday, was the Guardian's chief US correspondent, covering events from the assassination of JFK to the rise to power of Fidel Castro. Peter Preston recalls a journalist who was sometimes difficult, but never less than remarkable

Once upon a not-so-distant time, a time of tubby Elvis and diminutive Diana Ross, of Connery as Bond and Clint as the man with no name, some things were very different.

One of them, for journalists, was the sheer business of keeping in touch. If you worked abroad for the Guardian, then you queued and importuned and bribed at grimy cable offices - or picked up a hotel phone and called Shirley in her Manchester cubicle, shorthand pad at the ready, typewriter (for the subsequent typing-up of copy) at her side. "Right, Shirley? Catchline: 'Chaos'. Story begins ..."

But those were the easy bits. Desk editors had it tougher. They had to hunt down their correspondents each morning, pin them to lengths and times and intros. They had, among other things, to keep track of Alistair Cooke.

Now it is, in a sense, wholly unfair to take pot shots at Cooke. A Guardian leader writer may once, playfully, have put into print the opinion that "Cooke was a nuisance", that "if all his colleagues were like him, then production of the paper would cease", but in fact he was by no means the worst internal communicator. He had a phone, for one thing, and often answered it. Later on in his Guardian life, he could usually be found in that sumptuous Fifth Avenue apartment - the one with a view of Central Park and a blissfully controlled rent - or round at the Manchester Guardian Weekly office a few blocks away.

A few other, more cantankerous foreign reporters had no home phones at all; indeed, refused to install them. Who wanted a wretched foreign editor on the line in the middle of a good dinner? Others simply dropped out of sight for days on end. "I was delighted to see the cable from you last night after the long silence," wrote editor Alastair Hetherington to his Washington correspondent. And some lowlier domestic editors, to be frank, would habitually travel from Manchester to London via Matlock, the slowest train route then available, in order to have their four-plus hours of undisturbed zizz and contemplation.

Deadlines, you may see, were not so much dead, as sleeping. The roar of the presses could sometimes turn to a genteel snore. When a boxing name (Sonny Liston, I think) died in 1970, the paper carried a big piece to start the week, then another on Wednesday. On Friday, Cooke called to put Liston on his filing menu. "We've had two pieces about that already," complained my friend on the Manchester desk. "No, but they haven't read me," Cooke replied.

The enduring assumption, in a world before satellites and cables and nets and CNN, was not exactly that instant news didn't matter, but that graceful, insightful, considered news features mattered just as much. Facts and insight were both sacred. Staff correspondents in New York, Paris or Rome were required to be observers and essayists. Their job was to separate the perception from the chaff, then convey it in evocative prose. Their role was to be noticed and remembered.

By those lights, Cooke was always a king. He could do the hard stuff, if by some wondrous chance he happened to be there. "For the first time in 30 years, I found myself, by one casual chance in a thousand, on hand in a small narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, a place I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory as a sinister alley, a Roman circus run amok, a charnel house." And the place where Bobby Kennedy was shot.

But most months, most years, especially towards the close of his Guardian career, Cooke wasn't there. He was sitting in Fifth Avenue glory, watching the burgeoning marvel of network news TV and reading his newspapers. "We are getting the New York Times beautifully rewritten by Cooke, but that isn't enough ..." noted Hetherington, anxious that the south was beginning to notice and Manhattan hadn't sniffed the smoke.

All these snappings and sniffings back at the ranch, though, shouldn't be taken out of context (as they too often are). For there are two things to consider here. One is the aforementioned difficulty of communication, coupled inexorably with its expense at a pound a word. On one famous occasion a foreign sub editor in Cross Street asked Cooke for a hamburger recipe and found it dictated to copy for half an hour (at roughly the cost of his entire week's wages).

But the other, subtler thing was Cooke's own age: born in Manchester in 1908, schooled in Blackpool, hired by the BBC, Times and Daily Herald to write and report from America in 1938, joined the (then) Manchester Guardian in 1948. He wasn't some eager young newshound when editor Wadsworth hauled him aboard. He was already beginning to look middle age in the eye. He had put in many hard years on the road, and he wore out many more shoes and screaming car tyres through the 50s. But by the time he became famous, truly famous, the hard pounding had almost finished.

Alistair Cooke was a radio name back in the UK (and had been before Letters from America started in 1946). But a Fifth Avenue man could not live on BBC fees and Guardian stipends alone. Cooke - one reason why the telephone man often had to ring twice - built a flourishing freelance career in the US, with a constant churning out of books. He always worked much harder than he seemed to. And when television and fame came knocking, he embraced them like old golf buddies.

America: a personal history of the United States, written in the style of Lord Clark's Civilisation, was a tremendous success for Cooke. It meant that, by 1972, he could give up the grind of daily journalism and coin some easier money for lighter chores, such as introducing a recycled British series of dramas called, rather grandly, Masterpiece Theatre. It also meant that he could be brutally honest about the way in which he worked.

"No paper matters any more," he told the current editor of the Guardian a few years ago. "There are about 40 television channels which I tap and use. I've got thousands of leg men. It has transformed the whole business of what is news, the effect on you and your picture of the world. I don't think we need the print medium at all. I no longer talk about the press."

The catch here is thinking that early Cooke, later Cooke and very much later Cooke were all of a piece. In one way, that's true. Read Garbo and the Nightwatchmen, his 1937 collection of movie crits and essays, and the supremely easy style, popping conversationally back and forth, is almost eerily in place. He writes like Fred Astaire danced. But Astaire, of course, was a manic worker, a master of insouciant brilliance bathed in sweat. And early Cooke worked his own passage. He didn't become a sagacious star or golden memory man by accident. He travelled relentlessly; he was one of the boys on the campaign bus who made his number with would-be presidents; he accumulated his wisdom. If, later on, he occasionally seemed rather grand, disguising the continuing sweat of grinding out his broadcasts, the editing and re-editing, then the foundations of grandeur had been laid with entirely honest toil.

Did that - years ago, when he was 50 going on 60, when most journalists would been thinking pipe and slipper thoughts - make him a trifle difficult to deal with, a little on the unbiddable side? That's the "nuisance" strand of his Guardian legend, but it was more legend than fact. Those who worked closest to him have nothing but praise.

When Hella Pick (later the Guardian's diplomatic editor) first arrived in Manhattan as UN correspondent, he came straight over, fed her daiquiris and good advice - and promptly became a friend for life.

When Rex Hearn was in charge there, he and Cooke became continuing chums. "In February 1962, he and I flew to Palm Beach to cover the Kennedy White House. We settled into the hotel and he got a call asking if he'd attend a 'background conference' at the Palm Beach estate the following morning. Next morning, before he left, he had me listen closely to the news radio on CBS. 'Take everything down you hear while I'm with the president,' he said. 'I'd hate to miss something important while I'm in with him ...'" When Richard Scott, grandson of the legendary Guardian editor CP Scott, moved in as Washington correspondent and decided to marry again, Cooke insisted on coming down to be his best man.

This - with matching BBC testimony stacked a mile high - isn't the picture of a "difficult" operator. Just the opposite. So where did the supposed problems come from? Enter, down the lost corridors of time, Max Freedman, a dour and diligent Canadian who ruled Guardian coverage from a Rome called Washington DC, just as Cooke ruled from a Constantinople called New York. It was, in short, one of those classic newspaper botch-ups.

Freedman and Cooke, shade and light, roundhead and cavalier, had once been on pretty warm terms. But something went awry. Mischievous souls claim to remember that Cooke was due to be Freedman's best man on his way to the wedding, when Freedman said he couldn't go through with it. Would Cooke mind breaking the news to his now unintended?

But heavier duty - and less jolly - evidence trawls through rows about Freedman recruiting the political historian Sir Denis Brogan to write about a Democratic convention in Los Angeles without consulting Cooke, and the subsequent division of the empire which brought a grudging peace. "I have borne with tight-lipped silence and humiliation the repeated rebukes of my American friends who wonder why my writing for the Guardian is limited to routine, unlettered and marginal themes ..." wailed Freedman to Hetherington. "Towering grievances," proclaims the official Guardian history of those times. A Washington correspondent forbidden to leave the beltway, a "Chief US correspondent" unwelcome inside DC? But really there's no cause here to blame Cooke, or indeed anyone. Blame oil, water and dodgy diplomacy.

And these aren't harsh memories. They are warm, affectionate, touched by admiration. The point now, as the last Letter is written, 2,869 broadcasts later, and death closes one of the most prodigious stints in reporting we shall ever see or hope to see, is setting him in some more settled context.

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 all the millions around the world who tuned in for decade after decade - reflect any America but his own, a mix of nostalgia, Mencken and Rockwell reheated? That is a harder question. Perhaps Cooke's warmer, kinder America really faded with the late 60s as Nixon returned. Perhaps the onward march of CNN, Fox and news round the clock in our own living rooms eventually made some of his reflections from a living room near Central Park seem out of time. Perhaps the blast of 9/11 brought him a new horror beyond imagining.

I would be foolish to say that the croakier Cooke I heard only a few weeks ago was the free-thinking reporter of old, the smiling assassin with the deadliest adjective always magically to hand. He wasn't. But sometimes, even then, you could still tune in and hear him wonderfully on song; as on Arnie. "Some thoughtful, if pessimistic, people see in the Schwarzenegger triumph a darker vision. He has admitted to his early admiration of Hitler, especially of Hitler's power to rouse a despairing, poverty-stricken people and lead them on to visionary heights. The thing he most admired about Hitler was the 'Führer princip' - the strong leader principle. Schwarzenegger wants to be that strong leader. So we must wait and see whether in the course of his governorship we shall see democracy invigorated or the emergence of the first American Führer."

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.


Peter Preston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Alistair Cooke dies at 95

Michael White on an urbane and unsurpassed master of the colloquial radio essay who never went out of fashion.

Michael White

31, Mar, 2004 @6:16 AM

Obituary: Alistair Cooke

As Guardian journalist and BBC broadcaster, he never abandoned his principle of the objectivity of the reporter.

Nick Clarke

31, Mar, 2004 @10:20 AM

Nick Clarke pays tribute to a Alistair Cooke

Nick Clarke pays tribute to a Alistair Cooke.

Nick Clarke

03, Mar, 2004 @7:23 AM

Article image
Cooke posts last Letter from America

1pm: Alistair Cooke, the presenter of BBC Radio 4's Letter from America, is retiring from the world's longest running speech radio programme after more than half a century. By Claire Cozens.

02, Mar, 2004 @2:18 PM

Alistair Cooke's bones reported stolen by New York criminals

3pm: The family of Alistair Cooke today spoke of their outrage at a report that the late broadcaster's bones were stolen by a criminal gang trading in body parts. By Jason Deans.

Jason Deans, broadcasting editor

22, Dec, 2005 @3:31 PM

Harold Evans poised to take over Cooke's Letter from America slot

The BBC has chosen former Sunday Times editor Sir Harold Evans to take over its Radio 4 slot vacated by the late Alistair Cooke. By Owen Gibson and Colin Blackstock.

Owen Gibson and Colin Blackstock

12, May, 2005 @6:06 AM

Article image
Radio 4 to embrace online future by unlocking its past
BBC Radio 4 aims to 'break out of schedule' by making historic content available on demand – starting with 920 episodes of Alistair Cooke's Letter from America

Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent

13, Oct, 2012 @1:24 PM

Alistair Cooke asked for ashes to be scattered in Central Park

Alistair Cooke, the broadcaster and former Guardian journalist, wanted his ashes scattered over Central Park, New York, and asked that no funeral service should be held for him, it emerged yesterday.

John Ezard

24, Apr, 2004 @1:37 AM

Article image
Does Money Make You Meaner? review – psychological insights on wealth offer a poor return
Jack Stewart rather quaintly takes to Hollywood to examine the effect of wealth – an economically expanding Asian or African country might have been more appropriate in 2015

Priya Elan

19, Mar, 2015 @4:59 PM

Article image
Jeremy Vine: 'At the BBC you can have values but you can’t have views – that's how I operate'
Whether presenting on Channel 5, Radio 2 or Eggheads, the broadcaster is part of the national furniture. He reflects on impartiality, the public’s reaction to lockdown and salary inequality

Stephen Moss

01, Jun, 2020 @5:00 AM