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THAT EFFORTLESS ELEGANCE
- The free-wheeling intelligence of Alistair Cooke

What every columnist tries, each in his way, is to write breathtaking, irresistible prose. None was better at it than Alistair Cooke. Except that he wrote to be heard, not read. Every Thursday, he wrote down his talk — typed it out on his manual typewriter — to broadcast it on BBC. “I talk to my typewriter and that is what I’ve been working on for 40 years — how to write for talking.” He broadcast his last Letter from America on February 20, said farewell to his audience on March 3, and died in New York on March 30. Thus ended 58 years of weekly broadcasts across the Atlantic, during which he missed only three talks. BBC broadcast them across 58 countries, where Alistair Cooke had thousands of fans. But he never had an email address, so the only way to contact him was by letter. He must have received quite a few. One was from the president of Estonia, who wrote that he listened to Cooke’s talks when he was in a concentration camp in Siberia, and that they kept him going.

Cooke was not always Alistair. He was born Alfred, son of an ironworker and Methodist lay preacher — which meant no drinking, and no games on Sundays — and went to Blackpool grammar school. His headmaster encouraged him to study literature, and his diligence got him a scholarship in Jesus College, Cambridge. There he read English literature. His supervisor was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Once he had to read his essay while Sir Arthur was dressing for dinner, walking in and out of the drawing room while he looked for a collar or a stud. When Alistair finished, Sir Arthur said, “Cooke, you must learn to murder your darlings.” Good advice for budding authors.

At 22, on finishing his degree, Alfred added the name Alistair by deed of poll. That may have been because of his interest in an acting career, for he was one of the founder members of the Mummers, a Cambridge undergraduate dramatic group. He went on a trip to Germany and heard Hitler speak; but his interest was more in Hitler’s dramatic technique (Hitler was a riveting speaker; Praveen Togadia is not a patch on him, although he tries hard to emulate Hitler’s language). He spent two years in Yale and Harvard doing dramatics and literature. That is when he fell in love with America as well as with Ruth Emerson, his first wife.

His scholarship required him to buy a car and tour as many American states as possible. He saw an America that the British knew nothing about, and decided to report on it. (He once described Las Vegas as “Everyman’s cut-rate Babylon. Not far away there is, or was, a roadside lunch counter and over it a sign proclaiming in three words that a Roman emperor’s orgy is now a democratic institution. ‘Topless Pizza Lunch.’ ”) An event in 1945 confirmed that ambition. He said in a speech to the Royal Television Society in 1997: “Towards the end of the war, the BBC in New York invited various famous exiles, Frenchmen mostly, to come and talk to the underground in France — famous, famous, great literary men. And I had the privilege of sitting in the control room, and I thought that I will learn about broadcasting from listening to these men.

“What I learned is that they were dreadful broadcasters. They wrote essays, or lectures, or sermons and they read them aloud. And I suddenly realized there was a new profession ahead. Which is writing for talking. Putting it on the page in the syntactical break-up and normal confusion that is normal talk.”

He did not become an actor, and his career drifted for a dozen years; he worked itinerantly as a drama, film and music critic. He wrote for various English newspapers. In 1945, he had gone to San Francisco to report on the birth of the United Nations. There he got a telegram from the editor of Manchester Guardian, which gave him his first steady job; he was with the Guardian for 27 years. Soon afterwards he divorced his first wife and married Jane Hawkes, a painter with two children. In 1935, Alistair Cooke had become NBC’s correspondent in London; he used to broadcast a 15-minute talk every week. After he migrated to America in 1937, he suggested a similar weekly talk from New York to BBC, but BBC prevaricated. Soon the war came and the idea was dropped. But in 1946, BBC gave him a three-month contract to do weekly talks; the first was broadcast on March 24. It was the first of 2,869 talks.

Alistair Cooke’s best pieces were character portraits. When Marilyn Monroe committed suicide, he wrote in 1963, “To say that Marilyn Monroe was a charming, shrewd, and pathetic woman of a tragic integrity will sound as preposterous to the outsider as William Empson’s Freudian analysis of Alice in Wonderland. It is nevertheless true. We restrict the word ‘integrity’ to people, either simple or complex, who have a strong sense of righteousness or, if they are public men, of self-righteousness. Yet it surely means no more than what it says: wholeness, being free to be spontaneous, without reck of consistency or moral appearances. It can be true of forlorn and bewildered people as of the disciplined and the solemn.

“In this sense, Marilyn Monroe was all of a piece. She was confused, pathologically shy, a straw on the ocean of her compulsions (to pout, to wisecrack, to love a stranger, to be six hours late or lock herself in a room). She was a sweet and humorous person increasingly terrified by the huge stereotype of herself she saw plastered all around her. The exploitation of this pneumatic, mocking, liquid-lipped goddess gave the world a simple picture of the Lorelei. She was about as much of a Lorelei as Bridget, the housemaid.

“This orphan of the rootless City of the Angels at last could feel no other identity than the one she saw in the mirror: a baffled, honest girl forever haunted by the nightmare of herself, 60 feet tall and naked before a howling mob. She could never learn to acquire the lacquered shell of the prima donna or the armor of sophistication. So in the end she sought the ultimate oblivion, of which her chronic latecomings and desperate retreats to her room were token suicides.”

What was the secret of Alistair Cooke’s enduring popularity' I think it was his curiosity. He began his speech to the Churchill Society in 1998 like this: “I think it is a happy thing that you are holding this anniversary meeting in New Hampshire, where, as you all know, Winston Churchill spent the last fifty years of his life.” He had discovered that there was an American novelist of that name, and that when Winston Spencer Churchill wrote his first book, he wrote to his American namesake that he did not wish to trade on his fame or mislead the public. So he added that middle S to his own name. Alistair Cooke called curiosity “free-wheeling intelligence”.

“Curiosity,” he wrote, “...endows the people who have it with a generosity in argument and a serenity in their own mode of life which springs from their cheerful willingness to let life take the form it will.”

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