In more than 25 years as American correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, British-born Alistair Cooke probably covered more facets of the American scene than any of his American colleagues.
Now, at 80, Cooke has published “Alistair Cooke: America Observed” (Knopf), a collection of his pieces from the Guardian, 1946-72.
With exuberance, insight, wit and style, Cooke writes affectionately of his adopted country, ranging widely over politics, baseball, civil rights, fashion, McCarthyism, Nixon, Kennedy, Truman, Gary Cooper, boxing, Billy Graham, golf and Eisenhower, among numerous others.
To qualify his predictions about the future of America, he humbly includes his piece on why Truman had failed; it was printed the day before Truman defeated Dewey in the election of 1948.
Cooke’s unabashed curiosity about America naturally includes women, among them Marilyn Monroe, Eleanor Roosevelt, Miss Oklahoma, Mary McCarthy and the woman he calls “The Most Beautiful Woman I Know.”
He notes that Monroe was catapulted from a miserable childhood and a nude calendar to “the enthroned sexpot of the Western world . . . (who) completed the first phase of the American dream by marrying the immortal Joe DiMaggio and the second phase by marrying Arthur Miller. . . .”
He called her a “charming, shrewd and pathetic woman of tragic integrity. . . . She was confused, pathologically shy, a straw on the oceans of her compulsions (to pout, to wisecrack, to love a stranger, to be six hours late or lock herself in a room). . . . So in the end she found the ultimate oblivion, of which her chronic latecomings and desperate retreats to her room were tokens.”
On Mrs. Roosevelt’s death, he wrote that her Victorian concept of duty had transformed her from “an ugly duckling school-ma’am into a great woman, and it planed away the emotional fat in a feckless, generous man, knotted his fibre, and produced a great President.”
In her Who’s Who entry Mrs. Roosevelt listed only her few offices. Cooke notes: “She might have recorded the sum of her great life with nothing more than her vital statistics and the single entry: ‘Created the Thirty-Second President of the United States.’ ”
America makes barons of its rich men and emblazons the breasts of its military heroes with medals, Cooke observes, but “for the female, preserves a crown.” He calls the crowning of Miss Oklahoma as Miss America 1966 as “formal as a Greek tragedy.” The contestants, he notes, remind us of an earlier America--in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s--when American women had glistening hair, superb figures, and the carriage of a Gibson Girl.” Also, they wore clothes cut for females.
“If allowed to go on,” he concludes, “this could undermine everything the 1960s have been working for; which is, I guess, the triumph of the neuter and the return of tuberculosis.”
Writing in 1967 of Mary McCarthy’s visit to Vietnam, he makes fun of the panic her presence must have caused in the military Establishment there. (“Stations, everyone! Now hear this!”) He quotes her on what the war has done to Saigon: “an American city, a very shoddy West Coast one . . . a gigantic PX . . . a stewing Los Angeles, shading into Hollywood, Venice Beach and Watts.”
He notes her description of the war as a “looney” power struggle, “a war of incredible blunders,” and her exhortation to Americans to oppose it by going to jail, if necessary. “Get out!” she wrote. To those who answered, “But how?” she replied: “Not being a military strategist, I cannot plot the logistic of withdrawing 464,000 American boys from Vietnam, but I know that it can be done, if necessary, and Johnson knows it too.”
Cooke teases us before revealing his Most Beautiful Woman. “Anybody choosing ‘the most beautiful woman,’ while pretending to show that he’s been around a good deal more than you and I, is picking out something as indisputable as the tallest building in the world or the champion long-jumper, is really involved in defending a very personal view of beauty. . . .”
Then he reveals his own fantasies: “I yearn for the return of the 9-stone plus female with dark hair, full lips, dark hair, long thighs, recognizable female hips, and a fetching decolletage.”
Finally, his choice: “Everything about her--her brow, eyes, ears, neck, lips, cheekbones, jaw, clavicle--was a continuous enchantment. In my time, and for me, there has never been anyone like her. She is Ava Gardner.”
I believe I would have said Loretta Young.