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Alistair Cooke, 95; Host of ‘Masterpiece Theatre’ Aired ‘Letter From America’

Times Staff Writer

Alistair Cooke, the British-born journalist and commentator who brought a refinement and elegance to American television as the popular host of “Masterpiece Theatre,” has died. He was 95.

Cooke, who offered insightful radio commentaries for the British Broadcasting Corp. for 58 years, died at his home in New York City at midnight Monday, the network announced in London. The cause of death was not reported, but Cooke was known to have had heart disease. He retired from the BBC just weeks ago, citing health concerns.

For the record:
12:00 AM, Apr. 01, 2004 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 01, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Alistair Cooke -- The obituary of commentator Alistair Cooke in Wednesday’s California section stated incorrectly that “Brideshead Revisited” and “Emma” were part of the PBS series “Masterpiece Theatre,” on which Cooke served as host for many years.

As the host of “Masterpiece Theatre” from 1971 to 1992, Cooke supplied wry, informative introductions for adaptations of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited,” Jane Austen’s “Emma” and Henry James’ “The Golden Bowl” as well as the made-for-television series “Upstairs Downstairs.” His urbane manner recalled a kindly professor.

“Cooke introduced more people to what one would call good literature than thousands of high school and college instructors might have done,” said Howard Gottlieb, director of the Mugger Library at Boston University in a 1998 interview with Cooke’s biographer, Nick Clarke. Cooke donated his personal library to the university.

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Cooke joined the BBC in 1934 as a film critic, but European audiences knew him best for his “Letter From America” -- weekly commentaries broadcast on BBC radio starting in 1946 and continuing until his final report aired Feb. 20. There were 2,869 talks in all, each a 13-minute, 30-second spot offering Cooke’s observations on political and cultural life in the United States.

“Cooke had a mission to explain his adopted country to his native country,” Clarke said. “He wanted to show that Americans have a depth you don’t necessarily see in American films and television sitcoms.”

His “letter” aired in 50 countries and gained a broad audience in England. “With equal verve and knowledge, Mr. Cooke comments on the activities of the churches, Hollywood, university presidents, baseball players, gangsters and scientists,” the London Financial Times wrote some years ago. “People who want to know what really goes on in America cannot dispense with Mr. Cooke.”

In London, Prime Minister Tony Blair led the mourning Tuesday for the popular commentator.

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“I was a big fan,” Blair told the BBC. “I thought they were extraordinary essays, and they brought an enormous amount of insight and understanding to the world.

“He was really one of the greatest broadcasters of all time, and we shall feel his loss very, very keenly indeed,” Blair added.

The U.S. ambassador to Britain, William Farish, was another of Cooke’s admirers. “His death is like that of a longtime friend or a wise and kindly uncle, and reminds us all of the impact a life well lived can have,” he said.

Clarke told British reporters Tuesday that “Letter From America” “was the thing that mattered to him more than anything. He reckoned it was work in progress. He never thought the thing was over.... I think he thought retirement was a very bad idea and when he was forced to stop work three weeks ago, I thought, this won’t be long now because here was a man living for this one task.”

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From the time that Cooke moved permanently to New York City in the late 1930s, he was appreciative of his adopted country but not blind to its flaws. In his final letter, he compared President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq with the U.S. invasion of Iraq by the president’s father in 1991 and suggested that this time, as last, it could cost Republicans at the polls.

“The new, invigorating party conviction is a belief that Democrats had not dreamed of so far,” Cooke observed. “It is the belief that George Bush can be beaten in November.” With typical wry humor, he added: “This thought apparently took hold of the primary voters long before it dawned on the Democratic Party as a whole.”

By English standards, “Cooke was more American than the Americans.... Cooke loved America far more than he loved his home country,” Clarke told The Times in 1998. Cooke became a U.S. citizen in 1941.

A self-made man, Cooke explained his enthusiasm in one of his earliest letters from America.

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“I never remember hearing anyone in America, no matter how snobbish, say that somebody didn’t know his place,” he said. “It is a deep, almost unconscious belief of Americans, that your place is what your talent and luck can make it.”

Cooke first attracted a U.S. following as host of “Omnibus,” a pioneering commercial television program about the arts and culture. The show aired from 1952 to 1961 -- first on CBS and later on ABC. He proved to be a thoughtful observer with a rare appreciation for both British and American culture.

His next major television project, “Masterpiece Theatre,” on PBS, made him a household name to U.S. viewers. The genteel host’s British tweeds and perfect grammar made the informality of the opening commentaries, delivered from a large wingchair near shelves of leather-bound books, a winning surprise. “Gentle viewer,” he sometimes addressed his audience, appealing to our better side. In the observations that followed, which he wrote himself, he prepared his audience for philanderers, bullies or worse, but he refrained from passing judgment.

Cooke once compared his role as host to that of a head waiter whose job was “to explain to interested customers what’s on the menu and how the dishes are composed.”

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He became so popular with American television audiences that he was parodied on programs as diverse as “Saturday Night Live” and “Sesame Street,” where he was known as Alistair Cookie on “Monsterpiece Theatre.”

With a considerable following in place, Cooke was host to “America, A Personal History of the U.S.,” in 1972 and 1973. In 13 episodes that aired on NBC, he traced the growth of the country from the colonial era to the early 1970s. His accompanying book, “Alistair Cooke’s America,” sped through three printings in the first few months and held a place on bestseller lists for more than two years. The book, one of 12 that he wrote, sold 2 million copies, according the BBC this week.

Cooke offered unconventional views of U.S. history. He compared the American colonists’ guerrilla-style tactics with those of the Viet Cong in Vietnam. And he advised his viewers that “Americans are taught a very simple view of their revolution,” adding that, “patriotism, a bad historian, writes the most beguiling history, since it always offers a flattering explanation of a complicated story and satisfies our insatiable hunger for good guys and bad guys.”

He won an Emmy award for the series in 1973, followed by one for “Masterpiece Theatre” in 1975 and a special Emmy for general achievement in 1985. He won Peabody awards for broadcast excellence and, because he had become a U.S. citizen, he was given only an honorary knighthood by Queen Elizabeth.

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Critics saw him as a lightweight among news journalists. “Cooke covers a story the way a short dress covers an attractive girl,” Robert Kaiser wrote in the Washington Post in 1968.

His strength was not the in-depth coverage or pointed analysis of a hard news reporter. He did, however, cover 11 presidential election campaigns and witnessed a wide range of historical events, including the formation of the United Nations in 1945 and the work of the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was present at the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in June 1968, moments after Kennedy won the California primary in his quest for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Cooke described the scene for his radio audience: “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 in Los Angeles, a place that I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory.

“Down on the greasy floor was a huddle of clothes and, staring out of it, the face of Bobby Kennedy, like the stone face of a child lying on a cathedral tomb.”

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Born in Salford, near Manchester, England, Cooke was the son of an ironworker and Methodist lay preacher who founded a mission in the Manchester slums. Cooke once considered becoming a clergyman and taught Sunday school for a time. But, as a scholarship student at Cambridge, he turned to acting and helped found the Cambridge University Mummers in 1929.

In his student days, Cooke re-invented himself. “He had come from Northern England, a comparatively poor family, and turned himself into a new man at Cambridge,” his biographer, Clarke, explained. “He entered a school of nearly all upper-class people, and he managed to blend in quite easily.”

He dropped his first name, Alfred, and used Alistair, which sounded to him more sophisticated. His skill as an actor, his single-mindedness in approaching any task and his habit of watching movies to learn accents helped him with the transition from his working-class beginnings to his image as a refined British gentleman, Clarke said.

After college, Cooke won a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship that took him to the U.S., where he studied at Yale and Harvard. He met his future wife, Ruth Emerson, an American modern dance student, at Harvard and drove across the country for the first time.

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“That trip was an absolute eye-opener for me,” he later recalled. “Even then, even in the Depression, there was a tremendous energy and vitality to America. The landscape and the people were far more gripping and dramatic than anything I had ever seen.

“It truly changed me. You see, from then on, my interest in the theater began to wane and I began to take up what I felt was the real drama going on -- namely, America itself.”

Cooke worked briefly at Charlie Chaplin’s film studio, but the realities of moviemaking left him disenchanted.

He changed career goals to pursue journalism and intensified his study of the English language, which was a lifelong passion.

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In 1937, Cooke and his new wife settled in New York City. He worked as a freelance reporter for the Times of London and the British Daily Herald, and contributed to BBC radio. In the early 1940s he added The Guardian newspaper to his list of regular employers.

He became known as a man about town who frequented the jazz clubs, played piano at parties and had a passion for movies, the arts and golf.

The Cookes had one child, John, before their brief marriage ended in divorce. He subsequently met and married Jane White, a painter, in 1946. Soon afterward, the couple had a daughter, Susan.

Over the years, Cooke’s frequent trips across the country turned him into a great admirer of the American West. He spent his second honeymoon in San Francisco and, by the time he finished his television series on America’s history, he had joined a San Francisco golf club, intent on improving his game.

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A new goal captured his imagination. At age 83, when he retired as host of “Masterpiece Theatre,” he told reporters, alluding to a classic Robert Frost poem, “I don’t have many miles to go but I do have promises to keep before I sleep and one or two ambitions -- among them an insane desire to shave a stroke or two off my golf handicap.”

Cooke’s survivors include his wife; his son, John; his daughter, Susan; and two stepchildren.

*

Times staff writer John Daniszewski contributed to this report from London.

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