A Modest British American

When America is so despised around the world, it is too bad we’ve lost one of our best ambassadors. Our correspondent attends a memorial service for Alistair Cooke in Westminster Abbey and sees the 20th century’s greatest radio broadcaster remembered among the famous and the great.

LONDON, OCTOBER 15—Rushing, disoriented by the Underground, borderline late, I asked a copper to direct me to Westminster Abbey’s Great West Door. He pointed across Parliament Square to an American flag flapping in the drizzle—said to be the first time, I learned later, the Stars and Stripes has flown above Westminster Abbey since the Revolution—and then went back to informing tourists politely that yes, that building is the House of Commons, but no, he cannot say when ministers will come and go, because it is not protocol to divulge security information.

As I passed crowds of tourists waiting in line in the rain in plastic mackintoshes and entered Westminster Abbey’s spectacular nave, I wondered whether Alistair Cooke would have wanted all this. In his last will, made shortly before his death at age 95 in April this year, Cooke declared: “I should like my friends to stay home or join a neighbor, enjoy a drink and think pleasant thoughts of me.” He asked for no funeral service; instead, he wanted his ashes to be scattered in Central Park—a feat which due to New York’s laws about burials on city property involved transferring the ashes to unused Starbucks cups for a surreptitious scattering in a spot carefully chosen so his widow, confined by illness to the Cookes’ sumptuous rent-controlled Fifth Avenue apartment, could watch from the window.

Cooke’s low-key demands seem at odds with a Service of Thanksgiving in the abbey where monarchs are crowned and Dickens and Sir Isaac Newton, among others, are buried. But then, in his lifetime, Alistair Cooke was no stranger to high people and places. As the urbane host of “Omnibus” and “Masterpiece Theater,” and of course, “Letter From America,” the weekly radio broadcast he lived for and for which he is mostly known on this side of the Atlantic and around the world, he was the charming uncle in the corner of the room, with a twinkling eye and a beguiling, mellifluous voice—somebody with whom anyone could feel at ease. As an ambassador, for both Britain and America, he was acquainted with six presidents and a host of politicians, actors, and other celebrities. In the ‘30s he asked his tennis partner, Charlie Chaplin, to be the best man at his wedding to his first wife Ruth, a great-niece of Ralph Waldo Emerson. His second wife was the daughter of a New Jersey senator. He was standing 10 feet away when Bobby Kennedy was shot to death.

In 1974 Cooke was asked to address both Houses of Congress, just before the 200th anniversary of the calling of the Continental Congress. No Englishman had done it since Churchill, but Cooke felt no unease at his surroundings or predecessors. “I understood there was to be a cozy get-together of some congressmen somewhere,” he said, “a breakfast, perhaps, at which I might be called on to say a few impromptu words. But standing here now, I feel as I were just coming awake from a nightmare, in which I see myself before you unprepared—and naked, as one often does in dreams—and looking around this awesome assembly, and blurting out, ‘I accept your nomination for the presidency of the United States.’”

So perhaps Westminster Abbey was not too grand after all. In the first of two tributes during the service, Peter Jennings, anchorman and senior editor of ABC News, said when he asked Alistair Cooke’s daughter how he might have felt about the idea of being remembered there, “she hinted that he might have said, ‘Ah—the Abbey. Well!’”

The service incorporated much of Cooke’s quirky, mischievous charm. A note in the front of the program explained the diverse musical selection, which included a Gershwin jazz piece, “Someone to Watch over Me,” and a composition by Gilbert and Sullivan among the prayers and choir processions and hymns:

Shortly before he died, Alistair Cooke compiled a list of his favorite musical pieces. Music was a very important part of his life, and he felt that should anyone want to remember him, listening to these selections would be a fitting memorial. These works, played during the service, have special significance. He knew Leonard Bernstein and introduced him to Handel’s “Messiah,” he thought that Handel’s overtures were not played enough, and he loved Gilbert and Sullivan. Most of all, jazz was his musical passion, both as a performer and an expert.

Appropriately, the first voice heard in the service was Cooke’s. It was the first of several broadcasts that punctuated the proceedings, filling the hall with warm, dulcet tones, and it had the same effect upon the congregation of 2,200 as it did for millions around the globe for nearly 60 years—it made everyone smile. “I’m sure you expect me to say I’m sorry not to be with you,” said Cooke. “Well, on the whole, I’m not sorry. I believe that radio broadcasters should be heard and not seen. I don’t want to disturb whatever pleasing image any of you may have of me. …The man you have chosen to honor bears an appalling resemblance to King Lear in the final act.”

Wesley Carr, dean of Westminster Abbey, continued with Lear, quoting from that final act: “‘The weight of this sad time we must obey / Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’ It’s the end of the tragedy of King Lear. Albany speaks the final couplet and the play is ended. If there was anyone who spoke what he felt and not the platitudes of the age, it was Alistair Cooke, in whose memory we have assembled this morning.”

As a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian for 25 years, and especially in his radio show “Letter From America,” Cooke was insistent about doing things his own way and saying what he felt. A Guardian editorial celebrating a Cooke anniversary in 1968 said: “Cooke is a nuisance. He telephones his copy at the last moment, so that everything else has to be dropped to get into the paper…He discards the agreed subject to write about something which has taken his fancy, news of the moment or not. But we think he’s worth it, and we love him just the same.”

Still, this approach earned Cooke his own band of detractors. Some of his colleagues believed he painted a glossy view of America, and was off the mark on subjects such as the civil-rights movement. Listeners to “Letter From America” often chided him for talking about small American peculiarities of life instead of the current affair of the time. But Cooke’s original idea for the show was that Britain, and then later, the world, might better understand America if they knew more about how Americans lived. Answering an “indignant lady” from England who believed he should have concentrated in one Letter on trouble in the Middle East instead of baseball, Cooke said that “people are permanently curious about how other people live, and all the politicians and propagandists in the world, working on three shifts a day, cannot forever impose their line on two people sitting in a room. And they are the only proper audience for a letter.” In another, he responded to an accusation that he had a thing about trees: “In these talks, and at the risk of seeming callous or whimsical, I propose to go on having a thing about many other matters than Soviet expansionism, and the plight of the cities, and the nuclear arms race, and who—after the next presidential election—is going to be the lord and master of us all.”

When Cooke began broadcasting “Letter From America” in 1946, Britain had not yet suffered the tidal wave of American culture from movies and television. There were very few permanent foreign correspondents working in the United States; Cooke’s 13-and-a-half minute informal, digressive talks were unique. He never deviated from this format, and the show survived for so long, until only a few weeks before his death, because his insights into everyday American matters proved useful among the myths and stereotypes that accompanied perceptions of America as its political and cultural influence grew abroad.

That is not to say, however, that Alistair Cooke shirked from major events. His dispatches for the Guardian on the two trials of Alger Hiss—he was one of few British correspondents to recognize their importance at the time—were later collected into a book, A Generation on Trial. He talked eloquently on the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy. More recently, his account of 9/11 showed restraint, and yet, only a few days after the event, captured many of the complexities and ambiguities of the day: the shock to American senses, the numbing media coverage, and the necessity for a measured, collaborative response—as well as poignant descriptions of Ground Zero and the work of the rescue men. It ended:

There is an old song—what we knew as a spiritual—which says: “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost to the ground.”

Well today, tonight, America is down.

But between the deeds of the rescue men and the words of NATO, if they mean what they say, America is not almost to the ground.

It was words like these, and the thousands of others in Cooke’s 2,869 Letters, as well as several books and his seminal 13-part television series “America,” that captured the attention of millions of people from all walks of life around the globe. (His worldwide audience was represented in Westminster Abbey by 150 listeners who had traveled from as far as Lebanon and Australia.) And it was because of words like these, along with Cooke’s indomitable character, that as the service progressed it became easier not to be taken in by any modesty he might have projected. Westminster Abbey is a place for remembering famous men, and great ones, too. It is also a humbling place, but Cooke—or his family, at least—chose well for the final musical selection: “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” has never been a song to leave anyone feeling subdued.

In the second tribute during the service, Mark Thompson, director-general of the BBC, said that for as long as the BBC exists, Alistair Cooke will remain part of its DNA. His impression will be left in several other places, too. Epitaphs thrown around glibly for lesser people apply here. Original, legend, institution—he was one and all.

As the abbey bells rang and I shuffled out with the congregation, I spied an engraving on the wall by the Great West Door honoring another pioneer and master of the radio broadcast, among other things: Franklin D. Roosevelt, Cooke’s first presidential acquaintance. Alistair Cooke is not yet commemorated in stone in Westminster Abbey, but his memory was served in fitting surroundings.