Tuesday, March 30, 2004

# Posted 5:14 AM by Patrick Belton  

ALISTAIR COOKE, KBE (Hon.), who embodied the Anglo-American friendship and gave our age one of its most noted essayists and commentators, has died this morning at 95.

Arriving in the United States in 1932 on a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship to study drama at Yale after coming down from Jesus College, Cambridge, Cooke hurried from his boat not to New Haven but to New Orleans, Basin Street, to sample the jazz age himself at first remove, and that by way of a call on the premier exemplar of the craft he would later make his own, essayist H.L. Mencken in Baltimore.

In 1974 he was invited to address the US Congress on the occasion of the celebrations marking the American bicentennial. He was only the third foreign born person so invited; his predecessors were Lafayette and Sir Winston Churchill. British diplomatist Sir Harold Nicolson (like him, an eighteenth century man living a seventeenth century life in the midst of the twentieth century) sought him out on his valedictory trip to the United States in 1963. Like Samuel Pepys or Isaiah Berlin, he knew nearly everyone in his age; and like them, he recorded his incisive impressions. Of Greta Garbo, he wrote "She gave you the impression that, if your imagination had to sin, it could at least congratulate itself on its impeccable taste." Of Presidents, he said "All Presidents start out to run a crusade but after a couple of years they find they are running something less heroic and much more intractable: namely the presidency. The people are well cured by then of election fever, during which they think they are choosing Moses. In the third year, they look on the man as a sinner and a bumbler and begin to poke around for rumours of another Messiah." Las Vegas he called "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.'" Of prognostication, he wrote "Man has an incurable habit of not fulfilling the prophecies of his fellow men."

Becoming an American citizen in 1941 to marry his wife, he maintained a substantial enough love for the country of his birth to engage with it in a lifetime of correspondence, his Letters from America which the BBC would broadcast without fail each week for 58 years. The BBC collects a sampling of his letters to it, including his eulogy for Senator Robert Kennedy, his reflections on the American fashion of slimming, Thanksgiving, Groucho Marx and Bing Crosby, and his last letter, on the late war in Iraq.

It is to the BBC's, and our, detriment that Cooke will not be able to continue his correspondence with us from whatever such place as he might be now.
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