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WORLD FOCUS: The unseen Alistair Cooke

August 6, 2012
FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Those, unaware of Alistair Cooke's accomplishments must be very young or have lived their lives as hermits during the past half century.

Alfred Alistair Cooke was a British/American journalist, television personality and broadcaster. For more than half a century his weekly broadcast of Letter from America for the BBC radio and as host of "Omnibus," the TV series devoted to the arts, then as host of PBS Masterpiece Theater for 22 years, made him a household name on both sides of the Atlantic.

An indication of the high esteem he was held was an invitation to address the joint session of Congress in celebration of the 200th anniversary of the first Continental Congress, in Philadelphia. General Lafayette and Winston Churchill were the only other people not born in America who had been so honored.

Cooke, the son of a metal-smith who served also as a lay Methodist preacher, won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, obtained honors degrees in English, and never looked back. He became a film critic for BBC, than London correspondent for NBC and after moving to the U. S. in 1937 started his reporting for the BBC and as foreign correspondent for the prestigious Manchester Guardian.

The series of his Letter from America, lasted 58 years, had more than 3,000 installments and was broadcast thorough the world by the BBC World Service. Each week he recorded a 15-minute talk on life in America.

After his death in 2004, at the age of 95, his daughter, Susan Cooke Kittredge, in a Postscript in the Guardian wrote: "He had been in love with America since he was a small boy; he had made a living and a life getting to know her whims and fancies, her history and hopes. He both admired and forgave her."

"What strikes me is that despite his concern about America's love of decadence, he still had faith in the energy, spunk and generosity of its people," she added.

Kittredge, who is an ordained United Church of Christ minister in Vermont, will be the guest speaker at the Lake Placid Institute Adirondack Roundtable.on July 7. Her talk is entitled "The Unseen Alistair Cooke."

I asked her, considering that Alistair Cooke was such a public figure, what is "unseen" about him?

"Perhaps a caution is in order: no racy, clandestine, shadow side of my father will be revealed in my talk Only that the Alistair Cooke I knew was different from the man who joined people in their living rooms on Sunday evenings; he was daddy."

I was curious to learn, what was it like, to grow up as the daughter of someone considered by many as a "national treasure' on both sides of the Atlantic,

'As a small child I had no idea that my father had any particular notoriety," Kittredge said. "That he was on television on Sunday evenings seemed perfectly normal and I assumed everyone's father was on TV sometime I was more concerned with how much attention he was paying to me."

Kittredge noted that her father has enormous energy and curiosity. "He worked hard, he also played hard. He had a great sense of humor and was an uncanny mimic. He loved socializing and getting out with friends."

All this served him well. In his weekly Letter from America, he "monitored the pulse of the United States and relayed its strengths and weaknesses to 50 countries."

In an interview commemorating the 3,000 edition of his BBC broadcast, Cooke said: "In America, the race is on between its decadence and its vitality, and has lots of both."

The BBC News, in its obituary of Alistair Cooke observed: "Many Britons thought he was American, but to the Americans he was the quintessential Brit. He impressed both audiences with his high quality work. With his unquenchable curiosity, Alistair Cooke remained for decades the consummate broadcaster, an elegant writer and a man of enormous wit and charm who made sense of the American Century."

But to Kittredge, he remained a loving daddy.

Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from The Virginia Gazette.



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