Alistair Cooke, British journalist, television personality, and broadcaster, who describes himself as a “Lancastrian Irishman,” is born in Salford, Lancashire, England on November 20, 1908. He is best known for his lively and insightful interpretations of American history and culture.
The son of Samuel Cooke, a Wesleyan Methodist lay preacher, and Mary Elizabeth (Byrne) from County Sligo, He is educated at Blackpool Grammar School, Blackpool and wins a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gains an honours degree in English. Later he wins a Commonwealth Fund fellowship to study in the United States, first at Yale University (1932–33), then at Harvard University (1933–34). His cross-country travels during the summers of these years have a profound influence on his professional life.
Following a brief period as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, Cooke returns to England to become a film critic for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and later serves as London correspondent for the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) of the United States. In 1937 he returns to the United States, settles in New York City, and becomes an American citizen in 1941.
From the late 1930s, Cooke reports and comments on American affairs for BBC Radio and several major British newspapers. His weekly 15-minute program, Letter from America, broadcast from 1946 to 2004, is one of the longest-running series on radio. The texts of many broadcasts are collected in One Man’s America (1952) and Talk About America (1968). From 1956 to 1961 he hosts and narrates the weekly television “magazine” Omnibus, which wins numerous broadcasting awards.
Cooke’s interpretation of the American experience culminates in his BBC-produced television series America: A Personal History of the United States (1972–1973). In thirteen installments, filmed on location throughout the United States, he surveys some 500 years of American history in an eclectic and personal but highly coherent narrative. Alistair Cooke’s America (1973), the book based on the award-winning program, is a best-seller in the United States. From the 1970s to the early 1990s, as host of Masterpiece Theatre, he serves as an interpreter of British culture through the presentation of BBC dramatic television programming to American audiences.
Cooke’s other works include the critical biography Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Actor (1940), Generation on Trial: The USA v. Alger Hiss (1950), based on his coverage of a celebrated Congressional investigation, The Vintage Mencken (1955), The Patient Has the Floor (1986), America Observed (1988), Memories of the Great and the Good (2000) and, with Robert Cameron, The Americans (1977).
On March 2, 2004, at the age of 95, following advice from his doctors, Cooke announces his retirement from Letter from America—after 58 years, the longest-running speech radio show in the world.
Alistair Cooke dies at midnight on March 30, 2004 at his home in New York City. He had been ill with heart disease, but dies of lung cancer, which had spread to his bones. He is cremated and his ashes are clandestinely scattered by his family in New York’s Central Park.