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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 March, 2004, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
Obituary: Alistair Cooke
Reading Letter from America in the 1950s
He read his Letter from America for 58 years

Esteemed writer and BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke, famed for his programme Letter From America, has died aged 95. BBC News Online looks back at his long and respected career.

For more than half a century, Alistair Cooke's weekly broadcasts of Letter from America for BBC radio monitored the pulse of life in the United States and relayed its strengths and weaknesses to 50 countries.

His retirement from the show earlier this month after 58 years, due to ill health, brought a flood of tributes for his huge contributing to broadcasting.

Born in Salford, near Manchester, northern England, Alistair Cooke's father was an iron-fitter and Methodist lay-preacher.

Alistair Cooke
Alistair Cooke: Consummate broadcaster
Winning a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge he read English, edited the undergraduate magazine, Granta, and founded the Cambridge University Mummers.

Alistair Cooke made his first visit to the United States in 1932, on a Commonwealth Fund Fellowship which took him to both Yale and Harvard universities.

Following his return to Britain, he became the BBC's film critic and, in 1935, London correspondent for America's National Broadcasting Corporation.

He returned to the United States in 1937 to work as a commentator on American affairs for the BBC. He made his home there and, in 1941, became an American citizen.

Alistair Cooke
A passion for jazz
March 1946 saw the first edition of American Letter, which became Letter from America in 1949.

The series was the longest-running series in history to be presented by a single person.

Alistair Cooke never decided what he was going to talk about until he wrote the script, made no notes during the preceding week and preferred to rely on his memory.

In an interview given at the time of the 3,000th edition of Letter from America, he appeared to have mixed feelings about the future of the United States.

"In America," he said, "the race is on between its decadence and its vitality, and it has lots of both."

Addressing Congress in 1973
He addressed Congress in 1973
Cooke led his listeners through the American vicissitudes of Korea, Kennedy, Vietnam, Watergate, Nixon's resignation and Clinton's scandals.

In all of this, Cooke pulled no punches. The lyricism of his broadcasting and the urbanity of his voice did not disguise his fears for America which he saw becoming a more violent society.

A liberal by nature, he reserved particular dislike for what he saw as the shallow flag-waving of the Reagan presidency.

Alongside working for the BBC and The Guardian, for which he wrote from 1945 to 1972, he developed a passion for jazz and golf and, as a film critic, he mixed with Hollywood stars.

As a commentator on history, Cooke was sometimes an eyewitness too. He was just yards away from Senator Bobby Kennedy when the latter was assassinated in 1968.

He was never as comfortable on television as radio but, by the 1970s, his hugely successful television series America recounted his personal history of his adopted homeland and won international acclaim, two Emmy Awards and spawned a million-selling book.

British or American?

The Queen awarded him an honorary knighthood in 1973 and the following year, for a journalist, he received the ultimate recognition - he was asked to address the United States Congress on its 200th anniversary.

He told his audience he felt as if he was in a dream, standing naked before them and there was only one thing he could find to say.

Teasing, he exclaimed to the assembled legislators, "I gratefully accept your nomination for President of the United States!"

Naturally, he brought the house down.

Many Britons thought he was American, but to the Americans he was the quintessential Brit, the man who brought them the best of British television as presenter of Masterpiece Theatre. For his part, he explained, "I feel totally at home in both countries."

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.

A special tribute to Alistair Cooke was broadcast on the BBC World Service in Europe at 2130 GMT on Tuesday, 30 March.

BBC Radio 4 also paid tribute to Alistair at 2100 BST on Tuesday.

Alistair Cooke Obituary
The BBC's Nick Higham looks back at the life of a broadcasting legend



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