The Voice of America
Alistair Cooke was best known in America as the host of the innovative cultural programme "Omnibus" in the 1950’s and then of the long-running series "Masterpiece Theater". His work, however, extended far beyond broadcasting on television.
Born in Salford, near Manchester, in the north of England, his interest in journalism first showed itself whilst studying at Cambridge University, where he was the editor of ‘The Granta’, a student magazine. After graduating, he left for the USA and wasted little time in pursuit of his ambition to work for the BBC. He secured a job as the corporation’s film critic when Oliver Baldwin, the son of the British prime minister, gave up the job in 1934. His early career also included periods working as a correspondent for both the Times and the Daily Herald. He was a broadcaster for NBC and made several appearances for the BBC during the war as both a commentator and news reporter.
In 1945, his freelance work on the founding conference of the UN led to the editor of the Manchester Guardian offering him the post of UN correspondent and then as US foreign correspondent – a post he held until 1972. During this time he won acclaim for his account of the JFK assassination, which he composed from TV broadcasts with the help of his 14-year-old daughter, and also for his report of Bobby Kennedy’s murder in the Ambassador Hotel – Cooke was there at the time of the assassination.
In 1946 the focus of Cooke’s career moved from print to broadcast journalism with his celebrated programme ‘Letter from America’. His weekly, personal reflection on US current affairs was broadcast for more than 5O years and many listeners actually believed he was American by birth. He covered everything from life in post war America to the September 11th attacks on the twin towers. Cooke’s exceptional knowledge of US history, coupled with having spent most of his life there, allowed him to put events into both a personal and historic context.
In 1952 he was awarded the Peabody Radio award for ‘Letter from America’ – the equivalent of an Oscar. A few months later he was offered the job of hosting the TV arts series ‘Omnibus’ on which he interviewed Frank Lloyd Wright, and Leonard Bernstein performed regularly. ‘Omnibus’ appeared on TV from 1952 to 1961. His TV career continued with thirteen episodes of ‘Alistair Cooke's America’. Cooke’s personal view of US history and the accompanying book were both a huge success and secured the financial security that had been lacking for much of his career in journalism.
Cook continued to work on ‘Letter from America’ into his nineties; the final episode was aired just three weeks before his death. Alistair Cooke died at his home in New York in 2004, aged 95.