Letters from America

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London Letter came to an end when Cooke emigrated to America in , but it was not long before he suggested to the BBC the idea of continuing the idea in reverse.

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A prototype, Mainly About Manhattan , was broadcast intermittently from October , but the idea was shelved with the outbreak of World War II in The first American Letter was broadcast on 24 March , initially confirmed for only 13 installments, after Cooke had given a one-off talk under that title in the series Sunday Newsletter on 25 November The change of title to Letter from America came on 30 September The series lasted for 2, broadcasts over nearly 58 years and gathered an enormous audience, being broadcast not only in Britain and in many other Commonwealth countries, but throughout the world by the BBC World Service.

On 2 March , at the age of 95, following advice from his doctors, Cooke announced his retirement from Letter from America ; he died less than a month later, on 30 March , at his home in New York City. A compilation of the programme's transcripts was published in In , the BBC made over episodes freely available online in full.

There'd be public outrage.

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The plane would be shot down over the Atlantic. Over the course of his career Cooke got to know every American president from Roosevelt to Nixon although Roosevelt, who saved the country from the Depression, remained his political hero.

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When Robert Kennedy was assassinated Cooke revealed on his Letter how "for the first time in 30 years, I found myself by one casual chance in a thousand, on hand in a small, narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, a place that I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory: a sinister alley, a Roman circus run amok, and a charnel house. It would be quite false to say, as I should truly like to say, that I'm sorry I was there". But Cooke's misses came to be almost as famous as his hits.

In the autumn of he turned down the offer to join John F Kennedy on a presidential outing in Texas, deciding instead to cover it from New York. He later revealed how his daughter Susie had sat in the opposite room watching two separate television networks and calling out updates while he frantically wrote his piece.

Cooke even turned his absence into a virtue, telling the then editor of the Guardian it had been "a stroke of luck that I wasn't along [on the Dallas trip] The White House press corps was 13 cars behind the president and by the time they swung round the bend and through the tunnel, the main cars were on their way to the hospital. Not one member of the press bus guessed the truth".

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  • Despite frailty, he still draws on vast bank of knowledge Cooke has always written his letter the same way - on his typewriter every Thursday. Cooke did not peddle opinions.

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    An instinctive liberal - he was for 25 years also the much-admired chief US correspondent of the Guardian newspaper - he may not have shown much sympathy towards the Reagan presidency, but his main purpose was to be interesting, enlightening and entertaining. He extolled all the things he loved about America - its show business, its popular music, and its sports, as well as its politics and its higher culture - and he did so in talks carefully pre-written to sound as natural, discursive and conversational as possible, and delivered in comforting, mellifluous tones.

    If his "letters" seemed to lack construction, this was deliberate.

    BBC News - Alistair Cooke – Letter from America: Bringing two nations together

    He liked to digress, as people do naturally in conversation, and he liked to surprise by initially concealing what the main theme of his talk was going to be. But then came "the most startling, awful morning I can remember. Not because this was the most awful disaster ever, but because, for the first time in American experience, a first act of war aroused, and television pulverised, our senses in a way we had never known".

    And as so often, he tried to bring home this experience to the British by comparing it to one of their own: "It's the same feeling of bewilderment and secret fear - what next? One reason for the appeal of Cooke's broadcasts over here was the way he treated the United States and Britain with equal respect. We British were never made to feel that he was addressing us as an inferior nation.

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    Perhaps because of the unfortunate timing of his adoption of American citizenship - in , Britain's darkest hour - he was troubled for many years by a problem of national identity. He did once say that he felt "totally at home in both countries", but this could equally well have meant that he didn't feel quite at home in either.

    According to Leonard Miall, the BBC's first Washington correspondent after the war, he was chosen by American television to host a British drama series, Masterpiece Theater, "because he was regarded here as the quintessential Englishman.

    Yet for decades he had been broadcasting his Letter from America to a British radio audience which regarded him as a particularly sympathetic kind of American. Cooke himself recognised the problem when he said: "Here [in America] they think I'm an old English gent, and in England they think I'm an enlightened American.

    But he must have been uncomfortable in his "English gent" role, much as he had sought to cultivate it, for at Cambridge, when asked to list his pet abominations, he included among them "the English gentleman". He also once said that he had gone to America to escape "the seediness and snobbery of English life". But no-one has ever done more to bring our two nations closer together.

    The first 'Letter from America' recreated 50 years later in 1996.

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