The Unseen Alistair Cooke Alistair in America

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1980-1989 by Susan Cooke Kittredge
(Excerpted from Reporting America by Alistair Cooke (Overlook Press, 2008)

During the 1980s my husband and I made fewer family trips to New York than we had in the past. Five children, whose ages ranged from thirteen down to one, were not easily absorbed into my parents' pretty elegant apartment. Antique pillbox collections flew from side tables, the prized Peduk chest was beaten with a mixing spoon, and the 6:30 news hour was for the children no reason to quit practicing the trumpet or playing hide and seek. Our solution was to bring a few kids at a time, and this worked well. Daddy even enjoyed indulging them with visits to the Sesame Street set and tea at the Plaza.

He had more time during the eighties to explore a variety of creative projects, so he took what might appear to be more risks. In particular he threw himself completely into two film projects that sadly never saw the dark of a theatre or the glow of a television screen. The first was a history of golf called The Marvelous Mania: A History of the Scottish Torture, and it was, apparently, just that: torturous. That it was never aired may well have been a blessing. But if its demise was a good thing, the death of the second film was, apparently, tragic. Until he died, Daddy would maintain that the film about Mark Twain, entitled Mark Twain, was the best thing he ever did, "Better than America, better than anything." Sadly the only copy was lost, and the disappointment over the failure of these two projects made him swear off any more film projects. "No more fillums," he would say.

If the 1970s were blossoming years for my father, the 1980s were full bloom. He felt a rising sense of accomplishment, perhaps even a bit of the entitlement that comes with advancing age and having proved oneself in the trenches. He felt free to do what he wanted and free to turn down any offers, projects, or engagements that did not interest him. He and my mother traveled regularly to London and San Francisco; two cities that were second homes for them, originally because my sister lived — and still does — in England, and my brother in California. The friends they had in both cities were legion, and while Daddy worked and golfed, mother painted. The thing about full bloom, however, is that we often don't recognize its peak until the first petal has fallen.

Several small petals began to fall in Daddy's life though they were almost imperceptible at the time; only those close to him could have sensed a slight shift in the wind, a turning of the tide. Surely the failure of the film projects disappointed him, but he took it remarkably well, casting his eyes to the future and forgetting what was past. What he could not ignore was his failing knee; it caused him considerable pain and hampered his ability to do the things he loved most, like play golf.

What wore at his spirit, however, was the death of so many of his dear friends. Not only were they gone, but he was expected to, and did, deliver their eulogies. As a minister I know the toll this can take; one must revisit and love all that has been lost, and each eulogy is a clenched fist around the heart. For the first time I was keenly aware that he was depressed. Finally, after a chain of funerals, my mother and I sat him down in his study and simply laid down the law, "No more eulogies. Period." He sat in his red leather chair, raised his eyebrows, turned his palms up in resignation — a bit of the "What's a man to do?" attitude — and said with a marked sigh of relief, "Okay."

Another petal that floated to the ground was his increasingly stubborn stance on all matters that even hinted of being politically correct, "PC." He loathed the term, society's inclination to police thought and the suggestion that he was, on more than one occasion, on the wrong side of the fence. That may not be entirely true; I think he actually relished his counter-culture stance and delighted in taking on the establishment. In the eighties and nineties as the United States struggled with becoming more tolerant of diversity of all kinds, he took a public stance that brought him some heat. He was a champion of the English First movement, whose goals were to "Make English America's official language," and "Eliminate costly and ineffective multilingual policies." He tended to overlook the implications of this last goal in favor of championing one of his great loves: the English language.

Of all social, political, and cultural changes that occurred in America in his lifetime, he was most out of sync with feminism. Religious and racial inequities were clearly wrong and unjust, but the business between men and women was deliciously more complicated; he relished its complexity and confounding allure. Let me say straight out that he adored women; he wanted to love them, joke with them, admire them, tease them, and play with them. But because of his generation and background, it was more difficult for him to assume immediately their intellectual and educated equality. Nevertheless, he had countless professional relationships with women whom he greatly admired, respected, and on whom he depended. But this was secretly just a bit of a delightful surprise to him, and, feeling he had discovered these gems, he became their greatest fan.

His growing dependency on the women around him was both touching and exasperating. If my mother did not return from a movie date or a luncheon when he thought she should, he worked himself into a lather of worry, pacing the apartment, a hair away from summoning the police. There was an occasion much later on his life when one summer our daughter Eliza, who was in her twenties at the time, lived with him in the apartment while she worked in Manhattan and my mother was at Nassau Point. She was late getting home one night, and Daddy called me in a frantic state after midnight to report that she was missing. I assured him that she would be home soon and tried to soothe his panic. He would not be talked down from his worry or implied reprove. He put on his overcoat, plopped his hat on his head and went down into the lobby to wait for her. When she walked in at 1am, he was sitting next to the doorman, his head in his hands, looking terrible.

Increasingly he gained comfort from predictability and constancy, certainly not an uncommon trait of advancing years. His growing appreciation for routine and security was, however, a change from his previously fast-paced and often spontaneous approach to both work and play, and it took some getting used to for all around him.

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