The Unseen Alistair Cooke Alistair in America

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1990-2004 by Susan Cooke Kittredge
(Excerpted from Reporting America by Alistair Cooke (Overlook Press, 2008)

Had my father not finally decided to get a new knee, I doubt he would have lived as long as he did. Though his recovery was difficult at first, once he was admitted to a rehabilitation clinic, he became a star pupil. This was a designation he had enjoyed since Blackpool Grammar School and he flaunted his success by demonstrating to anyone willing to watch, his new flexibility and agility, jumping from his chair in the study and executing a golf swing or swiftly ascending any stairs before him. Because of the surgery he had also given up smoking and this lightened his countenance as well. Though he had smoked two packs a day since his twenties, he was not an addictive personality; he simply put out the last cigarette and never looked back. The flush of renewed health allowed him to play more golf and get out with his friends.

This was also a time when he was able to focus on his correspondence with friends and colleagues like William Safire and Isaiah Berlin. He sifted through the demands on his time, winnowing the shaft from the wheat, and chose what mattered to him most, reading, writing, his friends and his family.

In the last six years of his life he was an observer of golf, not often a player. He loved golf matches on TV and these gave way to watching tennis, which he felt better suited to television viewing. His adoration of Gabriela Sabatini was well known, almost as entrenched as his love of Vanna White, the hostess on the game show "Jeopardy." He was shameless in his infatuation with White. Once, when talking to the Royal Television Society, he remarked that before such speaking engagements his wife, my mother, always whispers in his ear, "'Think Vanna.'" Which, he explained, "is a desperate way of saying, 'Stand up straight!' "But I gave up standing up straight in late middle age — about 40 years ago. I can't do it anymore, and the trouble is I think 'Vanna' and forget what I was going to say."

With advancing age he became increasingly conservative, something that I chose not to discuss with him as his willingness to indulge my liberal views seemed to be dwindling. I will say, however, that though he had originally been a supporter of the Iraq war, in the last six months of his life he quietly started to wonder if we shouldn't admit the failure and get out.

When he had a series of small heart attacks, his pace slowed considerably. In the last four years of his life he was no longer able to visit us in Vermont, travel to San Francisco or London or even, the last summer, go to Nassau Point for a few days a week. But though his body was failing, his mind was astonishingly clear. His memory never wavered and he worked at keeping it tuned by reciting the plays of Shakespeare every night as he drifted off to sleep.

The constancy of the Letter was his anchor to the world. What had originally been an afternoon endeavor was now the focus of his week. The luxury of more time and the fact of his advancing age led to pieces that were more reflective in nature. No longer was he necessarily commenting on the latest news or random cabdriver, Christmas dinner or whatever caught his fancy, he was viewing events and people with a more seasoned perspective not just of history but also of a life long lived. It seemed that he was more interested in cultural tides, perhaps even enduring truths, than in flashing news stories. He resisted, however, all entreaties to write a credo of some sort, a W. Somerset Maugham "Summing Up." The only time he ever came close to such an endeavor was when he was interviewed for an introduction a book called America Observed, a collection of his pieces from the Guardian. What strikes me is that despite his concern about America's love of decadence, he still had faith in the energy, spunk and generosity of its people. "In general, then, there doesn't seem to be any decline in curiosity, inquisitiveness, enlisted in the dogged belief that things can be made better, that tomorrow ought to be better than today. The stoic and fatalist are not yet familiar American types." (America Observed. 17) Never for a moment stoical in nature, he did on occasion lean into a fatalist view. Perhaps one reason he loved America was because it saved him from himself, from what he had feared, as a small boy in Blackpool, would be his lot. Raised in a culture of stoicism and humble acceptance of limited circumstances, his passionate nature, curiosity and inquisitiveness won out against a certain inculcated fatalism against which he would always be on guard.

Perhaps he was so good at what he did because as he interpreted America for Great Britain and the rest of the world, he endeavored to reconcile and balance his own character and life, a life seeped in centuries of tradition and history and then dramatically injected with the vitality, youth, and exuberance of a new nation. His love for both countries was the secret of his wisdom and the inspiration for his work.

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