Alfred Alistair Cooke KBE was a British/American journalist, television personality and broadcaster. Outside his journalistic output, which included Letter from America and Alistair Cooke’s America, he was well known in the United States as the host of PBS Masterpiece Theater from 1971 to 1992. After holding the job for 22 years, and having worked in television for 42 years, Cooke retired in 1992, although he continued to present Letter from America until shortly before his death. He was the father of author and folk singer John Byrne Cooke.
Born in Salford, Lancashire, England, his father was a lay Methodist preacher and metalsmith by trade; his mother’s family were of Irish Protestant origin. Originally named Alfred, he changed his name to Alistair when he was 22. He was educated at Blackpool Grammar School, and won a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he gained an honours degree in English. He was heavily involved in the arts, was editor of Granta, and set up The Mummers, Cambridge’s first co-sex theatre group, from which he notably rejected a young James Mason, telling him to stick to architecture.
Cooke became engaged to Henrietta Riddle, the daughter of Henry Ainley. However whilst he was attending Yale University and Harvard University on a Commonwealth fund fellowship, she deserted him. He met Ruth Emerson, a great-grandniece of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in 1933, and they married on 24 August 1934. Charlie Chaplin had agreed to be Cooke’s best man, but he was a no-show at the ceremony. The couple had a son, John, who graduated from Harvard University and shortly thereafter became the road manager for Big Brother and the Holding Company. After the band’s lead singer Janis Joplin started her own band with solo billing, John Cooke remained her road manager. He was her confidant at the time of her death in 1970.
Alistair Cooke divorced Ruth in 1944, and married Jane White Hawkes, a portrait painter and the widow of neurologist A. Whitfield Hawkes, the son of Albert W. Hawkes, on April 30, 1946. Their daughter, Susan, was born on 22 March 1949. The couple remained together until his death.