About the Archive
About the Center
Scope & Content
Instituted in 1963 as Special Collections and renamed in 2003 to honor its founder, the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center is the repository for the papers of individuals in the fields of literature, criticism, journalism, drama, music, film, civil rights, diplomacy, and national affairs. Although contemporary public figures is the specialty of the Center, there are substantial holdings of earlier historical documents and over 140,000 rare books.
Beginning with the sixteenth century, the historical collections include documents of United States presidents and the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Other historical holdings include papers relating to the areas of military history, eighteenth century Americana, nursing history, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Franz Liszt. There are also individual letters and documents from monarchs, writers, and major historical figures.
The Center is a major resource for researchers, biographers, historians, producers, and students. The collections vary in size and content and contain a variety of manuscripts, drafts, galleys, notes, notebooks, journals, diaries, scrapbooks, reviews, photographs, memorabilia, and personal and professional correspondence. Most collections have a finding aid and are available for research by appointment.
Rotating exhibitions throughout the building showcase the manuscript holdings and rare books from the Center's various collections.
The Alistair Cooke collection consists of manuscripts, notebooks, printed material, correspondence, audio, photographs, scrapbooks, film and video, awards, and other items.
Manuscripts in the collection by Cooke include both his shorter writings as well as his longer, book-length works.
Shorter manuscripts include numerous dispatches to and articles for the Manchester Guardian (1947-1972), including Cooke's eyewitness account of Robert F. Kennedy's assassination on June 5, 1968; scripts for Cooke's weekly radio series for the BBC, Letter from America (originally titled American Letters), along with some broadcast outlines and transcripts (1946-2000); an unproduced teleplay titled "The Father," for the television program Omnibus (1959), as well as other miscellaneous television scripts; notes regarding BBC impressions of Alistair Cooke's Vietnam-era talks (1965); articles for The New Yorker, Toronto Star, Travel and Leisure, Newsday, Show, Mademoiselle, and Vogue; editorials, reviews, and letters to the editor, for The Times, New York Times, and the Chicago Sun-Times; texts for BBC radio programs to accompany "Alistair Cooke's Jazz Twenties," "Alistair Cooke's Jazz Thirties," "Alistair Cooke's Jazz Forties," "Only by Women," "Jazzmen," and "Instruments of Jazz"; an outline for an hour-long television program titled The Nobel Family, broadcast on ABC; speeches, radio talks, interviews, and addresses (1933-2003); various narrations and voice-over introductions; several Masterpiece Theatre introductions; texts, research and letters regarding episodes of the public television program America; and other items.
Book-length manuscripts include Around the World in Fifty Years: A Political Travelogue (Field Enterprises, Inc., 1966); Talk About America (Knopf, 1968); Alistair Cooke's America (Knopf, 1973); Six Men (Bodley Head, 1977); Above London, photography by Robert Cameron, text by Cooke (San Francisco, CA, 1980); Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre, with commentary by Cooke (Knopf, 1981); The Patient Has the Floor (Knopf, 1986); America Observed: The Newspaper Years of Alistair Cooke, edited and introduced by Ronald A. Wells (Knopf, 1988); Fun and Games with Alistair Cooke: On Sport and Other Amusements (Pavilion, 1996); Memories of the Great and the Good (Arcade, 1999); and The Face of the Nation: A Portrait of the American People at War, published posthumously as The American Home Front: 1941-1942 (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006). Also present in the collection are manuscripts for Alistair Cooke: The Biography, by Nick Clarke (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1999).
Cooke's notebooks date from 1982-2003. They contain notes regarding news stories, current events, impressions of public figures, war, and politics; some include newspaper articles and/or correspondence. In addition, there are 33 notepads dating from 1943 to 1955, including one specifically regarding Alger Hiss.
Printed material in the collection is extensive, and primarily consists of the published versions of Cooke's writings. Periodicals represented include The Listener, The Guardian (several dispatches), The New York Times Sports Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, The Observer, Life, Show, Punch, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and others. Cooke also kept files of newspaper clippings on various aspects of life in the United States; these were compiled between 1948 and 1969, covering topics such as race relations, the economy, politics, espionage, health, crime, and labor unions. Also included are advertisements, reviews of Cooke's writings, publicity items, posters, interviews of Cooke, catalogs, page proofs, dust jackets, and various other items.
Correspondence in the collection consists of numerous items covering all aspects of Cooke's private and professional lives. Both personal and professional letters are included, dating from 1932 to 2004. Cooke had especially extensive correspondence with Nunnally Johnson, Max Freedman, Robert Tyre Jones, Jr., Adlai Stevenson, and Arthur C. Clarke. Other notable correspondents include Dean Acheson, William F. Buckley, Jr., Hubert Humphrey, Alfred A. Knopf, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jack Valenti, Ferdinand "Jelly Roll" Morton, H. L. Mencken, John F. Kennedy, Sam Rayburn, Woody Allen, David Attenborough, Ralph Bellamy, Bill Clinton, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Graham Greene, Walter Mondale, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Eugene V. Rostow, William Safire, Emma Thompson, John Updike, Tom Wolfe, Lauren Bacall, Bill Moyers, Abraham Ribicoff, U Thant, Kenneth Tynan, Bing Crosby, George Schultz, Stuart Symington, Roddy McDowall, George F. Will, Russell Baker, Peter Jennings, Donald Rumsfeld, Kofi Annan, Tony Blair, and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. The collection also includes a letter from Cooke to Groucho Marx (1957) and a draft of a letter (never sent) from Cooke to George H. W. Bush regarding the invasion of Iraq (December 30, 1989).
Audio recordings in the collection primarily consist of numerous cassettes of "Letter from America" broadcasts. Other recordings in the collection include several cassettes and reel-to-reel tapes of various speeches and appearances by Cooke; reel-to-reel tapes of BBC radio broadcasts and jazz programs hosted by Cooke; Cooke's own collection of jazz recordings on reel-to-reel tape; and "An Evening with Alistair Cooke at the Piano," in long-playing record and cassette versions.
Photographs in the collection consist of personal and professional images dating from the 1930s to the 1980s. Notable figures represented include Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Nunnally Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy, Bing Crosby, Jack Nicklaus, Lyndon B. Johnson, Rita Hayworth, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leverett Saltonstall, Vincent Price, Adlai Stevenson, and Dag Hammarskjold. Photos of Cooke include several images of him on the set of Masterpiece Theatre, in the White House, and at the United Nations.
Scrapbooks in the collection include several albums of fan mail collected and arranged by various television stations after Cooke announced his retirement. An early scrapbook consists of newspaper clippings by or about Cooke from ca. 1935. Other scrapbooks include albums titled "Gen. Eisenhower on the Military Churchill," "Writing in the American Language" (1935-1937), and "The American Half-Hour" (1935).
Film reels in the collection include the complete America television series on 16mm reels (13 total, with 2 small reels and an audio tape for a one-minute trailer), as well as two other reels labeled "General Eisenhower on the Military Churchill, with Alistair Cooke" and "Lion and the Eagle (‘Intertel')." Video cassettes in the collection include a VHS tape labeled "President Ronald Reagan Message For: Alistair Cooke," Oct. 25, 1988.
Awards in the collection include honorary doctorates for Cooke from Ohio State University, Yale University, St. Andrew's University, Victoria University of Manchester, and the University of Edinburgh; the George Foster Peabody Broadcasting Award from the University of Georgia; a nomination for an award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for the episode "A Fireball in the Night" from America (1972-1973); and an item from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters (1983).
Other material in the collection include research material; legal material; subject files on various topics, arranged by Cooke; financial material (contracts, royalty statements, receipts, 1935-1997); a self-caricature by Cooke, in pen and ink; Cooke's press credentials from World War II, including letters of introduction; and a Corona brand portable typewriter, given to Cooke in college and which he used to write all his Guardian dispatches.
Thanks to his duties as host of the cultural programs Omnibus and Masterpiece Theatre, Alistair Cooke (1908 - 2004) came to be seen as an arbiter of highbrow arts and entertainment for many Americans and, as such, he became a television icon. Yet he was much more than just an erudite broadcaster; over a long and distinguished career, he proved to be a consummate journalist and an insightful social historian. For more than a quarter century, Cooke was the United States correspondent for the British newspaper the Guardian or the Manchester Guardian as it was formerly known. In addition, he filed a weekly "Letter from America" on BBC radio, a 15-minute broadcast. He received numerous accolades and honors in his lifetime, including three Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award for International Reporting, and several honorary degrees. In 1973, Cooke was made a Knight Commander, Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II.
Born Alfred Cooke on November 20, 1908 in Manchester, Lancashire, England, he was the son of metal worker Samuel Cooke, who also was a lay Methodist preacher, and his wife, the former Mary Elizabeth Byrne. The family settled in Blackpool where he developed his fascination with the United States after a group of American soldiers was billeted in the Cooke home during World War I.
Cooke attended Blackpool Grammar School and earned a scholarship to Jesus College, Cambridge University where he edited a literary magazine and was one of the founders of the theatrical troupe, the Cambridge Mummers. In the latter capacity, Cooke rejected fellow student James Mason for membership, telling him he would make a better architect than actor. Also while in college, he legally added "Alistair" to his name, claiming it had been a family nickname, and he began his literary career writing criticism and articles for Theatre Arts Monthly. By 1930, Cooke had earned a bachelor's degree and the following year, received his education diploma.
Awarded a fellowship to study theater in the United States in 1932, Cooke attended Yale University. Thanks to its proximity to Manhattan, he was able to travel in and attend various theatrical productions and become acquainted with rising personalities like Thornton Wilder. He also frequented jazz clubs, and as he had skill as a pianist, would sometimes be allowed to sit in on jam sessions.
During the summer, Cooke had the opportunity to travel around the United States. Even in the throes of the Great Depression, the country issued what he called "a tremendous energy and vitality." He returned to the East Coast a changed person and settled in at Harvard where he became acquainted with H.L. Mencken. (Cooke would compile and edit a volume of Mencken's writings in the mid-1950s.)
He returned to England in 1934 and by happenstance was able to secure a position with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) as a film critic. Concurrently, Cooke undertook a job with the National Broadcasting Corporation (NBC) filing a weekly "London Letter" radio report. As a journalist, he covered such history-making events as the abdication of King Edward VIII and the signing of the Munich pact. Cooke also published his first book, the biography Douglas Fairbanks: The Making of a Screen Character (Museum of Modern Art, 1937).
Returning to the United States in 1937, Cooke permanently settled in New York City, eventually becoming a naturalized American citizen in 1941. While continuing to provide broadcasts for the BBC, he wrote freelance articles. After World War II, he was approached by the Manchester Guardian to cover the founding of the United Nations. Based on his successful reportage, the newspaper offered him a permanent position as its chief correspondent in America, remaining with the newspaper for more than a quarter century.
After World War II, Cooke proposed an idea to the BBC: "a weekly personal letter to a Briton by a fireside, I shall try to give a running commentary on topical aspects of American life, some of the intimate background to Washington policy, some profiles of important Americans. The stress will tend always to be on the springs of American life, whose bubbles are the headlines, rather than on the headlines themselves." Beginning on March 24, 1946 and lasting until February 20, 2004, Cooke‘s weekly 13-minute "Letter from America" was broadcast on Sundays, surprisingly without any editorial influence from the BBC.
From 1952 to 1961, Cooke reached a wider audience in his adopted homeland as the host and narrator of the television arts show Omnibus, one of the longest running cultural series in America. Originally, the program, funded by the Ford Foundation, aired in the early evening on Sundays and it encompassed everything from opera to classical music to dance to drama to nature documentaries. Cooke received his first Emmy nomination in 1956 as program host. After Omnibus left the airwaves, he was tapped to serve as host for the United Nations television series International Zone from 1961 to 1967.
When National Educational Television (the forerunner of the Public Broadcasting System or PBS) was preparing to air a series of mostly British productions under the umbrella title of Masterpiece Theatre, Cooke reluctantly agreed to serve as host. From its premiere in 1971 until his retirement in 1992, he introduced viewers to adaptations of British and American novels like The Forsyte Saga and The Golden Bowl as well as historical programs such as Elizabeth R and I, Claudius to serialized dramas like Upstairs/Downstairs and The Jewel in the Crown. Having come to appreciate his role, he compared his hosting duties with being a "headwaiter. I'm there to explain for interested customers what's on the menu, and how the dishes were composed. But I'm not the chef." He came to be respected for his efforts, was satirized on shows as varied as Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street, and even earned a 1975 Emmy Award.
Overlapping with his early duties on Masterpiece Theatre was an acclaimed and award-winning documentary series that first aired on NBC. America was Cooke's "personal history" of the United States. Over thirteen one-hour episodes, the series traced the story of America from its founding through colonial days right up to contemporary times. It was both educational and entertaining and provided a seemingly fresh look on a musty subject. The series received several Emmy Awards, including one for Best New Series and two for Cooke's contributions as host and as writer. The show also spawned a best-selling companion book, Alistair Cooke's America (Knopf, 1973), and was one of the first programs that was broadcast on a commercial network to be later aired on public television.
In addition to the book version of America, Cooke also published several collections of his broadcasts including Letters from America (Hart-Davis 1951), issued in the U.S. as One Man's America (Knopf, 1952), and Talk about America (Knopf, 1968). Among his other published work are Christmas Eve (Knopf, 1952), Six Men (Knopf, 1977), Masterpieces: A Decade of Masterpiece Theatre (Knopf, 1981), America Observed (Knopf, 1988), Memories of the Great & Good (Thorndike Press, 2000), and the posthumous The American Home Front, 1941-1942 (Knopf, 2006).
In 1934, Alistair Cooke married the former Ruth Emerson, with whom he had a son. Following the couple's divorce, he wed portrait artist Jane White Hawkes in 1946 with whom he had a daughter. He died at his Manhattan home on March 30, 2004 at the age 95, a little over one month after formally retiring from broadcasting. At his request, he was cremated and some of his ashes were scattered in New York City's Central Park.