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Alistair Cooke is celebrated as a wonderful broadcaster, and so he was. He was also an elegant writer. Nine years ago, I had the opportunity to interview him about a collection of his writings that had to do with sports, among other things. The book is called "Fun and Games." Mr. Cooke was kind enough to read for "Only a Game" an excerpt from an essay he wrote fifty years ago about a cricket game between Yale and Harvard:
"But after all, it's not the winning that matters, is it? It's, to coin a word, the amenities that count. The smell of the dandelions, the puff of the pipe, the click of the bat, when Harvard's batting, the rain on the neck, the chill down the spine, the slow, exquisite coming on of sunset, and dinner, and rheumatism."
Alistair Cooke and I spoke in his hotel room. He was extraordinarily gracious, and his memory was remarkable. He recalled soccer games he'd played in as a school boy, and he spoke self-deprecatingly of his bias toward athletes who made mastery of their difficult games look easy. My admiration for Alistair Cooke was in part based on how easy he made precision and wit seem when he wrote, and on how thoroughly he seemed to be relishing not only the challenges of writing, but what had to be the chore of talking about what he'd written.
Toward the end of our conversation, I brought up the Sesame Street character, Cookie Monster. Mr. Cooke's eyes shone. It turns out the master monster-maker Jim Henson had asked Mr. Cooke's permission to appropriate his name for "Alistair Cookie," which would give the Cookie Monster himself an opportunity to host "Monsterpiece Theater." Mr. Cooke was thrilled with the idea...and the perks of its execution:
"I go in airports, and little girls, hiding behind their mothers' skirts, suddenly see me, and giggle, and ask their mother, and the mother says, "yes, go ahead and ask him." And they come up to me and say, "are you Alistair Cooke, the Cookie Monster?" I said, "absolutely," and they run for their lives, so I said 80 years from now, when nobody's ever heard of Masterpiece Theater or John Guilgud, they'll remember the Cookie Monster, and they met him in the flesh, so I was delighted."Alistair Cooke's death on Monday deprived us of an enthusiastic sports fan, a terrific writer, and a fellow who know not to take himself too seriously. A man who seemed to know not only how to enjoy himself thoroughly, but how to convey that joy --- on the page or in conversation — with uncommon style and grace.
This program aired on April 2, 2004. The audio for this program is not available.
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