Among books inspired by famous figures who have wandered through an author’s life, the journalist, novelist, and historian David Pryce-Jones’s Signatures, published earlier this year, holds current pride of place withportraits of ninety (yes, nine-zero) individuals who inscribed copies of their books for him. Pryce-Jones (born in 1936) is clearly a man of many connections: it is a long and engaging list. At the other end of the genre, quantitatively speaking, is a book by another Englishman, though one turned American, which contents us with just six. Alistair Cooke (1908–2004) was a hybrid both by nationality and calling—a journalist, radio and television presenter, and historian. Starting in the early 1970s, to American watchers of “quality” television he became an avuncular Sunday evening companion as the original host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, a role he made his own for over two decades. He had been writing and talking since the Thirties, first as the American correspondent for the then-Manchester Guardian. His weekly “Letter from America” for the BBC Home Service and its successor Radio 4 ran from 1946 to 2004. And in 1972, Cooke wrote and hosted the thirteen-part PBS television series America: A Personal History of the United States and the accompanying bestseller Alistair Cooke’s America.
When Six Men appeared forty-three years ago, five of Cooke’s subjects were already “comfortably removed from the heat of idolatry or belittlement.” Today, Charlie Chaplin, the only one of Cooke’s sextet still alive in 1977, and indeed Cooke himself, are comfortably removed too. Why did Cooke single out these three Englishmen (Chaplin, Edward VIII, Bertrand Russell) and these three Americans (H. L. Mencken, Adlai Stevenson, Humphrey Bogart)? Because, he tells us, in a professional life rich in encounters with the famous, from Sigmund Freud to Jack Nicklaus, these were six men whom Cooke not only took the measure of, which was his job, but also liked: men “with whom I felt an immediate sympat—to use a coining of Max Beerbohm’s more satisfactory to me than the opaque vogue word ‘empathy.’”
Cooke knew everybody. Doors opened easily to him, and no doubt his own notebooks were troves of raw material for his portraits. And that is the other thing that Cooke was. These are all longish essays, digressive and allusive, the work of an unhurried, unspecialized observer of life’s scene on a broad scale. Cooke was not “popular” and certainly not academic; he could grind out copy with the best daily hack but knew more history than most; he was a highbrow, though a highly amiable one. Despite being a Cambridge man with time logged at Yale and Harvard—and, when not on the road, a resident of both New York’s East Side and the eastern end of Long Island—he hailed from working-class Manchester before the Great War and never, I suspect, quite forgot it.
The larger body of Cooke’s work—the “Letters from America” and his “personal” history of his adopted country on screen and in print—merits a revisitation too, although we should keep in mind Rebecca West’s warning regarding Cooke’s sometime sympathies towards radical elements of the Left. For now, his portraits of Stevenson and Bogart, who of the six men were themselves acquainted, and even “sympat,” with each other, are two of his worthier pieces of writing. Both have a political hook: Stevenson for obvious reasons, but also Bogart, whom Cooke first met in the fall of 1952 on Stevenson’s campaign train through southern New England. Bogart bristled at the excesses of anti-communist hysteria that would soon culminate in Joe McCarthy and that just then were being pushed hard by Eisenhower’s running mate Richard Nixon. Though he was not particularly political, Bogart didn’t like to be pushed around by the studio bosses or anyone else. When the rumor went around Hollywood that embracing Adlai might not be the best thing for an actor’s career, which resulted “in a glad rush of stars all too eager to be seen liking Ike,” as Cooke put it, “Bogart and his wife [Lauren Bacall] packed their bags and went off with Stevenson.” Though awkward in the campaign train setting, Bogart played his part with “all correctness and modesty,” careful never to upstage the candidate.
Cooke was certain that Bogart had never heard of him, and it was Bacall who signaled him to their compartment later for a drink. There, Cooke shared a story he’d gotten wind of about Ike’s wartime dalliance with his young Englishwoman driver, which the Democrats were threatening to expose unless an upcoming McCarthy speech was toned down. What most shocked Bogart about this, to Cooke’s amazement given Bogart’s cynical on-screen persona, was not the dirty politics but rather the dark fact of adultery. He was visibly shocked, the “incurable puritan, gentle at bottom and afraid to say so.” Thence sprang Cooke’s fascination and admiration for the man—or the two or three men who were Bogart: the waspish Humphrey DeForest Bogart, son of a Manhattan physician father and a fashionable portrait painter mother, who grew up on Riverside Drive and went to Trinity School; the hard-bitten movie tough guy who morphed into the quietly heroic Rick of Casablanca (Cooke on that role: “the romantic democratic answer to Hitler’s new order”); the frighteningly competent actor-craftsman to whom “a professional was a man who can do his best work when he doesn’t feel like it.”
Adlai Stevenson taxed Cooke’s talents differently but presented him with the similar challenge of a subject objectively unsuited for the work he had chosen. Unlike Bogart, Stevenson never managed to make much of a success of it. The candidate sharing the train that day with the celebrity Bogarts won election to the presidency neither in 1952 nor in 1956 (nor in 1960, when he did not get to run but considered doing so). Probably no one could have beaten Eisenhower in those years, but then, when Eisenhower was gone, the Kennedys had little use for him either, no matter how much Stevenson may have regarded himself as rightful heir to the grand tradition (his grandfather had been vice president). His humiliation at the UN at the hands of the Kennedys over the Bay of Pigs and his subsequent sidelining in the Cuban Missile Crisis would, in a less secular line of work, have qualified him for sainthood, Cooke thought.
But humiliation is not what the presidency is about, either getting it or keeping it. Stevenson just didn’t have the fire for it, once telling Cooke of how, on that evening at the White House in 1952 when Truman had at last persuaded him to run for the Democratic nomination, he had been put up in the Lincoln bedroom—and could not bring himself to sleep in the bed. All the grubbiness of politics—money-raising, compromise and endless accommodation—he scorned as signs of failure. There was also a substance deficit, despite his reputation for braininess: “Most of Stevenson’s political thought adds up to a makeshift warning to avoid all quick solutions while trusting to the general outbreak of courage, tolerance, compassion and universal brotherhood,” Cooke wrote. And Cooke, remember, genuinely liked the man. As H. L. Mencken might have put it—and did, of Grover Cleveland: he was the proverbial “good man in a bad trade.”
Cooke was good with such tangled characters, whom, these six at least, he suspected of being, at root, “deeply conservative men who . . . yearned to be recognized rather as helions or brave progressives.” His own life, comparatively, was smooth sailing, but with those who had felt the chop he was, well, “sympat.” Along with the screenwriter and producer Nunnally Johnson, Cooke attended Bogart as he lay dying of throat cancer in 1956. The banter that election season ran to the Tennessee Senator Estes Kefauver: the race for the Democratic nomination and Kefauver’s unofficial reputation (the official one was sanctimonious Southern preacher) as a lecher. Johnson misheard and muttered “Did you say lecturer?” Cooke, who had told the tale, repeated “lecher.” Bogart cried: “My God, lecher! I wish to God we could spread the same word about Adlai.”