In thirty-plus years of telling Britons about Americans, and vice
versa, Alistair Cooke has made some notable contacts - six of whom
are variously recaptured, assayed, and set in concrete here. "The
one and only Charlie Chaplin" was at the height of his fame when,
in 1933, he befriended "a lean, black-haired twenty-four-year-old
Englishman on a two-year fellowship at Yale" - and a summer writing
assignment for the London Observer - who became confidante, sailing
companion (along with "my friend, Miss Goddard"), piano-duet
partner, script collaborator (on a projected film about Napoleon on
St. Helena). . . before Chaplin failed to appear as best man at
Cooke's wedding. This is heady stuff - Chaplin sounding off against
capitalism (and boasting that he beat out the Crash); re-enacting
Edward VII at Sandringham, "the huge patrician buffalo to the
life"; explaining the blind girl/rich man/tramp foul-up in City
Lights ("a slamming [limousine] door") - untouched, in the main, by
Cooke's occasional dig at Chaplin's not-so-"impressive" intellect,
his not-so-real radicalism. Edward VIII appears first, and
disarmingly as the Crown Prince at a 1932 reception for Cooke and
other US-bound students - where Edward, sporting an identical
custom-made suit, hopes that theater-student Cooke will have a
chance ("shocking suggestion") to direct an American musical. There
follows a lengthy reprise of what Mrs. Simpson wrought, the British
press hushed up, and Edward never understood: the gathering
constitutional crisis ("the genuine threat of a King's Party") that
mandated abdication. All of which Cooke reported posthaste for NBC.
He had a special relation to H. L. Mencken too, as a
fellow-connoisseur of American English, and the Baltimore bravo is
kindly handled here. Reporting his last political conventions, he
remarks to an apologetic liberal (with Mencken, it's pick-a-quote),
"The trouble with you liberals. . . is you get uneasy when people
don't agree with you." The three remaining subjects - Adlai
Stevenson, Bertrand Russell, Humphrey Bogart - could fascinate in
turn, but Cooke either didn't know them well (no personal bond is
in evidence), knows nothing unusual about them, or has no
particular feeling for them - so he shows us Stevenson the charming
vacillator, Russell the moralizing windbag, and Bogart the
existential anti-hero. Three and three, then - but the seventh man,
Cooke himself, will put this in the winning column. (Kirkus
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