Richard Zoglin’s revelatory new biography of Bob Hope makes staggering claims for its subject.
Is it enough to say that “for the way he marketed himself, managed his celebrity, cultivated his brand and converted his show business fame into a larger, more consequential role for himself on the public stage, Bob Hope was the most important entertainer of the century”?
No, it’s not. Zoglin adds that “one could argue, without too much exaggeration, that he was the only important entertainer.”
This unabashedly ambitious book also makes much of Hope as inspiration, public citizen and inventor of the stand-up comedy monologue, the kind he delivered when hosting the Academy Awards, which he did more than anyone else has.
“No one ever looked better in a tuxedo,” Zoglin hyperbolizes.
Why, then, is Hope so seldom thanked for all he contributed to American life? Why do stand-up comics forget to mention him as the great pioneer?
How did Hope start in vaudeville, entertain his way through the changing show business styles of the 20th century, become all-powerful (including in the Southern California real estate market) and then ignored?
It’s a great, forgotten story, and Zoglin provides a definitive version. Sure, it’s hyperbolic at times, and even defensive about Hope’s bad judgment once it starts to torpedo him. But Zoglin sees a great, gifted performer who gave the world endless amounts of hilarity, generosity and showbiz savvy.
And it seems to pain him viscerally when Hope casts a shadow over his own achievements. This book is so enveloping that it’s hard not to share some of that pain.
Born in 1903 in Eltham, now a suburban district of South East London, Hope spent his first four years in England and grew up, as Leslie Towns Hope, to be the most troublesome of his mother’s six sons.
After the family immigrated to the United States and settled in Cleveland, he wound up in reform school, which was not part of his official studio biography once he became famous.
The first talent he displayed was a gift for dancing. By 21, he had a job in a vaudeville show called “Jolly Follies,” where he began performing with a male partner and introducing jokes and wisecracks into their acts. He was handsome and debonair enough to make a smooth segue to Broadway when vaudeville began to die.
Then came a long apprenticeship, and the start of a lifelong habit of catting around with women. (Having starred with Ethel Merman in “Red, Hot and Blue,” Hope later confessed to having had sex with her “in doorways all the way up Eighth Avenue.”
It didn’t change all that much after he first saw Dolores Reade singing “It’s Only a Paper Moon” in a nightclub. She would later tell their four adopted children not to believe articles about Hope’s philandering. She also lied to protect him from the press.
Officially, they were married for nearly 70 years, but Zoglin’s intensive research finds a first wife to whom he was secretly married when he proposed to Dolores, and no solid proof that he and Dolores were ever legally married. In any case, she knew exactly what she was getting into, and she wanted it.
Hope moved from radio to movies to television. He made an immensely popular string of road movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour, beginning with “Road to Singapore” in 1940.
According to Zoglin, these are the best buddy movies ever made (despite that the two men did not like each other). This claim sounds ridiculous until, as with many of the book’s brassy assertions, you start trying to challenge it.
And after much experimentation, he created a persona for himself that would work in these forms and in live appearances: timely, smart-alecky, intimately engaged with his audiences, responsive to whatever they needed to hear.
When Hope began making his tireless USO tours to entertain homesick soldiers overseas in World War II, he took along the right cheesecake co-stars, sang the songs the soldiers wanted to hear and raised their morale, even if he sometimes made them weep.
He had endless topical verses, tailoring the lyrics for individual audiences, whenever he sang “Thanks for the Memory,” his hauntingly beautiful yet jokey theme song. One of the least-remembered things about Hope is how well he could sing when he wanted to.
His own personal war effort may have been the high point of his life. When he wasn’t overseas, he was rallying crowds at home to buy war bonds and otherwise make sacrifices for the cause. (He continued to entertain troops through the Persian Gulf war.)
Although he had much in common with his fellow Midwestern comic Johnny Carson — detachment, coldness, a taste for sudden cruelty — he did not have Carson’s selfishness, says Zoglin, himself a Kansas City transplant to New York.
He showed up where he was needed. He wrote touchingly to fans. The book includes a beautiful, never maudlin letter he sent to a dying child.
If he had ended his career before Vietnam he would have been a beloved American hero. But Hope lived past his 100th birthday and kept performing long past the point at which he could be funny.
His vehement, conservative politics were held against him by angry protesters during the Vietnam era. His efforts to acknowledge the differences between that war and World War II fell flat: From then on, he became unfunny and out of touch.
On Woodstock: “Since the dawn of man, that’s the most dandruff that was ever in one place.” On AIDS: “Have you heard? The Statue of Liberty has AIDS. Nobody knows if she got it from the mouth of the Hudson or the Staten Island Ferry.”
How could nostalgists miss him when he wouldn’t go away? Every big birthday meant a stiff, codgery NBC tribute to Bob Hope.
Talented young performers didn’t want to be seen on these things, and more and more of his contemporaries were ailing or dead. Movie art houses declined to give Bob Hope films the treatment they gave the Marx Brothers, although Zoglin’s book might help correct that oversight.
And his family members remain involved in trying to burnish his legacy and bring back the best of what he achieved. Zoglin’s fascinating book is a big contribution to their cause.
Hope: Entertainer of the Century, by Richard Zoglin (565 pages; Simon & Schuster; $30)