The jokes were good. One of the joys of Richard Zoglin’s new biography is that he liberally sprinkles it with dozens of Bob Hope’s wisecracks, gags, and quips. “Adlai made so many campaign promises, Ike voted for him.” Hope told troops in Vietnam “if you don’t get better ratings, this whole war may be canceled.’’ “I got a wonderful tribute at the airport,” Hope said when he landed in Moscow in 1958. “They fired twenty-one shots in the air in my honor. Of course it would have been nicer if they’d waited for the plane to land.’’
Hope wrote none of them. The titular figurehead of a joke factory, he employed a team of full-time writers who penned his lines. He was able to ad-lib with the best of them. In 1962 a gate crasher disrupted the Academy Awards ceremony; Hope quipped, “Who needs Price Waterhouse? All we need’s a doorman.” But almost all of the jokes were planned, scripted, and vetted.
So was everything else in Hope’s unique career. He was the number one performer in vaudeville, Broadway, radio, film, song, and television. He even topped the best-seller book lists one year. There never was an entertainer who hit the top notes in almost every possible mass medium like Hope.
The only mistake he made was his curtain call. Hope was 100 when he died in July 2003, and in his last decades, doing some NBC special or hosting the Oscars (he did it a record 19 times), he was a stiff, golf-club wielding has-been, well past his expiration date.
Zoglin is a theater critic for Time. Unlike Hope’s previous biographer Lawrence Quick, he does a superb job in fetching all the mostly-forgotten versions of Hope and soberly parading them past us without too much hyperbole.
Bob Hope was born Leslie Towns Hope in a suburb southwest of London, the fifth of what would be seven boys. After a hardscrabble, itinerant four and a half years (his mother was an orphan, his father a drunk), Hope and his family sailed to America, past the Statue of Liberty, which his grandfather, a stonemason, had helped carve in Paris.
In Cleveland, young Leslie ran rough, shoplifting and committing other petty crimes, and Zoglin has discovered the reason why Hope dropped out of his Cleveland high school late in his sophomore year: A juvenile delinquent, he was sent to reform school for a year and a half.
After that, Hope stumbled into vaudeville and for nine years worked a dying circuit around the country, singing, dancing, and quipping in shows, sometimes in blackface, other times with 20 trained monkeys or dancing Siamese twins. He broke into Broadway and one thing cascaded into another as he carefully constructed a ground-breaking comic franchise. He starred in dozens of films, including the still hilarious “Road’’ movies with Bing Crosby. He more or less invented the breaking-the-fourth-wall speaking to the camera, the clip reel of flubs and outtakes, and the topical-joke-filled opening monologue now standard for late-night talk shows,
Zoglin admits he’s unable to plumb the depths: “Hope’s inner life, hidden beneath his cool-wiseacre façade, is pretty much a cipher.” But Zoglin gives us insightful contours. Hope played golf on more than 2,000 courses over his lifetime (he made five holes-in-one). He had a photographic memory. He was famously cheap and surprisingly thin-skinned: He not only read reviews but hated the negative ones so much that he often got his writers to send letters in response, usually with fake names. He indulged in the twin primal lusts of sex and real estate to the hilt: He had numerous affairs (and more: Zoglin uncovers a secret first marriage of Hope’s, one that might have overlapped with his second one), and he bought and sold land all over Southern California, owning 10,000 acres at one point.
Sometimes, Zoglin gets mired in the details of Hope’s soldier-in-greasepaint, barnstorming tours entertaining the troops abroad, 54 shows in four weeks here, eight countries in 12 days there. Bob Hope is a name with two verbs and sometimes the biography has too much action and rushing from show to show. Though Zoglin is perhaps mimicking Hollywood talk, it also seems every woman gets tagged as the “blond British sexpot,” “a pretty young publicist,” “blond bombshell,” “the buxom star,” “the requisite piece of cheesecake,” or the “well-endowed former Miss Sweden.”
Nonetheless, Zoglin is a good guide to the century of Bob Hope. To end, let’s hear again his most memorable joke, from the 1968 Oscars ceremony: “Welcome to the Academy Awards . . . Or as it’s known in my house, Passover.”James Zug is the author of six books, including “Run to the Roar.’’ He can be reach at firstname.lastname@example.org.