He was unquestionably one of the most famous, most recognized persons of the 20th Century, the father of what we now know as stand-up comedy, the first true multi-media star. A patriot and a philanderer, a giver and a taker, a smart-mouthed comic and a friend to presidents and generals. But who was Bob Hope, really? This ambitious 2014 biography by Richard Zoglin attempts to answer that question, a meticulously researched tome that tries to uncover the private man behind the public mask.
Zoglin digs deep into the available archives and uses interviews with those that knew him to paint his portrait of the notoriously reticent Bob Hope, reaching all the way back to his hardscrabble beginnings as an immigrant in Cleveland with six brothers, an alcoholic father who was an itinerant stone cutter, and a stern but loving mother who served as the de facto head of the household. Little Leslie Townes Hope was a wild child who spent time in reform school. He entered vaudeville at age 21, working with various partners (including at one point Siamese twins the Hilton Sisters), engaging in songs, dance, and snappy patter. Hope became an emcee for the shows, honing his future stand-up skills to perfection with rapid-fire comic delivery and engaging his audience by breaking the “fourth wall”, a gimmick he’d later utilize in his movie career.
It’s all here: his Broadway successes in ROBERTA and RED, HOT, & BLUE; his early two-reelers for Educational and Vitaphone; his ascent to ratings domination on radio and television; entertaining the troops in conflicts around the globe for the USO; making Oscar broadcasts must-see TV as a 17 time host. Hope’s film career is well documented, from his first feature THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 where he and singer Shirley Ross introduced “Thanks for the Memory”, to his last starring role in 1972’s dreary CANCEL MY RESERVATION. The book details his marriage to Dolores Reade (née DeFina), a devout Catholic who kept the family together while Hope travelled the world, remaining loyal despite his myriad affairs with showgirls and starlets (Doris Day, Marilyn Maxwell, and Barbara Payton were among his better-known conquests).
Hope was considered a risqué comedian in his heyday, his brash and irreverent monologues frequently getting him in trouble with network radio censors. The wild and zany ROAD movies with Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour caused audiences to howl with laughter at the madcap ad-libbing (and Zoglin uncovers the truth about Hope’s relationships with his costars). But yesterday’s cutting-edge comic quickly becomes today’s establishment shill, as Hope found out with his unpopular stance on the Vietnam War. Caught in a political crossfire and out of touch with the younger generation, Hope was a staunch supporter of both the war and President Richard Nixon, with whom he became an ally and confidant.
Zoglin’s book sheds light on Bob Hope’s inner workings: driven by memories of early poverty and his father’s failures, he used humor and performing as a coping skill, and like an addict with a needle or alcoholic with a bottle, developed an addiction to fame, fortune, and the spotlight, unable to stop until well past his prime. Inaction was death to Hope, he had to hear that applause and laughter to validate himself. It’s a fascinating, well written and researched book that belongs on any classic film lover’s shelf.