Hope: Entertainer of the Century
Simon & Schuster, 2014
576 pp., 30.00
The Road to Rome
My initial reaction to the claim in the subtitle of this celebrity biography was incredulity, but Richard Zoglin has convinced me that Bob Hope (1903-2003) can fittingly be referred to as the most successful entertainer of the 20th century. This place of preeminence is secured by the heights of popularity that he achieved, the number of decades during which his star power continued to shine so brightly, and his triumphing in seemingly every possible form of mass entertainment.
That last point is particularly compelling. Hope rose to success in vaudeville, and then conquered Broadway, before proceeding to the #1 spot in radio, film, and television—holding in the top ten in all three across decades. And the half is yet untold. Hope was a singer and recording artist; on Broadway, he stole the show with "I Can't Get Started," and in his first film he did the same with "Thanks for the Memory," which became his theme song. His initial vaudeville success was as a dancer.
Hope eventually became the most successful live performer going, often setting all-time attendance records for the cities he visited. He had a regular newspaper column, and his I Never Left Home—believe it or not—was the bestselling nonfiction book of 1944. A cultural ambassador during the Cold War, he did historic shows in Russia and China. (During the Iran hostage crisis, he seriously proposed doing his 1980 Christmas special from Tehran.) Hope was considered the greatest emcee in the business—hosting the Academy Awards an astonishing 19 times—and, to bury the lede, he was "the most popular comedian in American history."
His star power is beyond reckoning. He had a personal relationship with all 12 presidents who spanned his career (Roosevelt through George W. Bush). In a tribute show for him in 1993, he was praised not only by President Clinton but by all five living former presidents. His access to the White House was so great that he actually filmed one of his TV specials inside it—with President Reagan as his guest star. Already when he visited Carter there, the president quipped: "I have now been in office for 489 days, and when I've spent three more weeks, I will have slept as many nights here as Bob Hope." He didn't just know Queen Elizabeth II, he was invited to her wedding. When Hope visited Thailand, his theme song was played on the saxophone by His Majesty King Rama IX.
Hope's heap of honors is so big one would be better off trying to weigh than innumerate them. Not just being awarded an honorary Oscar, for example, but accruing five of them over the years. When he received the Congressional Gold Medal, Hope replied to President Kennedy: "I feel very humble, although I think I've got the strength of character to fight it." Hope became so used to winning everything there was to win that—in all seriousness —he asked his publicist to see about getting him the Nobel Peace Prize. Eventually Hope even figured out how to be honored for his honors, getting himself recorded in The Guinness Book of Records as the entertainer who had received the most awards.
Yet how long ago the 20th century seems now—and how ephemeral so many of Hope's achievements in it. A local radio station where I live has a weekly program which revisits the golden age of radio. They have an entire month dedicated to Jack Benny, but never seem to replay The Bob Hope Show. Although he took top television ratings in his day, there is no re-run market for Hope's broadcasts. Even his films—some of them the #1 box-office draw in the year of their release—have dropped out of sight to a surprising extent. Although not mentioned by Zoglin, only one of Hope's 56 pictures—The Road to Morocco—is among the 650 films so far preserved as the most culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant by the National Film Registry. (And 650 is an awful lot of movies. For example, not only does the list include Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and Young Frankenstein, but also Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.) Even while Hope was still alive, the Onion ran a headline: "World's Last Bob Hope Fan Dies of Old Age."
Zoglin is a welcome straight man to Hope's career, refraining from writing either a puff piece or a hatchet job in favor of a judicious assessment of strengths and weaknesses. So, for example, a highpoint of the Hope legend has always been that his was the rare celebrity marriage that actually made it. Zoglin emphasizes that Hope clearly loved Dolores and, at his death, they had been married for over 69 years. But Zoglin's chronicle also exposes the shadows of Hope's personal life. He had a brief, early marriage to his vaudeville partner Louise Troxell (that had been hitherto successfully covered up) and an endless parade of mistresses and one-night stands over more than half a century of his second marriage (which he hardly even tried to cover up). One of his writers remarked in disgust, "If the guy had any class, he'd commit suicide."
Bob Hope's own life therefore conforms to that great Hollywood cliché of the flawed man who finds redemption in his heroic military service. He began entertaining the troops during World War II, and it was one of the truest good things about him. He was brave: willing to endure not only ongoing discomfort but real danger. He loved to do a show right at the front. The war correspondent Ernie Pyle testified that Hope endured some terrifying bombings. After one particularly horrific flight, Hope joked to the troops: "It was so rough the automatic pilot bailed out." In a later conflict, he was specifically targeted by the Viet Cong: one time bomb missed him at his hotel by a mere ten minutes.
He also was tireless. There are frequent stories of how he would put on yet another show for just a couple dozen soldiers that he might meet along the road or while refueling. And he was relentless in his commitment to visiting even the most gruesomely wounded in their hospital wards.
These military shows were soon augmented by his annual Christmas tour for the troops. Hope did this during every conflict from World War II through the first Gulf War. Moreover, year after year during peacetime he would spend his holidays at remote military bases from the Arctic Circle to Guantánamo Bay. It meant a great deal to these far-from-home GIs: a thrill of Hope, a weary warrior rejoices. And it meant a great deal to America. The gang that kidnapped Frank Sinatra's son revealed that they had first considered targeting Hope, but they exempted him because he "had done so much in entertaining the troops."
Although it was a fantastic boost to his career, Hope's patriotic support for the troops and American military action was heartfelt. Indeed, his gung-ho stance on the Vietnam War did more than anything else to dent his universal popularity for a season. Some of his shows on college campuses were cancelled. A rare honor he missed was the Family of Man Award that the New York Council of Churches had intended to confer in 1971, thwarted by a thirtysomething Richard John Neuhaus, who argued that Hope's pro-war sentiments were objectionable. The nadir came when the soldiers themselves booed when Hope tried to talk up Nixon's plan for the war.
Still, Hope's TV specials with the soldiers in Vietnam were huge ratings hits, and the troops, as a general rule, were fond of him. Moreover, his humor was not as out-of-touch as his politics. Not only did he take to making cracks about the drug culture among military personnel (NBC always cut these out of the televised version), but he could even jokingly admonish the troops: "If you don't get better ratings, this whole war may be canceled."
There are many surprising parallels with Billy Graham, not least their remarkable popularity, honors, presidential access, and longevity. They met in Vietnam when they were both visiting the troops. In 1970, Billy Graham and Bob Hope were the co-chairs of "Honor America Day." And they were both co-opted to serve his own agenda by the flattering, manipulative attention of Richard Nixon.
Although he always aimed to please, journalists often found Hope an unsatisfying interviewee because he was an essentially shallow person with no real inner life to speak of. A pure extrovert, he worked ceaselessly because—setting aside golfing, womanizing, and financial wheeler-dealing—entertaining was pretty much all there was to him. Refusing to stop even as nonagenarian, Hope quipped that if he retired, he would have to install an applause machine in his house.
Dolores comes off as a far more intriguing figure. Her intense Catholic piety set the tone for the family. The Hopes had four children—all adopted—and they all seemed to have had a Catholic education all the way through, even going to Catholic universities. Dolores not only attended Mass daily at her parish church but even had a chapel included when she and Bob built their dream home. (His personal touch was a golf hole to practice on.) The Hopes were major donors to Catholic causes and charities, most conspicuously sponsoring the Chapel of Our Lady of Hope at the National Shrine, Washington, DC.
The few interviewers who dared to approach the subject of her husband's philandering would receive from Dolores a general acknowledgement that no one is perfect combined with a tribute to Bob's good qualities. When Dolores was Father Peyton's guest on the Family Theater, she reflected: "Our own pain can make us, well, I guess it can make us saints" (a quote not in Zoglin).
And Dolores's unrelenting petitions could wear down even an unjust judge. While it is not easy for us to imagine ourselves back in such an innocent time, for the first part of his career, Hope was often denounced by Catholic leaders on the grounds that his material was too sexually suggestive. The Catholic Legion of Decency labeled his film Son of Paleface "objectionable," and enough Catholic journals and letter-writers condemned his jokes that NBC actually considered cancelling his show. The newspaper of the Boston archdiocese warned that Hope's act might be ruining the souls of the boys in uniform.
By 1962, however, the senior class at Notre Dame was lauding him as the Patriot of the Year. Eventually, Dolores succeeded in getting Bob to attend Midnight Mass when he was with the troops for Christmas. Finally, in 1996, Bob Hope, aged 93, was baptized and became a member of their parish church. (One wonders if, like Emperor Constantine, he had waited until he thought it was a pretty safe bet that he would never commit another mortal sin.) At Bob's death, Cardinal Mahony testified of Dolores: "But eventually her prayers prevailed and he was baptized into the Catholic Church and was strengthened these past years through the regular reception of holy Communion."
With his service to the troops, Bob Hope was a saint of American civil religion, but Dolores might well have become a true saint in the Catholic sense. (Bob being Bob, if he had outlived her to hear that suggestion, he would have no doubt immediately started a campaign to lobby the Vatican for her canonization.) The stories of her good deeds that have seen the light of day (without self-promotion) suggest that there must be many more where even her left hand has not learned what her right was doing.
Dolores befriended Tony Coelho, for example, who was so shattered when his dream of becoming a priest was destroyed by ill health that he fell into a suicidal depression. He ended up living with the Hopes for eight months, and no doubt we would never have heard about her sacrificial kindness to him were it not that his subsequent career in Congress made his life story of particular interest to journalists.
Hope's secret first wife remarried and had children. A daughter named Deborah died of a drug overdose in 1998. Zoglin, in a brilliant bit of sleuthing, obtained the death certificate and discovered that the body had been identified by Dolores Hope—relation to the deceased, godmother. In other words, it would appear that Dolores quietly decided that she had a Christian duty to fulfill toward this troubled woman because her husband had been married to Deborah's mother 65 years earlier.
Protestant that I am, I shan't start praying to her but will confine myself to the Reformation motto that "the memory of the righteous is a blessing" (Prov. 10:7, ESV). Thanks for the memory.
Timothy Larsen is McManis Professor of Christian Thought, Wheaton College. His sixth monograph, The Slain God: Anthropologists and the Christian Faith, was recently published by Oxford University Press.
Copyright © 2015 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.