I haven't read a biogrpahy as engrossing as Richard Zoglin’s revelatory new biography of Bob Hope in a long time. It 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. Mr. Zoglin adds that “one could argue, without too much exaggeration, that he was the only important entertainer.”
I may not agree that Bob Hope was the entertainer of the century - from a century that boasted such entertainers as Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Elvis Presley, and The Beatles, but Hope was important to comedy, as well as the soldiers during World War II. Hope was the Jim Carrey, Will Ferrell, and Steve Carell of his day - but by the time his last special aired in 1998, he was an aging relic.
Even though the author does admire his subject, he does not gloss over some controversal subjects like Hope's many affairs or the fact that Hope and Bing Crosby did not like each other much. The book is a balanced piece of literature that exposes the good and the bad of Bob Hope.
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,” Mr. Zoglin hyperbolizes about that.
Why, then, is Mr. Hope so seldom thanked for all he contributed to American life? Why do stand-up comics forget to mention him as the great pioneer? Lenny Bruce, whose name is as acceptable for them to drop as Hope’s is not, once supposedly spotted Hope in his audience and followed him into the parking lot, asking Hope to put him on NBC. Hope thought Bruce brilliant, but he knew how to deflect him. “Lenny,” he said, according to The San Diego Union, “you’re for educational TV.”
How did Hope start in vaudeville, entertain his way through the changing show business styles of the 20th century, become all-powerful and then ignored? It’s a great, forgotten story, and Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
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, and 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 Mr. Zoglin’s book may 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. Mr. Zoglin’s fascinating book is a big contribution to their cause...
MY RATING: 9 OUT OF 10