Having previously written a book about stand-up comics in the 1970s, Time magazine contributing editor and theater critic Richard Zoglin turned to one of the 20th century’s multimedia masters in his new biography, HOPE: Entertainer of the Century (Simon & Schuster, 2014). The Kansas City, Missouri, native, who lives in New York City, recently spoke with me about the legendary comedian. This is an edited transcript.
Scott Holleran: What was the first Bob Hope experience you had in life?
Richard Zoglin: Growing up with his movies watching the Road pictures. I grew up in Kansas City and I loved Bob Hope. I watched his specials growing up. He seems like such a constant presence.
Scott Holleran: As an editor and theater critic for Time magazine, did the publication’s archives aid your research?
Richard Zoglin: They did. Time has a library, though it’s not what it used to be. There were clips that are now withering still sitting in folders. They’ve started converting to digital but they still have those old paper files up until 1963. So the older files are still on paper. They’re so old that they crumble in your hands. The way Time used to work, a writer would take the files and turn it into a story. All those files are still there. The files at Time were the main thing. The [Bob Hope] TV shows are more tricky because the Hope family owns a lot of those. The Paley Center [in New York] was helpful. But the whole family cooperated with me. The movies are mostly out there on video in packages and the few that aren’t—there are four or five—I was able to track down. Here Come the Girls was one the family sent me. Ninety percent of my research was at the location where the family donated all his papers, scrapbooks, scripts and a huge amount of material, so I spent weeks at the annex of The Library of Congress in Culpepper, Virginia.
Scott Holleran: What was the biggest surprise in terms of valuable research?
Richard Zoglin: One of the big things, and it took a long time, was [obtaining an unpublished manuscript by] Bob’s older brother Jim, who had his own memoir. I had seen it quoted—it was [called] “Mother Had Hopes”—and I just stumbled on it while I was talking with a guy in England who had done a lot of research on Bob Hope’s genealogy. He had a copy and, though I had a tough time getting it sent over—he lives in a town on the west coast of England—he was willing to send it to me digitally. Someone told me that there were only three copies of [the manuscript] and I found that one. Jim was very perceptive about the house in England, and where the kids played, going to America, growing up in Cleveland, the jobs they had and where they worked. It was such a nice picture of life in turn of the century England and in Cleveland in the 1910s and early 1920s. There were personal anecdotes about Bob Hope doing Charlie Chaplin imitations.
Scott Holleran: You have written a book about stand-up comedy in the 1970s. If you could have one comedian with you while stranded on a desert island, who would it be?
Richard Zoglin: Albert Brooks. He’s just naturally so funny. He’s just so clever, insightful and subversive, making fun of stand-up comedy in a sort of anti-show business way, though David Letterman would be a close second. Almost everything he says is just naturally funny. One of the reasons I wrote this [biography of Bob Hope] is that, when I wrote the other book [on stand-up comedy], and I was asking comedians who they grew up liking, nobody mentioned Bob Hope. So, he was really off the radar for that generation. He was [considered] the old-fashioned kind of comedian. I thought that was a shame because Bob Hope basically invented their art form. I wanted to take the full measure of his achievements. I don’t think anyone can match him. He was kind of a rebel, he was kind of risque, he kind of expressed an anti-authoritarian viewpoint. He made fun of Army officers. Or just the fact that he was doing topical jokes making fun of the president when most comedians were doing vaudeville material. Jack Benny was making jokes about Rochester. Bob Hope was doing topical humor. He was the one comedian who was connected to what was going on in the world. It made him seem hip and a little avant garde. He was making fun of the government. He was making fun of Eleanor Roosevelt and paying taxes. That was pretty gutsy for that early time. When Mort Sahl came along, comedians all went further.
Scott Holleran: Is the lack of recognition due to the fact that Bob Hope doing topical humor made it look easy because he was skilled and that, in this sense, he is a victim of his own success?
Richard Zoglin: That’s exactly right. Also, as comedians got more personal, talking about their girlfriends, Bob Hope never went there, so he seemed very impersonal and old-fashioned in that way.
Scott Holleran: Which medium if any consistently gave Bob Hope his due?
Richard Zoglin: What people don’t realize is that he had such longevity. All those comedy stars, such as Jackie Gleason and Sid Caesar, had no longevity. Bob Hope did. That was a real achievement. So when people talk about the big comedy stars I’m afraid that people think of Lucille Ball and Sid Caesar but not Bob Hope because he did television specials, not a series. But, if you look at ratings, he had some of the highest rated shows in history. One of the five highest rated entertainment shows of all time, even today, is Bob Hope’s Christmas 1969 special [for U.S. Army troops in South Vietnam] which aired in 1970. Since then, it’s been surpassed by the last episode of All in the Family, the last episode of M*A*S*H and the last episode of Roots. He was a major television star over four decades. So, there is no one medium that really embraced him.
Scott Holleran: Are there any major figures whom you attempted and failed to reach for an interview that you think would have added to the biography?
Richard Zoglin: There was one that I did talk to but wanted to get back to him because I had a very superficial conversation with him. That was [Bob Hope comedy writer] Mort Lachman. Unfortunately, he died a short time after I talked to him. Very few people turned me down for an interview. I couldn’t get Doris Day [who performed on radio and toured with Bob Hope], though I didn’t expect to get her. [Lucille Ball’s daughter] Lucie Arnaz didn’t talk to me, but I don’t know how much she really knew about the relationship between Bob Hope and Lucille Ball. I talked to [comedienne and Bob Hope co-star] Phyllis Diller and [Bob Hope comedy writer] Larry Gelbart before they died. I talked to [actress and Bob Hope co-star] Jane Russell before she died.
Scott Holleran: If someone’s never heard of Bob Hope, but is inclined to grant him the benefit of the doubt based on your biography, what is the best work to watch or listen to as a start?
Richard Zoglin: It’s a good question. I’ve been thinking of the answer because I’m doing an event with Dick Cavett. I would say it would be a movie. The best example are the Road pictures. There are three or four I would pick; The Road to Zanzibar, The Road to Morocco, The Road to Utopia and I’d probably put The Road to Rio near the top. The patter between Hope and [Bing] Crosby is so great. The downside of The Road to Zanzibar is that the musical numbers aren’t the best, so The Road to Morocco might be more well rounded in terms of music. It has “Moonlight Becomes You”. But The Road to Zanzibar might be the best for the back and forth. Other than that, my personal favorite would be Sorrowful Jones. Also, look at [Bob Hope’s work in] The Seven Little Foys, where he does some good dramatic work.
Scott Holleran: Is vaudeville comedian Frank Fay the most influential comedian to Bob Hope?
Richard Zoglin: Yes. He was the only one that Bob Hope modeled himself after to the degree that he did. Frank Fay is still very different than Bob Hope. He’s more sophisticated with an almost aristocratic kind of air. But that kind of conversational, spontaneous comedy was [typical of Frank Fay], so if you had to say someone, it’s Frank Fay. Also, Will Rogers, though Hope wasn’t as political.
Scott Holleran: You write that Bob Hope was “resourceful, vigilant, watchful of money, and always on the move.” Which quality is fundamental to Hope’s success?
Richard Zoglin: Both resourceful and always on the move. [Bob Hope’s ability to see] where the audience was going in terms of medium, from vaudeville to radio to TV and movies—no one else did that and he was willing to give it a try. I think his ability to be resourceful is fundamental; the way he figured out how to market and promote himself and deal with the press in a more sophisticated way. He was smarter about the culture, the presidency and the media. He realized the power of his brand.
Scott Holleran: Were you granted full access to his letters and correspondence?
Richard Zoglin: Yes.
Scott Holleran: Is Hedda Hopper right to call Bob Hope “our American Noel Coward”?
Richard Zoglin: [Pauses] I’m not sure I would compare him to Noel Coward. Maybe so. He was a very good, light comedian. Bob Hope is much more of a populist.
Scott Holleran: Was Bob Hope a workaholic, bipolar or somehow psychologically or mentally deficient?
Richard Zoglin: A workaholic? Definitely. He might have been using his work to distract himself from his private life. He didn’t spend much time with his family and maybe that was a failing. But in terms of any mental deficiency, I don’t think there was anything serious, unless you say someone who’s not introspective is not healthy because he was not introspective. He was a happy guy. He didn’t seem to have serious doubts or anxiety. Maybe he was limited but he knew what he was and he was comfortable in his own skin.
Scott Holleran: You have written that he understood the power of his celebrity as an agent for helping others. Do you attribute these activities, such as performing for the troops, to altruism if by altruism one means self-sacrifice?
Richard Zoglin: To some degree and there is also an element that he knew it was good for his career. I don’t discount that he knew that his celebrity would enable him to do good. But he also made sure people knew about these acts. I think both elements were there. I don’t think he only did it for good reasons but I don’t think he did it [strictly] for promotionalism. It gave him great pleasure to entertain the troops and it satisfied his patriotism to serve the troops. He got great satisfaction from cheering up these men and leaving them feeling better, making them more capable of defending the country and alleviating the loneliness and the hardship that they went through. That was a good feeling to him. I don’t know whether you call that altruism. But it made Bob Hope feel good about [doing and having done] it.
Scott Holleran: Bob Hope had ghostwriters according to your biography. Is there one book by Bob Hope that you think best captures his true convictions?
Richard Zoglin: I do think [Bob Hope’s memoir] Have Tux, Will Travel is certainly good in terms of giving some real insights to playing vaudeville. I know there were things he left out but what it does tell is honest and revealing. That’s the best. His book I Never Left Home is a good expression of Bob Hope and how he felt about seeing all the troops and how much it meant him.
Scott Holleran: Hope supported the military from D-Day and the Marshall plan through the Gulf War. To your knowledge, did Bob Hope ever openly and explicitly challenge the United States government on any single issue?
Richard Zoglin: No. He respected authority.
Scott Holleran: Is it true to say that Bob Hope was political only in the most superficial sense?
Richard Zoglin: Yes. I don’t think he was a very sophisticated political thinker. He had a simplified view of the world. His viewpoint was: America was at war and we should support the war.
Scott Holleran: Where are the souvenirs Bob Hope brought back from World War 2, such as Hitler’s stationery from the Berlin bunker and a photo of General Patton urinating in [Nazi Germany’s] Rhine River?
Richard Zoglin: I think a lot of them are still at [Bob Hope’s] house. I think the family still has those.
Scott Holleran: He was condemned by the Catholic Church in Catholic media. Did this have an impact on his devout Catholic wife Dolores?
Richard Zoglin: I never got any sense that she—she was always a sounding board for him and he would run things by her and she would say no. Maybe she said ‘I told you so’. I’m sure it did affect her but I don’t know how she felt about those instances.
Scott Holleran: Is it true that his wife Dolores was raided by police for gambling in a charity event on behalf of a group of nuns?
Richard Zoglin: Yes, though I’m sure she didn’t realize it was illegal. Somebody blew the whistle. The police came and confiscated their gambling games.
Scott Holleran: You write that Bob Hope’s singing voice was a crystal-clear tenor effective at “slicing through the confusion” and that his physical comedy has precision and clarity. It’s a rare evaluation in the biography. In retrospect, as a critic, are you interested in reviewing more of Bob Hope’s work?
Richard Zoglin: I do review the films and shows on the page. But, yes, I would like to do full scale reviews. I would enjoy doing that.
Scott Holleran: Tell me about the time Bob Hope went on strike at Paramount.
Richard Zoglin: He wanted to set up his own production company and share in the profit. He thought he could make more money by co-producing and this was a new idea. There had been a couple of stars like [James] Cagney [who had obtained producing deals] but this was new. Paramount didn’t want to [enter into a deal] so he didn’t show up and he would not go back to work for several months. Finally, Paramount caved. Now, that’s basically the model today.