Richard Zoglin hits the nail on the head with the title of his biography on Bob Hope, the actor/humanitarian was the “entertainer of the century” and only a tome clocking in at nearly 600-pages could encapsulate a career spanning at least five decades, countless films, and an entire trip around the globe. Through it all Zoglin always sticks to the facts and presents an honest account of a man who was incredibly giving, but refused to give up when he probably should have.
Like several biographies I read last year, I went into this with a cursory knowledge of Hope; I knew he starred in several films – including the beloved “Road” series – and is a deeply ingrained symbol of 1950s politics. Zoglin presents a candid story of a man who grew up lusting for attention, being the fifth of seven sons. and how he turned that drive for attention into a thriving business. If you’re not a fan of overly explored backstory – there’s always a debate about too much or too little devoted to the “I grew up…” segments of biographies – you’ll be floundering for the first fifty or so pages as Zoglin goes in-depth into Hope’s vaudeville career and time as a child in England.
Where the clouds open up is during Hope’s time as the host of The Pepsodent Show and entry into Hollywood. The book expertly balances between Hope’s personal and professional life, opening up a swath of people who all shaped Hope into who he was. There’s a continuous examination of Hope’s wife, Dolores, who, despite being focused on at several points, remains a cipher. It’s mentioned that she knew of Hope’s numerous affairs – with several women including Doris Day and Barbara Payton – but turned a blind eye, content to remain one half of the Hope power couple. Hope himself was no saint in his marriage, obviously, but you feel for Dolores in reading about the numerous times Hope cut her out of his USO shows, desperate to have only one Hope in the spotlight.
Zoglin presents a discerning summation of Hope’s character without being overly critical, although he shows a fair share of critical aspects to Hope’s personality. The affairs themselves are discussed without becoming too tawdry. However, Zoglin mentions several long-term affairs Hope had, all the way into his 60s’, and they barely warrant more than a mention. This is probably due to little information, but considering the abundance of information on the most mundane elements of Hope’s life it’s startling that women he spent several years with aren’t given their due.
This mixed personality profile comes to a head when discussing Hope’s political interests and USO career. There’s no doubt Hope earned the various awards of humanitarianism he received and the book explores how Hope was at the forefront of every war, performing in England and Vietnam at the impetus and height of their respective war-eras. Hope’s support of the Vietnam War and burgeoning relationship with Richard Nixon is told, warts and all, with the only judgement coming from the reader depending on whether you agree with the politics and presidents of the time. There’s no doubt Hope loved having the leader of the free world’s ear, and there’s mention made of how presidents like Jimmy Carter weren’t considered Hope’s favorite because they made no effort to please him.
There’s so much worth exploring in the book that even if you aren’t pleased by the political discussion or his time in vaudeville you’ll find something to enjoy. I particularly enjoyed the time Zoglin spends with Hope’s film career. He gives just enough context on the films themselves, a smattering of plot synopsis, and then discusses the making of the film and its context within Hope’s career. The Road pictures are discussed in-depth, with an added focus on Bing Crosby’s general standoffish nature and each man’s snubbing of co-star Dorothy Lamour.
Hope: Entertainer of the Century brims with enough material without ever feeling weighed down. Other topics I didn’t mention include Hope’s numerous times as host of the Academy Awards – a record 18 times! – and his sad final days and refusal to quit acting or doing events, even with failing eyesight and an inability to remember lines. Hope was a personality, hellbent on image, but he also truly cared about people and refused to slight anyone. Zoglin’s biography never sets out to demonize or glorify but simply show you a man who loved the spotlight and wanted to give a glimmer to others.
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