How He Captured America

Annie Leibovitz/Contact Press Images
Bob Hope in his ‘joke vault,’ Toluca Lake, California, July 1995

When Bob Hope died in 2003 at the age of one hundred, attention was not widely paid. The “entertainer of the century,” as his biographer Richard Zoglin calls him, had long been regarded by many Americans (if they regarded him at all) “as a cue-card-reading antique, cracking dated jokes about buxom beauty queens and Gerald Ford’s golf game.” A year before his death, The Onion had published the fake headline “World’s Last Bob Hope Fan Dies of Old Age.” Though Hope still had champions among comedy luminaries who had grown up idolizing him—Woody Allen and Dick Cavett, most prominently—Christopher Hitchens was in sync with the new century’s consensus when he memorialized him as “paralyzingly, painfully, hopelessly unfunny.”

Zoglin, a longtime editor and writer for Time, tells Hope’s story in authoritative detail. But his real mission is to explain and to counter the collapse of Hope’s cultural status, a decline that began well before his death and accelerated posthumously. The book is not a hagiography, however. While Zoglin seems to have received unstinting cooperation from the keepers of Hope’s flame, including his eldest daughter, Linda, he did so without strings of editorial approval attached. Hope’s compulsive womanizing, which spanned most of his sixty-nine-year marriage to the former nightclub singer Dolores Reade (who died at 102, in 2011), is addressed unblinkingly. And with good reason—it was no joke. At least three of his longer-term companions, including the film noir femme fatale Barbara Payton and a Miss World named Rosemarie Frankland whom Hope first met when she was eighteen and he was fifty-eight, died of drug or alcohol abuse.

Zoglin is no less forthright in recounting Hope’s political sideline as a shill for Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew. The book’s descriptions of his appearances before American troops in wartime, some of them entailing real physical risk, are balanced by less savory episodes such as Hope’s fronting for “Honor America Day,” a Washington propaganda rally staged by the Nixon White House to try to drown out national outrage over the Cambodian invasion and the Kent State University killings in 1970.

Hope’s family and former colleagues no doubt opened up their memories and archives for the simple reason that they, too, are flummoxed by his fast fade from the American consciousness. The many official monuments to Hope’s name—streets from El Paso, Texas, to Branson, Missouri; American Legion posts from Okinawa to Miami; an airport in Burbank; a bridge in Cleveland; a navy cargo ship; an air force transport plane—have failed to stop the erosion of his legacy. Speaking candidly to a fair-minded biographer is a small price to pay for the prospect of a restoration.

These days few readers may know or remember just how big a deal Hope was in his prime. To make his case, Zoglin must…

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