Book review: Hope: Entertainer of the Century, by Richard Zoglin

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 November, 2014, 11:15pm

Hope: Entertainer of the Century
by Richard Zoglin
Simon & Schuster

While today he may be thought of with misgivings, if at all, Bob Hope reigned for much of the past century as America's wisecracking avatar of comedy. By the time he died in 2003 at age 100, Hope had conquered vaudeville, Broadway, recordings, live concerts, radio, films and, from its infancy, TV, where he remained a welcome presence into his 90s.

"By nearly any measure, he was the most popular entertainer of the twentieth century," writes Richard Zoglin, an arts writer and editor for Time magazine.

That alone should bear out Hope's career-long theme song, Thanks for the Memory. Yet memories of the entertainer have already dimmed and his achievements, although still felt by performers and audiences alike, now are largely taken for granted.

Aiming to correct that, Zoglin has drawn on his enduring fascination and years of research to produce Hope: Entertainer of the Century, the first major biography of this towering figure. It's a thorough, evenhanded and absorbing portrait of the man who, beyond his vast exposure through the media, "may well have been seen in person by more people than any other human being in history", Zoglin writes.

From childhood, the journalist loved Hope for his films, including the Road comedies he made with Bing Crosby, and the zippy monologues of his TV specials. The idea for a biography struck as Zoglin researched his first book, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America.

"I talked to all those comedians … and I would ask them who their influences were," Zoglin said in a recent interview. "Nobody once mentioned Bob Hope. I thought that was really unjust because, in my opinion, he invented their art form." Hope took topicality and turned it into jokes - what stand-up comics do today, Zoglin writes.

Hope's forte was rat-a-tat zingers churned out by his stable of writers, mined from his persona and the world he shared with his audience. They were cheeky and relatable and, even when they touched on hot-button issues, they were carefully crafted to ruffle no one's feathers.

Born in London, Leslie Townes Hope arrived in the US at age five with his family. He was destined to achieve global fame, but would remain quintessentially American with his snappy vocal style and his image (brash, upbeat, irreverent).

Hope was embraced by the power elite but his ties to president Richard Nixon and his support of the Vietnam war did him grave harm among the under-30 generation. But that was the lone misstep during a career that seemed blessed not only by Hope's talent but also by his enterprise and impeccable timing.

Associated Press