With freshly minted centenarian Bob Hope — currently enjoying his last hurrah in the world’s headlines — it scarcely matters anymore whether or not there is actually any “there” there. If there is, who still cares? And if there isn’t, well, how is that news after all we’ve learned, from the likes of Kitty Kelley, Nick Tosches and Albert Goldman, about the soullessness, the harrowing emptiness of celebrity? Hope’s “manufactured personality, constructed out of jokes,” as writer Sherwood Schwartz once called it — with its trademark essences of laziness, craven cowardice, greed, easy treachery and simmering lust — is so close to anti-hagiography that in a sense he’s already beaten the scandalmongers to the punch. Unless we belatedly discover that he was once a Communist agent — or a Catholic priest — little remains to be said against him that wasn’t pre-emptively embedded in the mask he adopted to address the world, the mask lined with Super Glue, the one that stuck.
So the pursuit is what counts — the quest for “there,” not “there” itself. There are so many layers to strip away on the journey toward the void at the center of the onion, and so many places where the name suddenly resurfaces, from battleships to off ramps, golf tournaments to theaters and even backyard roses, that shards of his celebrity are spread across the cultural, political, military and even horticultural horizons. Gathering up the shards doesn’t give us the real Bob Hope, but it does take us on a staggering ride through the 20th century’s cultural-political landscape. From Ellis Island to Broadway to Hollywood to the White House to Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait and beyond, Hope’s life story seems not so much a catalog of events experienced or moments actually lived through as a lifelong attempt to achieve a Zelig-like omnipresence, aided by Thurmondian longevity and the ability to endure well past his cast-off date. No “there” there? What does it matter if you’re always THERE, where it’s at? In a media-saturated world, isn’t emptiness always trumped by ubiquity?
Among the obvious layers are the protective props, the onstage fig leaves and security blankets: Hope’s many golf clubs; his straw boaters, turbans and fezzes; the quasi-military uniforms; his glee-club blazer and absurd driving goggles in Son of Paleface (1952); even the cordon sanitaire of right-wing cuties — Anita Bryant, Joey Heatherton — who frolicked between him and the off-duty conscripts in Vietnam, a war whose declining fortunes paralleled Hope’s own.
The chief layer is, of course, the mask itself: lovingly (and perhaps not so lovingly) shaped by Hope’s squadron of jokesmiths into a veritable brand-name franchise, a shorthand for something American and confident, louche, lazy and lucky, a demeanor relentlessly upbeat and “hiya fellas!” It came into being after his protean moniker had segued from his given name, Leslie Hope, through Lester, Bill and Bobby before finally alighting on Bob, which sounded appropriately unsinkable. “It’s no surprise his name is made up of two verbs,” noted former gagman Larry Gelbart, remembering Hope’s ravenously proactive pursuit of celebrity. Other writers recall that the image they shaped for him — the one that hit big on his 1938 Pepsodent radio show and underpinned every movie from The Road to Zanzibar (1941) to Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number! (1966) — was essentially an unflattering compendium of Hope’s own fame-hungry vanity and his tightwad pathologies, neatly tweaked for popular consumption.
The persona became the man, in both senses. Not only did our understanding of Hope become limited to the comedic face he presented to us, whether in Sorrowful Jones (1949) or The Seven Little Foys (1955), the persona itself was also the greatest, perhaps the only, artistic achievement of his career. It is a superbly agile creation, always fresh (well, back when . . .), always there with just the right cheap gibe or bouncy self-deprecation, supremely adaptable and enduring. He was the young Woody Allen’s favorite comic, even more so than Groucho Marx, and he still stands as a sort of Low Protestant interregnum in the lineage between these two Jewish giants of the wisecrack. Hope deracinated a certain thread of glib, smart-ass Jewish humor — no doubt unconsciously — as he encountered it in the Orpheums of flickering, sepia-tinted vaudeville, and as usual with these things, his refinement was deemed the more “American,” and it stuck. Even dimly apprehended through the cultural and comic accretions laid upon it by time, there’s no doubting that Hope co-created one of the great comic touchstones of the mid–20th century. So that’s your “there” right there, if you like.
But then there were the uses to which he put it. Hope’s postwar career, after he’d found his parallel métier as gagman to the troops, became ever more entwined with the defense of the status quo — for which his comedy is really one never-ending pep rally. His name is affixed to that of “the Greatest Generation” like a mollusk to a rock, and as that generation’s fortunes rose and declined, so too would Hope’s. At war’s end Hope was a sensation in movies and radio, and would soon conquer television. The 1940s “Road To” movies he produced and starred in with the stonehearted Bing Crosby — an asshole of almost infinite diameter, if his biographers are to be heeded — were hugely successful, as were his property investments, which netted him large tracts of land in Malibu, Palm Springs and the San Fernando Valley, the basis for his current net worth of between $100 million and $200 million. And he was by now a regular at the White House, where for 11 successive administrations he functioned as toastmaster and Presidential Little Buddy, class cutup, team mascot and towel manager.
This served Hope well until the ’60s, when politics was suddenly no longer something one could avoid talking about in polite company. The times shone a light on Hope the cipher and exposed hidden deposits of nastiness and reaction. Shouting down hecklers among his later Vietnam audiences; gluing himself to Westmoreland, Nixon, Kissinger and even Spiro Agnew (to whom Hope often loaned his joke writers — should we perhaps be thanking him for “the nattering nabobs of negativity”?); making tasteless jokes when the 1968 Oscars were delayed by the King assassination; getting booed offstage at the 1970 Miss World Pageant by flour-flinging feminists; making homophobic cracks during the 1970s: Hope was attuned, in all the worst ways, to the tenor of his times. Instead of being an upstart child, as his persona demanded, he was one of the country-club parents screaming, “Go live in Russia!” The mask, with its upturned, leering lip, became a rictus that froze in a sneer. Bob hadn’t changed, but the landscape around him had, leaving him a polarizing figure, high and dry on an island of rich right-wingers from the post-Goldwater Sun Belt ascendancy. Which is exactly where he always felt he belonged.
And now, in his crepuscular Reaganesque sequestration, we finally see him reflected in or refracted through the people and ideas he associated with, and hardly at all as himself. His ski-jump nose dovetails somewhere in the national folk-memory with Richard Nixon’s, much as Chaplin’s mustache did with Hitler’s. As an emblematic English immigrant emerging from transatlantic steerage and subterranean vaudeville, he’s the anti–Cary Grant, defiantly not smooth or emollient or conventionally sexy. He’s the secular Billy Graham, dispensing bromides and insta-quips — instead of sententious sermons — to presidents. He is “our troops,” a curdled symbol of the Good War who lasted into the age of very Bad Wars. He is a symbol of suburban, postwar, pre-Tiger golf, with all its associations of privilege, exclusion, environmental despoliation and land grabbing. For good or ill, he’s still all over the place — you had only to scan the papers this week — yet our perceptions of him are imprecise, kaleidoscopic, made up of far-flung fragments of identity cast all over the postwar epoch. He’s the Cutup Man, and he may never be reassembled in a way that will make sense to all of us all the time.