Falling down, shocked, after Bob Hope biography by Arthur Marx
“The Secret Life of Bob Hope,” by Arthur Marx, son of Groucho, is an often tabloid-style exposé published in 1993, telling the story of the dominant American mid-century comedian. The chief distinction is dishing that Hope liked women and had lots of adventures. Meanwhile, he presented himself as a devoted father and husband. OK, I’m truly shocked! Shocked! Marx presents firsthand testimony, but there’s also a lot of hearsay that would be struck from the official record or even in any newsroom. Marx is at his worst when he interjects unfounded assertions. For example, while Hope and Bing Crosby were a great team, they were also rivals. So when the Friars Club roasted Hope in 1953, Crosby didn’t show up. But the crooner never showed up for any Friars’ roasts. Marx writes:
Although he was somewhat of a loner who didn’t enjoy black-tie affairs, perhaps there was another reason behind Crosby’s consistent refusals to attend functions honoring Hope. Knowing Hope as well as he did, quite possibly he believed it was hypocritical to eulogize a man who had such a dark underside to his character.
And Marx is just too cynical about Hope’s supposedly mercenary motives in entertaining the troops. Because he liked to bang bimbos, and because he was cheap with the help (especially his writers), does that mean he was completely incapable of altruism? The most telling detail is how he went through a military hospital in Vietnam, visiting every soldier on all seven floors of the building. No financial gain there.
Sometimes Marx’s narration is quite tart, and I found myself chuckling. The biography is a pretty good read that illuminates so many incidental aspects of show biz, from Vaudeville houses to Stage One at NBC Studios, in Burbank, where I worked as a cue card boy on some of Hope’s shows between 1979 and 1982. (My boss, the great Barney McNulty, is mentioned a couple of times.) In being so conversant in all these matters, Marx made me wonder what sort of table talk went on in the ancestral home. Too bad it couldn’t have been preserved for the Smithsonian!
The parts about Hope’s property investments and business interests are also fascinating, answering many questions.
I already had the sense that Hope wasn’t as much a Simon Pure as he was supposed to be. My awareness had come from going into his dressing room once with McNulty to run through the cue cards before a rehearsal. Hope sat there with a couple of his writers, watching golf on a monitor. This was when there was vogue for fluorescent golf balls; as I’d been fairly out of touch for a few years while finishing college and then living the ascetic writer’s life, I hadn’t seen these glowing balls scooting across the greens, and my comment about their extraordinariness brought a quizzical look from Hope.
Anyway, it was pretty obvious that he hadn’t even glanced at the script beforehand, and our run-through was interrupted while a note was made about some line. One of the writers took the opportunity to tell this joke:
The Pope and a nun are sitting beside each other on an airplane, both working crossword puzzles. After a while the Pope nudges the nun.
“What’s a four-letter word for ‘woman’ that ends in ‘u-n-t’?”
“Aunt,” says the nun.
“Oh,” says the Pope. “Can I borrow your eraser?”
When he was completely unfazed, I had an idea that Hope wasn’t quite the innocent he pretended to be.
(We also went to his Toluca Lake house once for a rehearsal, and I was astonished to look through the plate-glass windows and see his one-hole golf course in the backyard. Now that was luxury!)
The other day—in fact, it was August 5, the centennial of Lucille Ball’s birth—a Facebook friend posted the remark that she’d never found Lucy all that funny. I took the goad, adjuring that one must remember the context of the times.
As bad as Hope’s TV specials often were, audiences ate that stuff up. Even in the 1980s the ratings were outstanding. But the most telling moment came when the whole cue card crew received free tickets to a Hope performance at Universal Amphitheater. We sat way at the back to insulate ourselves from the schlock. Or maybe it was so the Boss, who by then was in his early seventies, couldn’t hear our snide remarks. The revelation we experienced, though, was epochal. He was hilarious. It was all G-rated stuff, and it was brilliant. He was completely at ease, ad-libbing the whole show and demonstrating total mastery. I laughed for two hours—a physical captive to the man standing 200 feet away. And the real eye-opener came from the realization that he could’ve gone on for two more hours. Here was more than fifty years of American theater, concentrated on a pinpoint.
I’ve doffed my hat to the man ever since. And if he was more than eighty years old and still slipping out every night at ten o’clock for a two-hour visit with the thirty-eight-year-old babe he kept in Burbank, more power to him.