Bob Hope did not just live an incredibly long and successful life, he lived an incredibly worthwhile one as well. For an entire century, he did immense good, raising the spirits of millions of people, and he did it so gracefully and self-deprecatingly that he made it look easy and routine, a tribute to his amazing craftsmanship.
When the 32-year-old Hope and his wife Dolores were sailing back to America on board the ocean liner Queen Mary at the beginning of September 1939, they found the mood on the great ship somewhat subdued. After all, World War II had just broken out.
Hope was not about to take this lying down. He went to the ship's captain and got permission to put on a special show that night. He rush-wrote the new material for it himself. The anecdote was emblematic of everything he was to do to keep the American people -- and his native Brits -- laughing for the next six and more decades.
Success came gradually but not too easily to Hope, and he was just starting to make his name as a major Hollywood star when the global war engulfed the United States in Decemebr 1941. His national radio show had launched three years earlier and it was doing well, but not that well. It was the war that made him, not merely as one of the biggest stars in American show business history, but as a human being, too.
The late Otto Friedrich, in his classic history of Hollywood in the 1940s, "City of Nets," caught the essence of Hope's appeal. He was no comedic "natural" like Groucho Marx, Charlie Chaplin or Jack Benny. On the radio, he leaned heavily on his team of scriptwriters. And even on the road, the nature of his comedy routines was broad, obvious, and endlessly predictable: he had a ridiculous nose, he couldn't get the girls, he was more jealous of his friend Bing Crosby than Daffy Duck was of Bugs Bunny. Most of all, he was a coward. It was as popular a routine -- and as opposite from the truth -- as the warm-hearted and generous Jack Benny's lifelong masquerade as a skinflint.
But none of that mattered. As Friedrich wrote, "Crowds of lonely soldiers greeted every one of his vaudeville turns with wild applause. They loved Hope for coming to see them, and he loved them for loving him." For an extraordinary six decades, he went on to spend Christmas on the road in the most remote and war-torn corners of the earth. Wherever U.S. soldiers were doing dirty thankless jobs -- from Korea to Vietnam to Beirut to the 1991 Gulf War -- he was already 88 by then -- you would find Bob Hope, cackling about his own cowardice.
He stumbled into his lifelong vacation by accident, as so often happens in life. He started out in April 1942, as just a supporting comedian to the Hollywood Big Guns -- Cary Grant, Jimmy Cagney and others -- on a three hour touring show in April 1942, five months after the United States was pulled into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Groucho Marx was the super-star movie comic on the three month tour. Hope wasn't even a top-biller. He had the usually thankless job of just introducing everyone else.
The tour lasted three months and was a huge hit wherever it went in the continental United States. All the other stars, satisfied with doing their patriotic duty, then happily went home to Hollywood. All except Hope.
As Friedrich wrote, he "couldn't stop." In a single month, he entertained at 65 different military bases, an average of more than two shows a day, not to mention all the grueling travel in between.
When the American Army went off to fight in Europe, Hope trooped off after them. Again Friedrich: "Hope became a man possessed. He did three or four shows a day, all across Western England, through Wales, in Northern Ireland, then back to London. He made a special effort at hospitals, clowning through ward after ward. Another favorite theme was how terrible his own jokes and performances were. He liked to ask patients, "Did you see our show -- or were you sick before?"
The British people, who had seen their own previously beloved entertainer Gracie Fields hightail it out of the country for the duration of the war, took their native-born but now-all-American Hope to their hearts too, and they kept him there forever after.
Friedrich quoted actor Burgess Meredith -- younger generations of Americans remember him as The Penguin in the 1960s "Batman" comedy TV series -- writing to movie star Paulette Goddard of how the millions of young American soldiers preparing to fight and die on and after D-Day regarded Hope: "The boys in camp stand in rain, they crowd into halls so close you can't breathe, just to see him. He is tireless and funny, and full of responsibility too, although he carries it gaily and lightly."
Sophisticated literary figures shared this assessment. The great Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck concluded, "He has caught the soldier's imagination. He gets laughter wherever he goes from men who need laughter."
When the GIs went into North Africa and then into Sicily, Hope went in there after them. He survived being dive-bombed by Luftwaffe Junkers-87 Stukas during a show in Palermo.
It was during a three-month tour during which he entertained in 250 army bases -- a killing average of usually three shows a day in different locations -- and covered 20,000 miles. At one of them, Friedrich relates, a heckler shouted at the 40-year-old entertainer, "'Draft-dodger! Why aren 't you in uniform?'
"Stung, hurt, Hope remained the consummate professional. 'Don't you know there's a war on?' he shouted back. 'A guy could get hurt.'"
Well played, Mr. Hope.