Richard Zoglin joined TIME magazine in 1983 and has been TIME's theater critic since 1996. Along the way he served as the magazine's television critic, senior editor and former assistant managing editor. In his spare time, he authored the standout book about stand-up comedy in the 1970s, Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America, and this fall, a biography of Bob Hope entitled, Hope: Entertainer of the Century, that has been hailed as the "definitive" work on the life of one of America's greatest entertainers. THIRSTY was privileged to catch up with Richard Zoglin at his home in New York for this conversation.
THIRSTY: When did you first become interested in Bob Hope?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: I grew up watching Bob Hope movies – especially the Road pictures, which I practically memorized. Then I watched as he alienated himself from an entire generation during the Vietnam War, and that made him even more interesting to me. No one seemed able to set aside his political views and give him the credit he deserved for his contributions to comedy and American entertainment.
THIRSTY: As famous as he was, there are very few books devoted to Bob Hope and his career. Why did you decide to write the definitive biography of the man you named "Entertainer of the Century"?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: There actually have been several biographies of Hope, but most are too superficial or sycophantic or gossipy, and basically no one read them. It struck me that he was the most important entertainer of the 20th century not to have had a major biography written about him. While working on the book, I quickly came to the conclusion that he was the most important entertainer of the 20th century period.
THIRSTY: Your last book, Comedy At The Edge, was called "a comedy chronicle of laugh makers" where you wrote about how stand-up comedy changed America in the 1970s. What encouraged you to make the leap from chronicler of an historic period to biographer? How challenging was the transition?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: After my book about stand-up in the 1970s, I started thinking about the history of stand-up comedy, and where it all came from. All roads seemed to lead back to Bob Hope. But nobody really recognized it. For those rebel comics of the '70s, Hope was really off the radar. I actually thought that doing a straight biography would be a little easier than chronicling a complicated era, which meant weaving together several stories. But it was tougher than I expected. You can't just tell the story of a life chronologically. Bob Hope had several careers going at the same time – movies, television, entertaining the troops – and organizing the narrative became a real challenge.
THIRSTY: Do you feel that you captured the essence of Bob Hope? Did you feel like he was looking over your shoulder as you conducted your research and did your writing?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: Capturing his essence was the hardest part, because he was such a closed-off guy, difficult for even his closest friends to know. I did my best. If Bob was watching over my shoulder, he was probably rooting against me – he was so intent on managing his own image and press coverage, I don't think he would have been comfortable with a journalist getting free reign to write a biography without his input.
THIRSTY: Throughout his life, Bob Hope seemed to be able to reinvent himself and move from one medium to another, from one genre to another, from movies to television, from stage performances to charity golf tournaments to making huge contributions to the USO and the military. What made him so adept at keeping himself before the public eye and so able to captivate people's attention?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: He was simply addicted to performing, and smart enough to figure out how to follow the mass audience wherever it was going – from vaudeville, to radio, to movies, to television. I think his many years of live performing for huge crowds made him especially responsive to his audience and able to adapt – at least until the Vietnam years, when I think his instincts were corrupted by access to power.
THIRSTY: Often, when we think of Bob Hope, we think of Bing Crosby, almost like they were joined at the hip. Behind the scenes and in business, how did these two entertainment giants get along?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: They got along well as professional colleagues, and they recognized how each complemented the other. Privately, however, they were very different people, and not especially close. Bing was aloof, very private and laid back; Bob was social, a peripatetic worker, and he loved the Hollywood scene. I think they considered themselves friends, but in private Bob sometimes grumbled. After Crosby's death, Hope complained to a colleague that Bing and his wife had never once invited him and Dolores over for dinner.
THIRSTY: If Bob Hope was the entertainer of the twentieth century, who comes in second in your opinion?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: I would probably say Crosby, because of his huge influence on popular singing, and his success in multiple fields – movies, radio and recordings (though not television). He was probably a greater artist than Hope, but Bob tried harder, lasted longer, and was more broadly influential in the world of show business.
THIRSTY: During his hundred-year life span and his sixty-nine year marriage to Dolores, Bob Hope displayed an uncommon grace and a nearly flawless public image. Was the real Bob Hope that perfect?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: There were plenty of flaws. He was a terrible womanizer, as well as a cold and narcissistic personality who could be difficult to work for. That said, he handled his celebrity better than a lot of stars do. He loved being famous, and he was a genuinely happy guy.
THIRSTY: Of all that Bob Hope contributed to the archives of entertainment, what one thing will be his most enduring legacy?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: It's hard to choose, because he was influential in so many ways. But I would say that with his amazing work for the troops and for charities of all kinds, he set the standard in Hollywood for public service. He showed that Hollywood celebrities have an obligation to give back, and that they can be players on the public stage. I think there's a direct generational line from Bob Hope to activist stars like George Clooney, Oprah Winfrey and Angelina Jolie.
THIRSTY: How do you think the Hope family will feel about your book?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: They are very protective of his public image, and I expect some parts of the book may make them uncomfortable. But overall I think they'll appreciate my enthusiasm for Hope and the case I make for his enormous importance.
THIRSTY: You have written for and been an editor at TIME for over twenty years and you are the theater critic for the magazine. How difficult is it to go from short-form journalism and criticism to writing a biography of significant length?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: For many years I didn't want to write a book, because I so enjoyed the rush of writing every week, of being in the journalistic mix on a day-to-day basis. But now I feel I've been there, done that, and I wanted to see if I could sustain a long project. This one turned out to be longer than I expected – nearly six years – but I was motivated and energized every day. It was really the peak creative experience of my life.
THIRSTY: Are you considering writing another biography? If not, what is next for Richard Zoglin?
RICHARD ZOGLIN: I'm still wrestling with that question. The trouble is that after Bob Hope, everything else seems anticlimactic.