| My Lunch at Home
With Bob Hope
By JOHN STANLEY
Reprinted with permission from www.TheColumnists.com
FEW days after my interview with Bob Hope, an NBC publicist called to tell me how lucky I'd been on that spring day back in 1993. "Count your lucky stars. That was a good day when you were there," she said. "But if you'd come one day later . . . that wasn't such a good day."
There had been stories about Hope's failing health even back then, but I had detected nothing major during our two hours together. He'd even led me up a flight of stairs, singing a little ditty, seemingly spry and agile and as dapper as any day in his six decades as an entertainer.
In retrospect, I suppose one does count one's lucky stars just to get an interview with Hope, but at the time it was all part of a newspaperman's job. It was my wife who told me later that I was luckier than most. She said breaking bread at high noon with the star in his Toluca Lake mansion had to be the American equivalent of taking four o'clock tea with Queen Elizabeth in an opulent little nook at Windsor Castle.
I got to thinking about it and realized she was right. Both are British-born, for one, and both qualify as royalty, though of a different type. Hope became a king in his own land as the eternal stand-up comedian firing out topical one-liners, never relinquishing his crown, always coming back indefatigably to do one more TV variety show, play one more benefit golf tournament or do one more USO tour for American troops. He definitely sat on a self-made throne for decades.
And there was certainly something stately and palatial about the seven-acre spread where Hope hung his golf hat and stored his irons back in '93, although there wasn't a trace of pomp or pageantry in how the comedian greeted guests. Hope looked the essence of relaxation. He was dressed in casual style, wearing a white cotton golf shirt, brownish-gray slacks and pristine white Reeboks. He was standing in the front room before high glass windows that afforded a view of rolling lawns, an Olympic-size swimming pool and a forest of tall trees, behind which Jonathan Winters' own mansion was hidden. Although he was about to turn 90, he looked trim and fit and boasted he had just returned from a robust round of golf at a nearby course.
"Have you had your iron today?" he quipped.
Hope strolled across the room, his body loose and his chin tilted, that ski-jump nose upturned. He made quips in his familiar, happy-go-lucky style. It wasn't so much the punchline, but the energy he put behind it. As if he was convinced it was funny and it didn't matter what you thought. He gestured to a dining table set up near the window and waved his hand toward the lavish grounds, where a gardener was trimming hedges.
"Claudette Colbert sat in that same chair you're in now, and asked me, 'How can you afford all that lawn?'" he told me.
A mild breeze wafted through an open window as he began a light lunch of diced chicken in white sauce, a simple lettuce and tomato salad and a custard dessert topped by a single strawberry. He waved his spoon at me.
"You're lucky I'm eating today," he said. "Normally I don't have any lunch. Gotta go light."
Hope had become hard of hearing and occasionally, with the sound of a distant lawn mower coming from outside, leaned forward to say "Eh?" Finally he pushed his plate away.
"What does it mean to be 90? Hah! I'm puzzled myself. I keep asking myself that. 'What does it mean?' I go out and hit the golf ball a little better than I did at 80. I practice every day and don't have any sore muscles. I never thought when I was young I should be old. Now that I'm old, I wonder when I'm supposed to get decrepit."
Reporters love their subjects to be overly articulate and insightful and sagacious, so they can go home with profound answers to "salient" questions. Hope didn't fill that bill at all. About the milestones in his life, he just kept saying, "I was lucky," as if luck accounted for everything in his career.
About The Colgate Comedy Hour, his radio show of three decades, he shrugged and said, "All I know, I had the greatest writing staff, all kids out of college -- Norman Panama, Melvin Frank, Melville Shavelson. And we did what people were talking and thinking about. Speed was one thing we concentrated on. Hit 'em quick. Do it fast. Yeah, I guess we were just lucky. But you know, there is this thing about comedy. Timing, definitely timing. In acting, everything is in the eyes. The eyes tell the story. When I see pieces of my old pictures once in a while, I realize I'm dreaming with my eyes on that screen. It makes me laugh, it's so silly."
Hope once said, "Laughter opens up the arteries," and I asked him if he still believed that. "You bet I do," he said. "Laughter is the greatest thing in the world for you. Humor is something you turn to in a dark moment. A little love, a little laugh every day and you're way ahead of the rest of the world. That's a motto I still believe in."
You can't talk to Bob Hope without talking about Bing Crosby, a golfing and acting crony with whom Hope had a long-running feud on radio and TV, albeit a friendly one. He admitted Crosby was an inseparable part of his career.
"We started out doing radio together and then the Road pictures," he said. "There was always a chemistry there. You know, Bing used to walk through the pictures. But then, I'd give the writers little suggestions and make notes in the margins of the scripts and show them to Bing and he'd say, 'That's great!' and he'd pep up and take more interest in what we were doing. Working together was a challenge for both of us. We were always on our toes, trying to top each other, on camera and off. But it was never malicious. We were playing to each other. We were having a ball."
At first, while he talked about Crosby, Hope's voice was warm and filled with nostalgia.
But it took on a heavier tone when he began to describe how, a few months before the crooner's death in 1977, Crosby fell through an opening on a Hollywood stage while doing a benefit. A stagehand had forgotten to close a trapdoor and Crosby had stepped right into the hole while crossing the stage. Hope saw him going down "like a ton of bricks." He ran downstairs and found Pearl Bailey cradling Bing's head in her arms.
"Bing looked up at me and said 'I couldn't have done [the fall] better in a Road picture, could I?' I think that fall had a helluva lot to do with his passing. It was a drop and a half he took. Damn, it was far."
Hope was at the Waldorf in New York, waiting to fly to England, when he received word that Crosby had dropped dead of a heart attack on a golf course in Spain in 1977.
"Would you believe it –I was going to London to make Road to the Fountain of Youth with Bing. We figured it would be our last Road picture, our swan song together. Of course, it never got made. Who would you replace him with? Why would you want to replace him? We shelved it. Meanwhile, the phone is ringing off the wall at the Waldorf. Every reporter in America wanted to get a quote from me about Bing. I had to get the hell outta New York. I went down a special service elevator, the car, boom, right to the airport, the plane and back to L.A. Yeah, Bing. What a guy."
I really wanted Hope to say some deeply philosophical things about his dedication to doing USO shows for American servicemen, beginning in 1942 and continuing through the Persian Gulf War. It had all been voluntary, and it hadn't been fun and games flying into dangerous war zones and trying to entertain thousands of troops. But as with all subjects in his life, Hope fell back on simplicity.
"They were something, those shows for the boys. That was a great privilege to do those shows. It was just something I had to do. I couldn't say no. I was so damned lucky to fall into that, to have the chance to entertain all those boys. When Phyllis Diller went on her first tour with me, I said, 'Now you gotta see the hospitals, that's part of why we're doing this.' She went in to see some of the wounded boys and came out crying. 'I don't wanna do that again. I don't wanna see them lying in bed all shot up.' I told her, 'You're going to do it again. It's why we're here, remember? We're here for them."
Hope acknowledged there were dangerous moments during the foreign USO trips. "One time our radio went out when we were flying through the mountains up in Anchorage and this general, he put up the anti-aircraft lights and our pilot, thank God, saw them and we went in safely. Another time we were sitting on the runway, waiting to take off, when someone rushed aboard to tell the pilots to shut the engines down. The wrong kind of jet fuel had been put into the tanks and if we'd tried to take off, we would have been cinders. If you were gonna quit, you would've quit then and there. You couldn't worry about the danger. Yeah, we were lucky to fly that far that long and live to talk about it."
Hope referred twice to a "drawerful of letters" sent to him by parents of men killed in the wars, who had seen his shows shortly before their deaths.
"They were so grateful that we'd given their sons some fun, a little joy," he said. "But I can't read those letters anymore. I gave them to my daughter Linda, and I hope she can some day put a book together with all those letters. Those boys deserve to be remembered."
You also can't talk to Hope without asking about his wealth. Forbes magazine once placed his assets at around $115 million, and that included large amounts of acreage in Palm Springs and the Santa Monica Mountains.
"It all started when an oil well hit a gusher in '49," said Hope. "It was the first well to come in at Skoura County, Texas. Bing and I, we'd put up a few hundred thousand each. I was there to see the gusher come in. God, we were lucky."
Lucky to the tune of about $4 million for each of them. Hope used his share to buy up large sections of California real estate.
Questions about Hope's "hawkish" attitudes in the early days of the Vietnam war, about the unpleasant image of Crosby that has emerged since his death, about his differences with conservationists over the development of his land holdings -- all wash over him as they had never happened.
"Naw, none of those things upset me. I made nine trips to Vietnam. A small majority thought I was supporting the Vietnam War. Hell, I was anti-war – who wouldn't be after seeing all those boys shot up? As for the land, I gave some of it away [in 1990]. And I donated 80 acres for the Eisenhower Medical Center in Palm Desert [in 1966]. You know something about money? Money means one thing to me: doing the things I want to do and helping people I want to help. If I didn't have that land, it wouldn't worry me. Bing? Well, we all have our private side. Sometimes it's dark, but what the hell. We have to be what we are."
Talk to Hope and invariably the subject of golf will come up. A sport he had done much to promote, it was still a lively topic in his life in '93.
"Golf was always a challenge to me. You're fighting yourself with golf. When I shoot a good score, I feel great. Some of my greatest moments have been on a golf course – and some of my worst. But I really love it. My best game, without a doubt, was in 1951, with a handicap of four. You know, we played, Bing and I, back when people didn't know anything about golf. They used to stand on the sidelines and yell, 'Sissy, sissy,' when we took a swing. Later they didn't yell sissy when they had TV and saw that a four-foot putt could be the difference between $5,000 or $10,000 in prize money."
It was after lunch that Hope asked me to follow him up a flight of stairs off the kitchen. On the way up, he hummed that little ditty under his breath.
Upstairs, in a corridor that led to bedrooms and a small office where he fiddled with paperwork every afternoon, were glass-encased photographs of all the Presidents since Roosevelt posing with Hope, all of them autographed. And there were signed photos of all the generals he had met during the USO tours. He preened like a peacock. You could see he was proud of all this entertaining-the-troops business.
He led the way to the front door, beginning to look a little tired. But there was nothing tired about his voice: "Bought half this place for $12,500 back in '38," he volunteered. "Offered the same amount for the other half, but got turned down. Ended up having to buy it for $40,000 a year later. What a lesson in life that was. But hey, we all live and learn." With so many milestones in his life, was there anything left to conquer after 90? He thought that one over for a moment, then, in his simplistic way, "Yeah, there is something. But what I'd like to do is absolutely impossible. I'd like, just once, to win a golf tournament . . . and maybe win one of those acting things . . . you know, an Academy Award."