Judy Collins, Woody Allen’s Singing Writer and the Dish on the Definitive Bob Hope Biography

Lunch At Michaels

Lunch At MichaelsThe usual head-spinning Wednesday scene at Michael’s got an added boost of adrenaline today as Michael McCarty and his indefatigable staff presided over the jam-packed dining room while preparing for this evening’s main event. The famed eatery is celebrating 25 years in New York and to commemorate the impressive milestone, McCarty is throwing himself a party tonight. The guest list boasts 550 of his nearest and dearest A-list pals dropping by for air kisses and cocktails. We’ll be covering the festivities. (It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.) Look for a special “evening edition” of this column tomorrow.

Richard Zoglin and Diane Clehane
Richard Zoglin and Diane Clehane

I was joined today by Time magazine’s longtime theater critic and author Richard Zoglin, whose just-released book, Hope: Entertainer of the Century (Simon & Schuster), chronicling Bob Hope‘s 70-year career and extraordinary life, has garnered rave reviews. Kirkus Reviews heralds it as “the definitive biography” of the legendary comedian, People magazine recommended the 565-page tome as a must-read, and both Tom Brokaw and Dick Cavett have praised Richard’s exhaustive reporting. Our mutual friend, the tireless and terrific Cindy Lewis, introduced us and was the perfect hostess for today’s lunch. Fresh off his first author event last night, where he took questions from a “packed house” at his neighborhood Barnes & Noble on the West Side followed by a reception for friends and family at Martha Nelson‘s apartment, Richard told me he’s been heartened by the response the book has received from industry insiders and “civilians” alike. “I believe that Bob Hope was the most important entertainer of the 20th century,” he told me. “And I’m thrilled to see that there’s so much interest in his career now.” When I asked him why he decided to do a book on Hope, who, until now, had not been the subject of a major book, he explained: “When I did my last book [Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-up in the 1970s Changed America], I asked every comic from George Carlin to Jerry Seinfeld who influenced them and everyone mentioned lots of people like Lenny Bruce, but no one mentioned Bob Hope. He’d fallen off the radar. The generation who remembers Vietnam didn’t take him seriously as a comedian.” So why go against the grain? “My contention is Bob Hope invented modern stand-up comedy.”

Between bites of chicken paillard, Richard contrasted Bob Hope’s conversational style with the schtick of his peers like Jack Benny and George Burns and Fred Allen, whose comedy relied on their personal peccadillos versus Hope’s idea to cull from current events and lampoon the things people were talking about. “He created the topical monologue. No one else was doing that and that’s what stand-up comedians are doing today,” Richard said. When one realizes that Hope’s career spans seven decades (his television specials on NBC ran from 1950 until 1996!), it’s more than a little surprising that there hasn’t been more written about his career. Richard told me there had been several books of little consequence written years ago and one penned by Hope’s former publicist, none of which took into account the full measure of his life. When he approached Linda Hope, the comedian’s daughter, she agreed. “She told me, ‘I do feel my father needs a major biography,'” he said. So, with her blessing and all-important cooperation, Richard dove right in interviewing 150 people and spending five years to complete the project.

While Linda “opened a lot of doors” for interviews with several of the late comedian’s friends and family, she “never asked for approval,” but, Richard recalled, once he started in earnest and pursued interviews with virtually everyone who could shed light on Hope’s personal and professional lives, the process made her a bit nervous. “As I did more reporting, I think the idea of me exploring the womanizing and the marriages made her a bit uncomfortable. She kept cooperating, but by the end of the process there wasn’t much communication.” Richard also spoke to many of the entertainers who performed with Hope, including Ann-Margret, Jill St. John and Raquel Welch. He told me he was particularly thrilled to connect with 90-year-old Patty Thomas, the last surviving member of the group that performed with Hope during World War II. He was three years into the book before he found her. Sadly, she (and nearly two dozen other elderly interview subjects) died before the book was published.