Bob Hope — “the most honored entertainer” ever, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, for his achievements in theater, radio, film, TV, philanthropy and business, and an extraordinary record of service to country, with 199 USO shows around the globe — won the biggest prize of all in the waning days of his life when he converted to Catholicism.
Born Leslie Townes Hope on May 29, 1903, in Eltham, England, he was the fifth of seven boys.
Leslie’s mother, Avis, was very devoted and loving. His father, William Henry “Harry,” a stonecutter, “had only one fault,” as Hope recalled in his memoir, Have Tux, Will Travel: Bob Hope’s Own Story: “It was his theory that, as a result of his occupation, stone dust collected in his throat. He stopped off at the pubs to sluice it off.”
While initially prosperous, Harry’s trade gradually proved financially inadequate, as bricks displaced stone masonry — forcing the family to keep moving into smaller homes, with Harry increasingly turning to alcohol and women to feel like a real man and bury his feelings of inadequacy.
When the family immigrated to Cleveland seeking brighter prospects, Avis had to intervene to shore up the family finances, renting ever more spacious and seemingly unaffordable homes to take in boarders. The children contributed too, taking part-time jobs. But Avis made sure they had at least a modicum of religious formation. “Mom,” he wrote, “after making sure we were clean and uncomfortably dressed … sent us off to Sunday school at the Euclid Avenue Presbyterian — a church dad had helped build” (Have Tux Will Travel).
As a child, Hope was rescued by his brother, when he got pinned under a pier and nearly drowned, and managed to survive his father’s brutal beatings — physically, if not entirely psychologically.
But he was ultimately saved by his mother, who, a singer herself, encouraged her young son’s theatrical talent early on. After winning a Charlie Chaplin contest in 1914, Leslie set his cap — later his trademark brown derby hat — for the theater, convinced that being “on stage” was his true calling.
He started in vaudeville as “Lester,” scandal-tainted Fatty Arbuckle intervening in 1925 to get him and his partner steady work in Hurley’s Jolly Follies. “I was making $40 a week and sending $20 home to my mother to help out,” he recalled.
In New Castle, Pa., Hope got his solo break and, at the conclusion of a three-day engagement, telling well-received Scotch jokes, became a “single” and soon headed for mob-ruled Chicago to make it on his own without his partner. But, after running up a $400 tab for donuts and coffee—and perhaps some medicinal spirits—he wasn’t making it. On the verge of giving up, by chance, he bumped into a Cleveland pal, who introduced him to a theater booker friend, who gave him a Decoration Day (i.e., Memorial Day) gig. “Would $25 be all right?’ (the booker asked)… I just managed to say, ‘I’ll take it,’ without bursting into tears…” (Have Tux, Will Travel)
By 1929, now renamed “Bob Hope,” he was becoming a well-known and liked comedian and landing more small parts on Broadway, leading up to a large Broadway role in Jerome Kerns’ hit Roberta (November 1933 to July 1934). From there, his career took off — soon including radio, film, and eventually TV, his first special debuting Easter Sunday 1950.
Pivotal Roberta would transform his life in another important way.
Early on, his co-star George Murphy took him to the Vogue Club on 57th Street to introduce him to a beautiful singer named Dolores Reade.
Father Benedict Groeschel, of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a good friend of the Hopes’ — introduced by the Gallo family — fondly reminisced that Dolores’ Italian-American father was a well-known “singing waiter” on bustling 149th Street in the Bronx and that her mother was Irish-American.
She was irresistible.
Bob fell in love with Dolores when she sang in her “low, husky voice … soft and sweet … Only a Paper Moon and Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? They wed a few months later — “The smartest thing Bob Hope ever did,” Lucille Ball once quipped.
Their 69-year marriage, rare in the annals of Hollywood, gradually welcomed four adopted children: Linda, Anthony, Eleanora Avis “Nora” and Kelly.
Starting in World War II, Hope began donating entertainment hours to cheer up the troops, soon expanding his charity work to other causes. First, there was cerebral palsy; then the Eisenhower Medical Center — donating land in Palm Springs and raising millions through his Annual Hope Golf Classic — followed by myriad other causes, especially Catholic charitable institutions that helped children and the poor.
By the mid-point of his life — as one his former writers, Arthur Marx, son of Groucho, wrote in The Secret Life of Bob Hope — he was “no longer just a comedian or film star. He was big business … (also including) oil, real estate, frozen orange juice, charity fundraising, golf, wholesale meat, personal appearances on both sides of the Atlantic … Major League baseball (i.e., Cleveland Indians). … He was also part owner of several radio and TV stations.”
His success was accompanied, and made possible, by a fiercely competitive spirit, combined with a penny-pinching nature — a remnant of his struggle just to survive as a child and in vaudeville. Whereas he had a heart of gold when it came to the troops and special friends like his agent Jack Saphier — paying all his medical expenses when he was terminally ill — he drove particularly hard bargains with others, including his writers, who made Bob Hope. But it wasn’t personal. Marx reminisced how, after a typically long writing session, he would ask Sherwood Schwartz, later of Gilligan’s Island fame, to go buy him a pineapple sundae. When he returned with it, Hope would enjoy it without offering any to his hungry writers. Later, when Schwartz was posted with Armed Forces Radio in New York, he showed up at Hope’s Pepsodent Show rehearsal with a pineapple sundae, and told Marx, “I sneaked up behind Hope and without telling him who I was, said, ‘Here’s our sundae, Mr. Hope’ and put it in his hand. Without turning around, and without missing a beat, Hope took the sundae from me and snapped, ‘What kept you so long, kid?’”
All through his life, he was also a prodigious womanizer — often leaving Dolores in tears. “I’m no angel. I’ve known very few angels,” Hope wrote in Have Tux, Will Travel. As Marx summed it up, he had more women than Errol Flynn, Chico Marx and his good friend Bing Crosby combined, which once brought the couple to the brink of divorce.
The irony is: Bob Hope’s signature song, Thanks for the Memory, is about a couple who is contemplating divorce, and then they begin to reminisce about the wonderful times they’ve had, and decide to stay together.
Dolores toughed it out, knowing infidelity was Bob’s weakness — albeit, like his good qualities, it played out in extreme ways.
Agent of Conversion
“Dolores,” Father Groeschel said, “faithfully, prayerfully, patiently and with a certain amount of suffering” endured these trials. “She was a devout Christian wife, and she did what she was supposed to do.” Quite simply, the reason she was able to persevere, as he summed it up, is that “Dolores Hope was a great Christian.”
Through it all, she was praying him into the Church.
“Basically, the agent of his conversion was his wife,” observed Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, who got to know Hope through Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York (whose cause for beatification is now in Rome), when he served as his secretary.
She was a daily communicant and was particularly devoted to Our Lady, and she prayed for him with a deep faith — and asked others to pray for him as well.
Also — and this is not to be underestimated —“she took very good care of him,” longtime friend Virginia Zamboni said.
Father Groeschel observed the conversion process up close.
“They were both very friendly people,” he said. Years before he converted, they would open their “large” yet “comfortable” home — but not mansion-like — to guests from time to time. “Bob,” he said, “was very pleasant and easy to get on with” — not at all “on stage.”
He loved to tell a story to priests who visited, sometimes for retreats Dolores hosted, about a “big Catholic” event he attended where “the priest who was introducing him told eight jokes. Father Groeschel recalled that “Bob got up, looked at the crowd,” as if warming up to tell his own set of jokes, “and said, ‘Let us pray.’
“That,” said Father Groeschel, “is real Bob Hope!”
In the midst of the mirth, Father Groeschel emphasized, he was “extremely respectful to a priest. Practically every word or sentence, he would call me ‘Father.’”
Of course, it’s quite comical to imagine Bob Hope — this man who was so firmly planted in the here and now, not missing a beat when it came to human nature — reacting to all of the reminders of eternity around him.
Sometimes, the two intersected, as when Dolores wrote to Father George Rutler on Dec. 9, 1991: “One of the times I was watching you on EWTN you told a wonderful story about St. Philip Neri, who died with a Bible and a joke book along side of him. … I told Bob about this, and he asked if there really was such a joke book. Is it possible that anything like this can be traced?”
They shared more than laughs.
“They were very generous in every way,” said Cardinal McCarrick. “The many benefactions are legion.”
For example, in May 1994, Our Lady of Hope Chapel, endowed by the Hopes in memory of Bob’s mother Avis, was dedicated at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.
And Father Groeschel noted, “They supported many works of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal.”
God was generous, too — with his grace.
Arc of Conversion
The gradual arc of Bob Hope’s conversion is apparent in his last book, My Life in Jokes, divided into 10 decades. Introducing his fourth decade, when he started entertaining the troops, he wrote: “I was offering time and laughs — the men and women fighting the war were offering up their lives. They taught me what sacrifice was all about.”
It was during World War II, according to Cardinal McCarrick, that Bob became “very close” to New York Cardinal Francis Spellman. “They made all those rounds visiting the troops. And I really think that Bob was impressed by the faith of the Catholic men and women in the service that he met and by their enthusiasm to greet Cardinal Spellman. He often said, ‘He got a bigger hand than I did.’”
“For many years,” Cardinal McCarrick said, “we had been chatting with him about the Church.”
God began, gradually, to wake him up to spiritual horizons.
For instance, Hope had lots of trouble with his eyes (first left, and then even right, would hemorrhage) and often had to rest in a dark room after surgery — once for three weeks. For the peripatetic Hope, that must have been misery, but also a time for badly needed reflection.
In his late 80s, at age 89, Bob Hope got the ultimate wake-up call.
It was at the festivities surrounding the opening of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library on Nov. 4, 1991.
As Marx describes Hope’s reaction to his reduced status, “He couldn’t believe it. ‘I’m Bob Hope,’ he complained to the people in charge. … ‘I’m sure I’m on the limo list.’”
But he wasn’t.
This world-class comedian and philanthropist, who had journeyed the world many times over, “flying a few million miles,” since World War II, entertaining “his boys”; this friend of presidents and royalty since the ’40s — who had “known most of the great personalities of our time, in politics, sports and show business,” as he wrote in Don’t Shoot, It’s Only Me — was now being shunted aside to make small talk on an open-air tram with Lou Wasserman and Michael Eisner on the way to celebrating Reagan’s immortalization at his brand-new library.
After all these years of self-indulgence — interlaced with great generosity — God was tapping Bob on the shoulder to give him a spiritual pineapple ice-cream sundae.
In his last 10 years, according to Marx, he finally settled down and began enjoying life with Dolores, attending church regularly with her at St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood.
“Dolores,” Cardinal McCarrick said, “always was anxious that he become a Catholic. I think he had been close to the Church in faith for many years … and she was the one who kept bringing it up to him as a possibility. She would never force anyone. She was always very thoughtful and considerate. But she was persistent in saying ‘One of these days; one of these days.’ And, finally, he said, ‘Okay, it’s time.’”
Father Groeschel said that while Bob Hope was advanced in age (i.e., 93) when he converted, “He was very clear” and lucid and “could talk.”
Msgr. Thomas Kiefer, the former pastor at St. Charles Borromeo, 1984-2000, “was the one who ultimately brought him into the Church” 15 years ago, said Cardinal McCarrick. Msgr. Kiefer, “a dear friend of both of them,” died on Oct. 30, 2006.
Bob Hope died in 2003; Dolores followed him on Sept. 19, at age 102.
Late this summer, when Dolores was still “quite conscious,” Father Groeschel stopped by to see her. “Dolores, I hope you’re living comfortably,” he said.
She responded with a quip, “I’m ready to get out of here comfortably.”
Knowing she was instrumental in helping her husband win the biggest prize of all must have been great comfort, indeed.
Mary Claire Kendall is a Washington-based journalist and screenwriter.