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John Steinbeck — Bob Hope

England 1943

“ It has been interesting to see how he has become a symbol…”

Bob Hope Commands. npr.org

A couple of weeks before John Steinbeck witnessed the kids asking for chewing gum at London Docks, he’d been part of Bob Hope’s entourage, following the comedian from one US base to another, growing ever more admiring of Hope’s ability to make a difference to tens of thousands of American servicemen and women preparing for the invasion of Europe.

In one of his wartime dispatches Steinbeck writes:

“Hope does four, sometimes five, shows a day. In some camps the men must come in shifts because they cannot all hear him at the same time. Then he jumps into a car, rushes to the next post, and because he broadcasts and everyone listens to his broadcasts, he cannot use the same show more than a few times. He must, in the midst of his rushing and playing, build new shows constantly. If he did this for a while and then stopped and took a rest it would be remarkable, but he never rests. And he has been doing this ever since the war started. His energy is boundless.”

I’ve always been a fan of the London born comedian, with his seemingly laid back, effortless style, which was nothing of the sort of course, with a whole team of writers constantly coming up with new gags and stories, and although Steinbeck doesn’t mention them in his newspaper piece, some of Hope’s writing team must have been with him: sitting at typewriters, trilby hats pushed to the back of their heads, cigarettes in the corners of their mouths, collars undone and neckties pulled down, laughing at their own jokes…

“Hey, Bob, how about this? When I was born, the doctor said to my mother, congratulations, you have an eight pound ham.”

Not a trilby hat or cigarette to be seen! Library of Congress

John Steinbeck continues…

“ The battalion of men who are moving half-tracks from one place to another, doing a job that gets no headlines, no public notice, and yet which must be done if there is to be a victory are forgotten, and they feel forgotten. But Bob Hope is in the country. Will he come to them, or won’t he? And then one day they get a notice that he is coming. Then they feel remembered. This man in some way has become that kind of bridge . It goes beyond how funny he can be or how well Frances Langford sings. It has been interesting to see how he has become a symbol.”

In fact both Bob Hope and John Steinbeck were bridges: Bob for the US forces, giving them a taste of home and what they’re missing ( “ You remember Crosby, don’t ya, Sinatra’s father?”), and John, who was an important link ( his dispatches were syndicating across the US), sending the families news, hope and comfort, that their sons and daughters are okay, and will, one day, come back home, at the same time knowing that may not be the case — they needed hope, and Hope, and Steinbeck’s words to see them through.

This dispatch of Steinbeck’s to the New York Herald Tribune, ends with a visit to a military hospital where the injured lie and:

“ The immaculate nurses move silently in the aisles at the foot of the beds. The time hangs very long…and everything is done that can be done, but medicine cannot get at the lonesomeness and the weakness of men who have been strong. And Bob Hope and his company must come into this quiet, inward, lonesome place, and gently pull the minds outward and catch the interest, and finally bring laughter up out of the black water. There is a job. It hurts many of the men to laugh, hurts knitting bones, strains at sutured incisions, and yet the laughter is a great medicine…”

During this hospital concert, when Francis Langford sang ‘As Time Goes By’, a young soldier with head wound began to cry. Langford finished the song in a whisper, left the ward and broke down. Bob Hope then walked into the aisle looking very serious, and said:

“ Fellows, the folks at home are having a terrible time time about eggs. They can’t get any powdered eggs at all. They’ve got use the old fashioned kind that you break open.”

There were smiles and laughter. And as Steinbeck wrote:

“ There’s a man for you…”

Leslie Townes Hope was born in Eltham, London, in May 1903, and died in California in 2003.