Each December, Bing Crosby's voice flows back at us, providing images of white Christmases and simpler times. What's interesting, however, is just how complicated Crosby's own life was. A superb "American Masters" portrait is airing Tuesday (Dec. 2) on some PBS stations and later on others; here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
Back in 1977, a
Christmas special offered one of TV's great mismatches.
Bing Crosby was the
host, with David Bowie as his guest. Crosby, 74, was a pipe-puffing,
cardigan-wearing crooner, a Republican father-of-seven with 41 No. 1
singles (led by “White Christmas”) and a laidback image. Bowie,
30, had been a glam-rocker and a punker, known for cross-dressing,
wild make-up, drug addiction and bisexuality.
“You should have
seen the way he was dressed in rehearsal,” Nathaniel Crosby, Bing's
son, said. “It almost didn't happen.”
Mary Crosby, Bing's
daughter, recalls the moment Bowie and his wife arrived: “They're
both wearing full-length mink coats. They have matching full makeup
and their hair was bright red.”
And then, somehow,
the two men clicked. A new PBS profile of Crosby includes their
gorgeous duet of “Little Drummer Boy” and “Peace on Earth.”
That reflects the
range of a man who could pal with golf buddies and/or a glam-rocker:
-- As an actor,
Crosby spent much of his time in silly “Road” comedies with Bob
Hope, offering “just wide-open two hours of improvisation,” his
son Harry recalled. Still, he did some heavy dramas, winning an Oscar
(for “Going My Way”) and two more nominations.
-- He seemed to be
forever at leisure -- golfing, fishing, rooting for baseball's
Pittsburgh Pirates, which he co-owned. (When the Pirates got to the
World Series, his widow Kathryn recalled, he took the family to Paris
because “he was afraid he would jinx his team.”) Yet he was also
a serious businessman whose company produced solid TV dramas “Ben
Casey” and “Slattery's People.”
-- His image was
old-school, but he financed the development of tape-recording radio
shows and of multi-track music. “He was always curious .... He hung
out in the studio,” Harry Crosby said.
Crosby had broad
tastes, technically and personally. He championed under-noticed black
stars; he salvaged Judy Garland's career and had no trouble blending
“They sat at the
piano,” Mary Crosby recalled, “and David was a little nervous.
And said, 'I only sing in this key.' And Dad's like, 'Don't worry;
I'll get in there somehow.'
“And then you
could just see .... them both collectively relax and then magic was
But what about the
flip side? If Crosby was so easygoing, why did his son Gary write a
book describing physical cruelty?
In some ways, that
also fits into this wide-ranging life. The PBS film says the young
Bing was a heavy drinker who was fired by a bandleader; he overcame
alcoholism, but his first wife (singer-actress Dixie Lee) never did.
Their four sons grew up amid trouble and corporal punishment.
“Bing says it in
his autobiography,” said Robert Trachtenberg, a producer of the PBS
film. “Bing says it in interviews throughout the '50s: 'I
disciplined the kids; maybe I was too hard on them.'”
Two of those sons
committed suicide; the others died at 62 and 69. But the three
children from his second marriage describe a caring father and a
happy home. They say problems were minor ... like having to join him
in the annual TV Christmas specials.
“It wasn't a good
thing for my jock image at school,” said Nathaniel, who became a
“I was very upset
about the whole thing.”
The last of those
specials was taped in 1977 and shown after Crosby's heart-attack
death. It showed the world what the Crosby kids had already seen –
the quiet beauty of the Bing-and-Bowie music duo.
Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered”
-- Aired Dec. 2
on many PBS stations, but that varies with pledge drive; to find it now, check www.pbs.org