Bing Crosby died over thirty years ago, and I remember people saying that at least he died doing something he loved — playing golf. But even though he was a famously avid golfer, as well as a legendary singer and movie star, there was another part of his story that often drew the public’s attention. Although largely forgotten these days, during his lifetime (and in the years immediately after) his struggles with fatherhood were common knowledge.
Harry Lillis ‘Bing’ Crosby was a law school dropout who instead chose to pursue a musical career (as did his brother, bandleader Bob Crosby). It was the time of the early ‘jazz age’ – the 1920’s – and he soon found that the music business suited him just fine. Starting as part of a singing group and appearing with orchestras such as that of Paul Whiteman, he soon began performing as a solo and building his fame via radio and records. By the early 1930’s he was also appearing in films, and eventually he became a big star.
Unfortunately, his private life didn’t go quite as well. Known as a hard drinker and a hell-raiser in his early days, in 1930 he married actress Dixie Lee and eventually fathered four sons. Gary was the oldest, followed by twins Phllip and Dennis, and the youngest, Lindsay. Whether it was Bing’s own background and temperament, or the natural difficulties often faced by the children of celebrities, the boys had a rough childhood. Although they idolized their father, Bing was often gone — and even when home was distant with them. He was also very strict, and as the boys grew up and began testing their limits – and his patience – he cranked up his level of strictness.
As difficult as life might have been while growing up, in their teen years the boys were further tested by the illness and death of their mother, Dixie. And it probably didn’t help when a few years later Bing married young actress Kathryn Grant, who was the same age as his son Gary. But the couple remained together until Bing’s death twenty years later, and along the way had three children — two boys and a girl. A new family meant that Bing had an opportunity for what a golf nut like him might have called a Mulligan (for non-golfers, that’s a ‘do-over’) and he was determined to do a better job with his second chance. It’s generally believed that he succeeded.
Even though the fireworks in the Crosby family (the first one) were never a secret, it wasn’t until several years after Bing’s death that Gary’s book, Going My Own Way, exposed many of the ugly details. Although one of the twins, Phillip, defended Bing’s reputation, both Dennis and Lindsay pretty much agreed with what Gary had to say. (Both also committed suicide a few years later, adding more layers of complexity to the whole saga.)
The four boys led lives that had varying degrees of success and happiness, even with trust funds from their mother’s estate helping out. All tried acting, but only Gary was able to sustain a long and semi-successful career, with many movie and TV supporting roles. He died from cancer in 1995. Philip proved to be the longest lived, dying of natural causes in 2004.
Ironically, in the period before his death, Gary was making plans to do an album of his Dad’s songs with digital help from the deceased Bing — sort of like what Natalie Cole had done so successfully with Nat. It wasn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. In 1950, Bing and 17-year-old Gary had gotten together and made a record, billing themselves as Gary Crosby and Friend. It consisted of a couple of novelty tunes – “Play a Simple Melody,” and “Sam’s Song” – and sold over a million copies, remaining on the pop charts for months.