(Pictured: Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman in The Bells of St. Mary’s, released in 1945.)
When I picked up the newly published second volume of Gary Giddens’ Bing Crosby biography, which covers the years 1940 through 1946 (and takes nearly 600 pages to do it), I was reminded that the first volume, which covered Bing from his birth in 1903, was published in 2001. If it takes Giddens another 17 years to publish a third volume, he’ll be 87 years old when it comes out—and let’s hope he (and we) live long enough to see it. His long experience as a music and film critic makes him uniquely qualified to understand his subject on a deep level, and his book makes clear that Crosby’s stardom was unique in American history.
Here’s a string of more-or-less random thoughts inspired by the book.
—It was an unlikely coincidence that Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley—the two biggest multimedia stars of the 20th century—died within two months of each other in 1977. Crosby’s death, at age 74, did not inspire the cultural furor that Presley’s did at 42. The two men were avatars of very different generations, and the height of Crosby’s fame was a couple of decades past in 1977. Then, he was known mainly for orange juice commercials, his annual Christmas TV specials (the last of which, with David Bowie, was filmed only weeks before his death), and his devotion to golf.
—His apparent failings as a parent, which are widely known today, were not publicized until 1983, when his oldest son, Gary, published a memoir detailing physical and psychological abuse. In Giddens’ second volume, which uses contemporaneous letters in addition to later recollections, Gary Crosby comes off as a somewhat unreliable narrator. Gary’s brothers acknowledged the truth of some of his recollections but disputed others. Whether it means anything that two of Gary Crosby’s brothers died by suicide, I don’t know. Gary Crosby himself died of cancer in 1995.
—Bing was a shrewd businessman. His Minute Maid orange juice commercials were not just a celebrity endorsement—he was an early investor in the company. (He did a 15-minute daily radio show for Minute Maid from 1948 to 1950. The TV ads started in 1967.) After winning the contractual right to pre-record his radio shows, he became an early investor in Ampex, and is an important figure in the development of audio tape and video tape; his other investments included race horses, TV stations, a television production company (which produced Hogan’s Heroes), and the Pittsburgh Pirates; he bought a 14-percent stake in 1946.
—His media dominance during the 40s is astounding. Hit record after hit record; movie smash after movie smash; a highly successful weekly radio show: “White Christmas,” “Moonlight Becomes You,” “Swinging on a Star,” “I’ll Be Seeing You”—all were once among the most beloved performances in American popular music; the Road pictures with Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour, plus his Oscar-winning performance in Going My Way and other successful films including Star-Spangled Rhythm, Holiday Inn, Birth of the Blues, The Bells of St. Mary’s, and Blue Skies, which made him the top box-office draw and highest-paid actor of the era; ten years (1936-1946) as star of Kraft Music Hall at the height of radio’s classic era. Only Elvis came anywhere close, and he lacked the broadcasting resume, as well as the business savvy.
—Crosby did not particularly enjoy performing live. He went literally decades between formal concert tours, and he accepted a live audience for his radio show only grudgingly. But he performed everywhere nevertheless. During World War II, he appeared at bond rallies and made an extensive USO tour on the front lines in Europe. He entertained soldiers and sailors wherever he could find them, and he played celebrity benefit golf matches at which he frequently ended up singing. He was conscious of what he represented to American society during the Second World War, and he felt a keen responsibility to contribute to the war effort.
—As I finish the 1940-1946 volume of Giddens’ biography, the overwhelming feeling I’m left with strikes me strange: I wish I could have been there. There are a million reasons why few of us would like living in the 1940s, but that doesn’t make the feeling any less strong. Many people remember World War II as “the good war” and the era as a fine time to be an American. Compared to our present time, with its morally ambiguous wars, its morally monstrous governments, and its monstrously vapid pop culture, it’s positively alluring.