The Sad Ballad of Bing and His Boys
One thing I know: I’m going to keep yip-ping at these little scoundrels until they’re 21, and I’m going to demand they have a goal in life, a purpose. The most tragic spectacle I can think of is that of a young man slipping aimlessly through school, then life, secure in the belief that affluence means happiness. I’m not going to let up on them.
—Bing Crosby, Call Me Lucky, 1953
I dropped my pants, pulled down my undershorts and bent over. Then he went at it with the belt dotted with metal studs he kept reserved for the occasion. Quite dispassionately, without the least display of emotion or loss of self-control, he whacked away until he drew the first drop of blood, and then he stopped. It normally took between twelve and fifteen strokes. I counted them off one by one and hoped I would bleed early. To keep my mind off the hurt, I would conjure up different schemes to get back at him, ways to murder him.
—Gary Crosby, Going My Own Way, 1983
When the word arrived from Spain, that day in October 1977, Gary Crosby was playing tennis at a Los Angeles club. “One of the ladies came to the back gate,” he recalls. “I could see she was crying. She said, ‘I’m sorry to be the one to tell you, but your father just passed away.’ ” Pausing for only that moment, Gary Crosby then continued his game. “I thought, ‘Am I supposed to act like I loved him all my life?’ ” At the funeral, Gary looked down at the body and said, “Well, now you’re in a place where you can understand it all.”
When Bing Crosby, 73, died of a heart attack on a Madrid golf course, he was not only a renowned performer but one of the nation’s most beloved father figures. During a career that spanned five decades, he was acclaimed by LIFE magazine as “incontestably the No. 1 Big Family Man of Hollywood.” The National Father’s Day Committee honored him as “Hollywood’s Most Typical Father.” To an admiring public, the portrayal of a wise, warm, Irish Catholic patriarch was Bing Crosby’s longest-running, most convincing role. That his four sons became notorious for drinking and squabbling scarcely tainted Bing’s image; instead, he became the object of public sympathy, the good father afflicted with unruly and sometimes ungrateful children.
That benign view has now been challenged by Gary Crosby, 49, eldest of the singer’s four sons by first wife Dixie Lee Crosby. According to Gary, life with father was a hell of a life. In his just published memoir Going My Own Way (Doubleday, $15.95), Crosby recounts a Hollywood Gothic horror story that only Christina Crawford could envy. He describes a household populated by an icy, dictatorial father, an alcoholic, lonely mother and a quartet of boisterous, tormented boys. Says Gary, “It was a house of terror all the time.”
Gary’s look back in anger has provoked a high-powered fraternal feud. Says younger brother Phillip, 48, “Gary is a whining, bitching crybaby, walking around with a two-by-four on his shoulder and just daring people to nudge it off.” Counters Gary, whose fists often clench at the mere mention of Phillip, “As far as I’m concerned, Phillip’s dead. He isn’t worth the powder to blow him to hell.”
Phillip’s twin, Dennis, professes little interest in the family history. He calls the book “Gary’s business.” While Dennis doesn’t deny Gary’s version, he explains, “Gary has a lot of anger.” Baby brother Lindsay, 45, sides with Gary. “I’m glad he did it,” says Lindsay. “I hope it clears up a lot of the old lies and rumors.” Lindsay’s endorsement is surprising: By most accounts, he was Bing’s favorite of the four.
Gary’s public declarations have aroused other relatives and friends. In defense of his brother Bing, bandleader Bob Crosby, 69, insists, “I never remember anyone being physically touched in any way.” Adds Bing’s best friend, bandleader Phil Harris, “I was around the boys practically all the time, and I didn’t see Bing beating them. I don’t think a man can sing like he did and have as many people love him as he did and be too bad.”
This week Bing’s second wife, Kathryn, who is five months younger than her stepson Gary, has published her memoir. My Life With Bing is a rosy reminiscence of the entertainer with whom she had three children: Harry Lillis III, 24, a graduate business student at Fordham University; Mary Frances, 23, an actress most famous for shooting J.R. Ewing on Dallas; and Nathaniel, 21, a champion golfer and student at the University of Miami. Kathryn is Bing’s most loyal fan. “You can’t lie to a camera,” she observed last year. “What comes out on film is what is within the actor.”
Despite differing recollections about their father, the Crosby boys generally disagree with Kathryn. The public Bing was cool, easygoing and debonair; the private Bing was someone quite different. Says Lindsay pointedly, “Nobody knows better than us.”
The boys’ mother, Dixie Lee (real name: Wilma Wyatt), was a promising 19-year-old actress-singer when she married Bing in 1930. Their first-born arrived three years later and was named after Bing’s buddy Gary Cooper; then Dixie quickly gave birth to twins, and eight years into her marriage, Lindsay. In the early days, recalls Lindsay, “We were very tight.” Gary characterizes the foursome as “red-blooded Irish kids who loved to hassle and play football and raise hell just as much as anybody.”
But in the 20-room Crosby mansion in Los Angeles, harsh discipline was the order of the day. Bing and Dixie set rules that governed every waking hour, and violations of the rules resulted in humiliating punishments. When Phillip hid his bacon and eggs under a rug instead of eating everything on his breakfast plate, Dixie found the food and forced him to eat it, “dirt, hairs and all,” writes Gary. Messiness was not tolerated. If one of the boys did not put away his underwear, he had to tie it on a string and wear it around his neck until bedtime. Bing referred to that as “the Crosby lavalier.”
The most serious transgressions brought severe whippings, and as the most rebellious of the brothers, Gary was the one most frequently beaten. “He got the first licking, and we got the second,” says Dennis. Gary began to expect punishment almost daily. “My father would come home at 6 o’clock, and by 6:05 he’d heard the news of what I’d done. Then I’d get bent over and my pants taken down and beat till I bled. He was never an enraged, insane man. He was very methodical.”
In fact, the famous even-tempered Bing was infamous in his own household. “He never blew the old cool. It was like dealing with a frigging mop,” says Gary. Adds Dennis, “He could get cold real quick.” The slightest show of affection galvanized young Lindsay. “Dad would say, ‘Goodnight, I love you,’ and that to me was heaven.”
Bing, who considered himself a regular guy, wanted his sons to distrust the glamorous life. In Call Me Lucky, he complained, “Raising the sons of a movie star presents special problems.” Writes Gary in Going My Own Way, “The idea was to be ordinary.” But, the son realized at an early age, “There were a few problems with being just an ordinary kid. For one thing, Dad didn’t seem to be just an ordinary father.” In fact, Bing consciously distanced himself from his children. Once he wrote, “When I want to be especially flattering to one of my offspring, I say, ‘Nice going,’ and let it go at that.” He credited his child-rearing methods to an Italian proverb: “Never kiss a baby unless he’s asleep.”
That reserve took its toll on Dixie too. Says Gary, “My mother was the kind of person who needed to hear, ‘Sweetheart, darling, I love you,’ and he just couldn’t do it.” According to Phillip, Dixie was “painfully shy” and often felt uncomfortable among her husband’s set. She regularly declined Bing’s invitations to accompany him to parties or movie locations. Observes Lindsay, “I think she got lonely because Dad was working all the time.”
Instead, Dixie found a reliable companion in the bottle. “She was a wreck,” says Gary. “I’d see her passed out in her room, in bed or on the floor of her dressing room. It scared the hell out of me.” Bing and the boys’ nurse tried to hide Dixie’s condition from the kids. Gary recalls: “They’d say, ‘She’s taking a nap today.’ And I’d say, ‘All day?’ ” When Dixie was not drinking, she was to her sons what Bing was not: “warm and loving,” as all the boys remember her. In 1952 her death from cancer at age 40 resulted in a rare moment of togetherness for the family.
If Dixie at times was compassionate, Bing could be cruel. He gave his sons belittling nicknames. Dennis was “Ugly” and “Stupid.” Lindsay was “The Head” (Bing considered the boy’s head too big for his body). Because Phillip was frequently combing his hair, he was dubbed “Dude” and “Handsome.” Gary did not get off so easily. “I had a big broad ass on me as a kid that used to annoy the hell out of my father.” So his nicknames, which Bing did not hesitate to use in public, were “Satchel Ass” and “Bucket Butt.”
Gary’s weight problem, in fact, brought him special attention. Once a week Bing weighed the boy. If the numbers displeased him, Gary was ordered into the office for a whipping.
The battles between father and sons continued even after Gary, Phillip and Dennis were sent to a strict, Jesuit-run boarding school south of San Francisco. For Gary, the turning point came at age 17. Home for the Christmas holidays, he overheard his father’s pals discussing Bing’s sexual infidelity. That conversation shattered Gary’s image of his father. “I started looking him dead in the eye for a change. Maybe I wasn’t so bad. Maybe he wasn’t so goddamn good either.”
The beatings ended a few months later. Gary was now a 210-pound high school linebacker just shy of his 18th birthday. By this time Bing had replaced the belt with a cane. “He’d hold it with both hands like he was playing baseball,” reports Gary. “He just stepped into me 13 times.” On this occasion, however, Gary confronted his father. “I took the cane away and broke it over my knees. I cussed him and told him if he ever touched me again, I’d kill him.” The explosion produced no discernible reaction from Bing. “I was a physical, emotional, mental wreck, and he was fine.” The punishment stopped, but, says Gary, “He still won.”
Even in adulthood, the sons could not escape Bing’s influence. Gary started a solo singing career with the help of Bing’s agent. Following Dad into show business, the sons found their acts unfavorably compared to his. Bing’s attitude toward his sons continued to color their self-perceptions. Gary considered himself “a dumb stupid ass who wasn’t going to amount to anything.” Lindsay, when he married, found it difficult to express affection for his own family. “I think we’ve all got that problem,” he says.
Today the sons still rely heavily on Bing and Dixie for their livelihoods. Says Phil Harris, “I love them all dearly, but I don’t know a one of them who works.” Each gets a substantial four-figure monthly check from a trust fund Dixie established; Bing’s money was placed in a blind trust, which none of the sons can touch until age 65. It is a nice irony, says Phillip. “My father thought, ‘How much trouble will they be able to get into then?’ ”
Although they all live in California, the brothers seldom visit. In fact, they have not seen each other much since their nightclub act, the Crosby Boys, broke up in 1959 after a dressing room brawl erupted among the four in Montreal. What they have shared over the years is a talent for trouble. Among them, the brothers have accumulated 11 wives, at least five drunken-driving arrests, two affiliations with Alcoholics Anonymous and a paternity suit.
Compared to his tempestuous past, Gary has a stable home life these days. He and his second wife, actress Andrea Claudio, 31, have a rented house in the San Fernando Valley. While awaiting job offers—a recent stint on Simon & Simon was his first assignment in almost two years—Gary attends five Alcoholics Anonymous meetings a week. Although he has not had liquor since he completed a treatment program (paid for by Bing) in 1961, Gary says, “I quit drinking but I’ve never stopped being an alcoholic.”
Gary’s solo singing career ended with a drunken opening-night appearance in a Chicago club in 1961. (His first line to the audience: “I don’t want to waste my time with you.”) Says his first wife, Barbara Cosentino, a former Las Vegas dancer who separated from him in 1979 after 19 years of marriage, “When I got to Chicago to pick him up, he was dead drunk in his hotel room, and a lady was in his bed.” Although he occasionally appeared on such TV series as Chase and Emergency! in the 1970s, Gary’s reputation as a troublemaker crumbled his career. Says Barbara, “He was obsessed with the fact that he couldn’t get a job and convinced that everybody hated him.”
Only in recent years has his anger ebbed. A 1980 triple-bypass heart operation changed his outlook, as has AA. Nowadays, he says, “There aren’t that many lows like those tremendous depths that I used to tumble into.” Writing Going My Own Way may have exorcised some demons too. “It was something Gary had to do,” says Lindsay.
Phillip, however, guards the family honor. Says he, “Gary has been an embarrassment to the family since he was in grade school.” Replies Gary, “Phillip milks his position as Dad’s son for everything he can get.”
Keeper of the flame is indeed Phillip’s full-time occupation. He lives alone in a three-bedroom Los Angeles home that is a mockery of the Holmby Hills mansion in which he was raised. Boxes of junk and piles of old magazines litter the rooms. A bathroom emits the smell of urine. In the den, two televisions play simultaneously. Empty milk cartons are stacked against the kitchen wall. In one corner, soft-drink and beer cans form a pyramid. The object of Phillip’s game is to throw yet another can on the pyramid without disturbing the pile.
Phillip too has a history of drinking. But his approach is different from Gary’s. “A man’s got to believe in something,” jokes Phillip, “and I believe I’ll have another drink.” In 1980 he was arrested on three occasions for drunken driving. Says he, smiling, “I don’t drink anymore—but I don’t drink any less.” An 18-month stint with AA has proved ineffective. Phillip does not consider himself an alcoholic. “An alcoholic is someone who can’t control his drinking. I can, but I don’t want to.”
Like his older brother, Phillip was first married to a Las Vegas lady—a showgirl named Sandra Jo Drummond. Second and third wives (Mary Joyce Gabbard and Georgi Edwards) were also Vegas showgirls. Says Phillip of Georgi, his favorite, “She was the only one who didn’t have a cookie in the oven when I married her.” The impending arrival of Phillip Jr. (one of his four children) prompted his marriage to fourth wife Peggy Dorris, a part-time actress. They divorced in 1975.
Phillip describes himself as a “saloon singer,” and speaks wistfully of returning to “where I started, in the big rooms in Vegas.” His last gig was at a 1982 Elks Club party in Burbank, Calif., where he was backed by a high school band. “From there,” he says, “the only place I can go is up.”
Phillip vehemently disputes most of the revelations in Gary’s book. “We never got an extra whack or a cuff we didn’t deserve,” he insists. Nor does he believe that Dixie was an alcoholic. “If she was, she did a hell of a job disguising it.” From his perspective, his parents had “a very good marriage.” Phillip contends that he “understood Dad probably better than anybody in the whole family.” He does not deny that Bing believed in corporal punishment. “When I was in high school, Dad caught me smoking in the barn at our ranch in Elko, Nev. There just happened to be a plank laying there, and he said, ‘Assume the position.’ ”
But he harbors no resentment toward Bing. “If Dad had picked up a goddamn monkey wrench and said, ‘Assume the position,’ I would have done it.” He savors the pleasant memories of his father, who was “very affable and easy to get along with.” In his wallet he carries a letter from Bing signed “Love, Dad.” Says Phillip, “I’d almost rather have that than a gold record or an Academy Award.”
Twin brother Dennis has fashioned a far different life for himself. He has been married for 17 years to his second wife, Arleen, 38, whom he met when she was a secretary at Bing Crosby Inc., his father’s business firm. The couple live with their daughters, Kelly Lee, 16, and Erin Colleen, 12, in Pebble Beach, Calif., the site of the annual Crosby National Pro-Am Golf Tournament. Both daughters are accomplished equestriennes, and Dennis, who does not work, describes his life as “calm and horsey.”
Dennis too has a showgirl in his past. Unsurprisingly, his marriage to first wife Pat Sheehan was rocky from the start. Just days after the ceremony, a Los Angeles divorcee nailed Dennis with a paternity suit, which he subsequently lost. His last arrest for drunken driving was seven years ago, and Dennis says now, “I only drink beer.” Gary says all the boys have had battles with the bottle, but it’s a subject they never discuss. Says he, “My brothers are afraid I’m going to give them a little religion in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Dennis professes little interest in rattling family skeletons. He is “a very easygoing person,” according to wife Arleen, who has provided her husband with strong support over the years. Of all the Crosby boys’ outlooks on the past, his is the most ambivalent. “I was happy to be who I was,” he says, “even if I had the hell kicked out of me.”
If any brother can make a claim to Bing’s untainted affection, it is Lindsay. As Bing’s favorite, he spent the most time with his father. While the other sons went to boarding school, Lindsay lived at home. When the Crosby Boys act broke up, Lindsay went to work reading scripts for Bing. “I still miss him,” says Lindsay, whose eyes frequently dampen when he discusses his father. “I probably didn’t realize how much I’d miss him when he died.”
In middle age, Lindsay looks more like a cowboy than a movie star’s son. He drives a black Trans Am with the speakers blaring, a can of beer by his side. He keeps a stable of about a dozen quarter horses, which he hopes to breed. Of his three wives (dancer Barbara Frederickson, secretary Janet Schwartz and former Miss Alaska Susan Marlin) and four sons, Lindsay says, “I don’t have any regrets but the hurt I’ve caused.” Separated for five years from Susan, he shares a two-bedroom Los Angeles condo with his dogs, Olivia and Bear. Smiling, Lindsay says, “Olivia doesn’t mind when I cheat on her.”
Lindsay maintains the most tempered view of Bing. He does not dwell on the emotional toll of being a Crosby kid, but remembers “all the good things I did with my dad and forget the times that were rough.” Of his father’s discipline, he observes, “He was right on the button with all the important things.” He dismisses Bing’s distance as immaterial. “I never expected affection from my father so it didn’t bother me.” Of the war between Bing and Gary, he says simply, “They were both wrong and they were both right.”
Gary concedes that Bing’s parental style was perhaps only a more extreme version of the conventional thinking of the day. Bing “was like a lot of fathers of that time. He was not out to be vicious, to beat children for his kicks.” Bob Crosby acknowledges that his brother Bing was “a disciplinarian” but adds, “My mother and father were like that. We were brought up that way.”
Apparently Bing was not as harsh and demanding with the children from his second marriage. In the acknowledgments of Going My Own Way, Gary addresses Kathryn and her three children: “I think you’ll find the Bing Crosby here a rather different man from the one you knew.” Kathryn has insisted that Bing “was the best father he could be to all his children,” but she admits that he was embarrassed to express affection. “That’s your good Jesuit boys’ school upbringing,” she says. Gary and Kathryn are on good terms, and he in fact stayed with Kathryn, a registered nurse, during part of his recovery from heart surgery. He calls her “a great wife to my father and a great mother to their children.”
In the last year of his father’s life, Gary affected a tentative reconciliation with Bing. Gary and his then wife, Barbara, occasionally spent weekends with Kathryn and Bing at the Crosby estate outside San Francisco. Recalls Gary, “One day he said, ‘Take a walk with me around the grounds.’ We didn’t talk about anything special, but somehow I felt the war was over. For all those years, I was the only one fighting. Goddamn it, he wasn’t. When I look back, he wasn’t.”
Observes Gary in a reflective moment, “In music, Bing was the greatest thing there ever was. As far as raising kids, he didn’t have a clue. I was going to say that if I could have had it either way, I’d rather have had it the way I did. But that isn’t true.” Try as he might, being Bing’s son may be a role Gary cannot shake.