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"[Gary Giddins is] The best thing to happen to Bing Crosby since Bob Hope"
- Wall Street Journal
“[Bing Crosby] … is that amazing product of the Far West — the Cosmopolitan American. He is also that odd American freak, a gifted artist without temperament, with all the normal instincts and the average reactions, the reasonably good citizen, the homme moyen sensuel.”
— Gilbert Seldes, The Incomparable Bing, Esquire (Fe., 1944)
He grew as a singer the less he tried to sing.”
- Henry Pleasants, The Great American Popular Singers
Bing Crosby dominated American popular culture in a way that few artists ever have. From the dizzy era of Prohibition through the dark days of the Second World War, he was a desperate nation's most-beloved entertainer. But he was more than just a charismatic crooner: Bing Crosby redefined the very foundations of modern music, from the way it was recorded to the way it was orchestrated and performed.
In this much-anticipated follow-up to the universally acclaimed first volume. National Book Critics Circle winner and preeminent cultural critic Gary Giddins focuses on Crosby's most memorable period, the war years, and the origin story of While Christmas. Set against the backdrop of a Europe on the brink of collapse, this groundbreaking work traces Crosby's skyrocketing career as he fully inhabits a new era of American entertainment and culture.
While he would go on to reshape both popular music and cinema more comprehensively than any other artist, Crosby's legacy would be forever intertwined with his impact on the home front, a unifying voice for a nation at war. Over a decade in the making and drawing on hundreds of interviews and unprecedented access to numerous archives, Giddins brings Bing Crosby, his work, and his world to vivid life— firmly reclaiming Crosby's central role in American cultural history.
Gary Giddins wrote the Weather Bird jazz column in the Village Voice for thirty years and later directed the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. He received the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Bell Atlantic Award for Visions of Jazz: The First Century. His other books include Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams—The Early Years, 1903-1940, which won the Ralph J. Gleason Music Book Award and the Association for Recorded Sound Collections Award for Excellence in Historical Sound Research; Weatherbird: Jazz at the Dawn of Its Second Century; Faces in the Crowd; Natural Selection; Warning Shadows; and biographies of Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker. He has won six ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Peabody Award in Broadcasting. He lives in New York.
In developing a synopsis of Bing Crosby Swinging On A Star The War Years 1940-46 [New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018], Gary Giddins’ second volume on the life, times and music of Bing Crosby, the facts set out in the opening paragraphs of this blog feature are ones that I reflected on at length before putting together the contents of this piece.
It has been said that God places a few geniuses in every era to inspire the rest of us. If this is the case, then I’m sure glad that The Almighty placed Bing and Gary in mine, for I doubt that we would have had a fuller appreciation of the genius of the one - Crosby - without the genius of the other - Giddins.
Put another way, as you read this book, you will also come to the inescapable conclusion that Bing Crosby spent a lifetime creating an unsurpassed career as a popular entertainer and Gary Giddins spent the better part of his sterling career as a critic, author and biographer preparing to write about it and, in so doing, memorialize it.
In a book divided into three major parts and 24 chapters, Gary goes about his work by establishing a set of themes [and some variations] involving patterns of behavior, aspects of character and personality, and stylistic qualities that predominated in Bing’s career during the years of America’s involvement in the Second World War.
One of these themes is best described by Gary as “the conflation of the old with the new….” [p.43]
“In 1940, the music industry moved fifteen million copies of sheet music, but it sold seventy million records. A year later, the number of records increased by nearly 90 percent, to 130 million records — heavy, brittle shellacs that revolved around a spindle seventy-eight times per minute and usually featured one song per side. … It was not just the industry's best year since the crash; it was its best since 1921.
This was the terrain Bing stepped into at the start of a new decade, as different from the cloistered temper of the Depression as it was from the carousing excesses of Prohibition. Yet this would be the decade he most fully inhabited. He would explore the delicious motley of pop music more deftly and comprehensively than anyone else and in the process become an essential voice of the home front. ... Even as he contemplated familial and professional ruptures, the public could see only the steadfast strength and reliability celebrated in countless magazine and newspaper stories. His discontents aside, idleness was never an option for the man whose persona hinged on the pretense of laziness — who walked, talked, sang, and acted as if tranquillity represented moral certainty, the virtue of the unflappable. He was about to do his bit in ways he could scarcely imagine, mirroring and defining the times more astutely than he and all but a few men and women had ever done. But first there would be an intermezzo of restless muddle as he tried to figure how an aging crooner might continue any kind of meaningful career at all.” [p. 37]
In a variation on this conflation of old-new theme, Gary characterizes Bing as “... the performer who personified unbroken continuity” in the public’s mind in the years between the First and Second World Wars as:
“Despite a proliferation of great new songs, the public craved old-fashioned diatonic melodies from the period preceding the Depression, melodies outfitted with platitudes that were at once wistful and soothing. They served as comfort music, a balm, a melancholy medicine for melancholy. Only Crosby could administer them in that vein, re-establishing them as the core of abiding values.” [pp. 38-39]
And still another variation: “When Bing wasn't plugging his movie songs and Decca recordings on KMH, he was idling in another era, often another century: "Juanita" (1850), "De Camptown Races" (1850), "Old Black Joe" (1860), "Silver Threads Among the Gold" (1873), "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1878), and songs introduced when he was in elementary school, like "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," "On Moonlight Hay," "The Missouri Waltz," "Ballin" the Jack," "Indian Summer," and "Alice Blue Gown." This, of course, fit in with [Decca Records] Jack Kapp's Americanist strategy for Bing, a distillation of his style into its purest components - the peerless Crosby baritone as a national security blanket.” [pp. 45-46].
Gary moves on to a new theme when he references - “Another aspect of Bing's nature also resurfaced: the undertow of loss and fear, the threat of unremitting loneliness. In the 1930s, his voice did double duty between candidly swinging jazz and the counterpoint of plangent ballads. He was the bard of longing, broken connections, love that almost was or might have been ….
Jack Kapp heard in Bing's performance the mood of the multitudes. However much the public loved swing, it had another yearning that needed attention. The great novelist and critic Albert Murray wrote at length about blues music being a means of keeping the blues at bay. That's what Kapp understood and what Crosby could convey, the sadness that undermines sadness. To give sorrow words, they reached back to Stephen Foster, that master of lamentation….
The astute critic Otis Ferguson of the New Republic wrote, "There is always something lovely and arresting to the heart about a plain song, when it comes unannounced from some place or time where people lived and worked by it.” Like Kapp, he heard those songs as a new foundation for Crosby's every man authority ….” [pp. 46-47]
The book progresses from this point much in line with the following quotation from Bing:
“I am not fond of acting, but it's a living. I can't help singing. My preference is radio first, then screen, and stage if I must.”
— Bing Crosby (1939)
Thematically, Gary explains it this way:
“Records were easy and movies paid best, but radio was the arena he loved — and griped about — most. …. Radio was in his blood, and by 1940 he incarnated the very heart of American broadcasting. He helped define the medium and remained loyal to it long after his peers left for television. Radio had inaugurated the Bing persona when he aired locally in Los Angeles and refined it when he went national in New York. Bing changed the attitude and bearing of radio from oracular to cracker-barrel, lampooning its highfalutin mid-Atlantic pretensions with his singular version of the everyman vernacular. …” [p. 62]
“But radio made onerous demands on his time …” [and as a result their developed in Bing an] “indifference, loss of affect, burnout, perhaps even despair and depression, conditions that Crosby could never accept in himself or in those around him.” … “At first, the depth of Bing's anxiety was not fully clear to Reber, Carroll, and the higher-ups who met with him in New York, although after a few meetings, they knew changes had to be made and fast ….” [p.76].
The evolution of these “changes” involving Bing’s radio programs constitute a series of thematic variations that Gary explores throughout the following chapters in the book.
A theme involving Bing’s considerable motion picture career during the war years from 1940-46 begins its development in earnest with the fifth chapter in which Gary characterized the Crosby-Hope road movies as “ a motion picture franchise.” [Incidentally, he rates Zanzibar, Morocco and Utopia as the “three best” of the seven in the series]. Later, Gary categorizes these films as “a road to perennial vaudeville.” [p. 98].
Another film-related theme that Gary identifies and which would playout in Bing’s two, hugely popular films during the war years - Going My Way and The Bells of St. Mary - have to do with his English/Irish heritage and what Gary labels as a “rebranding” of his Catholicism:
“In a time of rampant bigotry, often directed against or perpetrated by the Irish (the anti-Semitic ravings of Father Coughlin were as familiar to radio audiences as Crosby's baritone), Bing decided to flag his own ethnicity. In the 1930s, he had emphasized his paternal English heritage on film and in his private life. He now undertook a rebranding that would define his life, career, and legacy to a degree he could not have foreseen in 1940. It was a decision of profound importance to him, an autonomous act of solidarity, his first public embrace of his mother's Catholicism.” [p. 103].
An important theme that Gary would be underscores through a number of variations on Bing’s recorded performances during the war years has to do with stylistic changes in Bing’s vocal technique:
“... the stylistic change was deliberate. He softened the self-conscious artistry that had defined his ballads, muting the baroque elements of his technique — the tremolos, rhythmic fillips, shifting dynamics. His upper mordents continued to peg notes for emphasis, but he trusted the splendor of his instrument to convey the tale, replacing ardent mannerisms of youth with a matured clarity. This reinforced the illusion that singing was easy, nice work if you could get it — virile, natural, and honest.” [p. 106]
In addition to the many and ongoing challenges in Bing’s professional life during the war years, there were constant and complicated issues with his wife and children which form a parallel theme to his professional life throughout this period.
“The fragility of the Crosby marriage bruised the four sons. They learned to harmonize their emotions with those of their parents, who, whether stonily remote or intrusively concerned, almost always demanded obedience. They imposed what seemed like an endless litany of rules on everything — deportment, table manners, weight, schoolwork, curfews — and employed penalties to enforce them. Bing framed his idea of child-rearing in line with his admitted inability to openly display love and other raw feelings, which, even in his most expressive singing and acting, he fanned at low flame. Measured and sure, steady as you go; that was part of his appeal. His songs of loss were ripened by restraint. His comedic chops fed on it, evoking the wary ballet of a silent-era comedian thrust into a shape-shilling reality he will equitably master. As paterfamilias, he had scant patience for the kind of willful independence that worked well enough for him when he was growing up. Bing could not know it then, but nothing would suit his theatrical bent better than a clerical collar, a protective talisman holding him aloft. As priest, he would be everyone's ideal father: mellow and wise, immune to temptation, dispensing Old Testament regulations with New testament liberality. But when it came to his own kids, Bing had nothing like the unflappable sagacity of Father O’Malley” [pp. 113-114].
And in another description of the motivation behind the-family- that-spanks- together-stays-together approach, Gary adds:
“Bing wanted them humble, hardworking, and normal, though nothing in their lives portended normality. In the lexicon of postwar psychology, he might have been called a behaviorist. He surely had a mission. But as he makes clear in his 1953 memoir Call Me Lucky, proudly recounting his inflexible parenting, he considered himself a traditionalist, whacking compliance into his boys as the priests at Gonzaga and his mother had whacked it into him (his father had no heart for it). He took the job seriously, enforcing rules, inspecting homework, and allocating privileges.” [p. 114]
Thanks to the arrival in 1941 of Buddy DeSylva as the new head of production at Paramount Pictures, Bing is cast in the movie Birth of the Blues which allows him to return to his Rhythm Boy Jazz roots, a theme which Gary elaborates upon a some length in the following excerpts:
“ … [Bing]delivered a reticent if much praised performance in Birth of the Blues, the first feature film about the dawning of jazz, though the word jazz isn't mentioned in it. The script favors the terms blues and darkle music, which — though the latter was abhorrent by 1941—have a certain historical validity. The movie, though racist in its very concept, counters racism by emphasizing the theme that American vernacular music — specifically swing as popularized by whites — has its foundation in black music. This idea, commonplace in Europe and accepted by jazz aficionados, represented a step forward for Hollywood, where blacks were usually depicted as maids, porters, and fools, and for the United States, where jazz was lauded, if at all, as the music that whites (George Gershwin, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman) refined from unlettered Negro folk music.” [p. 127] ...
“De Sylva's idea was to fictionalize the beginnings of the Original Dixieland Jazz [Jass] Band, the first white band to leave New Orleans. They created a sensation in Chicago, New York, and Europe, before rapidly fading with the rise of a more serious and accomplished generation of musicians that included King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Six Beiderbecke, and Duke Ellington.” [p. 130] …
“The thorough whiteness of the wailers accentuated the insurgent claim, new to movies, that black music was an American birthright in which everyone could proudly partake.” [p. 131]
As was the case with the first volume of his biography of Bing, Gary continues to introduce themes that focus specifically on various approaches that Bing employs to render a song. For example, on a 1941 Decca recording date of The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi, Gary comments:
“It is an outstanding example of his ability to sing a song almost exactly as
written, with few ornaments, and yet stamp his imprimatur on every note and syllable. A warm-up take affords his audiences a glimpse into his procedural method. Jack Kapp preserved an unusual number of rejected takes from the 1941 sessions. These alternates hold little interest except for the one-minute rundown of The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi in which Bing is backed by Trotter's piano and Botkin's guilar. He voices each pitch squarely at a fast tempo and utterly devoid of feeling. Bing is rehearsing, testing the intervals. And then, with Trotter's orchestra behind him, he comes fully alive, transforming the tatty tavern paean into something very like an art song.” [pp. 138-39].
Gary next focuses on how Bing’s artistic development during the wars years was greatly enhanced by his relationship with Fred Astaire in the 1942 movie Holiday Inn, a precursor to the blockbuster hit 1954 film White Christmas. Bing would also work with Fred in the film Blue Skies in 1946.
“Fred was the ideal partner for Bing, who found him methodical, agreeable, no ‘big star show-boy or anything like that,’ with great comedic sense and no bad habits; he took a drink now and then and, was crazy about golf and music and horses. He cheered Astaire's willingness to stand up and fight for an interpretation of a song, scene, or dance number. ‘That's the way you arrive at the right way to do things,’ he said, you ‘argue it out with somebody who has a good point of view [and] maybe you can reconcile your points of view. Fred will do that.’" [p. 156]
Thematically, Bing’s singing of White Christmas in Holiday Inn was to provide “... a transitional moment for the Crosby persona; at ease with a pipe in a snug jacket over a striped shirt buttoned to the top, comfortable, sturdy and safe — nothing in the particulars we have not seen before and often, yet subtly altered by a heightened and mature equanimity. The Crosby glow is emphasized by [Mark] Sandrich's staging, which places him between the silently roaring fire and a huge Christmas tree. The plot of Holiday Inn calls for him and the other major characters to be brazenly devious, yet Crosby's conman routine as evident in recent pictures - superficial, matched by an almost adolescent self-regard — is gone. In this film and especially in this scene, he personifies a hearth to which anyone might long to return.” [p. 162]
Particularly appropriate to Bing’s later activities in succoring the troops and raising money for the cause during the war years, the way he sang This Is A Great Country while backing a newsreel montage in Holiday Inn “... pressed home the idea that only Bing (...) could handle everyman patriotism without its curdling into rancid buttermilk, even while wearing an Uncle Sam hat — an attribute that inclined the GIs to pin their own handle on him: ‘Uncle Sam Without Whiskers.’
Levity had its place, dampening fear. And entertainers had a calling: to establish a cozy unified home front, stirring up a lather that was part propaganda, part pep talk, part escapist reassurance, all scored to thumping can-do rhythms, sentimental values, and the nearly pious belief (sanctioned by the Production Code) in the warranties of melodrama: Johnny would be marching home in triumph to his faithful gal and proud folks.” [p. 174]
Yet, it would seem that being “all things to all men” had its price for Bing as something had to give during the war years and it did as his recording output was uneven, or, as Gary phrases it in establishing another of his themes: “The gulf between Bing’s records and his work in film and radio was rarely more evident than in this period.” [p. 180].
Holiday Inn was also important because “... while Paramount prepared for the rollout of … [the film] in August , [Jack] Kapp produced Decca's first black-label album: twelve holiday-related songs from the [Irving] Berlin epic — in effect, the first "concept album" (although the phrase was not in use) by a mainstream singer, and a smash hit despite the price hike.” [p. 189].
The thematic tone for Bing’s activities during the war years is set forth in the following paragraph:
“Bing registered tor conscription weeks after Pearl Harbor. In December 1942, the top age for the draft would be lowered from forty-five to thirty-eight, but before that, whether he signed in thirty-nine (his real age) or thirty-eight (his professional age),he was eligible. Not that there was a chance of his being called; married with four small boys and color-blind. … Bing sought no publicity, uniform or rank, but he made clear his willingness to serve in any capacity deemed useful for the war effort.” [p. 192].
Essentially, Bing would become part of the broader Hollywood community’s effort to “ … use entertainment to inspire military morale.”
During one of these efforts involving The Victory Caravan an - “unprecedented tour by rail [with] the goal of raising money for families of men killed in battle” - Bing was joined by the actor James Cagney whose comments about Bing provide a different spin on Crosby’s ... “deceptively loafing air and unsinkable savvy” ... [Time magazine]:
“I had never worked with Bing before, and here was a great opportunity to see at first-hand the way this great performer did it. Bing had always been a remarkable fella to me, and I had always thought that everything he did was so relaxed and effortless. Not so. At our opening show... Bing walked out to a reception for which the adjective ‘triumphant’ is inadequate. … the point of this story … is that when Bing came offstage, the perspiration on him was an absolute revelation to me. Here he had been to all appearances perfectly loose and relaxed, but not at all. He was giving everything he had in every note he sang, and the apparent effortlessness was a part of his very hard work." [pp. 196-197]
A thematic undercurrent paralleling all of Bing’s activities during the war years was the worsening condition of his wife, Dixie’s health and the effect this had on Bing and the children. As Jean Stevens, a family friend described it:
"Here was Dixie, a perfect lady, overly modest, you know she undressed in the closet and things like that a beautiful, wonderful person, but then she would get drunk and be very foul-mouthed. Bing was always embarrassed by it." [p. 217]
“Dixie's instability surfaced in her treatment of the four boys. When she drank, Jean said, she was hard on them, calling them names, something Bing also did, especially targeting Gary and his weight problem. Yet when Dixie was on a tear, he would try to compensate with as much warmth as he could summon. Like Gary, Jean never saw Bing drunk: "He was always in control. But he was a cold person, like my father, with no way to show his affection at all, never hugging the children for fear of spoiling them, no public displays of affection. So Dixie—when she was sober—had to make up for that. She was demonstrative, loving and hugging. She was a mother, you know."” [p. 218]
According to Bing researcher Mark Scrimger, Bing used his Kraft Music Hall radio show during the war years and “turned it into a traveling USO show, promoting war bonds, explaining, with the help of guest officials, rationing and other state and federal directives.” This description is a precursor to one of Gary’s more important themes which emphasized that “Bing had more influence on the millions of families routinely huddled around their radios than anyone other than FDR.” [p. 227] Variations of this theme of the force and impact of Bing’s radio persona abound throughout the book, helpfully bringing attention to how powerful radio was as communication medium during the war years and Bing’s mastery of it.
Bing’s travels on behalf of the war effort resulted in many contacts with the troops fighting the war and these gradually resulted in “a transformation that began on June 25, 1942 when he did his last Kraft Music Hall for the season.” [p. 233 paraphrase]
“A reporter followed the afternoon jaunt [Cheyenne, Wyoming, August 11, 1942], capturing Crosby in the process of remaking himself. No longer the friendly but remote personality bound up by technology, he now offered a sympathetic, unassuming presence, more older brother than paterfamilias (despite the bald head and dangling pipe, he was not yet forty) — interested and deliberate, unregimented and virtually unmarked by stardom.
These men stirred and inspired him. Bing was still young enough to share a pang of disconnection that troubled numberless civilian men who gawked at servicemen on recruitment lines and on trains, at bars and in stores, marching. So many uniforms, so many casualties — the papers ran daily lists, grouped according to where they fell in the theaters of war. They owed him nothing. He fell he owed them a great deal; as a citizen, of course, but also personally. A year ago he was in the grip of malaise, and these men had snapped him out of it. He found himself singing as in earlier days, with pleasure, for the fun of it, before the most appreciative audience in the world. …” [p. 236]
This theme is the major description of how Crosby went about his activities on behalf of the troops, both at home and abroad, during the war years: an unstinting and unsparing devotion to doing whatever it took to give them succor. As to the importance of the war years in Bing’s career, Gary notes that: “Despite all that he had been during Prohibition and the Depression and all he would be in the postwar era, the war and its immediate aftermath really were, professionally at least, the best years of his life.” [p. 238]
And although Bing had many colleagues who had great success appearing with him to entertain the troops - notably vocalist Dinah Shore - no one came close to the special bond he shared in this regard with Bob Hope:
“Bing's tenure as a top entertainer in music, movies, and radio never seemed more secure, but it was now inseparable from the need to boost the home front, a vocation that combined the things he liked best: entertaining the men in khaki and playing golf. Only one colleague — Bob Hope — handled this role as deftly as he, so like it or not, they were joined at the hip on- and offscreen. They didn't have to memorize lines or rehearse for golf tours, and the audiences inspired them, though they occasionally had to fend off spectators who ran across greens to demand autographs and avoid galleries of onlookers who crowded within the length of a club's swing.” [p. 244]
His performances for the armed forces allows Gary to brings forth a variation on his Bing as everyman theme:
“Everywhere he went, observers remarked on his energy and generosity — what a ‘regular fellow’ he was, unspoiled by stardom, unattended by an entourage, unimpressed by the worshipping crowds. Had there ever been a star of such importance who wore his stardom, talent, fame, and wealth so lightly?” [p. 246]
Yet while Bing continue to earn accolades for the way in which he entertained the armed forces in 1942, Dixie’s condition worsened:
“Dixie sank into murkier seclusion. On the worst days, her de facto keeper Georgie Hardwicke barred her friends from the house; on better days, Dixie made an effort and entertained. Her friends discussed her drinking and reclusiveness with a tact and compassion sorely lacking in her family members. While the ever-loyal Kitty Sexton found Bing to be sympathetic, his parents mocked Dixie mercilessly, in private and in letters, offering him no consolation. They were embarrassed by her, offended. They continued to regard alcoholism as a moral failure.” [p. 253]
At this point in the book, using Bing’s performance in the movie ironically entitled Dixie, Gary returns to a theme from Bing’s earlier career to offer a tutorial in the socio-cultural implications of Blackface Minstrelsy:
“Since the 1960s, discussions of blackface minstrelsy have been dominated by two biases. The first is apologetic but unrepentant: It had become an American show-business tradition, practiced by black as well as white performers, divorced by time from the early racial disparagement so that the stereotyped characters represented human rather than ethnic manners, on the order of commedia dell'arte. ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask,’ Oscar Wilde remarked, ‘and he will tell you the truth.’ The ingenious Bahamian American blackface comedian Bert Williams added to this dictum the echo of hard experience: ‘A black face, rundown shoes, and elbow-out make-up give me a place to hide. The real Bert Williams is crouched deep down inside the coon who sings the songs and tells the stories.’ Bob Hope, who also spoke from experience, recalled how blacking up helped inexperienced performers overcome stage jitters by allowing them to hide behind its anonymity.
The second is unforgiving: Racism abides in the grotesquerie, and anyone who doubts its malice is invited to imagine a comical theater made up of false-nosed Hebrews or mustachioed Italian organ-grinders or pigtailed, opium-addicted Chinamen or pugnaciously drunk Irishmen or miserly Scotchmen or grunting Indians or lazy Latinos or thieving Arabs or flighty women — all of which were quite familiar to minstrel and vaudeville audiences. Blackface endured after the other travesties faded. Even after blackface faded, the stereotypes remained, as African American actors played happy maids, obsequious porters, and genial imbeciles well into mid century. If William Faulkner's fictional Colonel Sartoris "fathered the edict that no Negro woman should appear on the streets without an apron," Hollywood gave that decree the imprimatur of cultural law.” [p. 264]
“Minstrelsy flourished in [Bing’s] Hollywood, its acceptance too wide to generate criticism, never mind indignation.” [p. 266]
And where was Bing on the subject? After noting that he “fractured radio’s color barrier, performing on air with black artists,” Gary offers these observations:
“He represented a casual righteousness on the subject, never political or self-promoting, not as outspoken or vehement as he might have been, yet nonetheless forceful in what he did and did not do.” [p. 267]
After examining the devastating effects on musicians of the recording ban inflicted on them by union boss James C. Petrillo, Gary sets up another theme when he identifies that Crosby emerged from the wreckage of the strike as the Christmas Crooner with his hit recordings of Jingle Bells, White Christmas and I’ll Be Home for Christmas. [p. 288]
Despite the commercial success of these recordings, arranger Vic Schoen observed: “... he was a reclusive man - a loner and very private, not many parties in those years, not a lot of socializing.” [p. 289]
Yet publicly, Gary describes Bing during “the middle years” “ ... as the greatest smoothie Hollywood has ever known;” “... an All-American Joe in which a streak of the barefoot boy persisted despite the isolating power of wealth and pomp.” … “Writing for a Catholic magazine Mary Lanigan Healy postulated [that Bing] conveyed an almost naive simplicity and unpretentiousness; people looked at him as an avatar of how Americans ought to live … the epitome of contentment and serenity.” [p. 293]
Gary concludes the chapter entitled Just An Old Cowhand by establishing his next theme with the statement: “Over the years, he emphasized three interlocking yet discrete motives for taking charge of and vastly enlarging a network of cattle ranches [which began with the acquisition of a ranch in Elko, NV]:
 “Other film stars bought ranches,but few worked them, any more than they bred the horses they raced. Bing's buildup of acquisitions eventually produced a spread of baronial splendor. Not the least of his reasons was the lure of a Western modality that he merely skirted in his adolescence as a reluctant farmhand. He was the boss now, yet in speaking of his years in Elko — summers with his kids, autumns with friends, winters with the halest and heartiest of his comrades — his recollections drifted between the appeal of anonymity and the work ethic of his hardscrabble youth, when he rose before the sun to deliver papers, caddy, clean up a flophouse, mow lawns, pick fruit. serve Mass, and generally heed Seneca's counsel to ward ofl idleness with toil.” [p.294]
 “A second motive, with which he justified the outlay to his lawyer, accountant, brothers, and Dixie, who accompanied him annually in the early years before developing an aversion to the the destination, was his argument that the ranch was a lucrative business venture.” [p. 295]
 “ the Crosby boys, a third motive for Bing’s move into the West” [p. 298]; … “He believed good parents molded their kids like clay …;” “A country is just as strong as its young people …;” “... his determination to blot out the specter of "Hollywood kids," with their privileged sense of self-importance, chimed with the pragmatic need to compensate for Dixie's volatility and his own schedule, which kept him away for weeks at a time. The ranch would offset the hours filled in by nannies and grandparents ….” [p. 300]
A parallel development during Bing’s war years were the “sublimely harebrained comedy” classic “Road” movies that he made with Bob Hope, “... including the three best Road movies (Zanzibar, Morocco and Utopia), all of which revelled in “inanity for its own sake.”
At this juncture, Gary introduces the chapters dealing with the arrival of director Leo McCarey in Bing’s life and his casting of Bing in the two blockbuster hits - Going My Way [for which Bing one of the Academy Award as Best Actor] and Bells of St. Mary’s. These roles would help Bing’s film career ascend to a very rarified place in the pantheon of celestial cinematic celebrities.
According to Gary, “Leo made stars out of character actors and character actors out of stars … was venerated by his peers [and by casting Bing in Going My Way as] “Father O’Malley … the superhuman fount of liberal wisdom, empathy and action … this role of a lifetime ripened Bing, paving the road for the second half of his career.” [pp. 309, 311]
Many years later “At the end of McCarey’s life, when Peter Bogdanovich asked him what ‘specifically’ inclined him to cast Crosby, he answered succinctly, ‘He could do no wrong as an actor.’” [p. 324]
What’s more, Bing would bring an extra dimension to McCarey’s casting of him as Father O’Malley, that of a “hep priest.”
Or as Gary tells the story:
“They had a couple of drinks before Leo got down to business and said: ‘I want you to hear the idea I have for you and maybe you'll think it isn't now. You're going to play a hep priest.’
‘What's a hep priest?’ I inquired. ‘A disc jockey at KFWB?’ [AM radio stations in Los Angeles] ‘No,’ he answered, ‘just a regular fellow, with a sense of humor. He achieves results, not with ponderous precepts, thunderous theology or frightening threats of Hellfire and damnation, but by making religion pleasant and attractive. Joyful.’ ‘I've known many such,’ I told him. ‘Well, you're going to be one,’ he said. And we parted on that note.” [pp. 322-323]
Bing certainly understood how well the roles in these films would put him in artistic situations where he could make who he was - happen!
“Crosby desperately wanted to make this picture; he had never displayed deeper commitment to any project. He loved the character and the story, such as it was, and he wanted to work with Leo McCarey, who understood the Bing persona as well as anyone and who could channel it in a new direction.”
But as I read through the three chapters on Leo McCarey, Going My Way and Bells of St. Mary’s, what became clear to me is that few film critics could provide the kind of in-depth analysis that Gary offers about every aspect of these iconic films and Bing’s performances in them.
Gary’s description and/or discussion of every element that went into the making of the films - Frank Butler’s screenplay, Lionel Lindon’s cinematography, John Burke and Jimmy van Heusen’s songs, the acting roles of Barry Fitzgerald, Frank McHugh, Rise Stevens, et al - provide a perceptive identification of what and why these ingredients coalesced in such a way as to turn apparently pedestrian themes into a great films becomes a tour de force of film criticism.
And the theme he establishes for Bing’s work in these films is beautifully encapsulated in the following quotations:
“Yet one knows instantly that never in the world has there been a priest like this or an actor like this to incarnate him. O'Malley is the apotheosis of all the virtues of the Crosby persona with none of the defects.
In past roles, he flouted authority; now he personifies it. In earlier roles he cherished the fantasy of a quiet isolation; now he is pledged to the human condition. Gone are the pouts, the neediness, the flippancy and cockiness, the insecurity and erotic yearning, the want, the need, the ambition — though not the impulse to perform, which he does throughout the picture as singer, pianist, songwriter, straight man, the choreographer of other people's lives, and the church's savior. He is a benevolent ubermensch, an infinitely resourceful Saint Fixit. You want miracles? O'Malley converts street toughs into choirboys, a cynical runaway into a loving wife, a shylock into a philanthropist, a petulant old cleric into Mother's baby boy.” [p. 348]
With the six chapters that comprise the concluding Part Three to which Gary gives the broad heading of Der Bingle, Bing’s activities on behalf of the war effort switch from the national to the European front.
The “Der Bingle” label derives from United Press and Variety writer Robert Musel who claimed that the Germans used it to describe “the real secret weapon we’re hurling at Germany. … But Musel’s termed echoed throughout Europe and the United States, and Bing was soon Der Bingle for servicemen everywhere.” [p. 424]
To portray the theme about the attitude that Bing universally adopted toward his participation in the war effort, Gary turns to:
“The chaplain for the 381st Bomb Group, Lieutenant Colonel James Good Brown (who chronicled the entire history of the group and lived to be a hundred and five), introduced himself to Bing: "I had quite a conversation with Crosby before the show began as he was waiting for the men to get the stage arranged in the proper manner. He thoroughly enjoys going around to the war camps and bases. To him, it is both fun and a patriotic duty. He feels that it is the way he can do his part in this war. Neither did I hesitate to tell ' him I thought he was doing as much good for the men as the chaplain. To this he remarked, 'Not quite as much good as you chaplains are doing.'" [p. 431]
In the next chapter, descriptively entitled “Somewhere in France,” Gary ushers in the theme of what happened to Bing when he was performing before the troops actually doing the fighting:
“The shows and Crosby's eagerness to perform grew as he became more involved with the men and better understood the specifics of what they faced. This was a different order of men than those he had entertained in the States, those insufficiently trained and untested recruits who lacked the one component Eisenhower declared essential in a fighting man: unreasoning hatred of the enemy. The men in France were no older than those he had encountered at home, but they were transformed. They had spilled blood: they had seen communities devastated and civilians slaughtered and children go hungry. They could scarcely imagine the horrors to come in the Ardennes or the gust of hell that would greet those who liberated extermination camps. But they were now warriors, and their company deeply affected Crosby. He marveled at one unit's "very sharp outfits," its "fitness and military decorum, more than is ordinarily apparent." The night's show for these men was "a fairly spectacular sight," played out against intervals of artillery fire.” [p. 445].
Following a whirlwind and dangerous tour of the armed forces in the closing months of the war in Europe which included an intense performance schedule reminiscent of “... his experience as a five-a-day vaudevillian” (and one which also included meetings with Generals George Patton and Omar Bradley along the way), Gary sets up the next major theme with the statement:
“As far as the public could see, he had returned from Europe the same old Bing, only more so, and his hardly surprising need to talk reflected some of the urgency of he only who escaped alone to tell thee. Entertaining the troops was only the first leg of the Foxhole Circuit; the second leg involved bearing witness.” [p. 469]
A good part of this “bearing witness” had to do with the correspondence he received, responded to or initiated following his return from the European front. In characterizing the “tone and tenor” of Bing’s correspondence, Gary brings forth another, and, in this instance, very powerful theme concerning the Crosby way of doing things [and which I think is one of the most beautifully written passages in this book]:
“Understated strength was inseparable from emotional reticence in his letters, as it was in his music. Yet in the context of the times, that combination wielded tremendous authority, as characterized in a letter to Crosby from a transport commander stationed in Antwerp. He wrote of that ‘quality in your voice which strikes to the bottom of the hearts of men. I have watched it happen, often, not just in the rare case but in many many thousands of men — sitting silent, retrospective, thoughts flying back to home and loved ones.’ He emphasized the singer's ‘power to soften the heart of the man who so shortly after goes back to shoot down his brother man,’ saying it was a determinant in helping to keep ‘our boys from turning into the beasts they are asked to be.’ This, he said, was ‘something big, something too big not to have you know and understand’ — the ‘power of music, put into humble, throbbing words, as these fellows want it, need it, bow to it.’
This strikes a surprising, counterintuitive note. Despite the tears generated by Christmas anthems, Crosby is rarely singled out for the emotional tenor of his music. Emotion, verging on vulnerability, is a quality we associate with Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra. Bing expressed inborn virility, secure and stoic; he did not invite listeners to inspect his insecurities. Dinah Shore caught the distinction between him and Sinatra: ‘Bing never pressed. He was always in tune. His phrasing was basically very good jazz phrasing, and yet he could sing a ballad. I don't know if he could make me weep like Frank could make me weep. Ballad singers like Frank, you empathize with them and your heart breaks cause you're experiencing their heartbreak. Bing didn't do that to you. He had simplicity. It definitely had style, but there was no affectation. When he talked, it seemed like something he thought of at the moment, totally inspired, and he would get that quality in his singing — totally off the cuff and inspired. Bing was great. [But] he wouldn't let you see that deeply into his soul. Frank let you see an awful lot.’
Crosby's reserve was at the core of his success with the troops, on the air, at army camps, and in the fields of Europe. To sing to men separated from families and lovers and often starved of sexual companionship, he had to create a particular kind of bond, a zone of emotional safety. A zone has boundaries.” [pp. 480-481].
Although Bing was planning to replicate his visit to the European front with one to the Pacific Theater of War, Japan’s surrender in August, 1945 precluded him from doing so.
Thus in the concluding three war years chapters: “Dial O for O’Malley,” “Nothing But Bluebirds,” “Long, Long Time” we find Bing resuming his film career with Duffy’s Tavern, Bells of St. Mary’s and Blue Skies, the latter two teaming him with Ingrid Bergman and Fred Astaire, respectively, while Bing’s preparation for making major changes to the way in which he broadcast his radio program - The Kraft Music Hall - is the focal point of the book’s last chapter.
Hollywood columnist Louella Parsons reported that Leo McCarey’s plans for Bells of St. Mary’s did not include Barry Fitzgerald, although he did indicate that “... he would reteam the two men for a sequel. This was his way of making fully clear the real point of his newsflash, that Bells was another religious-themed picture but not, not, not a sequel. … He had his reasons for insisting that the new picture did not take up where the previous one left off, but his secrecy irked Parsons. …. The film's few indications of chronology point to Bells as a prequel; its O'Malley is far more tentative than the supremely confident super-priest of Going My Way, its setting is the Midwest (O'Malley's home ground), and the war is all but invisible.” [p. 488]
And while Gary makes the point that music was not as central to Bells of St. Mary’s [p. 500], having actress Ingrid Bergman involved to create a “chaste love undercurrent” along with an inspired script from Leo McCarey created what became the most profitable film in RKO history. “ … the cast knew they had a remarkable film on their hands … [and] Bing confided to a friend that it was stronger than its predecessor and he was stronger in it [p. 514]:”
“Crosby's home life was far more discontented than life at Paramount and would continue to deteriorate throughout the upcoming new year. Dixie's drinking and reclusiveness had begun to tell in the infrequent photographs she tolerated. This lovely, adored young woman — who eight years later, three days short of her forty-first birthday, would succumb to ovarian cancer — was a mere thirty-three, but her eyes were tired and heavy-lidded, her complexion wan, her smile pinched. She made a tenacious effort to socialize at the end of the year, going with Bing to Jack Benny and Mary Livingstone's black-tie bash on New Year's Eve and to Bob and Dolores Hope's lavish party (guest list of three hundred) the next afternoon. Later, her friends said the holiday festivities wore her down. She collapsed on January 9. Bing phoned her doctor, Jud Hummer, who insisted that she be taken to St. Vincent's Hospital. Bing accompanied his unconscious wife in the ambulance and sat by her side all afternoon. Before leaving, he told reporters, ‘She's going to be all right.’ Larry Crosby initially told reporters she had a bad cold. Hospital staff diagnosed a respiratory infection, possibly pneumonia, and admitted she was comatose; they put her in an oxygen tent.
The papers covered her confinement for five days despite a lack of updates. The hospital would not commit itself beyond "incipient" pneumonia, with a remedy of an oxygen tent and penicillin. Dr. Hummer refused interviews. She remained in the hospital for nearly two weeks. When she was out of danger, Larry said, ‘Dixie was quite a sick girl for a while. She was unconscious the first couple of days, but we now are confident she's going to pull through.’ A relieved and shaken Bing credited her recovery to the miracle of penicillin. The scuttlebutt attributed her hospitalization to drugs and booze or an accidental (or not) overdose of sleeping pills.
Dixie managed to stay out of the public eye for nearly three months, until the day of the Academy Awards. [March 15, 1945 when Bing would win the Academy Award as Best Actor for his performance in Going My Way]. [pp. 496-497]
The penultimate chapter “Nothing But Blue Skies” finds Bing once again united with dancer-actor Fred Astaire and a film score by Irving Berlin, and while the primary focus is on the resulting film - Blue Skies - Gary also brings in more developments in Bing’s personal life ranging from his growing fondness for the young actress Joan Caulfield to the sale of his interest in the Del Mar Race track and his purchase of a stake in the Pittsburgh Pirates, an exchange which Gary explains in the following paragraph:
“From the [Elko, NV] ranch, Crosby negotiated the divestment of his racing interests. The postwar world would find his sons transforming into young men; Gary was twelve years old. Although Bing loved racing and breeding horses, the track did not provide the right example for the boys. Also, Bing paid more into it than he got out at a time when taxes were crushing him. His every effort to buy into a family-oriented sport had met with condescension; it was as if he had threatened to install pari-mutuel windows at the Rose Bowl. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner of baseball since 1920, maintained an ad hominem opposition to Crosby that he took to his grave in 1944. In the more reasonable environment that followed his passing, Bing joined with a conglomerate to buy the Cleveland Indians, but his group was outbid by another, which included Bob Hope. He tried again when the Pittsburgh Pirates went on the block, this time successfully, though he still had to lose the track before negotiations went forward.” [p. 534]
Gary closes the last chapter with a recapitulation of three major themes that dominated Bing’s life in 1946, the last of “the war years:”
 “As the world celebrated peace or revved itself up for the new struggle with former allies, Crosby declared war on Kraft, J. Walter Thompson, NBC, and the habitual way radio governed itself. He had attempted something on this order five years earlier but did not then know how to articulate or cure his vexation. The war forced him to lie low while showing him the way forward. The Armed Forces Radio Service, with its constant production of transcription discs, proved that recorded programs were just as effective as live broadcasts, and maybe more, given the technical options of editing f and rerecording.
Prerecording would enable him to create a tighter, better show, and it would be strike-proof. After two years of the Petrillo ban, he proposed an idea new to broadcasting: reruns. When the head of the American Federation of Musicians called another strike (and James Caesar Petrillo did, twice), radio would be ready with a stockpile of programs. Petrillo shared the networks' disdain for recorded music, so, like it or not, Crosby was also warring with the union. The payoff, however, would be worth it: freedom from a sponsor's schedule and a network's studio. He could record a show when and where he liked.
As Billboard demonstrated in an issue allocated to Crosby's insurrection, which it declared the most important event in show business since the advent of talking pictures, the majority of radio stars wanted to switch to prerecorded programming. But none wanted to publicly take sides until they saw how Bing's offensive played out.” [p. 544; paragraphing modified]
 “Another complication, also long-standing and put on hold by the war, undermined his confidence and, worse, the control he exercised in most facets of his life. The deterioration of his troubled marriage — which five years earlier narrowly averted dissolution, only to flatline into a routine of her drinking and his absences-afflicted him in ways he could acknowledge only in the confessional, if then, or in correspondence with a priest to whom he could concede that he loved Dixie but hated what she had become.” [p. 545]
 …”Now [that] he had the attentiveness of Joan Caulfield and the harbor of her cultivated family. … Crosby did not fly back to Hollywood. He went to see Francis Spellman, the imperious archbishop of New York, who weeks later would be formally appointed cardinal. Ravenous for power and publicity, fiercely opposed to Communism, ecumenicism, liberalism, and free speech, Spellman was the antipode of Father O'Malley. But Crosby was looking for succor.
He had told Joan that he was seriously thinking about divorce, and the visit to Spellman was seen by her family as evidence of his intentions. If he expected an ecclesiastical solution, he was disappointed.
In the account he gave of the meeting, as remembered by Betty Caulfield, "Cardinal Spellman said, 'Bing, you are Father O'Malley and under no circumstances can Father O'Malley get a divorce.'" Betty added, "I think that was the beginning of the end for Joan and Bing." [p. 564; paragraphing modified]
Summing up 1946 for Bing and perhaps setting up a point of departure for the beginning of his third volume on Bing’s life, Gary offers the following overview:
“This would be the year when Bing enjoyed the peak of his popularity while surmounting a nuisance suit in order to attempt a radical change in broadcasting, parlaying legal and personal issues with his brother Ted, dissolving his interest in Del Mar, closing his acquisition of a baseball team, finding a new sponsor, and figuring out exactly how a transcribed radio program ought to work; in addition, he continued to make films and records and kept struggling to find the solution to a marriage stretched past the breaking point. The only good news of the day was Dixie's return from the hospital. Four days later, her mother, Nora Wyatt, died suddenly of a heart attack, at the age of sixty-three, leaving Dixie more alone than ever. Bing continued his New York residency for another two weeks." [pp. 578-79]...
“Something important had happened over the previous two months, something that Crosby and most others hardly noticed. Yet it would be remembered long after the crises and negotiations, the pleasures and frustrations that occupied him in this period and in the years to come. It outlived memories of Kraft Music Hall, most of his movies, and most of his recordings, and if any of his ardent admirers are inclined to discount this now-commonplace aspect of his work, they can hardly deny that it has ensured his prominence in a cultural pantheon thoroughly corrupted by amnesia.
On December 1 , Decca introduced the five-disc (ten songs) Bing Crosby album called Merry Christmas. It came out just as the three-disc album Going My Way completed its second month in the top ten — his first top-ten album — and accumulated extraordinary sales with each passing week. The success of these bulky, expensive compilations came as a surprise, given the millions of singles already sold. Yet Merry Christmas counts for more than sales; it set the table for the thematic compilations that flourished in the age of vinyl and launched an international tradition, flinging a compulsory challenge to generations of performers to enter the seasonal sweepstakes.” [p. 580].
Gary’s biography also contains Bing’s wartime discography and filmography, a bibliography and so many copious notes and source references that these annotations almost constitute a separate book on the subject.
If you feel the need to be in the presence of greatness during the forthcoming holiday season, look no further than acquiring your very own copy of Gary Giddins, Bing Crosby Swinging On A Star The War Years 1940-46 [New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2018]. Order information is available here.
As to my holiday wish, I hope I’m still around when Gary and the kind people at Little, Brown and Company publish Bing 3!
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