“‘I can never forget my amazement at seeing young men snatched out of civilian life…thrown into the most rugged assignment in the world and delivering and doing a great job’. Nothing in (Crosby’s) life…gave him as much ‘pride and satisfaction’ as making those ‘guys happy for a few moments at a time they sorely needed [it]’.”
Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star, The War Years, 1940 – 1946 by Gary Giddins (2018)
It was a quote from Artie Shaw used by Gary Giddins for the first of his two works on Bing Crosby but I’ll use it again here because it’s so apropos; “the thing you have to understand about Bing Crosby is that he was the first hip white person born in the United States”.
Scholar Giddins has done another cracking job telling the legendary story of Bing Crosby. Part One, 2001’s A Pocketful of Dreams, was written without the blessing of the Crosby family but when they read Giddins’ book, they reached out to him, inviting him to enjoy unprecedented access to Crosby’s extensive archives.
The result is Part Two, an in-depth look at Crosby’s ascension to the heights of public adoration, the likes of which hadn’t been seen before or since. The spine of this story is Crosby’s trips overseas during the Second World War, his many performances from the backs of flatbed trucks or in quonset huts outside of which shells dropped and gunfire rang out. What really stands out, though, is Giddins’ reporting on Bing’s interaction with the troops, his Regular Joe demeanour with them and most remarkably his later correspondence with them and their families. Once Bing was back Stateside, mothers would often send him letters asking if he had ran into their boys on the battlefield. Bing responded to most every letter, often with pertinent and reassuring information for the parents waiting back home.
Letters to the Editor went out to newspapers across the United States asking for the submission of letters from any veterans who had encountered Crosby overseas during the war. Giddins quotes one in its entirety from a man in North Carolina. Robert J. Mauney wrote to the General Headquarters of the American Legion a letter that described a performance in France by Bing and his troupe. The letter talks of Bing giving a performance near the front lines and announcing from the stage that he wanted enlisted men down front; “I do my shows for you the men. I don’t reserve any space for officers” Bing also asked the men not to applaud after each song as it was the men doing a job for him. A G.I. came up on stage and whispered in Crosby’s ear. The Germans are headed this way, Bing announced and apologized that he couldn’t finish the show. That battalion conquered a German division the next day. Mr. Mauney ends his letter in touching fashion that perhaps sums up Bing’s war work; “I wish I could have written to Mr. Crosby and told him how much it meant to me for his group coming that close to the front lines to entertain us. Please excuse the misspelling and blunders. I was up front for 248 days. Was wounded 3 times, injured 8 times, in a jeep wreck. Bad nerve condition, shake a lot, lost hearing. I am 85 years, 7 months old. I do the best that I can with what I have left…I can’t tell you the joy Mr. Crosby gave to me by coming and singing” It’s this type of personal remembrance that Giddins draws on that gives this story such humanity. And it shows the incredible impact of Bing during the war.
Swinging on a Star goes a long way throughout its almost-700 pages towards explaining many pertinent elements of Crosby’s storied career. For example, it tackles the sticky topic of Bing performing on film in blackface. Giddins takes a dispassionate look at this topic and presents two biases towards it. The first is “apologetic but unrepentant”. The effrontery of blackface is understood but it is mentioned that it was a practice engaged in by both whites and blacks. Oscar Wilde is quoted in reference to the truth that can be told by a man wearing a mask and it is reported that blackface was a useful means by which a novice performer could overcome stage jitters.
And then there is the bias that is “unforgiving”. Blackface is a form of racism and while it may have faded as the ’40’s wore on it actually just gave way to black actors being subjected to playing butlers and maids, etc. Giddins offers the statistic that between 1940 and 1946, 60 feature films and shorts included a blackface number in some way, shape or form but in almost all the cases it was not a serious presentation of valid entertainment and the scenes were directed mainly at children. Finally, it is reiterated that Crosby is credited with fracturing the colour barrier on radio and came from jazz where black and white mingled easily. There is much to be learned on this topic in Swinging on a Star, much that can be useful particularly every Christmas when Holiday Inn is shown on TV the discussion rises again.
Giddins also stays neutral and sticks to the facts when discussing Crosby’s parenting. He references Gary Crosby’s infamous 1983 biography that presents Papa Bing in an unfavourable light. He counters some of Gary’s more outrageous claims with Gary’s own correspondence from the past that sometimes tends to refute his perhaps more bitter claims later in life; Giddins will quote vitriol from Gary Crosby’s book and then show through Gary’s own letters written as a youth contradictory thoughts and feelings. But Bing was particularly hard on Gary regarding his son’s weight. The fact that Bing himself had battled weight-gain and indeed worn corsets in earlier films did not conjure up feelings of empathy.
“No evidence exists in Bing’s interviews or letters that he perceived any incongruity in his failure to bring to his son the compassion, forbearance, and regard he brought to tens of thousands of uniformed sons he selflessly entertained. Unconditional love, or its expression, had no particular part to play in the moral science that was parenting”
While Bing is quoted in the press of the day saying he favoured a “good, old spanking routine”, he was always depicted by the papers as a model dad. But there was a vast schism between being “paternally generous with legions of strangers” while “his sons had to control their manners, control their weight, succeed in class and on the field”. Gary for one “believed he could never measure up”. The general conclusion reached is one that paints Bing as a fairly typical father of mid-century; being a hard disciplinarian but perhaps not the monster he was portrayed as being.
There are nuggets like how the “Road” movies saved Bing’s film career as they presented the only type of role he could pull off; Crosby could not be sold in a romantic melodrama, a western or a film noir. There’s his quiet and genteel affair with actress Joan Caulfield – which consisted of meetings chaperoned by Joan’s mother – while Bing’s wife, Dixie, stayed at home and drank. There’s the colossal dual assault of the song “White Christmas” and Bing’s portrayal of Father O’Malley in Going My Way that are both dissected, the verdict being that these two achievements put Bing in a truly rarefied air and it was at this time that the public took him forever to their bosom. Giddins reports that “White Christmas” required no promotion at all to become a hit. Incredible sales figures are quoted as well as author Irving Berlin saying “The song seems to have a quality that can be applied to the world situation as it exists today”. It isn’t a war song, he said, “but it can easily be associated with it”. As for the album Merry Christmas – the mother of all Christmas records – it “set the table” for all the Christmas music to come and presented a “compulsory challenge to generations of performers” to record Christmas music as well.
And I was amazed to learn about the two sisters, young fans of Bing’s who followed him around New York City. He noticed them and confronted them, eventually becoming friendly with them. These two girls are so significant to the story that their diaries and letters from Bing became useful tools that helped Giddins piece together much of the story of Crosby during this time. And what about the seemingly delightful musical Blue Skies being described by Martin Scorsese as “dark” and Bing making a point to tell his songwriters never to have him sing “I love you”; Bing’s records at this time were unique in their lack of emotion. It made them safe listening during a time of war. This may give me a hint about my sometimes ambivalent feeling towards Bing’s recorded output, particularly starting at the dawn of the 1950’s. I often feel underwhelmed and it may be because, as a result of Bing’s not wanting to be expressive in his music, his catalogue lacks some depth while at the same time being infinitely enjoyable.
I can highly recommend Swinging on a Star. It is very thorough and heavy – in more ways than one; I weighed the book. 2 pounds, 6 ounces. This book, though, provides everything you need to know about Crosby’s achievement of a nation’s adoration.
**Head over to Koop Kooper’s Cocktail Nation website to hear me review this book as part of my monthly series Words With Wellsy**