For more than 30 years Bing Crosby was a giant in the music world, a radio star, a movie star, a world famous golf enthusiast and a television tradition.
Those over 40 probably know him for his evergreen Christmas movie, “White Christmas,” but little else. PBS’ “American Masters” hopes to change that with “Bing Crosby Rediscovered,” a documentary by Robert Trachtenberg premiering Tuesday and encoring on Dec. 26.
Old timers remember Crosby also fathered two families: four boys with his first wife and two boys and a girl with his second. It was a shock when his oldest son, Gary, wrote a book and depicted his father as a cruel disciplinarian.
But Crosby never held anything back from the public, insists Trachtenberg. “In the mid-’50s, Bing says, ‘I disciplined these boys.’ ... You have to put it into context of the time. Corporal punishment, spanking your kids was the norm. Bing says it in his autobiography. Bing says it in interviews throughout the ’50s. ‘I disciplined the kids. Maybe I was too hard on them.’ He’s completely transparent about it, so it’s interesting what the public chooses to remember and to forget and then remember again, because he never kept anything back.”
His younger children, Harry, Nathaniel and Mary, all say he was a kind and loving parent. “He was an unbelievable father for different reasons, but he really concentrated on us one-on-one,” says Nathaniel, who is a golfer.
“With Harry, it was hunting and taking him to the duck club on the weekends. With me we shared our love of sports together,” recalls Nathaniel.
Mary Crosby, best known as the actress who plugged J.R. on “Dallas,” says he was a wise and gentle father. “He actually gave me specific advice as a child. ... I was pretty young. I was maybe 8. And we were always included in adult functions. We were never, like, seen and not heard. ... And Dad said to me, he said, ‘You know, you’re really smart, but if you talked less and listened more, you might be smarter.’ And it was advice that I hold to this day.”
His son Harry, a guitarist and businessman, says his father would sneak him out of school on Fridays at noon so they could go duck hunting for the weekend.
The mother of the three, the former Kathryn Grant was a contract player at Paramount when they met. “I was 18 years old. I was walking down to the drama department with a bunch of horsehair petticoats and my tennis racket, which had the brace on it, and I was just walking down the road, and I heard this voice behind me say, ‘Hi, Tex. What’s your hurry?’ ... He invited me for a cup of tea, and we went across the street to Lucy’s and had a cup of hot tea, which I thought was the most romantic thing that had ever happened to anybody.”
Crosby and comedian Bob Hope were not only a riotous hit in their “Road” pictures, they were close friends. “When they would do the ‘Road’ movies, during lunch they would go to Lakeside and play golf,” says Mary Crosby. “And the A.D. (assistant director) had to come retrieve them off the golf course to get them to go back to work. And so they were very, very dear friends. And the day Dad died was, as Mom says ...”
“It was the only day Bob left a show,” recalls Kathryn Crosby. “He was supposed to do a charity show in New York, and the word came through that Bing had died. And he just said, ‘Get me out of here,’ because it was the first time he had ever missed a show.”