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Interview with Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddins

 

photo by Herman Leonard

Gary Giddins, 

author of 

Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940 – 1946

 

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Few Americans have lived a life so momentous as Bing Crosby’s.  His enormous popularity spread across virtually every entertainment medium in existence during his time, particularly during the 1940’s, America’s most consequential 20th Century era.

He was Hollywood’s #1 star, often as romantic lead, at times as charming comic, and, eventually, as the symbol of the country’s moral compass.  As an ingenious radio entertainer, he broke long standing racial, genre and programming boundaries, ultimately leading to a change in the way broadcasts are produced.  His enduring recordings — among the best-selling of all time — were made during the complex era of a strike and a recording ban.  His interest and investment in technology led to recording techniques still in use today.

While his importance as a performer during the 1940’s is well established, perhaps his biggest impact was as an “American.”  His was a unifying voice for the overall war effort through his tireless, critical work as entertainer of Allied troops overseas, and on the home front, where his countless USO tours and selfless personal appearances raised millions of dollars in war bonds.  He was America’s “everyman” who, like Will Rogers before him, was emblematic of the successful, “good” man.

In the second volume of his biography of Crosby, Swinging on a Star: The War Years, 1940 – 1946 (Little, Brown and Company), Gary Giddins, National Book Critics Circle award-winning writer/biographer who for thirty years wrote the “Weather Bird” jazz column in the Village Voice, expertly chronicles Crosby’s life and times from over 300 interviews he conducted for this book, as well as the use of previously unknown letters and other resource materials.  The result is an ambitious, elegant, and superb study of American cultural and societal history with its most popular entertainer of the time at its centerpiece, written by a revered film critic, the most eminent jazz writer of his generation, and, in the opinion of the Wall Street Journal, “the best thing to happen to Bing Crosby since Bob Hope.”  

The following interview with Mr. Giddins about his book — hosted and produced by Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita — was conducted on September 24, 2018.

 

 

 

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photo HLC Properties, Ltd.

Bing Crosby, c. 1940

 

“[The 1940’s] 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.  Whatever frustration, boredom, or despair he experienced he kept hidden.  Even as he contemplated familial and professional ruptures, the public could see only the steadfast strength and reliability 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 tranquility 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.”

– Gary Giddins

 

 

Listen to “Swinging on a Star”

 

 

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JJM  The promotional letter from your publisher announcing the publication of your book starts with four words: “The wait is over.”  It has been 17 years since the publication of Pocketful of Dreams.  You have had a lot of interested readers anticipating this volume, haven’t you?

GG   I hope so. I’d like to tell you I spent each of those 17 years locked in a room with the ghost of Der Bingle. But one must make a living. In the interim I published four other books, including a jazz textbook that’s been through a few editions with a new one coming out next year, as well as hundreds of articles, and I taught for several years, including five wonderful years directing the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center. Still, Crosby was never far from my mind, and I found that patience landed me several interviews previously denied me and much material that turned up in and out of public archives. Biographies have a way of dictating their own timelines. I expect some Crosby fans may be frustrated that Swinging on a Star doesn’t cover the entire second half of his life, but I hope they’ll give it a chance and that the singularity of the story and the way it’s told will earn an audience beyond devoted Bing lovers.  This is the book I most wanted to write and Little, Brown allowed me to do so without any compromise, for which I am very grateful. 

JJM  How much new resource material did you find between the publication of the first volume — A Pocketful of Dreams —  and this book?

GG  So much that it changed my trajectory. The main thing that happened after the first volume came out is that Mrs. Crosby, who had ignored my entreaties in the years it took me to research A Pocketful of Dreams, liked it. She generously invited me to the Crosby home for several days, permitting me to pore over his files, letters, photographs, Dictabelt recordings, the transcripts for Call Me Lucky, quite literally thousands of documents that I transcribed or photocopied.  Crosby was something of a pack rat, which is marvelous for a biographer, as is having the confidence of his widow.  More materials were later found in a storage locker and as those were inventoried by Robert Bader of Crosby Enterprises, my research assistant in Los Angeles would regularly visit Robert’s office, copy stacks of documents and send them to me.  Inevitably, you read through a great deal of dross to find the gems, but the gems proved illuminating and, on several occasions, revelatory. They gave me access to Crosby’s own voice — personal letters, contracts, business dealings — and a perspective far more candid than the one biographers usually construct from public documents and interviews. I read correspondence that, in some if not most instances, had not been read by anyone other than the original recipients.

JJM  So, having access to all this new material influenced your decision to limit Swinging on a Star to the years 1940 – 1946…

GG  Of course. These are the central years of his career, and I always knew they would occupy most of the second volume.  But this new material made me want to write a book exclusively about Crosby and the war years, a story set against the home front, which he helped define and which certainly helped to define him.

There is an early chapter in the book called “Prewar Air War” in which he secretly goes to see the head of Kraft Foods to acknowledge his weariness and dissatisfaction.  That was the first time I encountered Crosby in a slump, a period of irresolution — a new side of him, despite the hundreds of interviews I had done. We know he revolutionized radio after the war, changing a live medium into a recorded one, but his earlier rebellion against the status quo underscored for me a thematic circularity, which is to say that at the outset of the war, he was troubled by some of the same things that occupied him at the end: the tribulations of his marriage, the domesticity imposed by weekly radio, the need to revise his cinematic persona.

The book opens with him asking his wife Dixie for a divorce, a request he soon rescinded, and ends with him alone on a train returning to her after an absence of four months, two spent on his ranch in Elko, Nevada, and two in New York, where he made several significant recordings, conducted a romance, and took his stand against what he considered the tyranny of broadcasting. In a sense, despite the upheaval of war, he ends as he began, and yet the war transformed him profoundly. It occurred to me that, no matter how rich or powerful, we are all prisoners of situations we accept or create.  In Crosby’s case it was his marriage, Catholicism. his professional obligations. I got hooked on circularity — the old commodius vicus of recirculation — as a means of disciplining the narrative.    

JJM  And all of this was in the face of the view Americans had of him.  It was assumed he lived this idyllic life…

GG  In many respects he did, of course, but the fact that he was troubled and that he had doubts was not something he wanted anyone to know. Even more surprising to me than his ennui in the year preceding Pearl Harbor was the extraordinary amount of work he did in support of the war effort.  He traveled some 50,000 miles in those years and made his first trip overseas two months after D-Day, performing in pretty sticky situations. Yet few people beyond the troops themselves knew how really close he was to the front. Kathryn Crosby told me she teared up when she read some of the letters from soldiers who wrote to thank him. So did I. The voices of these men stick in your head.  I’m especially proud of the chapter on France.

But the sheer number of shows he did at training camps in this country is astonishing and much of it was unpublicized, unreported, like the time a general in Southern California asked if he could drop by on Christmas to entertain his men, or when he sang a cappella in a hospital in northern England for the four six-year-olds who barely survived the Freckleton disaster, a tragedy so awful that Churchill ordered the press not to report it for fear of devastating national morale.

It is incredible to me how little has been written about the war from the perspective of the USO. Even Crosby passes over it with hardly a mention in his memoir or postwar interviews. As he repeatedly said to the men he performed for, he didn’t want to be thanked for it; he was there to thank them for risking their lives. And he was indefatigable. Several reporters who covered his more formalized tours described him as heroic, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. The trove of letters he received were not only from men in uniform, but from parents, wives, siblings, and friends of soldiers who were killed. They felt a need to share their grief with Crosby, to bless him and thank him.  Richard Holmes, the British biographer, whose work I venerate, remarked that passages in the book about soldiers listening to “White Christmas” in rapt silence, looking tearfully at their shoes, offered him a new way to look at Americans in the war.  I had a hard time limiting the number of letters reprinted in the book. They preserve a sense of what Bing’s presence meant in those years, when the nation found in him a unifying force that no other performer, other than FDR, possessed.  

JJM  You wrote that Crosby “had more influence on the millions of families routinely huddled around their radios than anyone other than F.D.R.”

GG  Well, he represented something fine about the country that we may have forgotten. We have huge celebrities today but is there anyone you would describe as being beloved, as Crosby was during this period, and indeed over the better part of his 50-year career?  In the earlier book, I write about the deliberateness with which he underscored his ethnicity, his “Irishness,” during the interim before Pearl Harbor, in direct contrast to the demagoguery of Father Coughlin.

Bing provided a voice of decency and reason, yet he wasn’t the least bit sentimental — that is one of his great strengths and one of the things I most admire about him. He is sincere, not mawkish. There is about him an aloofness, a quietly powerful stability that his audience clung to.  I quote a line from a character in W.R. Burnett’s novel High Sierra to that effect. He never got tiresome and he never got pious. The cultural critic Gilbert Seldes, who wrote beautifully about Bing, emphasized the fact that his audience hadn’t tired of him after all those years when he dominated recordings. He remained real, reliable, straightforward.  After Japan surrendered, he went on the air and as others read scripture and puffed themselves up with platitudes, Bing simply said, “What can you say at a time like this, except thank God it’s over?”  At the same time, it exacted a terrific toll on him and his family.  Nothing is free, everybody pays, as the narrator says in Leo Hurwitz’s great 1948 documentary, Strange Victory. Yet, for those of us who grew up with the horrific, divisive home fronts of Vietnam or Iraq, there is something almost cleansing about the one Crosby helped to sustain.

JJM  The very concept of the home front is a critical part of the book…

GG  In biography, as in criticism, context is essential. No one lives in a vacuum of art or work or family. Crosby in the war years is inextricable from the war, from the preparation and fighting, from the fears and losses, from the massive changes in technology, with their sidebar feuds, like the ASCAP strike, which inadvertently launched countless new songwriters working in idioms like country & western and rhythm & blues, or Petrillo’s recording ban, which backfired in that it ended the dominance of bands and the rise of singers.

In 1942, when Archibald MacLeish, the poet, became Director of War Information, he said the principal battleground of the war was not Europe or the South Pacific, but American opinion. Eisenhower agreed, calling the home front “a strategic place,” where the country had to possess a will for victory. Yet among the thousands of World War II books, little attention is focused on the home front after Pearl Harbor frees FDR’s hand. I try to track the shadow of the war throughout the book as counterpoint to Crosby’s story. The first chapter cuts between his private woes and the cultural and political terrain of the period between the invasion of Poland and Pearl Harbor. That terrain maps the route he would traverse as an artist and as a man.  

JJM  He was compared to Will Rogers as a symbol of the good man…

GG  I cite a number of people who compared him to Will Rogers.  We hardly remember Rogers today, but he was widely read and quoted, his movies were hugely successful, and his early death greatly mourned. He represented the public wit as a totem of common sense, standing above the petty bickering. Not surprisingly, David Butler — who had directed some of Rogers’s best-known films — thought that only Crosby could play him in a bio-pic. Paramount and Warner had a tussle over it, so it never happened, although Crosby certainly wanted to do it and even did a screentest that you can find on youtube.  In the late ‘40s, Crosby remade one of Rogers’ most famous films, A Connecticut Yankee.

I suppose the point here is that people were looking back to see who Crosby was comparable to, but at that point he stood out as an irreplaceable original. No one had ruled so many aspects of American entertainment as thoroughly as he did for two decades.  He arrived at the beginning of a new technology, electrical recording and talking pictures.  After the war Bing was prominent in the transition to tape, which he helped to finance. He was a creature of technology who lost his taste for performing live. Yet during the war he did so constantly, to entertain troops or sell war bonds. In 1945 the armed forces magazine Yank polled returning servicemen on who had done the most for morale. Crosby topped the list, ahead of FDR, Eisenhower, everyone. But the very qualities that endeared him to so many people during the Depression and the war, the aloofness, the quiet charm, the easygoing illusion of lazy indifference, dated him.  In the jet age styled by the renewed Sinatra and the juggernaut of rock, Crosby’s imperturbable cool, what I describe as “the virtue of the unflappable,” seemed grandfatherly and irrelevant.

JJM  You wrote, “Marriage was not the only Crosby battleground.  Pervasive dissatisfaction roiled him at thirty-seven, as he reckoned his achievements and the restraints they put on him.  After a fifteen-year ascent from the fringes of vaudeville to the peak of Paramount’s mountain, he felt cramped by the very successes he had struggled to attain.”  What did he want at the outset of the 1940s?

GG  Well, that’s the question.  What did he want?  I don’t think he knew, or, as I write at one point, he knew what he wanted now, but not if he would want the same thing tomorrow. 

It’s important to remember that by the late 1930’s his career began to wane a bit. He hadn’t had a big record in a while, and though he made a memorable movie in 1938 called Sing You Sinners, he didn’t have as much success in 1939.  Then, in 1940, teaming up with Bob Hope, who he had not seen since 1933, he had the surprisingly huge hit The Road to Singapore, which repositioned him as a comic foil, and not just the amusing romantic lead he had been in so many of the earlier films.  He satirized that character. At this point he and Paramount have to be asking, where does a career like this go?  The Road films with Hope create an ideal contrast to his solo pictures: the former are irreverent, madcap, fast, funny; the latter are built around emotional pivots, defining his character as a man fleeing fame and responsibility — three of them have him yearning to hide away in remote inns, a reflection of his dissatisfaction with fame.  

The war turned him around, revived his energy, handed him a mission, creating a new demand for him beyond anything he had experienced. It enabled him to recognize his talent and fame as implements, benign weapons of war that boosted morale and raised many millions of dollars. He felt younger, more energetic, excited about what he could achieve. He so enjoyed getting laughs that on one of their tours, Phil Silvers had to remind him to sing. The press made a big thing of his touring without his movie wig, the scalp doily, as he called it. This was a part of his resolve to appear as himself, a regular guy with a remarkable voice, and not as a Hollywood invention. His wig maker told me that another of his clients, John Wayne, would rather have been shot than be caught bald. Crosby thought it phony to don a toupee to entertain men who risked everything. The two activities he loved most were singing and golf. The fact that he and Hope could go out on a golf course, followed by thousands of spectators, to raise money, singing on the ninth hole and auctioning his tie or his clubs, then go from Army camp to Army camp performing for the most appreciative audiences in the world was a highlight of his life. 

JJM  In 1941, due to the ASCAP strike, Crosby was recording public domain songs like “Nell and I,” “The Old Oaken Bucket” “Old Black Joe” and “Mary’s Got a Grand Old Name.”  What was the effect on his career as a result of having to sing these songs? 

GG  There wasn’t much of an effect — most of the bad songs didn’t sell and were soon forgotten.  Before then, Decca’s Jack Kapp had already repositioned Crosby from the Prohibition-era jazz hipster and heartthrob balladeer to an all-purpose interpreter of Americana, acknowledging few stylistic borders. He could handle 19th century songs that his rivals wouldn’t touch with a pole and interpret them with tremendous feeling. 

I focus on a few of them, like “Beautiful Dreamer,” which the critic Otis Ferguson thought was the way Stephen Foster would have wanted to hear it. Another example, and one of my favorite Crosby recordings, is “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi,” an impossibly sentimental frat song from early in the century, which he turns into a remarkably powerful performance, a de facto art song. 

As I’ve said, the ASCAP strike, which was stupid and unnecessary, launched something great in the formation of BMI as a major competitor to ASCAP, uncovering countless new songwriters, mostly from the South.  One of the first country songs Crosby recorded was by Cindy Walker, a teenager whose career he launched.  She became a major figure in country music — Willie Nelson recorded an album of her songs, crediting her as an inspiration.  Crosby also helped the career of Louis Jordan by recording a couple of duets with him and establishing “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby” as a mainstream hit; another record, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” made with the Andrews Sisters, that I would put on my short list of Crosby’s great recordings.  So, this was a crucial moment in American music, kicking off a transformation from songs created for Broadway and movies to songs that reflected local, often rural, tastes that became part of the national fare. His influence was decisive because he embraced every idiom as though he were born to it.    

JJM   His radio show was unique in the diversity of performers he had as guests…

GG There was nothing else like it then or ever.  The number of opera singers he had, the number of classical musicians.  We have a remote control, but in those days, people sat close to the radio and reached out to twirl the knob if they were the least bit bored.  So, how do you make people listen to classical music in great numbers?  He made it fun — he would have somebody come on and play a short, serious piece on cello, and then have the same musician duet with him on a pop song. He didn’t make it pretentious, didn’t oversell it, didn’t present classical music or jazz as if they were musical vitamins that would make you a better person. He made it all fun. Among jazz musicians, he presented Armstrong, of course, and Art Tatum, Wingy Manone; Ellington was a regular guest, and so was Ella Fitzgerald, whom he revered. He was one of the first to champion Nat Cole, when he was still known as a dazzling pianist. At the same time, he had singers like Paul Robeson and, as regular cast members, Connee Boswell, Mary Martin, Peggy Lee, Judy Garland, and the Charioteers, a Gospel-based R&B vocal group that injected tremendous energy into the show.

JJM  You wrote that the scene in which Crosby’s Holiday Inn character, Jim Hardy, tries out his latest creation “White Christmas” as a “transitional moment for the Crosby persona.” How so? 

GG  Even film buffs have forgotten Crosby’s 1930’s films, in part because Universal hasn’t done much to make them available. They aren’t among TMC’s holdings. But he had played a range of characters far different from the ones that emerged during the war. In The Big Broadcast, which made him a film star, he plays an alcoholic.  In Sing You Sinners he gambles away his family’s savings and makes a pass at his brother’s fiancé.  Several of these characters are neither amiable nor admirable, although they usually undergo a transformation, and we remain sympathetic to them.

But in Holiday Inn, though he is remote, devious, and obstinate, he emerges as somebody very solid, a figure of quiet strength and accountability.  Even though the screenplay of Holiday Inn is filled with betrayals as he and Fred Astaire compete for the Marjorie Reynolds character, the film is in effect a transitional vehicle leading to the Leo McCarey films, where he becomes solid-as-a-rock, an Uber mensch, a miracle worker who remains, paradoxically, very understated, average, and non-judgmental. Filmgoers are often surprised that the mother in Bells of St. Mary’s is a sympathetically characterized prostitute. Yet, as Mary Gordon observed in her essay on Father O’Malley, he doesn’t attempt to convince her to try another profession nor does he condescend to her.  The Production Code Administration’s Joe Breen protested this setup, but McCarey held firm.  I doubt he could have prevailed with any actor other than Crosby. 

JJM  You called the character that he played a “fantasy priest — a perfect, albeit celibate, man…Liberated from romance, venality, and vainglory but not from intrigue and statecraft, Father O’Malley emerged as a superhuman fount of liberal wisdom, empathy, and action. As emblematic of the war years as Atticus Finch was to the civil rights era, O’Malley represented a righteousness people could feel and believe in.”  There had to have been risk in him taking on this role…

GG  The risks were tremendous in the view of Paramount.  Leo McCarey said that an executive asked him how much of his own money he had invested and offered to repay him and add a hefty bonus if he would cease production on Going My Way.  They were afraid not only that the film would tank — they figured nobody would want to see the crooner as a priest — but that it would permanently diminish his value as a star. McCarey first offered the film to RKO, which rejected it outright on the assumption that Crosby would be ridiculed, and Catholics would be up in arms. After Going My Way opened to sensational reviews and broke box office records all around the country, they continued to underestimate its appeal, which greatly increased with the return of millions of servicemen and the even greater success of Bells of St. Mary’s. Crosby and McCarey realized that the turned-around collar was a perfect disguise, increasing the power of Crosby’s persona, emphasizing a masculine security at once safe and beguiling. He never liked playing a lover on screen anyway. From the moment he appears, white collar and straw boater, asking for directions to the strangely spectral church, he is relaxed, amusing, confident, and in charge. It’s a wonderfully graceful performance.    

JJM  How did his role as Father O’Malley create complexity in his real life? 

GG  I suppose people expected him to be perfect.  When he had his affair with the actress Joan Caufield, he went to see Cardinal Spelman, who told him you are Father O’Malley and Father O’Malley cannot be divorced.  The role gave him gravity as an actor, though to his credit he took risks in subsequent roles, playing alcoholics, a cruel father, and a serial killer. After his death, he became an irresistible target of people gleefully charging that he wasn’t really a saint, a claim he never made and that his films and memoirs certainly don’t make. You know, everything that was said about Crosby was said about Henry Fonda, only worse, but fans shrugged it off.  Fonda was a brilliant actor who did not have to measure up to Father O’Malley.  The same with Sinatra, who was always considered to be dark and edgy, so whatever he did was chalked up as “Sinatra being Sinatra.”  For that matter, no one went to see The Miracle of the Bells, in which Frank takes his turn as a priest.

 

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