Bing Crosby was one of the most celebrated, influential and beloved American Entertainers of the 20th century. He’s best known for his hit recordings of songs like “White Christmas” and ‘Don’t Fence Me In”. He was also a very accomplished actor starring in films such as the “Road” series alongside Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour and Going My Way. Which earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor in 1944.
Just as his career was starting to pick up steam; he married the love of his life, actress and singer Dixie Lee in 1930.
Dixie Lee was born Wilma Winifred Wyatt in Harriman, Tennessee on November 4, 1909. Her father’s name was Evan Wyatt and her mother was Nora Scarborough. After her family moved to Chicago when she was still a teenager she attended and graduated from Senn High School.
When she was in her late teens, she started singing, performing and even won a talent contest put on by the city of Chicago. While in college she chose the stage name Dixie Lee and signed a contract with Fox in 1920.
1920 was a big year for her in more ways that one. Not only did she star in several films but that was also the same year that she met her husband-to-be Bing Crosby. Just a year later and they were married. Together they helped raise four children – all boys.
Unfortunately, between the two of them, only one of their careers was likely to take off. Bing’s fame was quickly growing so Lee decided that it was best for her and her family to stay at home as a homemaker to raise the kids.
Crosby’s Life Was Often Lonely
Lee officially retired from show biz in 1935 not long after she gave birth to her four boys – Gary, Phillip, Lindsay, and Dennis. In 1936 she recorded two songs with Bing; ‘A Fine Romance’ and ‘The Way You look Tonight’. But after that Lee virtually disappeared out of the public eye entirely.
Once she was out of the spotlight, she hit the bottle pretty heavily. While Bing was out gallivanting across the globe on tour with his music and acting in films. His wife was back home, sad, alone, and drinking herself to death.
According to the 2014 PBS Documentary Bing Crosby Rediscovered. Lee’s drinking negatively impacted both her marriage and her relationship with her children; Especially with the twins Phillip and Dennis. It’s suspected that the twin boys subject to fetal alcohol syndrome based upon examinations of their physical appearance.
Subsequent analysis of photos of those tow boys by healthcare performed by specialists at the University of Southern California have lent credence to this theory.
Sadly, Lee never managed to get a handle on her drinking. She died young of ovarian cancer on November 1, 1952, just a few days before her 43rd birthday.
What About Bing?
Bing Crosby was born in Tacoma, Washington in 1903. He was the fourth of seven children. Bing first discovered his love for music when he was just six years old when he purchased his first phonograph player.
He lead a relatively normal life in middle-class America for a while. By the time he was in college; Crosby had already abandoned his desire to become a lawyer; and instead set his sights on finding success in the entertainment industry.
In 1930, he landed his first film role in King of Jazz and shortly thereafter he launched his very own radio show which drew in roughly 50 million listeners at it’s height. Despite all of the success that ensued. Crosby’s life filled with highs and lows, successes and failures, and his fair share of hardships and struggles.
The public saw him as their A-list golden boy. Always topping the charts, with hit after hit after hit, but his private life was tumultuous at best and almost always some shade of tragic.
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Larynigitis Is Said To Have Aided His Career
Bing’s early career back in the mid-20s saw him performing in a little group called The Rhythm Boys. It was around this time that his love affair with Jazz music really started to take hold. That’s when he developed his scat-singing skills and honed his jazz-style phrasing. By the 1930s, copycats were already popping up trying to make a buck off of his signature sound. You even had legends like Perry Como and Dean Martin going out of their way to imitate Bing’s unmistakable style.
Back then, everyone wanted to sound like Bing Crosby. You either were a high-Crosby and pulled it off or a low-Crosby and just sounded like a second-rate johnny-come-lately.
Something happened though when Bing was rising to the top that almost derailed all of his plans. A battle with Laryngitis nearly ruined his entire career. If you listen to any of his early records from the 20s or 30s you can hear a very distinct hoarseness in his voice. It sounded somewhat strained.
The bout with Laryngitis left him with a node of scar tissue on one of his vocal cords. 1931, Bing’s doctors told him that he should stay-put and rest for a bit. But instead of heeding their advice he refused and continued to sing, drink to excess, smoke and do further damage to his body.
It was in the mid-30s, that Bing’s voice became lower as a direct result of his lifestyle choices. After losing his ability to hit high-notes, he stopped scatting and instead focused on ballads with more wide-spread marketable appeal. Just like that, he became what some called ‘the voice of the nation’. In a round-about way, the Laryngitis actually helped his career. That being said, his newfound popularity had disastrous effects on his home life.
13 Years Of Marriage Went Up In Flames
After Dixie Lee retired from her acting career; the Crosby family moved to Taluca Lake, Las Angeles to raise their kids on a beautiful estate which sprawled across four acres of prime property.
Tragedy struck in 1943 when a fire completely destroyed their family home and the majority of the personal possessions that they had collected in the 13 years of marriage leading up to it. Estimated damages sustained by that blaze put somewhere in the $250,000 range. Adjusted for inflation, those damages would equate to about $3.8 million in today’s dollar.
The fire started after Lee and her sons were taking down Christmas Tree decorations. A short circuit created a spark that ignited the entire tree in a matter of seconds. The house was completely ablaze in minutes. The damages from that event were catastrophic on many different levels. Crosby lost all of his trophies, awards, and all of his master musical recordings.
Fortunately no one killed in the fire, but Dixie Lee never really recovered from the trauma she experienced that day.
Bing Crosby Was An Absent Father
We already touched on how Dixie Lee would drink herself into a stupor every time that Bing would leave the house. Their kids would often come home to find their mother passed out on the kitchen floor. That’s scarring for anyone to witness, but Bing also was somewhat culpable in the neglect of his family.
Speaking with Barbara Walters in 1977, Bing Crosby acknowledged that he wasn’t much a part of his boys lives when they were young. He always busy, making three or four films a year; hosting his radio show, recording his albums and all the while his boys were shipped off to boarding schools.
Crosby also obsessed with the idea that his kids would for some reason grow up corrupted in some kind of way. His son Gary Crosby recalls how his dad always used to say that he didn’t want any ‘Hollywood’ kids in the house. He’s scared to death at the idea of his kids growing up to be rich and snobby. But Bing’s neurotic obsession, albeit good-intentioned, only pushed his boys further away.
By the time he married his second wife, Kathryn Grant; he found a bit more balance between juggling his career and spending time with his family. Once his work became less of a priority in his life, his relationship with his flesh-and-blood greatly improved.
But Was He A Dysfunctional Father ?
Throughout his life, Crosby always presented an image of himself to the world that keenly crafted and idyllic. His second wife Kathryn Crosby summed it up succinctly when she said that ‘Everyone in the world was in love with Bing Crosby’.
There were really only two camps of people back then; those that absolutely obsessed with Bing and those that saw him as just some kind of ultra-square pop crooner. It didn’t matter how you perceived him, one thing was always crystal clear. Bing Crosby was completely harmless, right?
After his death in 1977, his public image took a major hit after his oldest son Gary Crosby published a tell-all memoir called Going My Own Way. In the book, Gary describes his father’s abusive tendencies in depth. The public’s perception of Bing’s character forever tarnished. Even though Gary’s younger brother, Phillip denied the claims made in the book, the damage already done.
Bing Crosby’s One Big Regret
Regardless of whether all the claims in Gary’s book were true, there is one thing that readers can take away from that controversial volume. Bing Crosby had a terrible way of expressing his emotions. This is something that Barbara Walters touched on in that 1977 interview as well.
When she asked him about his emotions and his reported lack of ability to express them. Bing shrugged off the question and called himself a ‘surface fella’. His second wife, Kathryn however can personally attest to the fact that her late husband was always lacking in the emotional expression department. According to her, by the time his son, Harry, was four, he had already replaced hugging him with shaking his hand.
Shortly after he passed away in August 1977, Bing’s youngest boy, Nathaniel gave an interview with The Express where he shared his father’s last moments while having a heart attack out on the golf course.
Instead of telling his son that he loved him, Bing’s last worlds were simply something to the effect of “That was a great game of golf, fellas”. But Nathaniel wasn’t at all surprised by this. Never once in his life did Bing ever tell either of children that he loved them. That just wasn’t something that was in his vernacular.
The world lost a legend in 1977 when Bing Crosby taken out by that heart attack, but he had already effectively made his mark on the worlds of film and music. Digging in deeper looking at stars personal lives often reveals startling truths that a lot of people don’t consider when daydreaming about being rich and famous.
It’s not always all it’s chalked up to be. In many ways being famous, or even being related to a celebrity, can be a lot like serving out some kind of prison sentence. Show Biz asks a lot from you and when you’re trying to balance those obligations with family life, something always suffers in the process. For Bing’s wife, Dixie Lee, her health was that sacrifice and their children had to grow up without a father.
If you had the chance, would you want to be a star knowing full well all the risks involved or are you content with your quiet little life outside of the limelight? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.
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