Bing Crosby's Triumphs, Tragedies Rediscovered in New Documentary

Bing Crosby poses for a portrait holding a pipe in his hand in 1948.

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An upcoming PBS documentary seeks to remind younger generations there was so much more to Bing Crosby than crooning "White Christmas" -- from media master to philanthropist to difficult dad.

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"It's an unprecedented career in the history of show business," says Robert Trachtenberg, director of American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered, debuting Tuesday (Dec. 2). "He really was the first multimedia star of the 20th century."

Crosby established his name on radio and stage throughout the 1920s. By the early 1930s, he was a superstar and for more than two decades, placed at or near the top of record charts, radio ratings and movie box office.

He won an Academy Award as best actor for his performance in 1944's Going My Way. He received an honorary Grammy in 1963. His later career included a series of highly rated television specials, a format he helped to pioneer.

Then why does Crosby need rediscovering?

"Dad was a really under-the-radar guy," said his daughter, actress Mary Crosby, in a recent interview. "So, when he died (in 1977 of a heart attack at age 74), we followed in those footsteps. And, of course, it took us about three decades to realize that we had really, really done him a disservice."

About midpoint, Rediscovered segues from Crosby's public to private life, and into an exploration of his excessive partying, tragic first marriage and troubled relationship with the children of that marriage. As the documentary tells it, both Crosby and his wife, actress Dixie Lee, were alcoholics and while he managed the disease, she did not. She died after a battle with ovarian cancer at age 40.

Frequently on the road for work, Crosby wasn't around much for his family. But when he was present, he was by all accounts a strict father. Six years after Crosby's death came the publication of son Gary Crosby's memoir Going My Own Way, which claimed, "I'd get bent over and my pants taken down and beat till I bled."

In the film, Mary Crosby recalls a tense post-publication lunch with her half brother, who, according to the actress, said he was goaded into exaggerating the facts to sell more books.

She was furious. But while one of Gary Crosby's three brothers, Phillip Crosby, publicly refuted the severity of Gary Crosby's claim, Crosby's second wife, Kathryn Crosby and his second crop of children, including Mary Crosby, refused to address the allegations at the time.

"That was a huge, incredible mistake," Mary Crosby says in the film. "Because it's one of the things that people think of when his name comes up. Not this incredible legacy of good deeds and beautiful music, but, `Oh, he's the guy who hit his kids.'"

In her recent interview, the 55-year-old actress said her dad learned from mistakes from his first marriage and first shot at parenthood, which informed his second time around. She recalled a father who was present, attentive and loving.

"He never laid a hand on me," she recalled. "It's important to get that out."

The documentary ultimately lets viewers draw their own conclusions about Bing Crosby's personal life.

But the film's perspective on the Crosby's professional legacy is clear: He was a landmark entertainer, a technological maverick, a colleague who stood up for pals in need.

And, oh yes, he recorded "White Christmas," which went on to become a wistful anthem for anyone pining to be wherever home is for their holidays. Upon its release in 1942, the song was immediately embraced by military serving overseas during World War II. According to Guinness World Records, with 50-million units sold, Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" is the best-selling single of all time.

"When I hear it, I feel such pride and joy," Mary Crosby said. "And not only the memories, but the history, and what that meant to so many. I think it's representative of who he was."