Those were the days: Rising star was jailed, and few knew

Times Staff Writer

Decades before Paris Hilton and voracious media hordes anxiously awaited her release from County Jail, aspiring crooner Bing Crosby was quietly jailed with nary a mention in the newspapers. And after he became a star, his arrest and court records just as quietly vanished.

Crosby, then 27, crashed his car in front of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in November 1929 after a night of drinking. This was during Prohibition, when liquor was illegal.

The incident meant Crosby missed his big break, a solo in Paul Whiteman's 1930 movie musical "The King of Jazz." But he wondered later whether his voice had been suited to the tune -- a flop could have torpedoed his career before it began.

Eventually, he became one of the nation's most beloved entertainers. He won an Oscar in 1944 for "Going My Way." His best known song was "White Christmas," first recorded in 1942. He was also known for his "Road" pictures with Bob Hope and his love of golf.

Although his drunk driving wasn't reported in The Times or other local newspapers, and the records disappeared, the facts are not in dispute.

Crosby himself discussed the incident more than 20 years later. In the early hours of New Year's Day 1950, he was broadcasting on KGIL radio from Ciro's nightclub in Hollywood. Johnny Grant, Hollywood's honorary mayor, was emceeing the program.

"[Crosby] told me the story over the air about how he was flung into 'durance vile' " -- jail -- "something I had never heard of before," Grant said in a recent interview.

The incident is also documented in a 2001 biography by Gary Giddins and in a 1955 Hollywood Reporter article by Crosby's brother, Harry.

Crosby was in town to film the Whiteman musical, a vaudeville-type production produced by Carl Laemmle Jr. at Universal Studios. Crosby's trio, the Rhythm Boys, came west from New York in June 1929 with Whiteman's orchestra.

To make the band feel at home, Universal built a recreational lodge for the 24 musicians on the back lot. Whiteman arranged for each of them to buy a Ford to drive around Los Angeles. Each car included a spare tire cover emblazoned with Whiteman's image.

"We all bought autos -- or at least we made the down payments with money which Pops [Whiteman] advanced to us, then deducted from our salaries," wrote Harry Crosby in the Nov. 15, 1955, Hollywood Reporter. Bing chose a convertible.

While they waited for the script to be finished, Crosby's trio kept busy singing on a radio show sponsored by Old Gold cigarettes, as well as at parties. But the script took longer than expected, so the orchestra and the Rhythm Boys retreated to New York in August.

In late October, they returned for filming.

"Pops had promised me a song, 'Song of the Dawn,' " Harry Crosby quoted his brother as saying. "A verse and two choruses. I rehearsed and rehearsed, then took time out to see the SC-UCLA game."

That was probably a typo, because USC played UCLA in September that year. But Crosby was a fan of St. Mary's College -- SMC -- and the Galloping Gaels, who beat the Bruins 24-0 at the Coliseum on Nov. 16, 1929.

"There was quite a shindig after the game in our studio bungalow, involving some tippling, but not to excess," the quote continued.

Bing evidently drove an unknown party guest to her hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt. There, Bing told his brother, "a car bumped mine after the party," and he was taken to the slammer. The other driver, also allegedly drunk, was arrested too, but his name and what became of him are not known.

"Bing made a left turn into an oncoming car with such force that he and his passenger were knocked over the windshield and onto the pavement. He was fine, but the woman was bloody and unconscious," Giddins wrote in the first volume of his 2001 biography, "Bing Crosby, A Pocketful of Dreams: The Early Years 1903-1940."

"He practically drove through the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel," Bobbe Brox Van Heusen, a singer in Whiteman's film, told Giddins.

"Bing carried her into the Roosevelt lobby, where the house doctor assured him that she was all right," Giddins wrote. The cops nabbed him and the driver of the other car, "who in Bing's account was 'more drunk than he was,' " Giddins said in a recent interview.

Crosby "felt it was an injustice," Giddins said.

From the Lincoln Heights jail, Crosby called a musician friend and told him to bring more blankets because he was cold. He was bailed out a day later.

At his hearing the next week, he came to court "directly from the golf course, wearing green plus-fours, an orange sweater and check socks," Giddins wrote.

The judge didn't take kindly to his attire, nor to his drinking. He asked the singer if he was familiar with the 18th Amendment -- Prohibition.

"Yes, but no one pays much attention to it," Crosby reportedly replied.

Crosby maintained his innocence, claiming he was a victim of a bad driver and a zealous cop. "But it was his brazen court performance," Giddins wrote, that put him in the slammer.

He was sentenced to 60 days.

Crosby fumed in his cell over the severity of his sentence. Laemmle and Whiteman's pleas got him transferred to a jail with a liberal visitation policy that was near the studio. His new jailers apparently agreed to allow two police officers to escort Crosby to the studio during the day and back to jail at night.

But during the two weeks or so that it took to arrange the deal, Whiteman gave Crosby's solo to John Boles, arguing that it was too costly to hold up filming any longer.

Still, according to the Hollywood Reporter article, Crosby told his brother, "I did have a consolation number in the film ... something called 'A Bench in the Park,' " along with his fellow Rhythm Boys. The trio chirped other songs too, including "So the Bluebirds and the Blackbirds Got Together" and "Happy Feet."

Crosby "had to come to the rehearsals with those detectives and he looked so terrible," Van Heusen told Giddins.

It's not clear how Crosby's records were erased, nor how his sentence was calculated, nor whether the judge specified that he serve it all -- but he got out early. "Bing's jail sentence was ultimately reduced by a third and he was released before the New Year," Giddins wrote.

Perhaps he received time off for good behavior. But if the judge did order that he serve the whole sentence, it wouldn't be the first time that jailers ignored judges' orders to keep inmates behind bars for their full term. Nor would it be the first time that studios applied pressure in aid of actors' reputations.

For eight or nine years, Giddins said, he tried to get copies of Crosby's records. "But it's easier to get into the CIA," he said, laughing. "The studios went in there and destroyed them. They just bought them off."

The Times did cover an incident that took place Oct. 11, 1953, at Wilshire and Sepulveda boulevards in which Crosby's Mercedes-Benz hit a fireman's car, injuring the fireman and two others.

Police drove the by-then major star home without performing a sobriety test. No charges were filed -- but he admitted having had four Scotch and waters and a champagne toast.

The fireman's neck was broken, as was one arm, and he was partially paralyzed. He sued Crosby for $1 million but settled for $100,000.

After Crosby became secure in his career, he became philosophical about the 1929 arrest and his loss of the solo, "Song of the Dawn."

"I must say," Crosby told his brother in the Hollywood Reporter article, "[Boles] had a bigger voice and a better delivery for that kind of song than I had, and I often wondered what might have happened to me if I had sung it. I might have flopped with the song. I might have been cut out of the picture. I might never have been given another crack at a song in any picture."

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cecilia.rasmussen@latimes.com

For The Record Los Angeles Times Thursday June 28, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 87 words Type of Material: Correction Bing Crosby: The L.A. Then and Now column in Sunday's California section incorrectly stated that Bing Crosby's brother Harry wrote an article in the 1955 Hollywood Reporter. The article was written by Bing Crosby, using his real name, Harry L. Crosby. Also, the column gave Bing Crosby's age as 27 in November 1929. The year he was born is disputed; in his autobiography, Crosby wrote that he was born in 1904 but acknowledged that other years had been suggested. Biographers and fans continue to debate the point. For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 01, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 88 words Type of Material: Correction Bing Crosby: The L.A. Then and Now column in the June 24 California section said Bing Crosby's brother Harry wrote an article in the 1955 Hollywood Reporter. The article was written by Bing Crosby, using his real name, Harry L. Crosby. Also, the column gave Bing Crosby's age as 27 in November 1929. The year he was born is disputed; in his autobiography, Crosby wrote that he was born in 1904, but he acknowledged that other years had been suggested. Biographers and fans continue to debate the point.
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