From the Archives: Bing Crosby Dies at 73 on Golf Course
Bing Crosby, who began life as a penny-grubbing grammar school truant and sang and acted his way to riches and into the hearts of millions all over the world, died of a heart attack Friday at a golf course just outside Madrid. He was 73.
Crosby’s career was one of the most successful in the history of show business. He made 58 motion pictures, broadcast an untold number of radio shows and sold more than 300 million records.
The performer, known affectionately to three generations of fans as Bing in the English-speaking world, Der Bingle in Germany and El Bingo in Spanish-speaking nations, would have had no complaint on the manner in which he left the world.
He collapsed while walking to the locker room at the La Moraleja golf club after completing an 18-hole round. He and a Spanish champion had defeated two other Spanish champions by one stroke.
Crosby’s passion for golf nearly equaled his love of performing. And he was “happy and singing” during the 4 1/2-hour trek around the course Friday, one of his golfing partners said.
He was pronounced dead on arrival at the Red Cross Hospital in the Spanish capital. A physician listed the cause of death as a heart attack on the death certificate.
Crosby was in Spain for relaxation, hunting and golf after recently finishing a tour of Britain, where he had performed to a sell-out audience in the London Palladium.
He was stricken as he and the other members of the foursome — Manuel Pinero, Valentin Barrios and Cesar de Zulueta — were walking toward the clubhouse. Crosby and Pinero had been matched against Barrios and De Zulueta.
“We had just finished the 18th hole and were walking toward the clubhouse when Bing had a seizure and fell,” Barrios said. “We thought he had just slipped. He injured his head slightly when he fell.
“We took him into the clubhouse and he was given oxygen and cardiac tonic injections, but nothing could be done.
“Bing has shown no signs of fatigue. He was happy and singing as we went around the course.”
Barrios said Crosby did not utter a sound as he fell.
“There were no last words,” the Spaniard said.
Pinero, Crosby’s partner, said he and the singer were laughing and joking, “happy that we had won,” when “all of a sudden Bing dropped and remained on the ground. We carried him to the clubhouse, but it was already too late.”
Crosby’s wife, Kathryn, had left her husband in London Wednesday night and flown home to their estate in Hillsborough on the peninsula south of San Francisco.
Mrs. Crosby was at a recording studio in San Francisco Friday afternoon when she received a telephone call from U.S. Ambassador to Madrid Wells Stabler, who informed her that her husband had died.
She immediately returned to her home in Hillsborough by automobile. She drove slowly up the incline leading to the estate, her eyes red and her face wet with tears. She did not say a word as she walked past reporters into the house.
But a little while later, trying hard to control her emotions, she came outside and talked to reporters on a patio. Her son, Nathaniel, 15, sat next to his mother and held her hand beneath a marble patio table.
“I can’t think of any better way for a golfer who sings for a living to finish the round,” Mrs. Crosby said.
“He’s always been a very simple man. I think he is remembered in songs, isn’t he? I think that’s the way it should be.”
Mrs. Crosby said she had had a telephone call from one of the men who had been playing golf with her husband, apparently Pinero, and that he told her Crosby had died in the locker room — not on the 17th hole as reported earlier.
“He told me that Bing had a very good round.” said Mrs. Crosby, smiling with tears in her eyes. “I’d like that to be said.”
She said her husband apparently suffered a massive heart attack and “was in only a moment’s distress, if any.”
Mrs. Crosby said her husband’s recent performance in the London Palladium was a test of his recovery from a bad fall and back injury he incurred last March in Pasadena while filming a show commemorating his 50th year in show business.
Crosby’s funeral will be held in Los Angeles, his wife said. Their other son, Harry, 19, and Alan Fisher, the family’s former butler, were to fly from England to Spain to accompany the body to Los Angeles.
Mrs. Crosby said the body would probably arrive in Los Angeles Monday and that Crosby would be buried in the family plot with his mother, father and first wife.
Crosby was a devout Roman Catholic and will be buried after a funeral Mass.
In Madrid, U.S. consular officials said Crosby’s body would be taken today to the American air base at Torrejon, outside Madrid, where a mortician being flown in from the United States would prepare the body for the flight to Los Angeles.
They said an autopsy would be performed at the base.
Mrs. Crosby said her husband was to take part in a benefit at the London Palladium on Nov. 21 to raise funds for the Queen’s Charities.
She said fans in England could send memorial contributions there and that American fans could contribute to the Bing Crosby Fund at Pebble Beach, which aids hospitals and provides student loans.
Mrs. Crosby said her husband’s funeral will be “a low Mass only” but that she fears it will be larger than he wanted.
“He wanted only the children and myself, but I think there are those who worshiped him for 40 years who have a right to be there,” she said.
They include his driver, business manager, agent and “the girls in the office.”
Crosby’s popularity never waned during the 50 years he was a performer.
In an American personality poll in the 1940s, he beat out Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, President Harry S. Truman and the Pope for the rating of the most popular man in the world.
His trademarks were his pipes, golf clubs, race horses and colorful sports shirts.
He sang in a rich Irish baritone and, especially during his early days, interspersed his ballads with “bub-bub-bub-boo” and a variety of whistling.
His theme song, “When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day,” was known everywhere.
He won an Academy Award in 1944 for his portrayal of a priest in the film “Going My Way.”
But his favorite movie, he once said, was “High Society,” which he made in 1956 with Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Louis Armstrong.
During the depression, when Crosby already was a millionaire, he made life a little more bearable for his fellow man by playing such movie roles as a poor street troubadour in “Pennies From Heaven” and a hard-pressed cab driver in “East Side of Heaven.”
His recordings of “Silent Night” and Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” still top the best-seller charts at Christmastime.
He made a series of “Road” pictures with Bob Hope, which resulted in a close and warm friendship with the comedian. The two never missed a chance to trade insults.
There is no way of estimating just how many millions of dollars Crosby earned during his long career, but he was without doubt one of show business’ wealthiest figures.
Crosby was always generous with his money, though, giving freely to charities and to individuals who needed help.
In London Friday night, for example, Illtyd Harrington, a leading member of the Greater London Council, disclosed that Crosby gave all the money he earned in Britain last year to youth charities there.
Harrington said Crosby showed a great interest in children from London’s working-class East End and recently spent a day at a school there with his wife.
Crosby had hoped to hold a charity concert in the Westminster Roman Catholic Cathedral in the near future, Harrington said.
He liked to joke about impecunious days as a youngster in Tacoma and Spokane, Wash., when he used to skip school to sell papers, collect soft drink bottles for the deposit and even work in a pickle factory.
He claimed with pride that he had been well known to truant officers in Tacoma and Spokane.
“Dad was in hock most of the time,” he once said.
“As soon as he finished paying for a sewing machine, he’d buy a Victrola, or lawnmower, or one of us would need new clothes.
“We soon found out there wasn’t a lot of money on hand for baseball bats or sodas. Whatever we got, we earned.”
Crosby kept working right up to the end. Although he was more or less in semi-retirement, he did not like to think so.
“I’m enjoying life too much.” he said a few years ago as his professional activities slowed up. “I can’t quit now.”
It was undoubtedly a great disappointment for Crosby to die without saying a word, for he loved to reminisce about what his forebears had to say when they died.
His father, he said, simply cried out, “I’m going home!”
Crosby had a more elaborate story which he embellished with Irish brogue, about his grandmother’s death:
“Katie, my grandmother, married an Irishman name Dennis Harrigan. On her deathbed Dennis sat nearby watching for some sign of recognition.
“Just before the end, her eyes opened and she said, ‘Give me your had, Dinnis.’
“He put his hand in hers and said, ‘Katie, it’s a hand that was never raised against ye.’
“Katie’s eyes opened wider. ‘And it’s a domn good thing for ye it wasn’t,’ she said. The she died.”
Just before the start of the third World Series game at Dodger Stadium Friday night, the crowd of nearly 56,000 stood for a moment of silence in tribute to Crosby.
A whole generation had grown up knowing the name “Bing Crosby” — but having no strong idea of just who or what it meant.
For their parents — and grandparents — however, it was a household word; an accepted standard for the ultimate in show business success. Bing Crosby was a legend in his own time ...
He was born Harry Lillis Crosby, May 2, 1903, in Tacoma, the fourth of the seven children of Harry Lowe Crosby, a brewery bookkeeper, and Kate Harrigan Crosby. The family moved to Spokane in 1910.
The elder children were Larry, Everett and Ted; the younger, Catherine, Mary Rose and Bob.
Harry Lillis became “Bing” about the time of the move to Spokane. He said it was because he liked a comic strip character named “Bingo.” The name stuck when he began classes at Webster Elementary School and continued when he graduated to high school.
In high school, Bing played basketball, handball and football — and later, semipro baseball for a Spokane laundry team — and took part in elocution contest. The latter interest gave his parents the idea he would make a good lawyer, and he later studied law for three years at Gonzaga University.
But he did not become a lawyer.
Crosby had never studied music formally, but during his first year of college he got a set of drums for Christmas and soon joined his friend, Al Rinker, in a band called the Musicaladers. Within a year or so, he noticed he was making more money with the band than at the law form where he was a clerk.
So, in 1924, he and Rinker bought an old car, tapped elder brother Larry (who was by then a newspaper reporter) for eating money, and headed for Los Angeles.
They played vaudeville dates around the country for nearly two years, then joined another singer, Harry Barris, to form the Rhythm Boys — and were hired by bandleader Paul Whiteman.
They toured with Whiteman for three years. Bing’s first movie appearance was in Whiteman’s “King of Jazz” in 1930. But when the band moved east for a long stay, they decided to stay in California.
The Rhythm Boys joined bandleaders Gus Arnheim at the Cocoanut Grove, and became well known to the Hollywood crowd that frequented the night club in those days.
Mack Sennett spotted Crosby there one night and signed him for a series of short subjects to be distributed by Paramount.
In these 20-minute releases, Crosby was first heard by a wide audience singing “I Surrender, Dear,” “Just One More Chance,” and “The Blue of the Night,” which became his perennial theme song.
The short subjects led to Crosby’s first record contract, with Brunswick, and when Brunswick was taken over by Decca, he continued with the firm.
He met his first wife, Dixie Lee (nee Wilma Winifred Wyatt) in 1929 when she came to the Montmartre, a Los Angeles nightclub where he was appearing. Miss Lee was then a rising star at Fox Studios.
“Everyone warned her against marrying me,” the crooner later recalled. “They said she’d be supporting me the rest of her life. But I proposed while we were eating chicken dinner at the Grove and she said okay — and that’s how it was.”
But the newspaper still misspelled his name when reporting the marriage, and Crosby said this was one reason he “settled down to work a little” in order to “get equal billing, at least.”
He began singing on CBS radio, and performed for 29 weeks at the Paramount Theater in New York, working five to six shows a day.
This, he said, was responsible for the “one and only real illness” of his life. He developed nodes on his vocal cords and had to lay off for two weeks to cure his hoarseness. But the voice thereafter was a tone or so lower.
Back in Hollywood from his eastern sojourn, the breaks began coming Crosby’s way. And one of them, according to the singer, was that his brother Everett, quit his job as a truck salesman to manage his career.
Bing credited Everett with “edging” him into his first featured movie role, in Paramount’s “The Big Broadcast” in 1932.
And that was the big breakthrough for Bing.
He was a star from that picture onward: some of his other 58 pictures included “Too Much Harmony,” “Mississippi,” “Anything Goes,” “Pennies From Heaven,” “Waikiki Wedding,” “Doctor Rhythm,” “Sing You Sinners,” “East Side of Heaven,” Rhythm on the River,” “Holiday Inn,” “Dixie,” “Blue Skies,” “Welcome Stranger,” “A Connecticut Yankee,” “White Christmas” and “High Society.”
Notable, too, in the public mind was the series of “Road” pictures (“Road to Singapore,” “Road to Zanzibar,” “Road to Morocco,” “Road to Bali,” and others) he did with his friend, Bob Hope. Some of the best comedy dialogue in these films was actually ad-libbed between the two stars, who needled each other happily for the cameras.
His most famous movie role, that of Father O’Malley in “Going My Way,” won him the Academy Award in 1944. (He re-created the part twice in “Bells of St. Mary’s” and “Say One for Me.”)
But toward the end of his active movie career Crosby surprised film pundits, who had considered him more a singing personality than an actor, by scoring in such non-singing roles as the distraught father of “Little Boy Lost” and “Man on Fire,” and as the fading star in “Country Girl,” for which he received another Oscar nomination.
In 1948, he was selected, for the fifth consecutive time, as top money-making star of motion pictures in the annual poll of exhibitors conducted by the Motion Picture Herald, a trade paper.
His main public image, however, remained that of a singer, and his radio and recording career was at least as successful and remunerative as his film appearances.
Crosby was the first recording star to earn a platinum record (gold records are for artists whose single records sell a million or more copies).
The platinum disc was presented him in 1960, when sales of his recordings topped 200 million copies.
His radio career began in the 1930s with the weekly Kraft Music Hall and he continued that show, a consistent tops in the ratings, for more than a decade and well into the declining years of network radio.
His television appearances had been infrequent, but he controlled a production company, formed under his own name, which continues to rank among the most successful in the field.
Crosby’s other business interests also prospered over the years. These include oil wells, an orange juice company, a trailer village in Palm Springs, his 25,000-acre cattle ranch near Elko, Nev., and Bing Crosby Enterprises, which marketed everything from television films to toy dogs.
He owned about 15% of the Pittsburgh Pirates baseball teams and about 5 1/2% of the Detroit Tigers.
His exhibition golf matches with Hope raised thousands of dollars for charity and the Pebble Beach Bing Crosby Pro-Am Tournament (proceeds also donated to charities) were financed entirely by the singer.
He also was instrumental in establishing the successful Del Mar racetrack in San Diego County, and became president of the operating firm. This coincided with the beginning of the horse racing-training partnership, Bing-Lin Stable, he formed with his longtime friend, Lindsay Howard.
Through it all, Crosby managed somehow to maintain the relaxed, breezy manner that was his public — and private — persona. He deliberately gave the impression of being lazy.
He once told an interviewer, “My favorite kind of picture would be one that opened with a shot of me sitting in a rocking chair on a front porch. The rest of the picture would be what I saw ...”
But this pose was a deception.
Close friends, and the occasional reporter who tried to keep a record of the activities that filled Crosby’s days, became aware that he was a tireless worker accustomed to 14 and 16-hour work days, despite the apparent effortlessness of all that he did.
His self-deprecation was also proverbial; he professed to hate the hairpieces with which studios disguised his growing baldness, and after his earliest roles refused to let the makeup department paste his somewhat protrusive ears.
“Let ‘em flap,” he said. “They’re real — and they’re mine.”
Nonetheless, he usually wore a hat in public, covering the bald pate, and continued a regimen of diet and exercise to maintain weight and muscle tone for the camera.
He called himself “The Groaner” in defense against the “Crooner” designation claimed by a whole generation of Crosby imitators, none of whom quite equaled the performance of the original.
His 1953 autobiography, written with Pete Martin, was titled “Call Me Lucky.”
But Crosby endured his share of bad fortune, too.
His first wife, Dixie Lee, retired from her entertainment career shortly after their marriage and they settled in the Toluca Lake district of the San Fernando Valley.
This home was destroyed by fire in 1943, and most of the personal possessions the couple had collected of 13 years of marriage went with it.
But, poking through the ashes, Crosby retrieved a charred sports shoe from the remains of his dressing room — and grinned as he fished out, unharmed, the $2,000 in cash race winnings he had hidden in the toe.
The first Mrs. Crosby died of cancer Nov. 1, 1952 — just three days before her 41st birthday.
His four sons by that marriage, Gary Evan, twins Philip Lang and Dennis Michael, and Lindsay Harry were grown and for nearly five years Crosby lived the drifting life of a famous and wealthy bachelor.
That ended when he met actress Kathryn Grant (nee Olive Kathryn Grandstaff) a onetime beauty contest winner from Texas. He was 53; she was 23. They were married Oct. 24, 1957 in Las Vegas.
They have a son, Harry Lillis, 19; a daughter Mary Frances, 18, and another son, Nathaniel Patrick, 15.
The new Mrs. Crosby already had a fine arts degree from the University of Texas. But shortly after the birth of their first child, she entered nurse’s training at Queen of Angels Hospital, where she became a registered nurse.
She also aided and encourage Crosby in philanthropic efforts.
Just 10 days after their wedding, she accompanied him to Spokane, where Crosby, who had received an honorary doctor of music from Gonzaga University in 1937, helped dedicate the $700,000 library he had donated to his old school.
During World War II, Crosby helped sell more than $14 million worth of war bonds and donated the proceeds from his record of “Silent Night” to brother Larry’s show troupe, enabling it to tour military installations in the United States.
Crosby himself organized Crosby Camp Shows, and he traveled more than 50,000 miles including tours of England, France and Germany, entertaining troops.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get all the day's most vital news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.