When Wilma Winnifed Wyatt, born on November 11, 1911 in Harriman, Tennessee, wed Bing Crosby on September 30, 1930, the occasion was heralded by the headline, ”Well Known Fox Star Marries Bing Croveny.” Although the groom’s name would never again be mistaken, his bride was, at the time, the more prominent personality. Spurred by zealous stage parents, Wilma entered a competition to find “the girl who could most sing like Ruth Etting.” She easily won that distinction and became understudy to that legendary torch singer. Wilma landed a part in the hit Broadway musical, Good News, and caught the attention of Fox Studios. Renamed Dixie Lee, she sang and danced in films such as Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, The Big Party, and Cheer Up and Smile.
In 1929 a friend introduced Dixie to Bing Crosby. Bing recounted in his autobiography Call Me Lucky, “The first time I ever heard the name Dixie Lee I rolled it on my tongue like honey.” They would rendezvous at the Cocoanut Grove, where Bing was becoming a singing sensation – and sowing many a wild oat. A hectic courtship ensued, and Bing’s many proposals were turned down. She finally accepted his proposal over a chicken dinner at the Cocoanut Grove.
Gary was born in 1933; twins Dennis and Phillip in 1934; Lindsay in 1938. Her professional guidance was also a great asset to her husband’s burgeoning career. Upon her recommendation Bing hired John O’Melveny, a lawyer whom Dixie knew from Fox. He became a vital member of the Crosby organization for the next forty-five years. While Dixie appeared in three more films, as well as recorded “The Way You Look Tonight” and “A Fine Romance” with Bing in 1936, she let her career recede. Bing explained: “She was very timid, terribly shy. It was awfully difficult to get her to make any kind of public appearance and that was the reason she never did anything more in show business. She just hated the exposure and the necessity to work with strangers and people she did not know. And she could really sing, too, and I often regretted that she didn’t sing more. She had a great style and a marvelous voice, a voice that was terribly pleasant to listen to.”
Tragedy was averted in 1943 when Dixie and the boys emerged unscathed after a Christmas tree fire destroyed the Crosby estate at Toluca Lake. Bing had been at work; a fact of life which had become painfully familiar to Dixie. Her shyness had gradually turned her into a recluse and she abused alcohol to cushion her chronic depression. Dixie died on November 1, 1952 of ovarian cancer. In Call Me Lucky Bing wrote, “I’m going to miss her love, her steadfast and constructive support. She was the most completely honest person I’ve ever known, and one of the most courageous. I don’t ever want anything more in life than the memory of all she did for me.”
Gary Evan Crosby, born June 25, 1933 and named after his father’s friend Gary Cooper, was often referred to by his father as “number one son.” In 1941 he auditioned for the part of the young boy who grows up to be Bing’s character in Birth of the Blues, but his screen debut occurred the next year in Star Spangled Rhythm. Gary next appeared in 1945 along with his brothers in two more movies identified with Bing: Duffy’s Tavern and Out of this World. Like all of his brothers, Gary was educated at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, later enrolling at Stanford University where he studied animal husbandry (having spent summers at the family cattle ranch in Elko, Nevada) and played football. He did not graduate.
Gary became a teen sensation in 1950 when, credited as “Gary Crosby and Friend”, a two-sided hit boasted of back-to-back million sellers: “Sam’s Song” and “Play a Simple Melody.” The duo waxed several more recordings: “Moonlight Bay,” “When You and I Were Young, Maggie Blues,” and “Down by the Riverside.” By now a Bing look-alike, Gary appeared regularly on his father’s radio show; and even hosted his own series as a summer replacement for Bing’s show in 1954. Gary made several solo records and albums, showing promise as a jazz vocalist. In 1955 he recorded “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” with his father’s friend, Louis Armstrong.
Gary was inducted into the Army in 1956, serving in Germany. Upon discharge in 1958, Gary and his brothers formed “The Crosby Boys,” headlining at several top nightclubs and appearing on the cover of Life magazine. After internecine quarrels and disputes, Gary left to pursue a movie career; and through the intercession of his father, secured a Fox contract, appearing in Mardi Gras, Holiday for Lovers, and Girl Happy, among others. But major stardom eluded him, and Gary, along with his brothers, constantly struggled with alcoholism and had embarrassing scrapes with the law. He appeared on television, frequently joining his father; and made guest appearances on a variety of programs (most famously as the bedeviled troubadour Floyd Burney on “Come Wander with Me,” a 1964 episode of The Twilight Zone.) Gary was a semi-regular on The Bill Dana Show from 1963-64. He was perhaps best known as Officer Ed Wells on the police series, Adam 12, running from 1968-75.
Several years after Bing died, Doubleday approached Gary to write an autobiography. To guarantee success, he was asked to wildly exaggerate Bing’s self-acknowledged paternal strictness. Going My Own Way, published in 1983 and co-authored by Ross Firestone, was Gary’s controversial attempt to transfer his professional and personal shortcomings onto his father; and to achieve the long desired leading role – playing Bing, no less – should his book be adapted to the screen. This wasn’t to be, as the book created considerable turmoil within the Crosby family. Subsequently, Gary recanted large portions of his unfortunate memoir. To further the rehabilitation Gary decided in 1995 to record an album overdubbing his father’s classic recordings. This came too late. With one side complete, a persistent cough interfered with the endeavor. A doctor’s visit confirmed that he had advanced lung cancer. Gary died on August 24, 1995. Twice divorced, he was survived by his third wife and his adopted son.
Phillip Lang Crosby, born on July 13, 1934, was the twin of Dennis. His middle name was given in tribute to Bing’s close friend, guitarist Eddie Lang. Phillip’s first recording was the Decca two-side medley, A Crosby Christmas, on which the twins sang a duet, “The Snowman.” He attended college with Dennis at Washington State College at Pullman and was inducted into the Army on January 5, 1955.
Before the formation of The Crosby Boys, the twins sang “The Jones Boy” on Bing’s Oldsmobile special of March 2, 1959. Gary’s early departure from the group did not deter the others, and the act recorded an album for their father’s Project Records label, which was distributed by MGM. The Crosby Boys had many successful nightclub bookings, and appeared often on television. After a guest spot on Sgt. Bilko, the group followed on two episodes of Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall and five episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show. They revealed a flair for dynamic harmonizing while blending with Bing on “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho” on his Oldsmobile special on February 29, 1960 and also appeared on another Oldsmobile outing on October 5, 1960. In 1960 Phillip also recorded a rhythm & blues version of Bing’s classic, “Thanks,” which featured a cameo appearance by Bing approving at song’s end: “By George, I think he’s got it!”
In 1961, Phillip’s affiliation with the Rat Pack began when the Crosby Boys appeared in Sergeants Three, and continued when he appeared solo in Robin and the Seven Hoods in 1964. In one scene he offers a chair to a startled Allen A. Dale, played by Bing. The Sinatra connection continued in 1965 with a role as Private Magee in None but the Brave. In 1964 Phillip appeared on the Bing Crosby production, Ben Casey (as would all his brothers). His final appearance with his father took place on The Hollywood Palace show of April 5, 1969 where they reprised songs which Bing had previously recorded with Gary. Phillip would later remark, “Dad was always there when we needed him.” Phillip gave his final performance at an Elk’s Club party in Burbank in 1983.
Four-times divorced and having lost a teenaged son, Phillip died January 13, 2004. He was survived by two daughters and two sons.
Dennis Michael Crosby, twin brother of Phillip, was born on July 13, 1934. Of all his brothers, Dennis preferred behind-the-scenes work to performing, serving as assistant producer for Bing Crosby Productions.
Dennis was deeply grieved when his younger brother Lindsay committed suicide. The divorce from his second wife worsened his fragile emotional state. Dennis killed himself on May 7, 1991. Dennis was survived by three sons and four daughters, one of whom was adopted. In 1958 Dennis had been sued by Marilyn Miller Scott over the paternity of her daughter, Denise, and Dennis was ordered to pay Scott child support and legal fees. (Denise appeared on the television show, Star Trek: the Next Generation from 1987-94).
Lindsay Harry Crosby was born on January 5, 1938. His name was inspired by Bing’s close friend and thoroughbred horse racing partner, Lindsay Howard. “The smallest of the small fry” also appeared on A Crosby Christmas, singing “I’d Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus.” Lindsay, the closest to his mother, was distraught by her death. To help console him, Bing took him out of school in March 1953. They went on an extended tour of Europe, including an audience with Pope Pious XII.
Before their departure, Bing and Lindsay recorded several duets that were broadcast on Bing’s General Electric Show during their travels. Although the radio broadcasts announced that the recordings were made in France, they were actually recorded in Palm Springs. The series also spotlighted several Lindsay solos. The following year, Lindsay joined Bing and Gary for several nostalgic barbershop routines on the General Electric Show. Lindsay also contributed several solos and duets to The Bing Crosby Show (1954-56) where his radio banter with his father revealed a keen sense of comedy timing. In addition, Lindsay was a special guest on Bing’s legendary Edsel Show in 1957. Lindsay would later remark, “I don’t know of many fathers who gave more consideration to their children.”
With Bing’s help, Lindsay got a recording contract with RCA in 1958, and enjoyed a modest hit with “Friendship Ring.” He went on to appear in a slew of B movies such as The Girls from Thunder Strip and Zebra Force. Lindsay, never fully able to overcome his mother’s premature death, suffered from depression as she had. Three divorces and a turbulent breakup with his girlfriend led to his suicide on December 11, 1989. Lindsay was survived by four sons.
Although Bing demonstrated an active involvement in his sons’ professional careers, he once expressed to an interviewer his most ardent aspiration for his boys. “I just want them to be nice guys. I don’t care how big they are or how important. I’d just like them to be the kind that other people would like to have around. And I want them to be thoughtful of other people. I hate rudeness, thoughtlessness, and arrogance.”