Category: Archive

The natural

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Bing Crosby was, arguably, one of the two or three most widely celebrated and most intensely beloved Irish-Americans of the 20th century, and Kathryn Crosby has played a generous, but not obsessive role in keeping his memory alive.
She has not become, in other words, the keeper of the flame in the way far too many widows of famous men have done when their husbands have died. She has had, from the start, her own distinct identity, and she still has.
Born Olive Kathryn Grandstaff on Nov. 25, 1933, she became Kathryn Grant, though was sometimes billed as Kathy Grant, and had a minor movie career starting in 1953 with something called “Arrowhead,” and more or less ending in 1959 with “The Big Circus,” hardly memorable items.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, to learn that two of the films in which she appears, however briefly, are Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” in 1954 and Otto Preminger’s “Anatomy of a Murder” in 1959.
Approaching her 72nd birthday, Crosby, daughter of a smalltown Texas high school football coach, still resembles the beauty contest winner she was, with multiple triumphs starting when she was just 14.
“I met Bing when he was filming ‘White Christmas,'” she said in an interview conducted in the Manhattan apartment of her son, Harry, the first of three children she had with the singer. The 1954 film was the biggest box office hit of the year, and was followed the same year by “The Country Girl,” with Crosby giving what is very probably his finest screen performance as Frank Elgin, a washed-up musical theater star attempting a comeback.
The film, cleverly adapted from the play by Clifford Odets in order to accommodate the star’s musical abilities, cast him opposite Grace Kelly and William Holden, and marks a high point in all of their careers.
Crosby had been widowed since 1952 when his wife, singer Dixie Lee, had died. Lee, whom he had married in 1930, was the mother of his first four sons, all now deceased.
“Bing and I married in 1957. I’d gone to Columbia Pictures in 1955, and they wanted to change my name from Grandstaff. With those 2 ‘f’s at the end, I always had to say ‘f as in Frank’ for the long distance operator, so I was quite willing to change,” she recalled.
She thought of Grant, but she also thought of Crosby, and then put it aside as a bad idea. “I thought of Kathryn Crosby, but since Bing and I were just dating, I thought that would be a little ill-timed, since I didn’t think I should take the name before he asked me,” she said.
So, Grant it became. “I was probably leaning on Cary Grant, because he was big box office at the time,” she conceded.
As Kathryn Grandstaff, Crosby’s career dates back to her early days in Texas. “I did plays when I was three,” she said. “I went to a 12-year schoolhouse, and anytime they needed a child for a school production, I was chosen, and I loved that a lot. It was just like swimming for a duck, just as natural. I liked memorizing. I liked singing. I liked standing on the stage, looking out at the people in the audience.”
Gradually, Crosby found her way into television, and, eventually, into the movies. “One of the first ones was ‘Cell 2455 Death Row. I remember I tried to smoke a cigarette, and I choked and carried on,” she said.
She remembered that in he first meeting with the singer he was “very comfortable to be with.”
As she remembered it, she was perhaps less so. “I was young. I asked him if he liked baseball. I had no idea that he was one of the owners of the Pittsburgh Pirates. I saw a photo montage on his dressing room wall with a lot of pictures of horses, so I asked him if he liked horses. I didn’t know he’d been one of the builders of Del Mar Raceway. Talk about being unprepared.”
Crosby admires writer Gary Giddens’s acclaimed biography of her late husband, the first volume of which has recently come out in paperback.
“I learned more about Bing’s personal history and his family heritage, than I even dreamed of knowing. I guess I was a writer who never asked questions.”
And she is a writer, of sorts, having written two books about her marriage, “My Life with Bing,” and “Last Years.”
Bing Crosby was the fourth of seven children of a Tacoma, Wash., brewery bookkeeper, Harry Lowe Crosby, and his wife, Kate Harrigan Crosby, who lived to be 94. As a boy, Crosby acquired the nickname, Bing, after a character named ‘Bingo’ in a comic strip titled “Bingville Bugle.”
Crosby studied law at Spokane’s Gonzaga University, but ended up playing drums and singing with a local band instead.
The jazz critic Giddens’ book only goes up to 1940, and Bing’s widow has a clear answer when she’s asked if she thinks the writer was honest about the difficult aspects of her husband’s life.
“I don’t know. I don’t know the difficult parts, because all of this happened before I was there. By the time the book ends, he hadn’t gotten into difficulties with Dixie, which I never heard about, not from Bing, and not from anyone who knew him, which I think is wonderful,” she said.
Giddens’s view of the situation will have to wait until the second volume of the biography is published.
Crosby couldn’t read music. “He didn’t have to. A lot of young singers made their reputations by doing demos for Bing, and then Bing would hear the tune and be ready to record the song the next day,” she said.
Kathryn Crosby calls her late husband “a proper Irishman,” adding that “he loved to walk in the fields. When he played golf, which he tried to do daily, he walked. He’d never used a golf cart. He loved energetic things.”
Bing Crosby died on a Spanish golf course on Oct. 14, 1977. “We were married on Oct. 24 and in another 10 days, it would have been 20 years that we were married. He’d walked 18 holes, and he and his partner in the foursome had won $10. They were walking back to the clubhouse, and the man asked ‘Are you tired, Bing?’ He said ‘No, it’s not too hilly,’ and then he fell dead.”
Crosby was 74. It may have been a heart attack, although the singer had no history of heart trouble. “I think it may have been a blood clot that finally broke loose,” said Kathryn Crosby.
She was in California on the day he died. “He’d sent me home,” she recalled. “He was going to shoot grouse. I wanted to go. I had the wardrobe, but not the skill and not the gun to shoot anything, so he sent me home.”
Bing Crosby was constantly teased about his ability to produce sons, but not daughters. All four children from his first marriage were boys, and so was the first child born to his second wife, Kathryn.
“Harry Crosby was born on Aug. 8, 1958. Then I had Mary Frances, and finally Nathaniel, who was the U.S. amateur golf champion in 1981. Harry studied theater for three years in London, and toured with a company for a while, but eventually, he came back and studied business at Fordham entering the Masters program there.”
Most of the time, Crosby lives on a plot of land in the middle of a 9000-acre ranch about four miles south of Carson City, Nev. “I have 10 acres right in the middle, with no livestock to feed, and just an old ranch house that I look after myself, which means it hasn’t been dusted in a while.”
Crosby got the news of her husband’s death from her Aunt Mary, who’d heard it on the radio. “The police came to the door, and told me there were two ways of handling the situation. Either we mobilize a lot of troops and keep everybody, the press included, at a distance, or else we deal with them.”
Crosby’s widow reached deep into her own personal background and came up with an answer. “I just asked myself, what we’d do in West Columbia, Texas. We’d make coffee.”
The police ushered the journalists to the back terrace of the Crosby house. “Nathaniel and I came out and served them coffee and talked to them. I told them everything I knew, and they got their stories,” he said.
As for coping or not coping, Kathryn Crosby has a rock-solid attitude. “Not coping was never an option, but I admit I felt cheated, since his mother died at 94 and was sharp and delightful until the last moment. I thought I’d get more than 20 years with Bing.”

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