Kathryn Crosby Interview: On Life with Bing Crosby and PBS' "American Masters" Documentary Featuring the Entertainment Icon's Career
Image attributed to Bing Crosby Enterprises
Born November 25, 1933, actress and singer Kathryn Crosby performed in 1950s films under the stage names Kathryn Grant and Kathryn Grandstaff. Those movies include Rear Window, Cell 2455 Death Row, My Sister Eileen, The Phenix City Story, Storm Center, The Brothers Rico, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Anatomy of a Murder and The Big Circus.
Crosby graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1955 and two years later became the second wife of the legendary bass-baritone crooner Bing Crosby, being about thirty years his junior. The couple had three children: Harry Lillis III, Mary Frances and Nathaniel.
“Well, Bob Hope worked all the time. Bing was quite lazy. He loved to play. He took Bob salmon fishing up in Canada once, and they had just pulled off to sea when Bob said, ‘I have to go back in.’ Bing asked, ‘Why?’ Bob Said, ‘Fish don’t applaud.’ Bob and Bing spent an hour a day on the phone. They exchanged jokes always.”
Bing Crosby was, without a doubt, the most popular and influential multimedia star of the first half of the 20th century, and now the public and his fans can learn much more about the icon in a new documentary, American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered, which premieres nationwide Tuesday, December 2 at 8:00 pm on PBS. The film explores the life and legend of this iconic performer, revealing a man far more complex than his public persona. Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the film features new interviews with all surviving members of Crosby’s immediate family: wife Kathryn, daughter Mary and sons Harry and Nathaniel.
Kathryn Crosby: Have you seen the special yet? I hope you liked it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes, I enjoyed it very much. What did you think?
Kathryn Crosby: I thought it was excellent. I really hope everyone enjoys this film because they have all the movies from our basement that they are using, lots of early films of Bing, and it’s just wonderful!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As a movie buff, I loved seeing clips from the old films. Some of Bing Crosby’s fans may not know that you are also an actor. Is that something you always wanted to do?
Kathryn Crosby: Absolutely, from the time that I was about three, I wanted to be an actress. We had a twelve-grade schoolhouse, and anytime there was a senior high school play, and they needed a child, I was elected. I loved it. I always loved acting.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You had a role in 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, groundbreaking during that time because it was one of the first films to address sex and rape in fairly graphic terms. How was the experience working with director Otto Preminger?
Kathryn Crosby: Working with Otto Preminger was amazing. He had a reputation for being such an ogre. I went into his office, and my agents were there, and his lawyers were there, and I said, “How do you do?” I took a letter from my purpose. It was from my gynecologist, and it said, “She will be able to work for five months.” I asked Otto Preminger, “Is this a problem?” Otto said, “No. Actually there are a couple of advantages.”
Otto and I became very good friends after that. We shot the movie in Ishpeming, Michigan. Anatomy of a Murder was written by Robert Traver, and he taught me how to fly fish on the river that was covered with bush on the sides. It’s a rolling cast that you do. He and Bing had a long discussion about ten pound test and all of that. I had a great adventure.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): A few years earlier, you appeared in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954).
Kathryn Crosby: Rear Window was shot when I was first at Paramount Pictures. I had a very little role in that, but I got to see Jimmy Stewart for the first time, and Grace Kelly had a wonderful role. Getting to know Paramount Pictures was quite amazing. Then a year and a half later, the “golden circle” of talented young performers was let go, and I went right to Columbia Pictures.
They were not afraid of television. They were working in television, so I got to do a lot of short films. I loved that. It was really a working place. I not only got my diploma from the University of Texas, I got to work with excellent people like Elsa Lanchester and Cecil Kellaway and got to be directed by Paul Henreid on whom I had a crush from the time I was a little girl. It was an amazing experience!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And then came Bing …
Kathryn Crosby: I had lots of experiences all this time, and I met Bing Crosby. We kept meeting each other, and then we’d plan to get married, and he would have a kidney stone or something dreadful like that. We kept waiting, and I kept working. Later on, we finally managed to get married which was a secret. I hadn’t spoken to him for a year, and he wrote to me and asked me to go to dinner. I said, “Yes. I still love you. No. I won’t see you.”
When we got together in Las Vegas, Aunt Mary was with me, and Bing was with his driver, Leo Lynn, and we went to the courthouse and got our license. The reporters stopped us outside and asked Bing, “Are you going to marry Miss Grant?” He said, “Why yes. We’re going up to Arrington. There’s a priest friend of mine up there who’s going to perform the service.” The reporters ran off.
Bing and I drive a block and a half to the Catholic Church, and we were married there. Afterward, Leo said, “Don’t you think you better tell the press? It’s a hot day, and they’re going to be driving seven hours to get up to Arrington.” We went to the Sands Hotel and had a little breakfast with just us and Father Ryan and forty reporters.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have to deal with all of the questions about the thirty-year age difference?
Kathryn Crosby: I suppose that happened, but I didn’t hear it. By the time we had courted, I knew I liked him very much, and he liked me very much. By the time we married, I realized I could survive without him, and he realized he didn’t want to survive without me. I liked that. That’s a good attitude to enter a marriage with.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Bing won over fans with his laid-back, cool persona and smooth vocals. What was his personality like behind closed doors?
Kathryn Crosby: He was shy, but not with me. He had a great tolerance for people. I was a reporter, too, when I was first at Paramount, and I had asked him if he liked horses because I was this “Fat Stock” as the 1950 Rodeo Queen of the Fat Stock show in that year (laughs). Bing said, “Yeah. I like horses.” I didn’t know he had built Del Mar racetrack (laughs).
I asked if he liked baseball because I was Queen of the Texas Buffalos in Houston. They went to Ohio for the national convention of baseball owners. Bing said, “Yeah. I like baseball a lot.” I didn’t know he owned the Pirates. He was a part owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. My mother got to go to one of the World Series games, and it was very exciting. Bing was very tolerant, though, of my large, expansive idiocy. Where are you from?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Birmingham, Alabama.
Kathryn Crosby: The first movie I made that was exciting was The Phenix City Story. The morning after the Academy Awards, which was my first outed date with Bing, I flew to Phenix City and did that movie with Richard Kiley. It was a very good movie, and I loved living in Alabama during that time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was a very interesting film noir also. Mrs. Crosby, how would you describe your married relationship with Bing?
Kathryn Crosby: He loved me, and I knew it. He didn’t always say it, but he always showed it. He loved strong women. His mother absolutely ran their family. If I ever felt strongly enough about something to ask him, he always did it. There was never even any discussion, and I’m very grateful for that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you ever have to worry about Bing and his female co-stars becoming more than friends?
Kathryn Crosby: No. I knew when I met Bing that every woman in the world loved him, and every man in the world wanted to go hunting with him and wanted to be his buddy or play golf with him like Bob did. He had lots of girlfriends, and he had lots of boyfriends, and he was always a very good friend.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Rosemary Clooney was one of his best friends?
Kathryn Crosby: Absolutely. She was his very dearest friend, and they sang so perfectly together.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In a new Bob Hope biography that came out in November, the author states, “Bob told a friend he simply didn’t like Bing, and at times, detested him.”
Kathryn Crosby: That is not true!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the documentary, it does say that Bob and Bing seldom or never socialized together.
Kathryn Crosby: Well, Bob Hope worked all the time. Bing was quite lazy. He loved to play. He took Bob salmon fishing up in Canada once, and they had just pulled off to sea when Bob said, “I have to go back in.” Bing asked, “Why?” Bob Said, “Fish don’t applaud.” Bob and Bing spent an hour a day on the phone. They exchanged jokes always.
We lived with them when Bing was doing Road to Hong Kong. We rented a place called Cranbourne Court, and our two families lived together. Bob was there with his four children, and I was there with our son Harry. We left Mary Frances at home, but I was expecting Nathaniel at the time. In fact, I was sent home two weeks early because I wouldn’t have been allowed to get on a plane any later. They didn’t like delivering babies on airplanes back then. We had a wonderful time together.
Dolores and I became very good friends at that time, and I traveled all over Europe with her while Bing and Bob were working. They only worked to about 3:00 in the afternoon, and then they’d go play golf until twilight and come home for dinner. We traveled to Florence and Rome with a Jesuit priest, Father Brooks, and actually Dolores’ car had to break down in front of the Vatican because Father Brooks would not have been able to go in at that time since he was a Jesuit without permission from the Black Pope who was the head of his Order. But since Dolores’ car broke down in front, we were able to go in and look around. It was quite a lovely experience.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did Bing and Bob like doing the “Road” pictures?
Kathryn Crosby: They loved them! Bing and Bob started off together in early vaudeville. Bob was the emcee for a vaudeville show, and Bing was singing, and they started playing with each other on the stage. They would start the “Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean” remarks, and then they’d tell the jokes. A few years later, Bob came to Hollywood, and they were very good friends at that time.
Bing invited Bob to Del Mar to the racetrack. After the end of the last race, they’d go up and have dinner together. There was a good piano player there, so they would do some songs and dances and remarks from the New York vaudeville show. People were there from Paramount, and one big executive producer said, “They’re very good together. Why don’t we write some movies for them?” Dolores thought that was pretty funny, and everybody thought it would be a good idea.
That’s what started the “Road” shows. Bing and Bob never worked on them. There was a lovely man called Barney Dean, and he was called a gagman. He would just hang around the set, and then he’d go over to Bing and say, “Look, when Bob comes in for this scene, why don’t you do this?” Then he’d go to Bob and say, “Look, when Bing comes in here, why don’t you do this?” Then the director would yell “Action!” They would start. The director was about to get really cross because none of the written script was used, but all of the people who were working on the show were so tickled and laughing so hard, he’d say, “I think that’s good. We’ll print that. Let’s go on to the next scene.” They had a wonderful time.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you and Bing raise your children in the Catholic faith?
Kathryn Crosby: Yes. I was reared a Baptist, and in high school, my aunt and uncle were Methodists, so I went to the Methodist Church, but then there were no Baptists on the west coast. I went to Europe and went to the Christmas Day Mass at Sacre-Coeur, and it was so beautiful. The music and artwork were beautiful, and though I couldn’t understand it, the Latin sounded so pretty.
I came back to Austin and finished up my degree and took my Inquiry classes for six weeks. The priest said, “You should wait a while.” I said, “You can’t keep me out.” He said, “You’re right. I can’t keep you out.” So I was baptized and graduated from school, and then went to marry Bing in the same week. Then something happened. Things were always happening that were desperate, but it wasn’t anything that Bing had done. It was something that one of his boys had done, and it was really frightening.
A year later, the same kind of thing happened. I decided that if it’s not supposed to be, it wouldn’t be. The church was really very helpful at that time. I met good friends there. I got to be a friend of the Immaculate Heart nuns after that, and it made it possible for me to bear life without him. Then we got married, which was very good.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Gary accused his father of horrible physical abuse in a memoir released after Bing’s death, and there appeared to be a lot of turmoil in his first marriage and with their four sons. Did you know about those relationship problems?
Kathryn Crosby: Nobody knows about that really because Bing never talked to me about that, and all he ever said about Dixie was that she was a wonderful mother and that she was an angel. He felt that way about her. I don’t know what Gary’s problems were, but he’d had them from the time he was a little boy. Gary hated his brothers, Phillip and Dennis, the twins, and Lindsay who was a wonderful young man.
One of the reasons Bing and I didn’t get married one of the times was that Bing was watching carefully over Lindsay hoping he’d get off to college. He got off to college for about six weeks, and Gary said to him, “Your girlfriend’s waiting for you, and your car’s in the garage. Come on home.” So Lindsay left Brown University, which was too bad. I think I would’ve been the worst mother in the world if my kids were not good kids or they weren’t going to grow up. That’s my job.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What was Bing’s relationship with the children you had together (Harry, Mary and Nathaniel)?
Kathryn Crosby: He was the best father. I think our kids were wish fulfillment because Bing taught Harry to play golf and to hunt, and he taught Nathaniel to play golf. He took Mary Frances hunting in Africa. There were so many experiences he gave his first boys. Harry said, “I would’ve killed to get to go with Louis Armstrong to Australia,” which was an experience that Bing gave to Gary. Gary got drunk there and had to be sent home, which was so bad. That was so sad. Harry would’ve loved to have that experience, but he made his own experiences.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You continued your acting career after you and Bing married?
Kathryn Crosby: Yes. When we married, I asked Bing if I could continue my acting, and if I could continue my nursing. Bing said, “I didn’t know you wanted to be a nurse.” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Okay. Whatever you want. That’s fine.” So I continued, but then he was very uncomfortable when I was away acting. I would do it in the summertime. I could do summer stock, and I loved it. I had more fun doing that. Then the children did it with me, and we had a good time.
Later on, Bing asked me, “Would you like to do this show with me in Las Vegas?” He’d never done a show in Las Vegas. Bing said, “There’s a priest who doesn’t have a church, and if we do this one show, I think it’ll help him get that church.” The priest had been doing Mass in a topless bar, so we did a show in Las Vegas. Bing said that we’d have to rehearse there to go to Broadway. I said, “What?” Bing had decided to do a show to help a foundation sponsoring music scholarships for young people. We had two weeks on Broadway, and it was lovely.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mrs. Crosby, had Bing been sick, or was his death a surprise?
Kathryn Crosby: It was a terrible surprise, but he had, of course, been sick. He’d had four kidney stones. Once we were supposed to go to England to see his horse run in the Royal Sweeps derby and come by this house where I’m living in now to see it. It was halfway finished then. Bing said, “I don’t feel well.” We went to the hospital, and they admitted him because he had kidney stones in both kidneys. It was very frightening to know which one they were going to operate on because you have to have one functioning kidney when you’re operating on the other. It was much more complicated then.
We did that, and then later on, Bing was hurt in a terrible accident at the Ambassador on his 50th anniversary show. He took a step back, and the floor had been lowered, so he fell fifty feet onto a concrete floor. We got him to the hospital, and they said, “There are no broken bones. I’m sure you’re okay.” Bing said, “But I can’t walk.” It had swollen so much, he couldn’t walk. I asked my doctor what could be done, and he said, “Well, you can stay and worry, and it’ll take six weeks, or you can go away and worry, and it’ll take six weeks, but in six weeks, he’ll be able to walk again.” We went through that.
Bing had a long surgery where they had to remove a large tumor the size of a grapefruit which was interesting because it was Nocardia which is half bacteria and half fungus that he probably got in Africa. He loved safaris and loved being in the bush seeing the wild animals. Bing had certain health problems, but after we did the Christmas show at the London Palladium, we traveled to Manchester and Brighton, and then he went to Spain to shoot grouse with a good friend.
Before they went to the place where they would be shooting, they played a round of golf. At the end of the game, Bing’s friend, Cesar de Zulueta asked him, “How do you feel?” Bing said, “I’m fine. It’s not too steep. It’s not heavy.” He took one more step and then fell dead. They had finished the eighteen holes of golf, and Bing won ten dollars with his pro. He did love his golf.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You remarried in 2000?
Kathryn Crosby: Dr. Sullivan was my trustee, and he had a heart that did a tango. We realized he had to get some very serious examinations in Hillsborough, and we met Dr. Poon there, and he showed us an instrument, which had the blood going back and forth in the heart. It was either he was going to have to get an operation, or he was going to die in three days. We were married at that time because I was going to have to nurse him in the hospital, and that’s a public appearance. You can’t go there with a quiet trustee, so we were married, and fortunately, he overcame that. They did a very fine surgery on him and repaired all his valves. He had no place to have a valve, so they had to create a place for a valve, and he lived for ten more years. That was very good.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I understand you recently had a birthday on November 25, so happy belated!
Kathryn Crosby: Actually my sister, who is four years older, and I are changing our birthdays this year to May because in May, the Crosby golf tournament takes place. Then we’re going down to New Orleans where my granddaughter, Claire, who is studying to be a chef, is interning with chef John Folse at the Sonesta Hotel, and we’re going to have a birthday dinner there in May. We want to get some quail and some very special southern dishes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): New Orleans is one of the best places in the world to experience fine dining!
Kathryn Crosby: Oh yes.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Many people associate Bing Crosby with the yuletide season primarily because of his TV specials, the 1954 film, White Christmas, and the hit single of the same name. Are the holidays difficult for you?
Kathryn Crosby: It is a wonderful time for me. Last year, I did a cabaret in New York out on the island to benefit a school, and I sang several songs. My son, Harry, played “The Christmas Song,” and then I did a cabaret at the Lincoln Center.
Christmas is very much a part of my life. The weather is so good, and we’re starting to decorate just about now. The family is coming here this Christmas. It’ll probably be one of the last Christmases because our kids have grown children, and they’re always moving, but they will be here this year. It’s a wonderful time.
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