Is this the right moment to inaugurate a huge double-decker biography of Bing Crosby? Since his death, in 1977 (which took place, appropriately enough, on a golf course, where the seventy-four-year-old crooner had just shot a very creditable 85), his reputation has gone into eclipse. He hasn't, to be sure, vanished from the cultural map. Yet Crosby increasingly seems like the sole inhabitant of a kind of white-bread Mount Rushmore. He's not hip or sexy or tortured enough to rise from the show-biz ashes in the manner of, say, Tony Bennett (who, happily, lived long enough to enjoy his own resurrection).
In the superb Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, Gary Giddins is quick to acknowledge his subject's dwindling mystique—the result, he argues, "of having played Everyman too long and too well." But Giddins also makes a strong case for Crosby as the prime mover of American pop culture, who shaped it in his own affable image for more than three decades.
Without any dramatic outward change, he had somehow been the right man for successive crises, assertive and optimistic through Prohibition, the Depression, and hot and cold wars. He had the chameleon's ability to reflect his surroundings and the artist's discernment to illuminate them ... Bing, in his peculiar motley (shirttails, beat-up hats, torn sweaters, mismatched socks) with his pipe and preternatural calm, embodied the best in American individualism.
Harry Lillis Crosby was born on May 3, 1903, in Tacoma, Washington. Three years later his parents, clinging precariously to their middle-class perch in a boom-and-bust economy, moved the family to Spokane. There the young Harry—whose devotion to a Sunday newspaper feature, "The Bingville Bugle," led to his eventual rechristening—enjoyed a classic small-town youth, whittling, stealing cherries, and swimming in the millpond. Crosby's boyhood suggests nothing so much as an Irish Catholic version of Huckleberry Finn's, albeit one with the benefit of elocution classes and an upright piano.