An interview with Mary Crosby:
"My Father, Bing Crosby"
by Sheila Weller, McCalls, July 1980
"My one regret is that Daddy isn't here to share the tremendous joys of my life right now," says 20-year-old Mary Crosby, Bing's only daughter and a star of TVs top-rated Dallas. "But other than that" -- she instantly shifts from dreamy to direct -- "I am very clear on his death. Daddy died while he was still very much a man, while he still had control of the lives of the people he loved. If he'd lived much longer, he would have had great pain in dealing with the fact that his children were making choices he couldn't approve of."
My decision to live with the man I loved before committing my life to him in marriage is something that went against all Daddy's beliefs. He had painted himself into a corner by telling Barbara Walters he would disown me if I ever did that. I would have confronted him with my decision and, though I believe his love and trust would have eventually won out over his anger, it would have wounded his pride terribly to have had to give in. I'm grateful that I never had to use one of Daddy's greatest lessons to me -- that there is a time to be selfish -- in a way that would have hurt him, hurt us both, in those last years of his life."
This honesty -- the ability to confront conflicts and pressures with unequivocal clarity and grace -- is the first thing that strikes you about Mary Crosby. It seemed logical to expect something else: cautiously dutiful talk from the wide-eyed young girl you had watched for almost two decades singing "White Christmas" and extolling the merits of orange juice with her famous, perfect family.
"It was Daddy, really, who gave me the great sense of privacy that my life is all about. This house, for example." She laughs. "Even the people Eb and I invite over can't find it! Daddy raised my two brothers and me in Hillsborough (a San Francisco suburb) on purpose -- to protect us. His Hollywood days were over by then. Mostly, he did his hunting and his golfing and came home to be the man of the house -- and that house was ONLY family. He saw friends like Bob Hope -- oh, maybe once every three years. To this day, I have never been to a Hollywood party, though it would probably be good for my career. In fact, I was so sheltered that, when I first met Larry [Hagman, who stars as the suavely corrupt oil scion, J.R. Ewing in Dallas], I said, "Oh, and how did you get into the business?" She throws back her head and laughs again. "I didn't know he was Mary Martin's son!"
So it was not, really, the fact that Mary was the daughter of one of the world's most beloved entertainers that shaped her intriguing blend of wholesomeness and savvy, idealism and precociousness. It was something else. This girl who looks so young, yet has matured so quickly -- who is equally sweet and strong -- became that way because that was the ONLY way you could turn out as the one daughter, among six sons, of a patriarch with very rigid ideas about morality and behavior, a man whose affection had to be deftly read between the lines, whose vulnerabilities were safely hidden for 70 years in his male-to-male exchanges and the shielding protocol that comes with being the older traditional husband to a younger traditional wife. There was only one person who could find the chink in Bing Crosby's armor, who could love him in a disarming new way that would teach him something, who had to gently fence with him to assert -- even find -- her true self. And that person was Mary.
"You know something? I don't think poor Daddy had the vaguest idea of what to do with a girl. He'd had four sons on his first marriage, and I was wedged between Harry and Nathaniel and was a terrible tomboy, beating both of them up until I was eleven -- when they started to beat ME up. Daddy would treat me like a boy -- teaching me to shoot, taking me on safaris to Africa -- and then turn around and get wonderfully befuddled by what he'd just done. 'Wait a minute, I can't take her duck hunting: she's a girl!' And 'What the heck is she doing out there playing football? Oh, yeah ... that's right ... I taught her.'
"But I had my special little-girl ways of showing my love for him. My mother was smart enough to say, 'I don't know how to cook' -- which of course wasn't true. So on the days the housekeeper was off I'd make Daddy's meals for him: burnt eggs, overboiled soup. I'd bring them to him on a tray while he sat watching the football game on TV. He never looked up from that game -- that was his style -- but I could FEEL his love.
"That's what my communication with Daddy was all about: We understood much more about each other than each of us ever let on: there was an awful lot of love there, but it was so unspoken. He'd been raised in a large family of staunch Irish Catholics. In contrast to Mother -- who is a soft, warm, affectionate Southern lady -- he was very uncomfortable with expressing his feelings. He'd use sarcasm or criticism to slip in a compliment upside down. Or we'd hear of his praise from other people. If I kissed him goodnight, he'd pull away. If I hugged him too long, he'd squirm. It was fun playing against his resistance, because I knew he secretly loved the tenderness he found so hard to express.
"Daddy was also not above emotional blackmail, but I could spar with him on that too. Because he was an older father [55 when Mary was born] there was a sense we all got from Mother that we had to protect him, that each day with him was precious. So when he wanted us to do something we didn't want to do, he'd moan, 'Look, I don't know how much longer I'll be around.' I'd just say, 'Hey, waaait a minute! I don't buy that garbage!' He was sly: he would try to have it both ways -- the patriarch and the martyr.
"But underneath all of that he was a lovely, honest, MODEST man who didn't consider himself a fount of wisdom, who understood his mistakes. He had been hurt by people he'd helped out over the years who never repaid him, and I got the sense that he would have wished more from his first four sons than he'd gotten. Maybe that's why he wanted perfection from the three of us."
When Mary was invited to spend her 13th year as an exchange student living in the home of a large Mexican family, Kathryn was delighted, supportive. But Bing was not.
"He got a little sulky about it. For four months all my letters and phone calls to him went unanswered. But I kept on writing, telling him about all I was learning and how I understood how he was 'too busy' to write. What I was really saying, between the lines, was, 'Look, I know you have to stay mad at me because you made a stand and you can't back down from it. I just want you to know I understand -- and if you do change your mind, I promise I won't call you on it.'"
Her veiled communiqué was answered when Bing phoned her one day, his voice shaking, "I'm about to have an operation," he said, "and I want to ask you a favor. I want you to come home."
"Of course I'll come home," I told him. Then he shocked me by saying 'I'm sorry about the way I acted, but that's just the way I am. I'm not going to change now. But I want you to know I really love you -- and I NEED you now.'" Mary's eyes mist at the memory. "That was such an incredibly hard thing for him to do -- apologizing like that, admitting his need."
Bing survived the operation -- the removal of a lung -- and though he pretended to continue to disapprove of Mary's time in Mexico, "after the year was up" -- she smiles cagily -- "he was bragging to EVERYONE that his daughter was bilingual." They were set in a pattern: he, keeping up his strict, taciturn facade; she, using her quietly learned empathy to help him keep up that front, despite her secret knowledge of his vulnerability.
As part of this pact of unspoken love through not one but two generation gaps, "Daddy and I never even tried to talk about me and boys. He just laid down his ultimatums and I didn't dispute them; it would have been ridiculous to try." Yet he did consent to Mary's going off to the University of Texas in Austin after she had graduated from high school at the tender age of 15. "But the funny thing is, I felt OLDER than my sorority sisters. I was always taking care of them. Underneath their sweet, innocent, Southern game, they were the biggest bunch of little drinkers I'd ever met in my life! They wanted four years of playing -- time enough to find husbands. That is not what I wanted. I wanted to act."
So after a few semesters she left -- for San Francisco's prestigious American Conservatory Theater, which was close enough to the Crosby home for Mary to commute, albeit inconveniently. "Daddy approved. But he also said, 'If you want to be an actress, I'm not going to help you. I want you to make it on your own.' and I said, 'Good. Because I wouldn't have it any other way.'"
During this period of Mary's budding independence, the Crosbys traveled together to New York to perform at the Uris Theater. "I remember one day walking with Daddy through the streets of Manhattan -- blocks and blocks and blocks. The whole time he was doing something he had never done before -- holding my hand. That little gesture meant so much to me because it had taken him so long to get there. And it made me think I might have even taught him something."
It was during the trip that Mary made friends with a young man, Barclay Lottimer, the son of a Virginia economist, who had a very strong hunch that she would get along with his brother Eb, a handsome young singer-songwriter who was finishing his classes at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
When Mary returned to California, Eb called and they had a "telephone relationship" for two weeks. "That was such a nice way to begin," Mary says. "We could debate, argue, discuss things -- without anything physical getting in the way. Those conversations just flew. He was funny, he was intelligent, he was creative; I was attracted to Eb before I even met him -- which was important to me, because I didn't want to waste my time on an unproductive, superficial relationship." That last thought is fascinating coming from a then-17-year-old girl. It's something you hear a lot of women in the 30s saying. "Well," Mary says when this thought is expressed, "you don't have to go through a lot of bad experiences to know you don't want them."
On January 14, 1976, Eb and Mary each set out for a stretch of beach that was exactly halfway between Santa Cruz and San Francisco. She had the picnic dinner, he had the wine. She was looking for a blue truck, he a silver Monza. "We pulled into the parking lot at exactly the same time," Mary remembers. "We were instantly keyed into each other's electricity," he recalls. "We fell in love."
The next step -- taken, judiciously, months later -- was telling Bing. By now, the news would come right on the heels of Mary's decision to move from her father's home to an apartment of her own, closer to her acting classes. "I just said, 'Daddy, I have a very special friend coming over for lunch today. PLEASE be courteous.'"
"I wasn't really intimidated at the prospect of meeting Mr. Crosby," Eb recalls. "But, legend that he was and because I myself was entering the music business, I would have liked to have gotten to know him a little better than I did. I mean, I respected the fact that he was very protective of his only daughter, but ...."
"What happened," Mary says, interpreting her husbands tactfulness, "is Daddy came downstairs, said, 'How do you do?' then proceeded to turn on the baseball game -- which he watched all during lunch. The primo moment came when we were saying grace. There's Daddy, checking Eb out from the corner of his eye, making sure he's crossing himself."
After lunch, Mary and her father set out to look at the apartment Bing had chosen for her. "It was classic: a dorm for older ladies with dowdy little rooms with mismatched '50s furniture and a huge mahogany dining room -- and waiters! I was trying so hard not to giggle. I looked at him and said, 'You've got to be kidding.' He just shrugged and said, 'Well, you can't blame me for trying.'"
On October 14, 1977, Mary was rehearsing in the A.C.T. production of Julius Caesar when an aide to the theater's director called her out of the chorus and told her the director wanted to talk to her. "I was the third lady of easy virtue to the left, so I knew it wasn't my performance he needed to discuss. I felt my throat tighten a little, and the minute I saw the man's face I felt sorry that he was the one who had to give me the news that my father was dead."
Mary is hurt about stories that she and Eb moved in together right after Bing's death. "It didn't happen that way, not nearly that fast," she says. "And reading that publicity was hard on Mother. The stories came out negatively like, 'What kind of woman would raise a daughter to live with a boy?' It was very unfair. She had no defense. It caused a lot of unnecessary pain.
"I'm not saying that the publicity was the only thing that upset her. Our living together unmarried probably went against a lot of what she too was brought up to believe." Did they fight over it? "I'm an independent person, living my own life" is Mary's firm reply. "I don't think that's something my mother had too much to say about. I cannot speak for her, nor she for me. But," she hastens to point out -- softly now -- "she's always had a lot of faith in my judgment."
Still, Kathryn Crosby did NOT attend Mary and Eb's wedding, which took place Nov. 24, 1978, and was, as Mary puts it, "a joyous celebration of our love," with food she had been preparing for weeks, music by Eb's since-disbanded rock band, and the request that "our friends bring their presence, not presents."
Bing would be delighted at that. But then he would probably really be delighted -- albeit secretly -- with everything about Mary's life now. Even her decision to go against the Crosby grain and have "only one child -- I'm sure of that -- and then not for lots and lots of years." Why? "It's not rebellion; nothing in my life has been that. It's just that I have too much else I want to enjoy for a while. Daddy taught me that there is a time to be selfish. My parents also taught me -- really, through everything -- to be an individual, to make up my own mind."
POSTSCRIPT: Mary and Eb divorced in 1989. Mary married a lawyer, Mark Brodka, in 1998, with whom she has had 2 children...