15 Surprising Facts About Bing Crosby

George Stroud, Express/Getty Images
George Stroud, Express/Getty Images / George Stroud, Express/Getty Images

You know him as the man who sang "White Christmas" and co-starred in a slew of movies with Bob Hope. What you don't know about Bing Crosby might surprise you. Here are 15 fascinating facts about the musician, actor, and avid golfer.

1. Bing Crosby got his name from a comic strip.

The entertainer was born Harry Lillis Crosby on May 3, 1903, in Tacoma, Washington. The nickname "Bing" found him when he was just 7 years old, after he had moved with his family to Spokane. The Spokane Spokesman-Review ran a comic feature called The Bingville Bugle, which was a parody of hillbilly newspapers. The young Crosby thought the feature was a laugh riot, and would giggle uncontrollably when reading it. A neighbor noticed his behavior and started calling Crosby "Bingo from Bingville." The "o" eventually went away, but the nickname stuck.

2. Bing Crosby was almost Columbo.

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When television fans think of Columbo, they probably envision Peter Falk starring as the title character. But the job could have been Crosby's. The Columbo character made his debut in 1960 on The Chevy Mystery Show with Bert Freed portraying the detective. Thomas Mitchell also spent some time in the role, but the character really exploded when NBC decided to make a television movie in 1968.

The film's producers wanted either Crosby or the great Lee J. Cobb to portray Columbo, but Cobb couldn't squeeze it into his schedule. Crosby turned down the role for a funnier reason: He thought it would interfere with his golfing. At that point Crosby considered himself mostly retired, and he didn't want to deal with a movie shoot that could keep him off the links.

3. Bing Crosby took his golf seriously.

Maybe turning down an iconic role for golf isn't so surprising, considering what an avid golfer Crosby was. Crosby wasn't just any old amateur player; he was serious about his game and whittled his handicap down to two while playing in both the British and U.S. amateur championships. In the late 1940s, he signed a contract with ABC to do a weekly radio variety show, but he made an unprecedented request: that the show be taped instead of live. This stipulation was a first for broadcast radio, but it enabled Crosby to spend more time on the golf course.

Although Crosby was a fine player, his most enduring contribution to the game was probably the tournament he started in 1937. The first "Crosby Clambake" was played for a purse of $3000 that came out of Crosby's pocket, but it gradually grew into a major event. The tournament is now known as the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, one of the PGA Tour's most beloved events.

4. "Peace on Earth," Bing Crosby's Christmas duet with David Bowie, almost fell apart at the last minute.

The Thin White Duke was set to appear on Crosby's Christmas TV special in 1977 when the production hit a snag. The producers had decided that Bowie would sing "The Little Drummer Boy," but Bowie felt the song wasn't really right for him and refused to sing it.

The nervous producers huddled and decided to rewrite the song in an attempt to get something Bowie would actually perform. With just hours to go before the broadcast, the musical team wrote an alternative version with a new melody and alternate lyrics. Bowie liked the new version, dubbed "Peace on Earth," and agreed to perform it with Crosby, complete with a stilted intro sketch.

The song actually had staying power, and RCA ended up releasing it as a single in 1982; it still gets attention each holiday season.

5. Bing Crosby liked the ponies, too.

Crosby wasn't just a golfer; he also enjoyed a bit of action at the track. In 1937, he teamed up with a group of fellow superstars to open the Del Mar Racetrack just north of San Diego. In addition to Crosby, the team of investors included Jimmy Durante and Oliver Hardy. Crosby was at the track's gate on its opening day, shaking hands and greeting guests, and the track soon became one of California's hottest spots for celebrity sightings.

The racing itself wasn't too shabby, either: The track played host to the famous winner-take-all two-horse race between Seabiscuit and Ligaroti. The race was such big national news that NBC radio made it the company's first-ever national broadcast of a horse race.

6. Bing Crosby is partly responsible for the Canadian tuxedo.

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Before denim-on-denim was a certified fashion trend, pairing a jean jacket or shirt with your favorite pair of blue jeans was considered a sartorial faux pas. Nicknamed the “Canadian Tuxedo,” the look has been the butt of many pop culture jokes for years—perhaps most famously in the movie Super Troopers.

Boing Boing traces the outfit’s origins back to Crosby. The singer was denied entrance to a Canadian hotel in 1951 because he and his companion were clad in head-to-toe denim. Management soon realized that Crosby was a celebrity and let him in. However, tales of the incident spread, and designers at Levi Strauss and Co. eventually caught wind and designed Crosby a custom jean tuxedo jacket. That way, his denim would be dressed up enough for the swankiest of establishments.

7. Bing Crosby had a backstage view to watch his idol perform.

Crosby was a huge Al Jolson fan, so it must have been a thrill for the teenage Bing when Jolson came to the Auditorium Theater in Spokane. Crosby worked at the theater as a prop boy and was able to see Jolson perform multiple times. The Spokane Daily Chronicle raved about the blackface comedian's antics and reported that the crowd gave him "an ovation seldom accorded a stage favorite in Spokane." Crosby also called Jolson "electric" and, despite charting his own course largely by rejecting the loud vaudeville style, counted Jolson at the top of his influences.

8. Bing Crosby was an overnight success—twice.

Crosby was in several singing groups and performed on Spokane's local radio station, but he and partner Al Rinker cut out for California to try to make it big in Hollywood in 1925. Rinker was the brother of jazz singer Mildred Bailey, who set him and Crosby up with some connections, and they were soon performing as part of a revue called The Syncopation Idea. Their talent was spotted there by the incredibly popular king of jazz, Paul Whiteman, who hired them. They had been in Los Angeles less than a year. When overnight success struck again for Crosby, it was after he decided to get serious as a solo act. He debuted on national radio September 2, 1931, and had 10 of the top 50 songs of that year.

9. Bing Crosby’s recording of "White Christmas" was so popular that the master copy got damaged.

Bing Crosby poses in a scene from White Christmas.
Bing Crosby poses in a scene from White Christmas. / United Archives/Getty Images

Crosby’s act represented the cultural dividing line between vaudeville and the crooning era, but he was also the man who changed Christmas music from religious hymns to pop songs. The ditty that did it was "White Christmas," which Crosby first sang softly on the Kraft Music Hall radio program on Christmas Day 1941. It featured prominently the following year in his film Holiday Inn, and was an absolute smash hit. Bing had to re-record the song in 1947 because the original master was damaged so badly from pressing copies. The Irving Berlin-written song was still such a powerhouse more than a decade after Crosby first sang it that they trotted it back out for his film White Christmas in 1954. Until Elton John recorded Candle in the Wind in 1997 in memory of Princess Diana, "White Christmas" was the best-selling single of all time regardless of genre.

10. Bing Crosby almost got divorced after six months of marriage.

Crosby married actress Dixie Lee in September 1930, but by March the next year, she had publicized her intent to divorce him due to "mental cruelty." Lee's father and friends weren't thrilled about the marriage to begin with, and Crosby's heavy drinking and partying grew old fast. After swearing to change his ways, Lee agreed to drop the divorce threat. They were married for 22 years (until her death from ovarian cancer) and had four children.

11. Bing Crosby supported legalizing marijuana.

Marijuana wasn't illegal when Crosby was coming up in the jazz era, and he smoked occasionally with Louis Armstrong. In a 1977 interview with Barbara Walters, Crosby said that weed should be legal again. “I don’t think that’s any big sin, unless they abused it and got on it continuously,” Crosby remarked about the possibility of his children smoking pot. “I think it should be legalized. I think it would probably do away with a lot of this smuggling and gangster business. I don’t suppose smoking marijuana hurts any worse than being an alcoholic, does it? Probably not as much.”

12. Bing Crosby had the only copy of the Pittsburgh Pirates 1960 World Series win.

Bing Crosby sits in the stands at Wimbledon.
Bing Crosby sits in the stands at Wimbledon. / Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Crosby was a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, but was too nervous to watch game 7 of the 1960 World Series—a game that has gone down in history as one of the best ever played. The singer was so worried about jinxing the team that he left the country, traveling to Paris, content to listen to the game on the radio. Fortunately, he had the foresight to have the game recorded by kinescope as it played on TV. If he hadn't, we might not have a copy of the game at all.

In that era, tapes were often reused or destroyed. There was no known copy of the game’s broadcast until a Bing Crosby Enterprises employee found the five-reel film in Crosby’s wine cellar in December 2009.

And how were Crosby's nerves during the game? According to his widow, Kathryn Crosby, Bing accidently spilled scotch into their friends' fireplace when Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski hit the walk-off home run to beat the Yankees 10-9.

13. Bing Crosby recorded his final album weeks before his death.

Crosby suffered a fatal heart attack on October 14, 1977, while playing golf in Spain. In the months before his death, he did a two-week stint at the London Palladium, recorded the now-legendary Christmas special duet with David Bowie, and finished recording Seasons, the album that would be his last. The album featured songs about specific times of the year or which fell into a general theme about the passing of time. Most were old jazz standards like "Autumn in New York" and "April Showers," but Crosby also used the album to cover his old pal Frank Sinatra's "Summer Wind."

14. Bing Crosby was the first actor to be Oscar-nominated for playing the same role twice.

Having won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1945 for his performance as Father Chuck O'Malley in Going My Way, Bing made history by earning another nomination for the same role in the sequel The Bells of St. Mary's. Since this feat, only six other actors have managed it: Peter O'Toole for playing Henry II; Al Pacino for playing Michael Corleone; Paul Newman for playing Fast Eddie Felson; Sylvester Stallone for playing Rocky Balboa; and Cate Blanchett for playing Queen Elizabeth I.

15. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope were busted in an illegal gambling sting.

Despite the crooner's mild-mannered, be-cardiganed image, Crosby had connections to the mafia. He was a huge gambler, and at least once paid $10,000 to a gangster to cover a debt. It turns out that his Road to ... co-star Bob Hope had similar habits. In unsealed FBI files, one report on a gambling den sting in Burbank, California, said "approximately 100 patrons, among them Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, were permitted to leave the place." That wasn't even his closest scrape. In his autobiography Call Me Lucky, Crosby recounts drinking with a gangster who had been involved in the St. Valentine's Day massacre and nearly being gunned down when a rival gang came for retribution.

A version of this story ran in 2010; it has been updated for 2021.