Readers of this book may find it difficult to decide exactly what to make of it. They might, of course, approach it as a conventional biography; after all, Bing Crosby’s name and photo adorn the cover. The contents trace in detail his various comings and goings over the course of a half-dozen eventful years. (This part two of a planned trilogy weighs in at 582 pages of text; part three, presumably covering the remaining three decades of Crosby’s life, promises to be a real whopper of a volume.)
Alternatively, they might classify Bing Crosby: Swinging on a Star as a deep dive into American popular culture in the 1930s and ’40s, with particular attention to music, motion pictures, and network radio. To say that Gary Giddins, longtime jazz columnist for the now-defunct Village Voice, brings encyclopedic knowledge to these subjects comes nowhere close to being adequate. It’s like saying that Google collects information or that Amazon stocks books. Whatever Giddins doesn’t know about American pop culture of this era is probably not worth knowing, and a considerable portion of what he does know appears between the covers of this book. Depending on your attention span and appetite for detail, the result is either astonishingly comprehensive or way, way down in the weeds.
Yet there is also this third option: readers with an eye for American history will discover here a fascinating account of the intersection of war and celebrity. Mobilizing the nation for World War II meant mobilizing Hollywood as well. Among the legion of stars and lesser lights who sold war bonds, entertained the troops, and visited the wounded, Crosby was undoubtedly the most devoted and hardest working.
To appreciative G.I.s, he became “Uncle Sam without Whiskers.” From the attack on Pearl Harbor until the war was over, he traveled more than fifty thousand miles while staging shows for the troops, include an exhausting USO tour to Great Britain and France after D-Day. At the same time, he was propping up morale on the homefront by hosting a top-rated radio show and cranking out an uninterrupted stream of popular films and hit recordings. All in all, it made for a dazzling war record.
So as a survey of pop culture or an exploration of a neglected dimension of military history, this book has a lot to offer. Unfortunately, as a biography, it comes up short, albeit through no apparent fault of the author. Bing—everyone from General Eisenhower to gushing schoolgirls called him that, so I will follow Giddins in asserting the privilege—turns out to be a difficult nut to crack.