Shown here for the first time, the singer's letters show his unique contribution to the war effort
In early 1946 Private Aaron Stockton, a young American soldier serving with the 77th Infantry Division in the Pacific after the Second World War, received a letter. The address in its top left-hand corner, printed in an elaborate copperplate, matched the status of its sender: Bing Crosby, National Broadcasting Company, Hollywood.
“Dear Aaron,” the entertainer wrote, “Enjoyed hearing from you, and was happy to learn that you latched on to White Christmas in your remote spot. Warmest personal regards – and with the hope that you’ll be on your way home soon. Take care of yourself. Regards, Bing Crosby.”
The letter was one of hundreds that Crosby, who was America’s biggest star at the time, wrote and received during and after the war. As well as corresponding with troops, he’d write to their families too, acting as comforter, intermediary and morale-booster following regular trips to sing for servicemen in Europe.
The cache of letters – many of which reference Crosby’s most famous song – was discovered in a box in the attic of the Crosby family home in Hillsborough, California, around a decade ago. They are published here for the first time.
At 38, Crosby was deemed too old to fight when the US entered the war following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941. But Kathryn, the entertainer’s widow and second wife (he died in 1977), says he was “deeply patriotic” and realised, as a father of four boys, how homesick the soldiers overseas were. His trips and letters were his way of contributing to the war effort.
“It was a dreadful time for so many of them. The American boys were only out of high school and they’d never travelled. It was awfully frightening and he just loved to be there with them,” Kathryn, 85, tells me.
Crosby’s letters were personal and detailed, going far beyond the platitudes you might expect from a celebrity. In January 1945, for example, Crosby wrote to Mrs Bernadine Hackney in Brooklyn, advising her that “Bud” – presumably her husband or son whom he had met in Europe – had been “reported missing in action somewhere in Belgium”.
Crosby, who’d heard the news in a letter from Bud’s superior, said it was “most probable” that he was a prisoner of war. “I certainly hope that this is so.”
He told Mrs Hackney how he and Bud had talked about horse racing when they’d met and that he’d “enjoyed his company very much”.
In another letter, Crosby tells Mrs Phillip Lawler of Pittsburgh that her husband’s 79th Division was the “greatest audience I ever faced” when he sang to them in France.
And there was one song the troops desperately wanted to hear. Crosby was already a star before the war, having appeared in more than 30 films.
However, White Christmas made him a superstar. By happenstance he’d recorded Irving Berlin’s song the week before Pearl Harbor for the film Holiday Inn. He debuted it on Christmas Eve 1941 on the Kraft Music Hall radio show in the US. Success was slow, but the song’s lyrics about dreaming of an ideal, snowy Christmas “like the ones I used to know” resonated with troops overseas listening on Armed Forces Radio.
Despite his fame, Crosby became their relatable everyman. The following November, boosted by demand from jukeboxes in foreign USO halls and from soldiers’ families, White Christmas reached number one in the US charts. By Christmas 1942 it had sold two million copies.
It topped the US singles chart for the following six Christmases. The winsome ballad about a mythical Christmas of yore – a song that didn’t mention war – had become US servicemen’s nostalgic comfort blanket. Kathryn says it made them think of just one thing: home.
“They wanted to make the bad things go away… All of us want to be home for Christmas,” says Kathryn. The song encapsulates the desire for a “simpler, easier, kinder” life; the desire to “cook, celebrate and decorate the tree”, she says. “After a while they all wanted White Christmas,” says Kathryn of the troops.
A letter to Crosby dated October 1944 from a Mrs Alice Bratt in Maryland quoted a letter that she’d received from her unnamed brother, who was a “tank man in General Patton’s army” to whom Crosby had sung.
“White Christmas was the last song on our program [sic] and here’s hoping we’ll be on our way home then. He (Bing) sure is a morale builder,” Mrs Bratt’s brother had written. She signed off her letter to the entertainer by saying: “God bless you, Bing, for giving our boys a taste of home.”
Her brother’s wishes were in vain. Two months after Mrs Bratt wrote, General Patton’s Third Army was involved in the Battle of the Bulge on the Western Front, in which US forces suffered 75,000 casualties. One of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War raged on over Christmas. It is not known whether Mrs Bratt’s brother survived.
In total, Crosby spent an estimated 25 weeks entertaining servicemen in Europe. He relished the inherent risk (“He said that the soldiers were in danger, [so] why not him?”) but also the moments of levity, says Kathryn, who met Crosby in the mid-Fifties and married him in 1957.
“During the London fog [on one visit], he’d just done a show at the soldiers’ canteen. Fred Astaire was there; they both sang. Then he went out – I think he had had a drink or two – and he wound up crawling up the street because it was so foggy,” she says. Back at his hotel, a crowd gathered beneath his balcony. The police urged him to sing as a carrot for them to disperse. “So he stood on his balcony and sang Ave Maria to them a cappella.”
White Christmas has since become the biggest single of all time, selling more than 50 million copies. Over the decades it has been repurposed in strange ways: it was the US military’s secret symbol for soldiers to evacuate Saigon during the Vietnam War. Last Christmas Day alone it was streamed 18 million times. But the song has never reached number one in the UK. Kathryn hopes that a reworked version featuring Bing’s original vocals over a new arrangement by the London Symphony Orchestra, released tomorrow on the Bing at Christmas album, will top this year’s Christmas chart. It would, she says, mean “a great deal”.
With its ubiquity, did Bing ever tire of the song? After all, he reportedly once said that “a jackdaw with a cleft palate could have sung it successfully”.
“He liked it very much,” insists Kathryn, who was an actress 30 years Bing’s junior. She herself played a role in the White Christmas story. She, Bing’s and their children, Harry, Mary and Nathaniel, appeared in his TV Christmas specials that ran from 1961 to the year he died.
Dressed in festive regalia, they’d sing to audiences of millions. I ask her to describe Christmas Day in the Crosby household. Surely even the most perfect Christmas can’t have lived up to the idyllic imagery conjured by White Christmas. To be fair, it sounds pretty close.
She talks of large family gatherings, of football in the back yard, of cooking and gossiping, and of Bing dancing an Irish jig. Did he ever croon White Christmas to them privately? “All the time,” she says.
And what was he like as a husband in general? Accounts of his first marriage to actress Dixie Lee have suggested that, despite the warm image we have of Crosby, he could be cold and remote, and a strict disciplinarian to his and Lee’s four sons. “He was very kind,” says Kathryn. “We never had an argument. He was very quiet, very dear, and loved making fun with the children. He loved taking Harry duck hunting, he took Nathaniel golfing. He took Mary and me to Africa on a couple of safaris.” She says he was strict with his first family because “his wife was afraid to discipline” the children.
One other thing that happened without fail every Christmas in the Crosby home was that the telephone would ring. “Irving Berlin called Bing every Christmas to say, ‘Congratulations, we’ve done it again’,” Kathryn says. But, as these extraordinary letters attest, the song’s commercial success was a by-product of something far more profound. Its three sentimental minutes provided a shared musical touchstone for soldiers and families thousands of miles apart. White Christmas became their wartime national anthem.
It gave them hope – often so tragically misplaced – that they’d be on their way home soon.