LOS ANGELES -- Arleen Crosby talked to her ex-husband, Dennis, on the telephone that Friday, May 3 -- as she had almost every day for weeks. Sometimes they'd talk two or three times a day. They had been living more or less separately for at least five years. When he was on his raging bouts of drinking, he could be gone for months, but Arleen always knew where he was -- usually at the house of his longtime Army buddy, Peter Murphy, in a small town north of San Francisco. Arleen was still living in their Pebble Beach home.

They had been officially divorced only two weeks. She had dawdled over signing the papers. "This is to protect you," he had told her once. After 27 years there was still a bond between them that couldn't be severed.

She was the daughter of a successful movie music composer, he was the son of Bing Crosby. She understood the frustrations of growing up with famous parents who ran a strict household where children were seen and not heard.

They had met in a studio production office. She was a secretary. He was an assistant producer on "Ben Casey," a product of the Crosby television production company. They were both so fair and strawberry-blond-haired, they looked like brother and sister. They had even been delivered in the same Los Angeles hospital -- by the same doctor.

They had struggled through their problems together as much as they could -- she confronting her difficult childhood, he his alcoholism.

"We got through a lot of healing and telling the truth," Arleen recalls now. "There was just a lot of craziness we couldn't live through -- but we were always good friends."

The day their divorce was final, they had lunch together. "We talked about our kids and how wonderful they were in spite of us," Arleen says. "They had said the reason they were so sane was that in spite of our craziness, they knew we loved them. And that was the greatest gift they could have given us."

But on this Friday when Arleen talked to Dennis on the phone, all he could do was ache. "He had a lot of pain," she remembers. "He just said, 'I hurt. You don't understand.' I said, 'I do understand.' " And there was something else. "He said, 'Now I understand how Lindsay felt.' "

The next day Dennis Crosby, 56, sat on the sofa in Murphy's house, aimed a 12-gauge shotgun at his forehead and pulled the trigger.

It was barely 17 months since his younger brother, Lindsay, had done the exact same thing.

They were the children of the man dubbed "Hollywood's Most Typical Father for 1937."

Bing Crosby was an American icon -- a movie star admired by men and adored by women, a symbol of casual sophistication and wit. To complete his image, he wrapped his family round him in photo spreads and glossies. There was the sunny-faced onetime-actress wife, Dixie, and the four hardy young boys. Gary was the oldest, Dennis and Phillip the middle twins, and Lindsay the youngest -- dark-haired and brown-eyed unlike his blue-eyed, blond brothers.

Growing up on their Holmby Hills estate, they posed obediently in matching outfits, answered reporters' questions good-naturedly, performed bit parts in their father's movies and were the subjects of affectionate tales -- completely fabricated -- that Crosby doled out to the columnists.

"It didn't take long for his fatherhood to become as much a part of the Crosby image as his passion for golf and the racetrack," Gary would write later.

Five decades later, the cheerful children of Bing's publicity machine have been ripped and ravaged by troubles and tragedies. Raised by a Catholic father, they are all much married (to Bing Crosby's great displeasure). All four sons became alcoholics, Gary Crosby has publicly stated -- like their mother (who died of cancer when her sons were in their teens). And two have committed suicide.

Gary's incendiary 1983 book, "Going My Own Way," depicts Bing Crosby as the embodiment of a dysfunctional father. According to Gary, he was a cold, aloof, disapproving man who beat his children for the most trivial of infractions.

Today Gary Crosby, 58, is the picture of a remodeled life -- a recovering alcoholic, a lecturer for Alcoholics Anonymous, a husband who speaks contentedly of his third wife, Carol ("third time's a charm," he says brightly).

But even as he sits in his olive-tree-shaded home -- no longer the pudgy kid his father chastised with the nickname "Bucket Butt" and beat with a belt when he didn't lose enough weight -- his voice is still full of the anger and pain he went through as Bing Crosby's child.

"We lived like four kids in a goddamn prison cell," he says. "If we got caught whispering between the beds before it was time to get up, the housekeeper was allowed to lick us... . I never wanted to be home."

But he would be the first to say that the story of his life and the tragedy of his two deceased brothers is also the story of the debilitating effects of alcoholism. It's the story of four different brothers who bonded at times and pulled away at other times. They all did stints in military service, and they were all good singers. For a brief time they had a nightclub singing act. But in the last decade, as close as they were geographically -- all four lived in California, three in the San Fernando Valley -- they drifted apart.

And they were never close to an entirely different second family that Bing Crosby fathered with his second wife, actress Kathryn Grant.

Gary, who has made Alcoholics Anonymous a way of life, hadn't talked to Dennis in more than a year. "My problem with both Lindsay and Dennis toward the end of their lives was the fact that I was on the program -- and they weren't," says Gary.

And Dennis and Phillip, the twins, rarely saw each other.

However, Dennis and Lindsay were soul mates for life. Both are described as quiet, gentle, nonconfrontational men. Lindsay, who killed himself on Dec. 11, 1989, was a manic-depressive who battled the illness for years, going in and out of hospitals. He was found in his condominium in the San Fernando Valley. On a table nearby lay some of the staggeringly high bills he couldn't begin to pay with the dwindling monthly check from his inheritance.

Lindsay's death may have been more than Dennis -- who had never quite stopped grieving over his mother's death -- could bear. "When my mother died, I saw the light go out of his eyes," Gary Crosby said at the memorial service for Dennis. "As far as I'm concerned, he's been trying to get back to her ever since."

Phillip Crosby did not come to his twin's memorial service.

If there is one thing that the extended family of Crosby siblings and their wives and ex-wives seem to agree on, it's how much they dislike Phillip. To hear them talk, Dennis and Phillip were literally the good and evil twins. And according to Gary there's so much animosity between him and Phillip that during a two-year stretch when the brothers lived three blocks apart, they never once saw one another.

Phillip Crosby could not be reached for comment.

"It's not fair for him to not speak up for himself, but he doesn't take it seriously," says Phillip's 32-year-old goddaughter, Susan Noonan, who has been in regular contact with Phillip for the last few months. According to Noonan, he's in Atlanta working on a business deal and staying with friends.

"He's probably the kindest, sweetest person who's ever lived," says Noonan of her godfather. She says she does not believe he's an alcoholic.

"I've talked to him every day for the last two or three months and I've never spoken to him drunk. Sure, he'll have a beer every now and then, but he doesn't have cirrhosis of the liver," Noonan says. "And I'm an alcoholic -- who doesn't drink. He is an insomniac and he calls me at all hours."

Noonan says Phillip spent 10 weeks in northern California visiting Dennis at the beginning of this year. Phillip, she says, did not attend Dennis's memorial service because he believed Dennis would not have wanted one: "He just wanted to respect his brother's wishes," Noonan says. "Phillip wouldn't have any part of one because {Dennis} just didn't want one."

As for the friction between Gary and Phillip, Noonan noted wistfully, "They're brothers. I think they have more in common than they realize. All the tragedy that Gary's gone through, Phillip went through as well. They both lost two brothers."

All of the sons at one time or another made forays into the entertainment business, with varying amounts of success. Gary Crosby says that although his brothers were good performers, they couldn't shake a certain apprehension. "Denny never thought he was worth {a damn} doing anything," he says. "And actually he was the best dancer and he sang great. Everybody thought so but him." Three of the sons have basically lived their adult lives on inherited money. Those monthly checks have allowed them to live reasonably well and pay mortgages on comfortable homes.

Gary Crosby says he never paid much attention to the handling of the inheritance. "I was always convinced I was going to make it on my own," he says quietly. "What I did was accept the check and go on." But with the exception of a five-year stretch as a semi-regular on the television series "Adam-12," Gary's acting career has been an uphill battle that he still pursues, winning a role here and there. His wife sells real estate.

The one son who has managed to prosper some in business is Phillip.

"Don't you know Phillip would have money," says Gary.' "He invested in some clubs in Atlanta... . From what I understand, when he feels like it, he goes down there every once in a while and sings a bunch of old songs of Dad's and tells these stories about how Dad loved him. Dad wasn't too fond of him," says Gary with a chuckle. "Dad thought he was a pathological liar."

The sons have been supported by their mother's estate -- which was actually a trust set up by Bing Crosby in Dixie Crosby's name. (When the actor died in 1977, he left what remained of his estate to his second wife and the three children he fathered with her.)

As estranged as the brothers may have become, their wives and ex-wives have grown fiercely close. Even as they were divorcing or separating from their Crosby husbands, they seem to have metamorphosed into spiritual sisters.

"It's just a regular big old Irish family," says Lindsay Crosby's ex-wife, Susan, surrounded by other Crosby ex-wives at her kitchen table the day before the memorial service for Dennis. She pauses. "Well, it's not really normal."

The Women Remember

The women sit around a breakfast nook, the sun streaming in through leaded windows in Susan Crosby's Tudor house. Various children, ranging in age from late teens to twenties, amble through the kitchen, then head back out to their own conversations.

"This is the house we all went to," says Arleen Crosby. "It's where we could go to collect -- even when it was crazy."

On this day they are sifting through old photographs and old memories to prepare for Dennis's memorial service the next day. They laugh over snapshots from 20 years ago that now look quaint.

"Dennis was great," Susan recalls. "He'd sit with us right now if he were here and talk with the girls in the kitchen."

"If there were no ballgames on," Arleen adds.

They trade names of friends and relatives who are expected at the service, and there's an air of anticipation. A rare family reunion of sorts is about to take place.

Kathryn Crosby, Bing's second wife, is not coming. She's preparing for a Crosby golf tournament she's hosting. The women at the table graciously excuse her. It turns out that Kathryn Crosby did pay her respects at Lindsay's memorial service -- and ended up the object of a tirade by an outspoken guest no one in the family knew. "If I were her, I wouldn't come," Arleen says.

The wives' recollections of their father-in-law are vague. By the time these women married their Crosby husbands and began raising children and dealing with the firestorm that each of their marriages was, Bing Crosby was raising his second family with Kathryn.

"They had an entirely different man," Arleen speculates of the second family. "Dennis said they had it good. He didn't."

"He was a good father to Lindsay," Susan says. She remembers that Bing Crosby offered to help pay Lindsay's medical bills, but she declined his help. "I was too proud," she says. "Now, I think that was rather stupid pride."

Peggy Crosby says her ex-husband, Phil, remembers a distant, absentee father. "What Phil told me was if {his father} wrote him a letter, it was typed," Peggy says. "On Father's Day, I would say, 'Do you want to send him something?' And Phil would say, 'No, we don't do that.' "

However, Phillip was never happy with Gary's book on his father. "That's why Phil hates Gary," says Peggy. "Because Gary tells his truth and Phil doesn't see it that way."

When the phone rings and it's an old friend asking for details, Arleen gets on and efficiently goes through the schedule. When she hangs up, she quietly walks outside and begins sobbing. Susan goes out to comfort her.

Peggy Crosby is left alone in the kitchen talking in her calm, low-key voice about tracking down Phillip, to Atlanta to relay the message that his twin brother had died. She's closed the door on the troubled chapters of her life as Phillip Crosby's fourth and fifth wife.

"One year we got married and had a baby. The next year we got divorced. The next year we got remarried. The next year we got divorced. I was in and out so much I was thinking I should be living in a motor home," she says with a little laugh.

And why did she come back?

"Well, I raised his son," she says. "Surely, I tried. He really just didn't want to be married. We'd get married and he would say, 'I can't handle this' -- whatever it was. Life, really. So we'd get divorced. And then he comes back and says, 'Please marry me.' I said, 'You've got to be sure you want it this time.' "

Back inside, Susan and Arleen chortle at the mention of Phil's name.

"What we say is we divorced Phil," says Susan.

Not only have their divorces not stopped these women from being close to each other, in the case of Arleen and Susan, it didn't stop them from being close to their husbands. Susan, in particular, was always Lindsay's wife in a way.

"At no time were we not in love," she says quietly.

'A Man Worth Fighting For'

She was 20, an actress and a former Miss Alaska when she met Lindsay Crosby at a gathering at her agent's house. He was walking by with a carton of the brand of cigarettes she smoked. Even though they'd never met, she saucily pretended the cigarettes were an offering for her. "Thanks," Susan said and lifted the carton out of his hand. She turned on her heel and he pursued her relentlessly ever after.

Of course, he was married at the time. But in the tradition of these men and their ex-wives, he eventually divorced that wife, Janet, and now she and Susan are close friends. "I didn't fall madly in love with him," Susan explains. "He was my best friend." And, as she tells it, he adored her. "Everything I did was great in Lindsay's eyes," she says.

"This was a man worth fighting for," she says, her voice trembling a bit. "I didn't like losing this man."

The day after her 48th birthday, she apologizes for looking tired. She still has the high cheekbones and hazel eyes that made her a beauty queen, but this birthday and Dennis's recent death make the loss of Lindsay raw again. What she didn't know when she married him was that Lindsay was a manic-depressive.

In the manic phase of his illness, he bought horses, stereos, cars, ranches, trucks. "Very macho things," Susan relates. "Black cars, black hat, black clothes. Black horse." She lets out an empty chuckle.

What he bought he often signed away to others. He drank, he borrowed money, he slept with other women. He collected around him a group of people that Susan Crosby seethingly calls leeches and hangers-on who were only too happy to be associated with a celebrity's son, especially such a free-spending, freewheeling one.

He disappeared for stretches of time, once taking her infant son, Lindsay Jr. ("Chip"), with him. She couldn't find them for 24 hours. In the years after that incident, when his manic phases came on, Susan would sometimes pack up the children and take them to Alaska to stay with her parents.

When he came out of his phases, it fell to Susan to attempt to repair some of the damage. She tried, usually unsuccessfully, to regain some of the property he had signed away. She had him tested for AIDS regularly. He had himself committed at least once a year. She and her parents paid his medical bills.

They decided together in 1988, she says, that they should divorce to protect her from further financial liability. At the time of his death at 51, he was under the care of both a psychiatrist and a clinical psychologist. "He was on lithium," she says. "It was the first time I had seen even a glimmer of hope."

Lindsay knew that for Susan to help him, she would have to sell her house. "I told him, 'So we'll sell the house. We'll start over.' ... He kept saying, 'I can't believe what I've done to you, Suz, I can't believe what I've done to you.' "

One Sunday night in December 1989, he was so depressed that when Susan put him to bed she hid his car keys. But in the middle of the night he found them and drove to his condo. The next morning at 9, he called and talked to Chip. He sounded better. He said he would be home that afternoon and he was going to talk to the psychologist who was treating him.

It wasn't until early that evening as she was making dinner that she got the phone call telling her Lindsay had shot and killed himself. It was a year to the day since they had divorced.

When he died, she says, a group of sympathetic friends, including Dolores Hope, the Sinatras, Jack Haley Jr. and a few others, donated money for burial costs.

Meanwhile, Susan is still coping with what she estimates are $800,000 worth of claims against Lindsay Crosby's estate.

What Drove Dennis Down

In the wake of Lindsay's suicide, the specter of self-destruction hung over Dennis, who drank so destructively and grieved so hard that he couldn't even attend his brother's memorial service. "It was a topic in this house since Lindsay died," says Susan. "When one person in a family does it, it gives permission to others." Dennis himself talked about suicide. "He said he would never do it," remembers his daughter Kelly. "He said he was too much of a coward."

As a child, Dennis was full of bluster and adventure. But it was his mother who convinced him he was smart and attractive and a terrific athlete. He was 17 when she died. "He hung all his self-worth on his mother," Gary recalled. From then on, according to everyone in his family, he became more shy, quieter, more sensitive.

And that, according to Gary, is when Dennis developed into an alcoholic. "I cannot remember Dennis hurting anybody -- except the people who loved him. He punished himself so badly and his self-worth went down so far that he believed he couldn't be anything in life or be successful at anything. And through that, he kept his humor. His children loved him and his wives loved him and his brothers loved him. And we just sat and we watched what happened to him year after year."

His attempts to confront his alcoholism were brief and unsuccessful.

Gary remembers that during the part of his therapy in which the family confronts the drinker, when Dennis's daughter Erin told her father what his drinking had done to her, Dennis tried to deflect it with humor. The therapist called Dennis on it: "Why is it that every time we try to get to something serious with you, you start with the jokes? Your daughter is telling you this. You should be crying."

Dennis said he couldn't cry. Why, the therapist asked.

"He said, 'If I start crying I'll never stop,' " Gary recalls. "That's the degree of pain he was in."