In an age of awful quandaries like where and how to station MX missiles, my mind turns to Gary Crosby. This either means that my mind, like some sort of Quasimodo, seeks sanctuary from the scary and the horrible in the cathedral of the trivial, or that it has fastened on a concern greater even than mere survival--like betrayal. Is that what Gary did to Bing?
The answer, I think, is no. But betrayal is the word that popped to mind when I first read that young Crosby had, as they say, unloaded on his old man. He has written a book ("Going My Own Way"), announced its publication with the by-now required interview in People Magazine and gone around the country promoting it. The other night, I heard the voice of Gary Crosby coming out of the Bing Crosby memorial radio--a vaguely familiar voice telling a most unfamiliar tale.
Gary told the same tale to People Magazine. He said that Bing, after a hard day being the most affable man in creation, would return home and routinely whack the bejesus out of his sons. When Gary was just a kid, Bing frequently punished him by beating him with a belt dotted with metal studs, drawing blood. Later, he took to beating him with a cane. Frequently, he insulted his boy, sometimes punished him for being overweight and almost never showed him any love. Gary Crosby learned of his father's death while playing tennis. He went on with his game.
All this was trumpeted on a cover that showed an aging Bing and that said, "Daddy Dearest." It made me clutch my heart, which is where, I think, I have stored all my anxieties concerning my son. I have noticed that as I progress further and further into fatherhood, spending sleepless nights reviewing my mistakes in parenting, I find myself torn between my journalistic craving for more and more disclosures and my parental instinct that some disclosures should be out of bounds--like, for instance, those of a son about his father.
This, I think, is the view of society at large. It is based on the rule that what takes place within the family is supposed to be protected, secret. For a lot of reasons, not the least of them being that children make lousy witnesses (my sister and I remember almost everything differently), a curtain is drawn.
The family is supposed to be the one place where you can be you--where macho men can talk baby talk, where you can lose your temper where you can be a fool and not be either fired for it or disciplined or, if you are famous like Crosby, see it written up the next day in the columns: Daddy Talks Baby Talk, Son Alleges.
Still, while Gary broke the rule that family is another word for secret, so in a way did Bing. He used it, abused it and relied on it for protection. He pretended to be one sort of father in public, while actually being something else entirely. He became the paragon of fatherhood, the movie star who eschewed the Hollywood life, who was named "Hollywood's Most Typical Father," accepted the award and, if that was a typical day, went home and beat his kids. He was, Gary tells us, a man of regular habits.
Normally this hypocrisy would not matter. But this was no normal family. Instead, it was an adjunct to the Crosby image--an image, we now know, that was a fraud. His family knew that but the rules said they could not tell. In effect, Crosby compelled them to share the lie, put them on the payroll like others of his image makers or image keepers.They were simultaneously both conspirators and victims--like spouses who are betrayed routinely and publicly but who, if they publicly protest, are themselves accused of betrayal. And they were like children who are told never to lie and then are punished when the truth gets them, as it has Gary, into trouble.
Those are the original betrayals--the only betrayals. What follows afterward, what Gary did to Bing--what Christina Crawford did to Joan and what ordinary children sometimes do to ordinary parents--is something else. It can be called getting even and even called unseemly, but it cannot be called betrayal. Children cannot betray parents who, for whatever reason, have betrayed them first.