The highlight of the day is a rendition of Christmas songs, performed live by the children for assembled friends and family. All hardly surprising, perhaps, given the household in question is that of Bing Crosby’s son Harry, whose late father’s name encapsulates the magic of Christmas as much as Santa Claus himself. Bing’s grandchildren even perform their grandpa’s world-famous song White Christmas every year in tribute to the master crooner. “My son, Nicholas, and daughter, Thea, sing and play White Christmas on the piano for everyone,” says Harry, who lives in New York.
“We have friends round and some years my mom and sister are here from California. It’s an important tradition, a mainstay of Christmas Day.”
Harry, 61, continues: “It’s funny, I used to cringe at the idea of playing my father’s music but not now. People really love it – it’s a sustainable thing.”
Nearly 80 years after its 1942 release, White Christmas remains the world’s biggest-selling single – a whopping 50 million copies globally. Unsurprisingly, it remains a staple of radio and in-store music playlists over the festive season.
Now it is back in the Top 10 after 40 years and on course for a Christmas Number One after a new album, Bing at Christmas, a remastered recording with the London Symphony Orchestra, was released last month.
And the family is making a concerted effort to keep Bing’s memory alive and introduce him to new audiences. To that end, they are in talks about a dramatisation of his life, along the lines of hit series The Crown on Netflix.
Harry explains: “The estate in partnership with Universal Pictures, which is helping us promote and push it forward, is looking at a series like The Crown exploring who my father was.
“What we would like to do is a Netflix multi-hour series to tell the story. Think about diversity in today’s world. My father was a supporter of Louis Armstrong, who came against resistance.
Bing Crosby with his wife Kathryn and their children Harry, Nathaniel and Mary Frances in 1973
“My father facilitated his ability to get exposure and access and they were great friends and partners.”
Harry was just 19 when his famous father died aged 74 on a golf course in Spain. At the time, Harry had been performing with Bing and singer Rosemary Clooney, aunt of movie star George, on an international tour, which had started in Britain.
“We had played several shows at the Palladium in London and were due to tour Japan and Australia but Dad wasn’t feeling well,” recalls Harry, who had classical training in piano, composition and orchestration.
“He terminated the tour because he wasn’t feeling up for stuff, travelling for six months over the world.”
Father and son closed the tour in Brighton on October 10, 1977 – Dame Gracie Fields was there to see the show – then went their separate ways. It was the last time Harry would see his father alive.
“I had just turned 19 and I decided to go back to school. I applied to Rada (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) and Lamda (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art) to major in theatre and music but they were full up. The school year had started.
“I invited the dean of Lamda to come and see me perform at the Palladian with my dad. I sang a duet with Rosemary and I sang alone. Afterwards he said, ‘Start Monday!’
Harry Crosby with his dog
So I went to school during the day and performed with dad at night. I didn’t go out of my way to tell people who my dad was.
My objective was to assimilate as part of the group. But, of course, I couldn’t join them for a pint in the pub in the evenings because I was performing, plus Dad and I were living in an apartment in Mayfair.”
So Bing, who had been in generally good health according to his son, went to Spain on his own to play golf. Harry believes his father never recovered after falling off the stage seven months earlier at his 50th anniversary concert in California.
Having toppled 30 feet into the orchestra pit and ruptured a disc in his back, he spent a month in the hospital. In Spain, four days after their last concert, Bing collapsed and died of a massive heart attack at the end of his first day’s game of golf.
Harry, the only family member in Europe, had to fly home to California with his father’s body.
There his mother, Bing’s second wife, actress Kathryn Grant, now 86, his actress sister, Mary, and young brother Nathaniel, an amateur golfer, were waiting. After the funeral, Harry returned to Britain to continue his studies.
Harry Crosby says his father never pushed him into the music business
“Certainly at that time I didn’t feel guilty that I wasn’t with him – you can’t change the outcome of things – but you grow up quickly when you lose a parent that young,” he says.
“Dad and I had a really strong relationship, both professionally and personally. As a father and a son, we were exceptionally close.”
Harry remains deeply saddened by comments made by his late half-brother, Gary – Bing’s eldest son from his first marriage to actress and nightclub singer, Dixie Lee – after their father’s death.
In a highly critical memoir, Going My Own Way, Gary depicted Bing as cruel, cold, remote, and physically and psychologically abusive.
Bing’s other sons from that marriage, Lindsay and Dennis, who both killed themselves, in 1989 and 1991 respectively, and Phillip, largely distanced themselves from Gary’s criticism although they never denied Bing could be a stern disciplinarian.
But it is a description that Harry does not recognise. “I don’t know where it came from. I only know my own experience with my dad which was one of love, support, friendship and respect,” he says.
“My dad never pushed us into music or entertainment – we were exposed to it and I loved working together.
“We went fishing together and golfing and he was able to impart on us not just that we were loved but also the rules of the road – the way to behave. So I was sad to read those things.”
But there have been disputes between Bing’s two families dating back to Dixie’s death from cancer in 1952 when she left her share of their estate in trust to her sons.
Bing left his estate to Kathryn, and HLC Properties, Ltd was formed to manage his interests. In 1999, the families settled a dispute over the estates for a reported £1.2million. Now Harry and descendants of his half-siblings no longer see each other.
“It’s sad. I wish we did but we were raised in a different town and we never did see much of each other because of the age difference.
“When I was five, Gary was 20. That’s a big gap. We’re a tight family. We did our own stuff,” says Harry.
Harry Crosby with his wife and children
While Bing dedicated his life to singing –he didn’t play an instrument, apart from drums early on in his career – he also helped develop recording equipment so artists didn’t always have to perform live to preserve their voices.
After Bing’s death, Harry went into banking.
He studied business after a spell writing jingles for commercials but he maintains a passionate interest in music and he and his Croatian wife, Mihaela, support the performing arts Lincoln Center in New York.
These days, Harry plays at home for pleasure with Nicholas, 15, and Thea, 11, and loves the anonymity living in New York affords him.
“Mihaela is from Zagreb and her background is in microbiology,” he says.
“It was a joy she didn’t know who my father was,” laughs Harry.
“When we met, she said, ‘I love the fact your dad likes music, like you. Can I meet him?’”
The Crosby and Clooney families remain close although Harry hasn’t seen George for some time.
Now Harry is preparing to start his Christmas shopping, always a poignant moment because it means going into a mall where a certain song is always playing.
But while his younger sister Mary, says she found White Christmas heartbreaking to listen to after their father’s death, it’s always been a pleasure for Harry.
“It’s always wonderful to hear, it makes me feel good,” he says. “Mind you Little Drummer Boy is great, too.”
Bing recorded the latter as a duet with David Bowie in London a month before he died for a television special, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, which was to be his last. It was broadcast posthumously on Christmas Eve 1977.
“They just banged it out. They were going to cover it as a duet and then it turned into a single,” says Harry.
“They barely rehearsed but they were both such pros and of course they had a lot of respect for each other.”
But if he had to choose one festive single to save from the waves on a desert island? “White Christmas. Absolutely. Game over.”