The Smash-Up of Dixie Lee

The rise of Dixie Lee (Wilma Winifred Wyatt, 1909-1952) was so rapid, it is scarcely to be believed. So was the speed of her eclipse, although she continued to make headlines long after her career was over.

Lee was 18 when she won a Chicago singing contest under the name Dixie Carroll. This led to a job performing at a roadhouse called the College Inn where she was spotted by scouts and cast in a tour of the DeSylvaBrownHenderson musical Good News. A year from that initial contest she had a contract with Fox, changed her name to Dixie Lee and made her first movie Knights Out (1929), a Clark and McCullough short. A dozen other movies followed through 1931, the most notable of which was probably Cheer Up and Smile (1930) with Arthur Lake and Olga Baclanova.

In early 1931 she married Bing Crosby, who was then less well-known than she was. A battle of wills seems to have ensued in which his career won out over hers. After the feature Night Life in Reno (1931) and the short Darn Tootin (1931) she dropped out of films. Her first three children Gary (1933) and the twins Philip and Dennis (1934) arived soon after. She then resumed her career for another couple of years, appearing in the films Manhattan Love Song (1934) with Robert Armstrong; Love in Bloom (1935) with Burns and Allen; and Redheads on Parade (1935) with John Boles and Jack Haley. She also went into the studio and recorded several songs through 1936. In 1938, a fourth son Lindsay was born, by which time she had retired permanently.

That she was less than happy about the way things had turned out may be indicated by the worsening alcohol problem she had struggled with throughout her marriage. A shy woman, Lee had initially embraced booze to loosen up for performing and socializing in show biz circles. But it became a problem. By 1941, Bing, no stranger to the bottle himself, contemplated divorce. In 1947, Lee’s life was loosely dramatized in the tawdry bio-pic Smash-Up, The Story of a Woman starring Susan Hayward. In 1950, Bing had her on his radio show for the first time, and the pair made efforts to repair their marriage. But by 1952 Dixie was dead of ovarian cancer at the age of 43. Like both of their parents, all four Crosby sons became alcoholics. All of them died relatively young, two of them (Lindsay and Dennis) by suicide.

To learn more about show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.