The Grand Dame of the Big Band era is still moving hearts.
The houselights in the expensive supper club on New York’s East Side slowly began to dim one evening last spring and conversation, which had given the room a friendly buzz, also began to fade. Through a door at the end of the room came a smiling, heavy-set woman, blonde, dressed in a blue caftan-style gown. Slowly she walks to the tiny stage assisted by a man in a tuxedo, who leaves her there.
That was all the help Rosemary Clooney needed — except possibly the backup from the musicians sitting in the chairs behind her. From that moment on, until she finishes her set about an hour later, the room belongs to her.
She’s a Pied Piper — she leads, the audience follows. She could wrap them up, take them home if she wished. And there wouldn’t be a note of protest from anyone.
Not surprising. She could teach a course in charming an audience. She tells anecdotes about old friends — Bob Hope, for example, whose wife, Dolores, sometimes gets up to sing with her, and Ira Gershwin, lyricist partner of his brother, George, who was her next-door neighbor for years in California.
Tony Bennett was there that night, with his daughter, Antonia, also a singer. He came because, he said, “Rosemary’s one of the most natural, effortless singers I’ve ever heard. She has a gift that few vocalists are ever blessed with, and her voice is filled with the same warmth and spirit she had 50 years ago when we first started out together. She’s a wonderful lady, we had a great time growing up as young pups at Columbia Records.”
Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys made the performance too, crossing generational lines. Another night brought out Al Pacino. Bette Midler, an admirer, has described Clooney’s singing as “Perfect intonation, a timbre pure as crystal, phrasing that’s intelligent, sincere, unforgettable.”
She’s had a remarkable career, this 73-year-old blue-eyed daughter of Kentucky, granddaughter of Kilkenny, mother of five (Miguel, Gabriel, Maria, Monsita and Rafael Ferrer) and grandmother of many more. As she points out, “they’re still coming.”
She’s hit the top in her seven decades on this earth and once she tumbled down so hard, she couldn’t help but bounce back. But she’s never lost her sense of humor — or that distinctive voice. When she was in her 20s and 30s, it was a charming light instrument; as she got older, it became deeper, more shaded, more interesting. It now has a distinctively lived-in quality, giving lyrics a meaning that seems different from anyone else’s.
And while she’s put on considerable weight over the years, she’s never lost those blonde good looks, even if she complains it takes a lot more time to keep that hair golden. Rosie, as she likes to be called, can make people happy just to hear her, as she demonstrated that night last spring, even at an age when most people have long since decided it was time to sit back and count their awards, rewards, prizes, IRAs, gold records, platinum records, or even just grandchildren.
Not Rosie. She’s the Energizer Bunny. “I’m an old warhorse,” she says with a deep laugh, from her California home, “still on the road.” She’s out there at least a few days of almost every month, though she senses most of the young people who come to listen are really hoping to get a glimpse of her TV-and-film-star nephew George, son of her only brother, Nick.
She’s been working more than half a century, starting in 1945 when she was 16 and she and her 13-year-old sister, Betty, were paid $20 to sing duets of pop songs on a radio station in Cincinnati, across the Ohio River from her old Kentucky home in Maysville, about 150 miles north of Louisville, where the Kentucky Derby is run every May.
It was a long journey from Kilkenny to Maysville, but somehow both the Clooneys and the Guilfoyles (her mother’s maiden name) made it.
Maysville was where Andrew Clooney and Frances Guilfoyle met, married and produced three children: Rosemary, Betty and Nick.
“Funny,” she says, “neither of my grandmothers were Irish. My first husband, Jose Ferrer, was from Puerto Rico and my kids all have his name, and now I’m married to Dante DiPaolo — not too hard to figure out what he is — but the older I get, the more Irish I feel.”
Grandfather Clooney ran a jewelry shop and was the town mayor; Grandmother Clooney, of German descent, “had all kinds of high-toned attitudes,” she says. “It was probably tough on Daddy, but he could always find solace in the bottom of a barrel.”
The other grandma, Guilfoyle, was French-English and “very down-to-earth. She raised us most of the time, took care of us when our parents kind of bailed out. She had nine children of her own, was overweight and one of the best cooks I ever knew. She was the real head of the family, far as I’m concerned.”
The family grew up during the Depression, a time that hit Kentucky particularly hard. Money was all but nonexistent; Andy Clooney was a house painter who liked to play the ukulele and sing. He had a good voice, she remembers, but he also liked to drink. Her mother worked in a local shop.
The parents had problems other than money and eventually separated; her mother remarried and left for California, taking only young Nick with her, leaving Rosemary and Betty to live with their father.
With borrowed money, the two girls crossed the fiver into Cincinnati, auditioned at the local radio station and were hired. Some time later, bandleader Tony Pastor, appearing in the area, heard them singing and hired them. Billed as The Clooney Sisters, they first appeared with his band at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1947. Betty stuck it out for two years, but she was homesick; she left to go back to Kentucky and have a family.
Rosie headed for New York.
Mitch Miller was chief honcho at Columbia Records then, and he liked what he heard when she sang. He also loved odd novelty songs and he had one with words by the noted author William Saroyan set to music by his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian. It had a catchy, folk-song feel to it and was called “Come-on-a My House.” He thought it would be perfect for Rosemary to sing.
She didn’t think so and said so. He thought it would work and said so.
How right he was. It shot to the top of the charts almost immediately and stayed there for months in 1951. Rosie was 23 and suddenly a star.
“Come-on-a” was soon followed by another in the same vein, “Mambo Italiano,” and it too, took over the charts. It wasn’t until after she recorded “Hey There” that people realized she could do more than ethnic numbers.
Hollywood movie makers couldn’t ignore the popularity of the pretty blonde, so her next move was California. There she was cast in movie musicals, making her film debut in 1953 in The Stars Are Shining, with Anna Maria Alberghetti, to sing her trademark “Come-on-a My House.” After that came Here Come the Girls with Bob Hope, then, in 1954, White Christmas, with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen. It was a huge hit and is still being played on TV.
Her last film role was as a guest star in Deep in My Heart in 1954, with Jose Ferrer, whom she had married for the first time in 1953, divorced in 1962, remarried in 1963 and divorced again in 1967.
Right after that divorce she dropped out of sight, like a firework that gave off great light then sizzled out. The woman who had told the world she only wanted “to give-a-you candy” could barely function. She was as full of ragged edges as a jigsaw puzzle.
Add to that the fact that she had been in the room the night Bobby Kennedy was shot. It was too much for her, so she took the easy way out – Benzedrine and downers. In no time, she was severely addicted, as she describes in her harrowing autobiography, This for Remembrance, and later, Girl Singer — how she ended up driving on the wrong side of a dangerous mountain road.
A “nervous breakdown” was the diagnosis. It was 1968, and she was placed in isolation in a psychiatric ward in Los Angeles, where she was taken in restraints so she wouldn’t harm herself. Her mother came to stay with the children and run the house while she recovered. It took a decade to get the pieces to fit together again.
But they did, finally. And in 1977, she says, after barely making ends meet singing in small clubs, Bing Crosby called. He was putting together a show to commemorate his 50th anniversary in show business, and “he asked me to join it.” She was surprised and grateful he remembered her, and signed on. “It was great. Joe Bushkin was on piano, Bing’s wife and one of his kids were part of the tour, and we were sold out everywhere.
“We played a Broadway house, then went to Ireland, to play the Gaiety in Dublin.”
Her son Miguel came along as the band’s drummer. “Bing died the following year, but I couldn’t believe how he was treated in Ireland. The crowds were incredible. The police had to keep people back a block away. We’d go to the hotel, and people would surround our car. Once, they even rocked it. Bing kept his cool, but it wasn’t easy. I remember I’d just keep walking, smile, say hello, keep moving. Getting to the elevator was a struggle. They just loved Bing — wanted to touch him, speak to him.
“It was amazing.” Something she’s never forgotten.
Her first trip to Ireland, she says, was also memorable. At the time, she was married to Jose Ferrer, then making movie history as Toulouse-Lautrec in Moulin Rouge. Its director, John Huston, invited them to his home outside Dublin. “It was great,” she remembers. “We met everybody, went everywhere. The film was a huge hit and there were parties and receptions in London, Pads and Dublin.”
She’s been back several times, looking for her roots, as so many Irish-Americans do. She went over when her youngest son, Raphael, married a Belfast native, Heather O’Neill, and remembers crossing from the Republic into Northern Ireland then as “scary. The border looked like East and West Berlin. It wasn’t manned by people with guns, but you could see the turrets where they could be.”
Her most recent trip there was in June. Three of her children and her brother Nick and his wife all went along to see and hear her perform at the Dublin Concert Hall. Old friend Michael Feinstein, now a well-known singer-pianist and recording artist, shared the bill. He remembers it vividly:
“I can only tell you that for me to make my debut in Dublin on the same bill as Rosemary Clooney was one of the best moves I could ever have made,” he said. “Adulation would be an understatement for the way she was treated. She enjoyed herself and the audience really loved her.”
Feinstein met her some 20 years ago when he was a young musician hired by Ira Gershwin to organize and collate manuscripts and other materials in the house. Since the Clooney family lived next door, it was inevitable they would meet.
“She had come through several really severe illnesses,” he said. “I can still remember how she was when she’d just come out of the hospital, but she’s fine now. She’s strong. She’s been a second mother to me.” Feinstein now owns a posh supper club in New York City. And whenever Rosie wants to appear at his place, she’s welcome. Kids and all. ♦