Yesterday & Today
More Than a Girl Singer
Rosemary Clooney rebounded from a troubled marriage, addictions and mental illness to enjoy a long singing career. Since her death from lung cancer in 2002, treatment advances have offered some hope to other patients.
By Marilyn Fenichel
Rosemary Clooney | Photo by Gilles Petard / Redferns
As she rose from a small-town girl to a Hollywood star, Rosemary Clooney, affectionately referred to by family and friends as Rosie, became one of America's most beloved singers. Her path included a complicated childhood, wealth and fame, a troubled marriage and, later, mental illness. But throughout, the one constant in her life was singing. She released almost 70 albums before her death in 2002, when she died of non–small cell lung cancer at age 74.
In the early days of her career in the 1950s, Clooney was known for performing novelty songs like ‘A’ You’re Adorable. As she got older, she would sing sensitive tunes about love and pain, like How Long Has This Been Going On? and Everything Happens to Me. A critic for the San Francisco Examiner wrote after a 1976 comeback performance, “She opens her mouth, gives a little smile, half-closes her eyes and vocally fondles the lyrics of [the songs]. And subsequently, listeners wonder why these songs never sounded so good before.”
A Difficult Start
Born in Maysville, Kentucky, on May 23, 1928, Clooney found success, but it was hard-won. Her father, Andy, was an alcoholic who struggled to make a living. Her mother, Frances, traveled a great deal for her dress business. In 1941, Clooney, her brother, Nick, and sister, Betty, moved with their parents—who had already divorced—to Cincinnati after Andy got a job at a defense plant. That same year, Frances remarried and moved to California with Nick, leaving Rosemary, then 13, and her sister, Betty, then 10, behind with their father. In 1945, her father went out one night with friends to celebrate the end of World War II. He never came back.
Clooney, 17, and her sister, 14, found themselves in a dire situation. They collected soda bottles and used what little money they had to buy lunch at school. The rent was overdue, the phone disconnected and the utilities about to be turned off when their luck changed. The teenagers, who had grown up performing at political rallies for their grandfather, the mayor of Maysville, won a singing competition at WLW, a local radio station. The station hired them for a regular late-night spot, with each sister earning $20 a week.
Their live performances on the radio led to a traveling gig with Tony Pastor and His Orchestra in 1946. Already known for novelty songs, Pastor thrived with the Clooney sisters on board. Accompanied by an uncle who served as a chaperone, the pair traveled around the country with the orchestra for three years. Betty decided to return to Cincinnati, but Rosemary wanted more. In 1949, at age 21, she moved to New York City for a shot at fame as a recording star and an actress in movies and on television.
Clooney’s arrival in New York coincided with the heyday of “girl singers,” who often accompanied orchestras. Many became recording stars in their own right. In 1949, Clooney obtained a contract with Columbia Records. She was assigned to work with recording executive and bandleader Mitch Miller, who pushed her to record a quirky song called Come On-a My House
. Later in life, Clooney recalled, “I think it was a musically snobbish time in my life. I really hated that song, and my first impression was, what a cheap way to get people’s attention.” After Miller threatened to fire her if she didn’t record the song, Clooney complied, and much to her surprise, it became an instant hit—and made her a star.
Clooney’s fame continued to grow through the 1950s with songs like Tenderly, Botch-a-Me, Hey There and This Ole House, culminating in 1954 with her critically acclaimed performance as Betty in the film White Christmas, with Bing Crosby.
Life in the Spotlight
In 1952, while filming Here Come the Girls and Red Garters, Clooney began a romance with her dance instructor Dante DiPaolo. Unbeknownst to DiPaolo, she was also involved with the Academy Award-winning actor José Ferrer. In 1953, she made her choice. She left DiPaolo and married Ferrer. They settled in Beverly Hills and had five children.
Shortly after their first child was born in 1955, Clooney began her star turn on The Rosemary Clooney Show. The syndicated variety show ran for a year on more than 100 television stations and counted Johnny Mercer, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Cesar Romero among its guests. In 1956, NBC took over the show, changing its name to The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney. It was broadcast live through 1958.
Balancing motherhood and work was a struggle. “Life with Mama was a mixed bag,” says Monsita Ferrer, Clooney’s daughter, who still lives near her childhood home in Beverly Hills. “She was on the road a lot, so our grandmother [Frances] moved in with us and kept the house going. It turned out well, though, because they got to know each other again and rebuilt their relationship, which was important to both of them.”
By contrast, Clooney’s relationship with Ferrer was troubled. They divorced in 1962, remarried in 1964, and divorced again in 1967. Around the same time, Clooney developed an addiction to tranquilizers and a drinking problem, and her behavior became increasingly erratic. “Nobody could approach me,” she wrote in her 1977 autobiography, This for Remembrance. “I was like a hand grenade with the pin pulled. Nobody could tell whether it was a dud or the real thing, because one minute I could be completely sweet and kind, the next, a raving monster.”
On June 5, 1968, Clooney was just yards away from her good friend Robert F. Kennedy when he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He died the next day. Clooney had campaigned for Kennedy, who had just won the California Democratic presidential primary.
A month later, she walked offstage during a performance in Reno, Nevada. Shortly thereafter, she was diagnosed with and began treatment for bipolar disorder. Even during her emotional ups and downs, she worked. “Mama would take whatever job she could,” says Monsita Ferrer. “She played at Holiday Inns and appeared in Coronet paper towel commercials on television.”
In 1975, her good friend Bing Crosby invited her to join him for his 50th anniversary tour. A year later, she signed a contract with record company Concord Jazz. The 1970s were also when she reconnected with her old flame DiPaolo, whom she met by chance in 1973 and went on to marry in 1997. For Ferrer, her mother’s shining moment came in 1991, when she performed at Carnegie Hall in a New York City concert showcasing many of her hits, with singer Linda Ronstadt as her guest star. “She [had been] down, but she clawed her way back up,” says Ferrer. “I’ve always been so proud of her courage.”
A long-time smoker, Clooney was hospitalized in 1996 with acute respiratory failure. At that time, her doctors advised her to quit smoking, but Clooney struggled with her addiction. “Mama called me from the hospital and asked me to bring her cigarettes,” Ferrer remembers. “It was so hard for her to stop, though she finally did.”
Toward the end of 2001, Clooney was on the road performing when she began to find it hard to breathe. By the time she arrived home in Beverly Hills a few days before Christmas, she was exhausted. “She could hardly get up the stairs,” says Ferrer. “After two steps, she would have to stop and rest.” Less than a month later, Clooney was diagnosed with stage IIIA non–small cell lung cancer. She died six months later, on June 29, 2002, at her home in Beverly Hills with her family beside her. She was 74.