The last crooner. (singer Rosemary Clooney)
(Harper's Bazaar - 5-1-98)
Rosemary Clooney will celebrate her 70th birthday with her new husband, two new recordings and a new release on life. The indomitable single talks to David Wild about being back on top after hitting rock bottom.
Stick around 70 years. You get to know a lot of people."
A queen of understatement, Rosemary Clooney is sitting in the living room of her homey Beverly Hills mansion with her longtime companion and newlywed husband, Dante DiPaolo, surrounded by images of her remarkable life. A photo with a warm note from John F. Kennedy hangs next to a snapshot of Clooney and Dean Martin signed "With Great Affection, Dino." Across the room there's a stunning black-and-white portrait of Clooney and Frank Sinatra that defines flaming youth and raging charisma. "Frank liked my sister, Betty, more than me," recalls Clooney with a wistful laugh. "He asked her out, and I got to be the third wheel."
It's been a foggy day in Beverly Hills, relatively speaking, but anyone coming on-a Clooney's house finds her in the sunny mood of someone who has been through her share of true darkness. As she reclines in the same room where George and Ira Gershwin once penned such timeless standards as "A Foggy Day" and "Love Is Here to Stay," Clooney smiles at hearing praise for one of the paintings in her collection that hangs by the piano.
"Thanks," Clooney says casually. "I sold a couple of really good ones when times were ... not so hot."
What makes Rosemary Clooney's story so unique is that this beloved chart-topping singer of the '50s has survived a decidedly not-so-hot time in her life and come out the other side - not only alive but a fine artist to boot. Along with her early '60s work with the late arranger Nelson Riddle (one of the great musical loves of her professional life), the ongoing series of thematic albums for Concord Jazz that she began recording in the late '70s have been the most engaging, ambitious and subtle of her career. This is one mature girl singer who has earned the right to sing the blues.
Times are still busy for one of the best of the big-band vocalists. In 1998 she will release two new albums, starting this month with a retrospective called Rosemary Clooney 70, which includes a new version of "Love Is Here to Stay" with k.d. lang and Clooney's good friend Linda Ronstadt. Despite a recent bout with pneumonia, Clooney is scheduled to kick off that album's release with a two-week run at Rainbow & Stars, the cabaret at the Rainbow Room, high atop Manhattan's Rockefeller Center, culminating on May 23, her 70th birthday. Later this year comes a recorded tribute to Count Basie. Next spring, Doubleday will publish Clooney's new memoir, which begins where her 1977 autobiography, This for Remembrance, left off and chronicles her climb back to success and the times since then. "There will also be some stories about the earlier days that I didn't touch on in the first book," she explains. Though much time has passed since she played the exquisite young songbird seen in White Christmas - the 1954 seasonal favorite in which she starred along with Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen and Bing Crosby - those gorgeous blue eyes still radiate an undeniable star power.
Starting out as a girl-singer duo with her younger sister, Betty (who died in 1974), and later as a vocalist with the Tony Pastor Orchestra, the Kentucky-born Clooney became a massive pop superstar in the '50s with such fluffy novelty numbers as "Come On-a My House," "Botcha Me" and "Mambo Italiano," songs that were mostly hand-picked for her by Columbia's then-powerful schlockmeister Mitch Miller. Clooney's innocent yet lusciously husky voice was confident and convincing, but too often the material she was handed was beneath her - more Patti Page than Ella Fitzgerald. Still, there were recordings with Sinatra, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman, a couple of movie roles, even Clooney's own TV series on NBC, the same network that 40-something years later now features her nephew George on a little medical drama called ER.
Clooney began a tempestuous, high-profile marriage in 1953 with Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer, with whom she had five children in five years ("Vatican roulette," Bob Hope memorably called it). Her oldest daughter, Maria, had the world's coolest godmother: Billie Holiday. "Billie sat here one night and told me I was going to have a girl child and that she wanted to be the godmother. 'It takes a bad woman to be a good godmother,' she said," Clooney recalls with a hearty laugh.
By the latter half of the '60s, Clooney was following Holiday down the path of public self-destruction, with an addiction to painkillers and alcohol. Her marriage fell apart, and so did her connection to her own music. "All the time I was hating it, or I didn't even bother to hate it; that's the worst part," she says, shaking her head. "My one interest was waking up in the morning and figuring out how many pills I had for that day. That was my mission: finding out how many Seconal I had, how many Percodan and how many Miltown. I had to figure out if I had enough to get through the day."
Clooney was pushed over the edge in 1968 by the year's appalling events, including the assassination of her friend Robert Kennedy, for whom she had campaigned. She ended up committing herself to what she bluntly calls "the psycho ward" of L.A.'s Mt. Sinai Hospital (now Cedars-Sinai Medical Center), an experience documented in her memoirs, which were later made into a 1982 TV movie. Rebuilding her career was a gradual, painful process. Amazingly, in the early '70s, the onetime superstar and household name was reduced to struggling for gigs at assorted Holiday Inn lounges in Southern California - and even then, playing to some empty houses.
"I worked anyplace I could get a job," Clooney says matter-of-factly. "I played in Pittsburgh once, and at the second show there was nobody. Yeah, the guy made me do the show. But the comic there was funny, and he had some cutouts of people. So I went out and sang to a bunch of cutouts."
Clooney kept working. "I got clean and then became kind of resourceful about making money because I hadn't ever had to worry about that before," she remembers. "Suddenly I had to look around and think, Okay, what jewelry can I sell? What painting can I sell until I get my next job? Because I had this reputation for being nuts, which was absolutely true."
After kicking the pills, Clooney's muse returned with a vengeance, and her voice took on a more compelling, lived-in character. But she's not inclined to believe she had to bottom out in order to achieve new artistic heights. "I hope not," she says. "I hope that isn't the reason. But I'll tell you something: I used it."
"The truth of the matter is that the early years of any singer are more like those of an athlete; it's the pyrotechnics that matter," observes her brother, Nick Clooney, an American Movie Classics network host and the father of George. "What happens is, when life suddenly overwhelms you and defeats you and even the gift seems hollow, that is when you begin to understand what you were singing about all those years. I think that's precisely what happened with Rosemary."
The turning point came in 1975, when Bing Crosby generously invited her to appear on a few prestigious bills with him in Las Vegas and New York. "That made all the difference," Rosemary says. But she also says that Concord Jazz let her pick the songs she wanted to sing: "I was given a place where they said, 'Do what you want to do.' I never had that before."
Anyone who spends even a few hours in Clooney's company knows what an entertaining storyteller she can be. Here is what she has to share about some of her pals from the neighborhood: "Lucy Ball was on the corner there. She was sensational. She would say to me, 'How can you beat this? Well, of course, you can't be married to that Puerto Rican. I can't be married to that Cuban. We're both nuts. How could two Irish people try to get along with these idiots?' Jack Benny lived next to Lucy. He was wonderful; I liked him better than I liked his wife [actress Mary Livingstone]. Right across from Lucy was Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart did the best thing. The tourist buses would stop, and people would picnic on his lawn. He went out and turned on the sprinklers."
Even during her personal and professional dark ages, Clooney was able to stay in her elegant neighborhood: "The house was in the kids' names, " she explains. It's a good thing too, since these days the place serves as a home base for an extended clan of children and grandchildren who stop by regularly. This is an eclectic, showbizzy family. Son Miguel Ferrer is a familiar screen heavy, while his brother Gabriel - who comes by this afternoon - is married to the famously wholesome Debby Boone of "You Light Up My Life" fame. Clooney reports that all her kids are doing well, despite the fact that they went through their own periods of experimentation. "At one time or another, they were all on everything but roller skates," she says.
Yes, Virginia, George Clooney did live in this old house too for a time, when he first moved west from Kentucky. "George was just as rotten as any other kid who was growing up here," she says fondly. "For the most part he did his share of the work. Once he pulped a Tom Sawyer when he was supposed to paint a fence around the pool. He only painted as much of it as I could see from my bathroom because he figured I wouldn't go out in the yard and check. But I did." Later George did a little driving for his aunt during a tour with other veteran singers, and one night he proved his worth by successfully locating Martha Raye's missing teeth. Her nephew's subsequent superstardom may, Clooney surmises, have helped bring down the average age of her fan base. "It's amazing how many young women in their 20s come up and tell me, 'We love your music,'" she says with a knowing smile.
Clooney's grandchildren are part of the reason that last November she finally married her partner of 24 years and onetime film-studio dance coach, Dante DiPaolo, a still graceful hoofer who can be spotted in such films as Sweet Charity and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. "I liked the concept of marriage," Clooney recalls. "I just didn't want to change anything that was working. But there were times when the grandchildren would say, 'Where did you get married?' And I'd have to say, 'We're not married.' They'd want to know, 'How come you stay in the same room?' I'd say, 'We're roommates.'"
Her roommate enjoys another role in the Clooney home: grandchild wrangler. "I can't chase them the way that I used to," Clooney confesses. "But Dante can. I couldn't have more help than Dante. So you see, you can't do everything alone."
If DiPaolo's charge is to chase grandkids, what does this living legend see as her remaining mission?
"I just would like to keep singing," Clooney says after a long pause. "As soon as I'm not singing well, I hope that I know it, so that I can get off the stage and leave what I have done. I hope I'll know, and if I don't, I hope somebody tells me. And you can print that."
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