At Home With Rosemary Clooney: Still a Girl Singer NYTimes Article

October 7, 1999


Still a Girl Singer


BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. -- She has a lived-in laugh, a deep, rueful chuckle made of good times and bum times, of cigarettes and singing and long, hard nights on the road. Somewhere around the first sip of the second cocktail in her elegant old living room, it dawns on a visitor just what a life Rosemary Clooney has lived.

For 46 years, she has made her home in this rambling house, where George and Ira Gershwin wrote their last song, "Love Is Here to Stay." The silver frames that line her bookshelves and piano hold photographs of Marlene Dietrich, John F. Kennedy and her movie-star nephew, George, who started his Hollywood career as a gofer and chore boy here. When she talks about Bing and Bob, Dean and Frank, they are not legends, but friends.

"I did Bing's radio show, always, and later we did a 15-minute daily show, five days a week that we taped in this room," she said. "We would sit around the table sort of like this, and then they'd set up the microphones, and we'd break out some Scotch." They would circle their own lines, but not read them in advance, so that when they performed the scripts, it was always spontaneous.

Spontaneous is Ms. Clooney's default mode. At 71, she is a survivor of a swinging era whose greats are almost all gone. She still sings the old songs the way they were meant to be sung, and she tells priceless stories of watching the fights on television with Crosby and his date for the night, the young Grace Kelly, in sweater set and pearls. But Ms. Clooney is no nostalgia act. She is the spiritual godmother to younger singers like Linda Ronstadt, and she has just recorded a duet of "The Boy From Ipanema" with Diana Krall, the hot young jazz pianist and singer, to be released next spring.

It was not quite twilight, and Ms. Clooney and her husband, Dante DiPaolo, a dapper Hollywood hoofer she fell in love with nearly 50 years ago at Paramount studios and then jilted to marry Jose Ferrer, were sitting at a needlepoint chess table Ms. Clooney had made for Ferrer between nightclub shows at the Waldorf-Astoria.

"He didn't take it with him," Ms. Clooney said dryly of the man she married and divorced twice and with whom she had five children. Ferrer's smiling picture still hangs in a prominent place in her den.

As the day's last minivans full of stargazing tourists glided by the crape myrtle tree in the front yard, the conversation drifted gently over the past. But the evening was actually a rare lull before Ms. Clooney would plunge headlong into the future again.

First would be a trip to her hometown of Maysville, Ky., just down the river from Cincinnati, to raise money to rebuild the theater where her first film, "The Stars Are Singing," had its premiere in 1953. Then there would be a two-week stint, through Oct. 16, as the opening act at her friend Michael Feinstein's new 150-seat supper club at the Regency Hotel in Manhattan. "And we have the power of the pencil!" Ms. Clooney said of their ability to sign for their drinks and food, with the glee of one who knows too well what it's like to cook on a hotel hot plate.

Finally, next month, comes the publication of "Girl Singer" (Doubleday) her new memoir, co-written with Joan Barthel, along with a compilation album of career hits, reissued by her longtime label, Concord Jazz, and a book tour that is to include an appearance on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show."

Ms. Clooney's first autobiography, "This for Remembrance" (Playboy Press, 1977), was made into a television movie starring Sondra Locke, with Ms. Clooney dubbing the vocals. The book is out of print, and badly out of date, since it was published just as she was beginning a tentative comeback, with Crosby's help, after a nervous breakdown, years of addiction to prescription drugs and one-night stands in suburban Holiday Inns.

"Since then a lot has happened," she said.

Before then, too. As a child, Ms. Clooney was passed to relatives by her divorced, dysfunctional parents, and started singing on the radio in Cincinnati. At 18, with her sister, Betty, she went on the road with Tony Pastor's big band. "Come On-a My House," an improbable fake Armenian folk song with a hokey harpsichord accompaniment and words by William Saroyan, made her a solo star at 23. She then made five movies in quick succession, including "White Christmas," with Bing Crosby.

Her marriage to Ferrer produced five children in five years. (Bob Hope called it "Vatican Roulette," and after the third one, he and Crosby gave her track shoes and starting blocks; Tennessee Ernie Ford insisted, "You've got to find out what's causing this.") But Ferrer, 16 years her senior, was an incorrigible womanizer, as she learned on their honeymoon. They split up for good in 1966.

A heartbreaking and ill-fated affair with the arranger Nelson Riddle, the rise of rock 'n' roll and her own growing dependence on a rainbow arsenal of uppers and downers left Ms. Clooney on the edge. When her friend Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 as she waited to greet him at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, she snapped. Weeks later, convinced Kennedy was still alive, she stormed off a stage in Reno and drove her white Cadillac covered with flower decals up the wrong side of a mountain road to Lake Tahoe in the dark, yelling, "That's one for you, God!" every time an oncoming car veered out of her way. That got her placed in the locked ward of Cedars-Sinai Hospital with other severely depressed patients.

"I was confused at first," Ms. Clooney said. "Not confused," she amended. "I was crazy. But Phil Silvers was there, and he was walking up and down the halls, really nervous, highly charged, and I thought, 'Well, this is just pretend, you know."' Her sense of unreality was heightened by the fact that one of the therapists on the ward was Betsy Drake, who had been married to Cary Grant. "Who could take that seriously?" she said.

It was serious enough: Ms. Clooney was in therapy for the next eight years, kicked her drug habit, and began to rebuild relationships with her children, then 8 to 13, who had been largely raised by Ms. Clooney's mother -- a bitter twist, since her mother had abandoned Rosemary and her younger sister, Betty, when they were young.

She never really reconciled with her mother before she died in 1973. It was only a few weeks later that she became reacquainted with DiPaolo. As she was stopped at a traffic light in Beverly Hills in her Corvette convertible, he pulled up in his Thunderbird and called out, "Rosella!" She had not laid eyes on him in 20 years, but she invited him to dinner.

A few months later he moved in, becoming her road manager and indispensable man. Two years ago, tired of explaining their domestic arrangements to Ms. Clooney's nine grandchildren, they were married in the church in Maysville where Ms. Clooney was baptized.

Decades before, when she dropped him for Ferrer, DiPaolo said, "Oh, I crashed. I mean, I really couldn't understand that at all."

Ms. Clooney said gently: "He was the kindest man that I've ever known. He was also funny."

But in those years, Ms. Clooney said, she was too busy running away from her own insecurities to pick a man like DiPaolo. And her Hollywood life was heady, in a household that featured butler, cook, housekeeper, upstairs maid, laundress, secretary, gardener and pool man, on a block where the neighbors included Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and James Stewart. There were friendly evenings with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh, after-dinner coffee with Nat King Cole at the piano, girl talk with Dietrich and Billie Holiday, nights in Las Vegas watching Frank Sinatra.

"I don't think he was happy in a lot of ways," Ms. Clooney said of Sinatra. "I think that's why the kind of immature things that Sammy and Dean and Joey Bishop and all those guys did when they were together. That was the fun that he had that he'd never had when he was a kid, and he could be in charge."

Sometimes now, she said, she sees her nephew George (his father is her brother, Nick) seeking safety in a somewhat similar camaraderie. "I see him hanging with his friends, the guys that play basketball," she said. "They're his guys, and they have to go on their golfing trip every year. I see that, and I wonder if it's the same kind of thing."

Ms. Clooney knows the loneliness of fame. In her new book, she recalls a Christmas Eve party at Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall's in the mid-'50s. Her own career was on a roll, but she felt strangely depressed. She caught sight of Spencer Tracy, who asked what was wrong.

"I don't know," she writes. "I've never been to a party on Christmas Eve. I guess I'm just homesick."

Tracy said, "Get used to it."

"I guess maybe it was just a couple of burned-out Catholics," Ms. Clooney recalled. "Sometimes I felt way out of my depth, you know."

Today, her Christmas Eves are very different, with Champagne and caviar in her big house on North Roxbury Drive full of family and friends. Her eldest son, Miguel, is an actor in New York, as is her youngest, Rafael. Gabriel, married to the singer Debby Boone, is an artist and Episcopal priest at a Beverly Hills church near her house. Her older daughter, Maria, raises Arabian horses in the Santa Ynez Valley near Santa Barbara. Her daughter Monsita is married to a television executive and raising a family.

Ms. Clooney has made some concessions to age and knee surgery, and now sings only one show a night. But she keeps trying new things and said a new album of Brazilian songs, with the guitarist John Pizzarelli and featuring the duet with Ms. Krall, was the hardest music she ever had to learn. She said she'll keep singing as long as she can stand, and if she can't, she'll sit, as Mabel Mercer did.

But she has yet to schedule the sessions with a voice coach that Bob Hope's 90-year-old wife, Dolores, recently gave her as a present.

"She still sings, beautifully," Ms. Clooney said of her old friend. "But I'm too old to take a lesson now."

Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company