Rosemary and Time
By Peter Richmon
Sixty-five stories above the Manhattan winter-evening streets Rosemary Clooney is playing the Carnegie Hall of cabaret as if she's telling a story to a living room full of friends. You can see it in the way the crowd has drawn itself in, a little closer, nodding, half smiling in recognition—at the cock of her head, at a lyric, at a phrase that speaks of a day or a year or a time long gone but still comfortable in memory; it's a room at repose, the whole place snared in a gentle web.
It's her first set of the night at Rockefeller Center's Rainbow & Stars—which is the only room in the world if you do what Rosie does—and there's something extraordinary going on.
It's not in the music. One by one her notes don't add up to any revelations on the order of lang or Vaughan or Holiday. Rosie's voice was always good but never enchanting, or wrenched from the gut. It was always just Rosie's voice. And while the band is superb, it does nothing to draw attention to itself: When Bucky Pizzarelli, the venerable ace in the patent-leather shoes, hunches over his guitar to glide into a solo, the sum of his improvisation is a single stretched note, and even then the guitar string seems reluctant to be bent at all.
And still, this is more spontaneity than the room will get from Rosie. What this woman does is deliver American pop music—a reassuring and unsurprising catalogue of Gershwin and Porter and Kahn—utterly faithfully, singing the notes as written. There are no flights of self-indulgence. None of the notes soars, none of them misses, there's not even the slightest hint of a slip. She lets them out just far enough to hook the room, but she never belts them out so far that she loses control of them.
Like the woman from whom it issues, it's a voice in command, a voice of reason, and it knows better than to stray where it doesn't belong. There's no percentage in playing the fringes anymore. These days Rosemary Clooney settles for what's right there in reach, and takes utter delight in it.
So she turns away from the microphone in the middle of the sax solo in "How Deep Is the Ocean" to face the nightblue windows and places her hands on the top of the piano and gazes down to see the glimmering blanket of the city and, up the river, the parallel strings of pearls looped over the towers of the George Washington Bridge. When she speaks, it's a private thought, and she doesn't appear to realize she can be heard from a table a few feet away.
"It's pretty out," she says.
Damned if she's going to let any more of the good moments go by.
Then she turns and reaches for the mike and she hits the cue perfectly and the notes start coming out again, small puffs of song, stirring the air just a little, stirring the room a little more.
This is Rosemary Clooney, doing the work.
And what's extraordinary isn't that she's standing on top of the world. It's that she's standing at all.
Sometimes she'd take them by color, for the hell of it, when taking them by color made as much sense as anything else. Percodans were yellow, Seconals were red, Miltowns were white, and she'd take one of each, because they looked good together. Or she could get the entire spectrum with all of the pellets in a single Tuinal.
She could get anything she wanted, anywhere. It was so damned easy. Once, she called the hotel doctor in some city somewhere—This is Rosemary Clooney, I forgot my medication, I have to sleep, can you send up a couple of Seconals7—and he sent up a hundred, which meant that her first thought the next morning wouldn't be the stab of anxiety: Where are the next ones coming from? A hundred! Truly the spoils of fame.
They were everywhere. Nembutal, Doriden, bennies, this was the vocabulary of the Eisenhower time, and vapid smiles, real or artificial, were the order of the day. Her friends did them. Everyone's friends did them. Dietrich introduced her to the suppositories, the ones she and Noel Coward did—a good high, lasted five hours, a nice sleep, you could do one for a plane. Not particularly attractive, but as Marlene had pointed out, there was an inherent advantage: You weren't likely to overdose.
When Rosemary did overdose, in more conventional fashion, it wasn't because she wanted to kill herself—she simply forgot how many she'd taken, and she took them again.
Suicide was never the idea. The idea was the opposite. The idea was to endure.
"I liked the way they felt," she says now, in a Manhattan hotel suite. She says it with a whisperiness that lends a fondness to the reminiscence, but it may be that she's simply saving her voice for the two shows tonight.
"I liked not being drunk—being loose without being drunk. I liked that. I really liked downers because there was about fifteen minutes of euphoria before they took over. When all was right with the world. And you could be. . ."
She searches for the word, she scans the suite.
". . .content."
There is no hint of the mania in her now. There is no reason for Rosemary Clooney to lacquer her reality. It's fine as it is. Twenty-six years after she committed herself to a psychiatric ward, she has made it back: She's the standard-bearer, not only for the music but for the time, for an era when our pop music was classic, written by masters, a time when even our blues and our sadness were romantic, tempered by the blind optimism that marked mid-century America, lifted by the buoyancy of a land too young to know the depth of its flaws.
It's not illusion, the current success. It's easily quantifiable: eighteen records in the past seventeen years for the Concord Jazz label. Six sold-out month-long engagements in the past six years atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza. Two appearances at Carnegie Hall in the past three years. Grammy nominations in 1992 and '93.
More significant numbers: five children and eight grandchildren. The hotel suite is deep in family photographs, save a single picture, from the Fifties, of her and Sinatra. They look good together. A quick glance reveals nothing of the truth, which is that Rosie was more or less underwater when they did their singing.
Back home in California is where the history is, in the house where she and Jose Ferrer raised their family. She lives there now with her longtime companion, Dante DiPaolo. It's a comfortable and solid place, ancient for the town, built back when you could still feel the hills in Beverly Hills. Ferrer bought it for them from a man who'd rented it previously to two brothers named Gershwin. Two blocks from Jimmy Stewart's, a block from Jack Benny's and Lucille Ball's. The living room houses the gallery of photographs—Rosie and presidents, Rosie and Bing, Rosie and Dean—all of them propped next to the piano, which sits where George Gershwin's piano sat when he wrote "A Foggy Day." In the kitchen is the linoleum table where Ira Gershwin, who ended up living next door, would sit for hours and tell Rosie stories.
But on the road, in this Manhattan hotel suite, the photos are all family. This is a 66-year-old grandmother's suite, and Dante has come out of the adjoining room to pour her a cup of tea. She asks for coffee instead.
"Ill have some black, pal— what do you think? What do you think?"
This is said "Whaddayathink, whaddayathink," and while it sounds like a lyric, it's not. It's the way Rosemary talks. It's the jazz in her—the rhythms she uses, over a long and quiet afternoon, when she is asked to reflect, and is happy to.
"I'm making a living, and I'm singing well," she says. "And I know it. I'm working. I'm working. That's what I do. That's what I do."
It is more than making a living. It's a good life. Everything says so: the man at her side, the grandkids always on her mind. The way the maitre d' at Manhattan's hottest restaurant choreographs his staff to suit the Clooney lunch party.
Rosemary Clooney has it good.
"I really do, I really do," she says.
Then she waits. Her eyes go away for a second.
"But goddamn—it was a long time getting here," she says, and there's no laugh to follow it, only part of a smile.
Doris Day and Patti Page and Dinah Shore and Peggy Lee— through the simple haze of history Rosemary was just one of the group: a girl singer. At first glance, she was right for the role, down to the first hit song—"Come On-a My House," the perfectly nonsensical anthem for a perfectly nonsensical time. When she landed on the cover of Time in 1953, it was as if the entire era had been stamped for approval—she was the ideal creation for the time, fabricated from whole blonde cloth.
She crossed over from popstress to movie actress in 1954, when she costarred with Crosby and Kaye in White Christmas, her huge smile framed by the dimples and the bouncing perm. But if you looked closely, you could see that the lady, like the nation, was not as simple as the surface suggested. Not if you looked closely at her eyes. She had eyes like steel when the rest of her was bobbing and perking on cue. Watch White Christmas—watch her play off Bing's practiced suavity and Danny's mock-manic shtick: Everything is as scripted, except Rosemary's eyes. In the middle of all the romance and frivolity, Rosemary's eyes don't believe a word of it.
Years later, it was Mariette Hartley who said she'd noticed that Rosemary never looked into the eyes of her audience.
"Who do you think isn't going to be there?" Hartley asked her.
Well, for a start, her parents. And her husband. For a start.
They married in 1953, but Jose—Joe—was doing a show in New York and the honeymoon didn't happen immediately. They finally got away to Europe, and it was on their first night in a playwright friend's manor house in England that the peculiar acoustics of the stone stairway allowed her to overhear Joe bragging to their host down below, over late drinks, about the woman he'd been making love to for the past few weeks in his dressing room.
Right then she knew she could leave or she could do the work. She could endure the pyrotechnics of an annulment— Rosemary Clooney leaves Jose Ferrer; it would make headlines around the world—or she could stay and do the work.
She'd always been the strong one. Her brother, Nicky, once said it was Rosemary who always slew the dragons for the family. When she was 15 years old and their mother left the family in Maysville, Kentucky, heading west for another man, it was Nicky the mother took with her. Rosemary remembers, as the cab pulled away, the sight of Nicky waving to her and her younger sister, Betty, from the car's back window. The mother knew Rosie could handle it. And she did.
It was Rosie who moved herself and Betty to an aunt's house when their father fell off the wagon for good. And after they'd been discovered by the radio station up in Cincinnati, after they'd signed on with Tony Pastor's band, two teenage girls sitting on a bus with a couple of dozen woolly big band musicians combing the country, it was Rosemary who looked after the two of them.
So there was no choice, not really, when she heard Joe Ferrer's brandied boasts down below on the first night of her honeymoon; the fantasy marriage of the singer and the actor was, in fact, going to be just that: a fantasy. But she stayed and did the work. She bore him five children in five years, and while she wished he hadn't hurled his affairs in her face, at least she stopped worrying about them: It was Dietrich who told her not to go looking for things, because she might find them.
She had plenty of help in not looking. Librium. Shots of Demerol that made her vomit. Canada was good for codeine, France and Hong Kong and Japan were good for everything.
She and Ferrer had already gone through the first of their two divorces by the early Sixties. But the work was still there. Television specials, records, shows. It had been a decade since the first hit record, but her name still carried weight; how many singers get a call in their hotel room from the president's people, inviting them over to the White House at 1 A.M.? She changed back into the Edith Head gown, with the jacket that seemed to be slipping off her shoulders, and she remembers JFK rising from the rocking chair, wearing the back brace.
"How does it stay up?" he asked.
Snaps, Mr. President. Snaps.
But it was Bobby who intrigued her. She thought he offered hope. In retrospect, she figures she couldn't handle her own problems, so it was easier to take on the country's. By 1968, a reconciliation had failed and she'd divorced Joe again, this time for good. With her marriage over, her career now uncertain, the pills working backward—instead of nodding off, she never slept—she wrote Bobby a note to congratulate him on a primary victory. He wrote back and threatened to show up somewhere and sing with her.
Quickly, they were friends. On the last whole night of his life, they were onstage together in San Diego for a Kennedy rally and she noticed he was holding a flower, and he was shredding it. Little things took on meaning. By this point she was receiving messages from television sets.
The next night, in L.A., she was a few yards away when Sirhan Sirhan pulled out his .22, and that was the last of the old Rosemary. The following morning she began to tell people that Bobby wasn't dead, it was all a conspiracy: To protect him, they'd faked his assassination; when Rosemary watched the funeral train, she knew it wasn't Bobby in the coffin. She told it to everyone. The pills had fried the circuits. It was a complete psychotic breakdown.
She checked herself into the psychiatric ward of Cedars Sinai but she still knew Bobby wasn't dead. There were some familiar faces inside the hospital, some actors, and that confirmed it: They'd set up an elaborate hoax. She was the only one who knew that Bobby hadn't died and they had to keep her from letting everyone else know.
It took four weeks for her to shake the drugs enough to be let out on her own. It took eight years of analysis for her to believe she didn't have to slay anyone's dragons.
And it took years for her to get real work. Her friend Dinah would invite her on the television show, and Merv Griffin, but that was about it. She took to playing a local Holiday Inn, one with a rotating lounge on top. The view wasn't much. But it was better than looking into the faces of the nine or ten people in the audience. It wasn't their fault when they came up afterward to say, without thinking, "What are you doing in a dump like this?"
Dante helped. They'd met on the set of a picture in the Fifties and had some fun, but she was engaged to Joe, and then Dante married a showgirl in Vegas. He and Rosie hadn't seen each other in eighteen years when one afternoon, as she idled at a light in her Vette, Dante pulled up in his '56 T-Bird and honked. She figured she was a husk of the Rosie he remembered, so she shouted her phone number and pulled away. Dante searched for a pen, couldn't find one, scrawled the number in the dust on his windshield and called that night.
But it was Bing who saved her. He was taking a show on the road in '74 to celebrate his fifty years in the business, and when he asked her along, she gratefully accepted. During a rehearsal he said something that brought Rosemary Clooney back to the surface.
"I'm in the wings studying the damned lyrics," she says. "He says, 'What are you doing?' I say, 'I'm learning these words.' He says, 'Take the music out there with you.' I say, 'I can't do that.' He says, 'Rosemary, they're not going to form a posse and come out here and get you.'
"And now I keep thinking about what Bing said: 'They're not going to form a posse to come get you.' There's nothing that can happen to me that I haven't endured already. There's nothing that can happen to me. I've gotten past it."
The second chance was harder than the first. She could always attribute the first chance, the early fame, to luck.
"But coming back was my own work," she says. "My own work and my own talent and my own step-by-step."
As the afternoon goes on, the talk melts from interview into conversation. As Dante fields the never-ending calls from friends and family, Rosie talks of Bing and Sinatra and Marlene, and of her disparate daughters-in-law—Debby Boone and Leilani Ferrer, who played Sharon Stone's lesbian lover in Basic Instinct—and the suite is no longer simply hotel quarters, it's where someone lives.
And then Dante comes out of the other room and tells her that it was on the news that Dinah died.
Rosemary's face stops still, goes slack.
"Oh, damn," she says. "Oh, damn."
Tears appear, but there's no sound accompanying them. Her cheeks are wet, but she isn't sobbing. She just says "Oh, damn" again and again.
I get up to leave and she kisses my cheek. As I walk down the hotel hallway the air against my cheek feels cool, and when I touch my face, I realize that her tears are on it. I pull my hand away, because I don't want to erase them, but in a moment or two, they've evaporated.
That night, she does two shows at Rainbow & Stars.
Because she does the work. She does the work.