"Rosemary Clooney's Saddest Song"

By Alan Ebert

Ladies Home Journal
March 1976

In the '50's she was America's
"singing sweetheart."

In the '60's she suffered a
terrifying mental breakdown.

"I've been through hell," she says.

"But without that experience,
  I wouldn't know the joy I feel today."

"Come on-a my house, my house," she sang, promising "to give-a you candy, I'm-a gonna give you everything…."

And it seemed that Rosemary Clooney had everything to give. Young and pretty in a blond, blue-eyed, all-American way, she emerged from obscurity to become one of the most popular singers of the 1950's; a Cinderella who married her prince, actor Jose Ferrer, and produced five children at one-year intervals during their 11-year marriage. She starred in movies (White Christmas and Here Come the Girls) and in 1958, hosted her own network TV show. But ten years later, in 1968, an hallucinating Rosemary Clooney was pounding the walls of an isolation cell in the psychiatric ward of St. John's Hospital in Los Angeles.

Lay people would define the illness that sent Rosemary Clooney to the hospital as a nervous breakdown. According to J. Victor Monke, M.D., the psychiatrist who treated Rosemary for six years, she suffered a "psychotic reaction with severe depression and paranoid features. Her symptoms included hallucinations, fear, depression, violently aggressive behavior and an inability to distinguish between the real and the unreal."

Why did an attractive and accomplished young woman who promised to give the world candy become so desperately ill? And how did she fight her way back to a productive, meaningful life?

Rosemary Clooney lives in a big, rambling house which, despite its plush Beverly Hills surroundings, spacious grounds and swimming pool, is near-shabby and in need of renovation. Its owner doesn't seem to mind. Her house is alive with the clatter and clutter of young people - her children, Miguel, 20, Maria, 19, Gabriel, 18, Monsita, 17, and Rafael Ferrer, 16 - their friends, her friends and four dogs. The house, in Miguel's words, has "good vibes." So does its mistress.

Although she still needs to lose some of the 80 pounds she gained during her ordeal, 47-year-old Rosemary Clooney is beautiful. There is a softness to her once angular face, a sense of repose in her clear blue eyes. She wears no hint of the tragic. She neither pities herself nor seeks the pity of others. She knows mental illness can be cured and that is why she decided to share her experience.

"Many people live in mental anguish but refuse to seek help because of the stigma attached," she explained. "People shouldn't and needn't be alone in their pain. They can be helped. Perhaps telling of my experience can help them." Sitting in a straight-backed chair, a diet soda in her hand, Rosemary Clooney then plunged into an account of 1968 and the events that led to her breakdown.

That year she was "running, forever running, without knowing why," she remembers. In February she performed throughout the Far East. "The constantly changing cultures confused me. I never seemed to catch up with myself." At Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, she visited GI's in the hospital. Always "the strong one," she "smiled pretty" for the quadruple amputees and the faceless, "wanting to scream, to cry, but unable to do anything other than what I know how to do - sing."

She was working in Europe when Martin Luther King was assassinated. She took his death and the anti-American sentiment she encountered as a personal attack. "I broke down and cried on a British TV talk show during a heated discussion of the assassination. That was my warning signal. But instead of listening, I ran to Brazil and still more work." Surrounded by the beauty of that country, she was in "constant ecstasy." But weeks later, it was constant fear. " I cowered in the corner of my New York hotel room unable to crawl off the floor and into the world outside."

Her lawyer flew in from L.A. to put her on a chartered plane so that she would honor performing contracts in Canada. "I'm just tired," she explained. "Just tired," he agreed, both Rosemary and her lawyer needing to believe it. For her 40th birthday on May 23, 1968, Rosemary gathered together "all the important people in my life. I know now I wanted them to say, 'Don't work so hard, Rosie. We'll love you whether you sing or not.'" But the words were never spoken, so she ran next to Hawaii. After her Hawaiian engagements, she flew to San Diego to perform at a presidential campaign rally for her friend, Robert F. Kennedy, who she believed would be "the salvation of both this country and myself." She flew back to Los Angeles with the Kennedys in their private plane, forgetting that she had left a closet full of clothes in her San Diego hotel room.

The next night, "bursting with excitement," she attended the final RFK rally at the Ambassador Hotel. She heard Kennedy's speech and heard the applause, but did not hear the shots. "Just the screams. I kept telling myself nothing was wrong." Then she saw a woman covered with blood. "I began babbling, clutching at the rosary I had with me. I was pushed into the street just as Bobby's body was placed in an ambulance. Somehow, I found myself in church early that morning, bargaining that if He spared Bobby, I'd return to Catholicism. I left the church convinced I had been heard."

Robert Kennedy died June 5, but Rosemary Clooney refused to believe it. She told people that the report of his death was just "a plot to scare us." Concerned friends brought her to both a hospital and a psychiatrist. The first she talked her way out of; the second she talked into prescribing sleeping pills, saying lack of sleep caused her overwrought state.

An engagement in Reno followed, and during rehearsals singer Jerry Vale showed Rosemary an issue of Life Magazine with a cover story on RFK assassination. She looked at the magazine and whooped, "Isn't that a joke!" When no one laughed, she recalls thinking, "I knew the plot was more widespread than I thought. I refused to speak in my dressing room, convinced it was bugged and that 'they' were listening to my every word."


Her performances became as erratic as her thinking. Frequently, she swore at her audiences or walked off stage in the middle of her act. "Both were cries for help," she explains. "'Love me! Help me!' I was really screaming - and when no one heard, I decided to punish people by announcing my retirement." At a press conference she told reporters: "I don't want to sing for people who kill."

In what was to be her last performance for a long time, Rosemary belligerently told her audience, "You can't imagine the price I've paid to be here to sing a bunch of dumb songs for you." The alarmed nightclub owner went to her dressing room, bringing a doctor from the audience. When she smelled alcohol on the doctor's breath, Rosemary panicked. "He's part of the plot. He's going to put me away." Screaming, she fled from the room, running up the down escalator to the street. She took a taxi to her nearby motel and, during the course of the night, demolished her room.


At dawn, "convinced no harm could come to me," she raced her car up a curving mountain highway on the wrong side of the road, until she reached her apartment in Lake Tahoe. There, doctors who had been alerted to her condition forcibly restrained her and took her by ambulance to the local hospital. Crying of "the plot", she threw personal belongings from the ambulance "to leave a trail so I'd be rescued." When tranquilizers failed to calm her, she was flown to Los Angeles by ambulance plane and placed in an isolation cell in St. John's hospital.

Within days, using the cunning many of the mentally ill possess, she talked her way out of St. John's. But some weeks later, when her hallucinations increased, Rosemary allowed that part of her which was still ratio0nal to hear her priest say, "Rosemary, God wants you to go for help." She checked into Mt. Sinai Hospital, where Dr. Monke was Director of In-Patient Psychiatric Services.

Dr. Monke attributes the timing of Rosemary's breakdown in part to "her turning 40 and the onset of menopause, facts of life which unconsciously disturbed her. Additionally, she had unconscious feelings of dependency on others, which were unacceptable to her. By necessity, Rosemary had learned to be a self-made, stand-on-my-own-two-feet person. To do so, her personality structure had developed with considerable rigidity. As a result, Rosemary was inflexible and unable to accept her conflicting emotional needs. Because she had never learned that honest, open exchanges between people were possible, she talked to few people. In 1968, everything that had been seething and repressed, exploded."

At Mt. Sinai, the therapeutic community truly reached her. Although she was there only 20 days, she thinks of it as a lifetime. As part of the treatment, she occupied a room with three other women, and shared such "household" responsibilities as making beds and scrubbing floors - anything that would make the patients function. In group discussions, she was mainly an observer, but when she did speak, Rosemary says, "They listened. To me! Other than when I was singing, no one had ever listened to me before. And they made me laugh - at them, at the world, at me. When I could do that, laugh at crazy ol' Rosemary, I was ready to deal with reality."

Reality confused her upon her discharge. Her mother had run the Clooney household while Rosemary was in the hospital. When she returned, Rosemary found that "my mother tried to give me emotional support but couldn't. She never understood. I was getting better. She had so taken over the running of my life that any strength I showed threatened her. She felt I was replacing her - in my own home."

In her three-times-a-week sessions with Dr. Monke, Rosemary mainly spoke of her mother as "absent" during her childhood. Married unhappily to an alcoholic, Mrs. Clooney often deposited Rosemary and her baby sister, Betty, with relatives and disappeared, telling Rosemary, "Take care of yourself and Betty. You can do it. You're the strong one. You can fix things for yourself." Rosemary's way to "fix things" was to do exactly what her relatives asked, whether she wished to or not, for in "being good", she found acceptance and safety. She never made trouble and kept to herself throughout adolescence. She had only one date in high school.


When she was 13, her mother remarried. "She wanted to be with her new husband so she sent Betty and me to live with our father, a man we barely knew and whom my mother had depicted as not worth knowing." Three years later, he abandoned the girls in Cincinnati. When they were down to their last 20 cents, they took a bus to radio station WLW, to audition for a local musical show. They were hired at $20 a week - one dollar paid in advance so the Clooney Sisters, as they were billed; could eat.

"I never thought about being lonely as a child," says Rosemary. "Just scared. I thought people kept leaving me because I wasn't worth having around. I felt inadequate, stupid; that I had nothing of interest to say."

When she met Jose Ferrer, she was 22 and he was "everything I admired. He was brilliant and sophisticated." They were married in 1953 and divorced in 1964. She now considers it a miracle that the marriage lasted 11 years. "I role-played throughout, trying to become the woman I thought would please Joe. I placed his life and his career before mine; not because he asked me to but because I insisted. After all, he was everything and what was I? Nothing!"

After the birth of her third child, Rosemary began taking sleeping pills and tranquilizers. Her "storybook marriage" was disintegrating. There was no communication. Fights went unresolved. She withdrew gradually into drugs because they were "a lovely escape and gave me a delicious sense of well-being." The nature of her relationship with her husband by then is best described by one anecdote. Ferrer, alarmed by his wife's increasing use of pills, told his lawyer, who told her lawyer, who told her manager, who told her doctor, who told Rosemary, who thought, "How foolish. Why doesn't Joe talk to me?"

When the marriage ended, Rosemary felt "an enormous sense of failure" and still assumes the bulk of the responsibility. If she bears any animosity toward Ferrer, if she for one moment believes he may have contributed to a faulty marriage, she keeps it well hidden. It is likely she is determined not to turn the children against their father as her mother turned her against her own.

It took Rosemary more than an hour to detail what transpired in 1968, and when she'd finished she looked relieved. "Hey!" she said when her son Miguel entered the room. "Guess what? I just ran down that year for the first time." "How about that! How'd it go?" her 20-year-old asks. "Okay," she beams.

Miguel was with his mother in Reno and Tahoe in 1968. He remembers her being "uncontrollable, crazy. Once, she told a cab driver she had a gun and would kill him. When I started to cry, she shoved her rosary in my hands and told me to pray for him." Miguel shook his head at that and other memories which, he says, "made it impossible for me to relate to my mother for several years. I was afraid she'd freak out again. Even after she was obviously okay, I didn't want to forgive her."

For the first time, the pain of Rosemary's former life was etched clearly on her face. "It was very hard on him," she said softly. "It took us many years to achieve our current relationship. And without therapy, I don't know where we or I would be. If anyplace."

Today, Rosemary and Miguel share an ease more common to friends than to mother/son relationships. Miguel credits it to Rosemary's therapy: "She learned to speak to and not at us. It took us kids a while to adjust to mom's changes - treat her as the person she is rather than the mother we would have her be."

"There were times when I hated the role of 'mama';" says Rosemary, "but I couldn't admit that to myself. Now, when I wake up and realize I don't feel like being 'mama,' I yell down the hall, 'Hey, kids! Your ma is checking out and Rosemary is checking in - and she expects to be treated like a guest.' I've learned that it's okay to be a person first."

And there is a man in her life again - Dante DiPaulo, whom she first met and dated when both worked at Paramount Pictures two decades ago. "He was my belated high school beau. We had such young, good times. But I was engaged to Joe, who was my fantasy and my safety, and nothing could change that."

DiPaulo reentered her life one day while both waited for a traffic light to change from red to green. "Hey, Rosella!" she heard from the car next to her, "and since no one but Dante had ever called me that, I knew it was him." Their relationship is as it was; "We have fun, but I'm not interested in marriage. I'm a lady without that need today."

Before Rosemary felt ready for a male/female relationship, her ego had to increase and her weight decrease. She had gone to almost 200 pounds when she returned to work one month after her discharge from Mt. Sinai. "I really didn't want to perform. Neither my heart nor my voice were in it, but I needed the money. I solved my conflict by eating. I literally ate my way out of show business. I retired into that fat person. She was safe. She didn't have to compete - either as a performer or as a woman. I just turned myself off."

The six-year job of turning herself back on followed. Dr. Monke's original description of Rosemary Clooney as "a woman of little self-esteem, of little understanding and acceptance of herself and her feelings," has changed to: "[She is] a functioning human being who has made significant changes in her character structure. Her cruel inner critic of many of her feelings has been replaced by an understanding, accepting and caring sense of self-esteem. She can now share her warmth with others. Thus she was terminated from individual work in psychotherapy in January, 1974."

Rosemary learned how her need for recognition and approval were motivating forces in her career. "The only times I can remember my parents looking at me was when they would ask me to sing. Immediately afterwards, I'd be dismissed. My mother never gave me any attention. My father was a stranger, some man who floated into my life occasionally. If you've never had attention, applause can be a wonderful substitute. Except there is never enough applause. Never! The public could never give me enough love. My whole worth was wrapped up in some dumb hit record."

One member in group therapy helped Rosemary find an important piece to her puzzle. When Rosemary told how she never looked directly at her audience when she sang, she was asked, "Why? Who are you afraid won't be there?"

The answer, Rosemary suddenly knew, was her mother. When she realized that, she says, "I sobbed uncontrollably. It was so painful to admit how much I had wanted my mother to love me, so painful to remember that child who had always been such a 'good little girl' in the hopes that her mama would lover her."

Although Rosemary was never able to change her relationship with her mother, "I forgave her when I realized she could not lever me because she did not know how to love. It was never me. I was not unlovable. I began to like me. Relationships became more comfortable because I could give myself the approval that I had sought from others. Today, there is a public Rosemary Clooney because I love to sing and because I have something to share through music - me. My life is pretty darn good, although it is not problemless. Conflicts still arise, but I can deal with them. Some people will read this and say that Rosemary Clooney has been through hell. They are right: I have. But without that hell, I would not know joy - and that is what I often feel today."


Just then the phone rang. She answered it, listened briefly, and hung up. Her face was ashen as she rose slowly and faced a wall displaying the sole memento of her once-great fame - a laminated copy of Time magazine with her face on the cover.

"My father just died," she said, her voice barely audible. "First mother and now him." She sat down heavily. Her thumb was in her mouth and she bit its nail. Tears dribbled down the face of a little girl in pain. "Funny old guy," she whispered. And then sobbed, "Oh, damn, how it hurts! Another door shut. We never knew one another…never had the chance." Then, abruptly, her mood changed. "Never had the chance? He never gave it to me!"

Angry, she sprang to her feet, the woman emerging as the hurt child disappeared. She cried as an adult. When the tears subsided, Rosemary Clooney, who had always to fix it for herself, did so once again. She collected herself, picked up the telephone and called her sister Betty to "fix it" for her.                End