CLOONEY! The "Come On-a My House" singer, home at last
by Joan Barthel
Rosemary Clooney sweeps onto the tiny stage at Rainbow & Stars, at 61 a glamorous eyeful in a low-cut black sequined gown, a huge red poppy on her shoulder, diamond earrings. Her voice is a little smokier and huskier than the voice that began to charm audiences nearly four decades ago, as she blends the sweet ("How Are Things in Glocca Morra") with the rowdy ("Guys and Dolls") and some wonderful oldies ("G.I. Jive"). Smiling, confident, her eyes sparkling, she dives into "Come On-a My House," the song she hates but the song that made her a household sound, the song her audience expects. "This song is the reason I'm here tonight--or anywhere else," she tells her audience cheerfully.
Back home in Beverly Hills, after three weeks in New York--two shows a night--then ten one-nighters on the road, she's tired. In her gray tent dress and flat shoes, no makeup, wearing bifocals, she looks ordinary--overweight, overworked. But plain or fancy, onstage or off, the voice is the same--deep and throaty.
"I guess you could say I'm making a comeback," she says, "although I've always had product out there, even when other singers in my age group haven't. After all, how many old broads like me are still working?" She laughs--a strong laugh that stops just short of a cough.
She's lived here since 1953, when she married the actor Jose Ferrer--she called him Joe. She had five children. She's been divorced. She's been so driven by drugs that at other people's houses, she'd steal from the medicine cabinet. She's been jilted by lovers. She's skidded from earning $20,000 a week to borrowing plane fare to get to her mother's funeral. She had a terrifying mental breakdown.
"You can say I've been through some changes," she says, almost casually. "The biggest change is that I've learned to say what I feel. I try not to hurt anybody's feelings, but now if there's something on my mind, I don't let it stay on my mind. I have to get it out, sort it out, because if you wait even 24 hours, it becomes bigger and harder to handle.
"I could never do that before. From the time I was a very little girl, I would figure out what people wanted to hear, then I'd find a way to tell them. People were never disappointed in me, because I was always what they wanted me to be."
In her living room Clooney is sorting through pictures, sifting memories. Here's Marlene Dietrich, with whom she recorded some songs in the early days, including "Too Old to Cut the Mustard," "And here's my friend Edith Head at a party. I remember she had one drink and slid right down the wall." Clooney and Ferrer gave splendid parties here. Cocktails on the back lawn, around the swimming pool bordered with orange trees, the tennis court beyond. Dinner at the long, baronial table in the dinning room, with a butler and a cook. Then Nat "King" Cole would play the piano, in the same spot where the previous owner of the house, George Gershwin, wrote "Our Love Is Here to Stay."
The place is still charming, with rambling roses and calla lilies, camellias, and night-blooming jasmine. The enormous living room is carpeted in gray, with deep sofas, lighted cabinets holding a collection of black Wedgwood, and the elaborate chess sets--porcelain, ivory, hand-carved teak--that Joe left behind when they split ("I didn't let him take anything!") But the marble floor in the foyer is cracked, the graceful wrought iron gate in the driveway thick with rust. The pool is mostly used by the Labrador, Bill. The tennis court is rented to a pro who gives lessons. The butler and cook, the gardener, and the maids have vanished. Glittering parties have been replaced by gatherings of her children and grandchildren, with Clooney doing the cooking. Today it's chili, from Pearl Bailey's recipe, and corn bread.
Legally, this isn't her house anymore. Under the terms of the divorce, the house went to the children in equal in shares, but she could live here until the youngest turned 21. The youngest is 29, and Clooney thinks sometimes of moving to a smaller place, maybe on the beach. But her children sold lemonade on this block; when they were old enough to realize who their mother was, they'd offer to get her autograph for a dollar. When Clooney found out, several years ago, that she was in serious trouble with the IRS because of financial decisions she'd let other people make for her, she had to borrow heavily so she could pay the tax debt. Now she's pushing herself with the out-of-town bookings, the strenuous road trips. "I'm determined to pay it off!" she says fiercely. "I got into tax trouble because I always let some Big Daddy take care of things, so it was my own fault. I allowed it to happen."
Her expression is neutral as she comes across the photo of a thin woman, her hair pulled back in a tight bun, smiling down at an infant. "Here's my mother--Frances--with my son Miguel. She adored Miguel." Clooney has called her relationship with her mother "one of the great conflicts of my life."
Clooney was born in Maysville, Kentucky, in 1928; her father Andy, was an alcoholic. Frances traveled for a chain of dress hops, so home was here and there. Clooney and her sister, Betty, three years younger, were inseparable; they always had each other. In an attic hideaway, they and their younger brother Nick, made "someday" plans. Someday they'd go to Singapore and have a drink at Raffles, as Sydney Greenstreet did in a movie they saw at the local theater. They would ride the Orient Express.
Clooney was 14 when her parents divorced. Frances moved to California to marry a sailor, taking Nick but leaving the girls behind with their father. Clooney didn't see her mother for several years. And for a while, Andy did take care of the girls, with a steady job for at the defense plant. But when he went out to celebrate the end of the war with some buddies, taking all the household savings, he didn't come back.
Instead of calling on relatives for help, 16-year-old Rosemary and 13-year-old Betty collected soda bottles and bought food at school with the refund money. But their phone was disconnected, their utilities about to be, the rent coming due, when they went to an open audition at radio station WLW in Cincinnati and were hired for $20 a week each.
"The Clooney Sisters" were a hit at high school dances, singing with local bands. When they signed to go on the road with Tony Pastor's band, their uncle, George Guilfoyle--Frances's brother-- became their legal guardian, keeping an eye on the boys in the band, an ear to their sound. When Downbeat magazine compared Rosemary to Ella Fitzgerald, she took it so seriously that one night Uncle George edged up to the bandstand and murmured, "Sing it, Ella!" Clooney stopped copying other singers then and sang in her own true voice.
When Betty decided to go back to radio in Cincinnati, and a fellow she liked there, Rosemary, then 21, headed for New York. She got a contract with Columbia Records and, within the next couple of years, stories in Life and Look and the cover of Time. Even in the early fifties, that era of notable singers--Jo Stafford, Patti Page, DOris Day--Clooney was distinctive. It wasn't easy to explain; Time spoke of her voice's "cello-like evenness." Clooney's Uncle George put it more simply: "God blessed her with the best voice any girl vocalist ever had."
She was a sensational success with "Come On-a My House," which she didn't want to record, thinking it was cheap, with double entendres. But when Mitch Miller, her boss of Columbia, told her she had to do it, she did it. Whatever people told her to do in those days, she did.
When summoned to Hollywood in 1952, Clooney didn't feel like a star, but she looked like one: 24 years old, 5 feet 6 inches, 120 pounds, wearing white slacks, leading her Great Dane, Cuddles, on a leash. She made a handful of movies, including White Christmas with Bing Crosby, who became a close friend and, later, a savior. A lanky young dancer, Dante Di Paolo, who appeared in two of her films--Here Come the Girls and Red Garters--was dazzled when a messenger brought him a note from Rosemary and winked. "Rosemary kinds likes you," the messenger said. A chorus hoofer, Di Paolo couldn't approach the star, but when Clooney made the first move, romance flourished. He called her "Rosella." She was comfortable with him. "With Dante I could act my age," she recalls. "I could be myself." A pause. "But I didn't find myself too interesting."
Jose Ferrer, whom she'd met in New York, was everything she was not: well educated, suave, and sophisticated. Sixteen years her senior, he'd already won an Oscar. Clooney hadn't finished high school, while Ferrer spoke seven languages and was a brilliant chess player. (On every hospital run, when one of their children was born, he took friends and a chess set along.)
Her wedding plans with Ferrer were secret, known only to a close few, including Edith Head, who was making her a wedding suit of light-gray tweed. So when news of her elopement, in the summer of 1953, made headlines, Di Paolo was stunned. he couldn't bear to stay in Hollywood. After a stint in Las Vegas, he married and moved to Italy, where he was a hit in Italian westerns, having learned to draw a gun while dancing in Red Garters.
Other people, in New York and California--especially Ferrer's friends--raised eyebrows at what seemed a most unlikely match. Rosemary thought it made sense, at least at the time. Audiences admired Ferrer, but they loved Clooney. "Remember what they used to say about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers?" Clooney recalls now.. "I think it was the same with Joe and me: She gave him sex appeal, he gave her class."
In retrospect the marriage seems to have been doomed from the beginning--from the honeymoon in England and France when she overheard Ferrer talking about a tumble he'd enjoyed in New York while waiting for his bride to join him from California. But of course she wasn't looking back then, only ahead, to happily ever after. If Joe was already straying, she thought, it must be her fault, or why would he want another woman? Producing beautiful babies would prove she was adequate and would surely help him settle down. When she didn't become pregnant immediately, Clooney consulted an endocrinologist. Her first child was born in February 1955; she had four more by March 1960. It was her idea, not Ferrer's to give them Spanish names. The Ferrers were a well-educated, highly respected professional family in Puerto Rico, in contrast to her own shaky family background. The children were Miguel, Maria, Gabriel, Monsita, and Rafael.
And it was her own idea that she had to do it all: the career, the big house, the road trips with all the babies. A week before Miguel was born, though she'd had six months of daily hormone injections to avoid miscarriage, she went to the studio and recorded "This Ole House" and "Hey There!" Later that year, she signed for a 39-show TV variety series. Soon after, she became pregnant again. "Even if I didn't want to do something, I did it," she says now: "I never knew how to say, 'I don't want to do that.' Joe never told me I had to do all those things. I told myself. I was absolutely sure that he wouldn't have affairs, that everything would be perfect, if only I could do everything well enough." She was imprisoned by her own perceptions, a hostage to the most relentless of captors: herself.
To help her do everything well enough, Clooney began taking sleeping pills and tranquilizers in 1957, after the birth of her third child. By that time her mother had divorced the sailor and come to stay with Rosemary. She stayed 19 years, taking control of the household, lavishing love on Clooney's children. Clooney thought Frances was trying to make up for everything she hadn't done for her own daughters.
For a while, in the early sixties, Rosemary Clooney's life still seemed good enough. When she sang at a Democratic fund-raiser in Washington, D.C. in 1962, she was told that President Kennedy wanted her to come over to the White House. Jackie wasn't there, but Peter Lawford was, his shoes off, wearing red socks. Clooney thought the President was a trifle flirtatious--"maybe even a little suggestive"--but all that happened was that he whipped up a midnight snack. She was so excited that she asked to use the phone and called her brother. "At this very moment I'm in the White House, and the President of the United States is scrambling eggs for me, Nicky! It's a hell of a long way from Maysville, Kentucky!"
But the joy in her work was fading. "I wasn't singing well. People would see my shows and be pleasantly reminded of old times, but they didn't feel touched, because I wasn't connected to them," she says. "I knew it, and I didn't care." Clooney was by then in love with a famous musician, a married man who promised he'd leave his wife and marry her. He left his wife and married his secretary, "the very woman who'd been covering for us," she remembers. In retrospect she theorizes, "I think that what men really want is a secretary and a nurse. They don't want a wife who sings at the Waldorf. They can tell you over and over how proud they are of you, but what they're really saying is, 'Where's my other sock?'"
As her 40th birthday loomed, Clooney turned to a young drummer. It was reassuring to know that a 25 -year-old man found her seductive, refreshing to feel she was smarter and more sophisticated--and so devastating, when he ended it, that she increasingly turned to drugs. "I was using drugs like a bouquet: six of one color, six of another. I was lucky not to have killed myself," she says now. When Clooney visited her brother, about six weeks before her mental breakdown, Nick was so alarmed at her physical condition, her shallow breathing, that he slept on the floor beside her bed. But when he talked to her, she assured him she could keep going.
And she kept going. Drugs were easy to come by, "On the road it you ask a doctor for two sleeping pills, he figures nobody who's addicted will ask for just two, so he gives you a hundred." The Seconals she took by the handful worked in reverse: Instead of sleeping, she was revved up, manic, on the run. She ran to Tokyo and to Bangkok, to Rio and Sao Paulo, where she partied nonstop. "I loved Brazil," she says. A thoughtful pause. "Of course, I was crazy then. That may have had something to do with it."
It wasn't a discreet craziness, a slipping away to an expensive hideaway. It was public and messy, strapped down and screaming. Though she'd been at the Ambassador Hotel in L.A. on the June night Bobby Kennedy was shot, she was sure he was still alive. When her manager reminded her of a July 4 booking in Reno, she felt she was going there on a mission, to find Bobby.
At Harold's Club in Reno, she called the audience "stupid" when they wanted to hear "Come On-a My House" and stalked off the stage. When she called a press conference to announce her retirement, she sobbed, then babbled incoherently. When a doctor was summoned, she ran from him down an up escalator in her bare feet, then drove up a twisting, two-lane mountain road on the wrong side all the way. She survived the ride, and fell into bed, exhausted yet exhilarated. When ambulance attendants arrived with a stretcher, she panicked and had to be restrained. In the ambulance she thought she was being kidnapped and threw her wallet out the window, a signal for help.
From a small hospital in that area she was taken by air ambulance to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, where she talked the doctor into letting her go home--as it turned out, with a round-the-clock nurse; Frances was afraid to be alone in the house with her daughter. Clooney soon sensed her mother's fear, and delighted in it. For the first time in their lives. Clooney felt she had the power. (Her sister Betty had taken the children. Over the years the sisters had remained close, talking on the phone nearly every day.)
At home with her mother and the nurse, Clooney drifted through the days in what she calls "the twilight zone" until her cousin Phyllis and Phyllis's husband, a physician named Sherman Holvey, came to visit. Holvey persuaded Clooney that she needed help urgently, immediately. At the psychiatric unit of Mount Sinai Hospital, she signed herself in with an X, claiming that she'd never learned to write.
With no visitors, no distractions, working closely with the psychiatrist whom Holvey had arranged for her to see, she began to return to reality. She took Thorazine for a while, and an antidepressant, but mostly she began to recover by talking with her doctor. It was wonderful to be able to tell someone exactly what she thought and felt. Even when her acute paranoia subsided, she didn't want to leave the hospital.
When, after three weeks, she went home in August 1968, and saw the fear in her mother's eyes, she felt sad. She was beginning the arduous process of change, but the hard work lay ahead: intensive one-on-one therapy, three days a week for three years, then five years of group therapy. It took a long time because she had a long way to go. All the way back. TO the time when she was only four or five, when her mother criticized the way she sang and her father would tell Frances to let the child alone, let her sing it her own way. To the time when she'd asked her mother about the boy in town who had the same name as her father, Andy Clooney, and Frances told her sharply that the boy was her father's child and not to mention him again.
To say Clooney's years of analysis were difficult is both to oversimplify and understate. When she came home from Mount Sinai, she had to confront her mother, and her feelings about her mother, a tangle of frustrated love and blame and even hate. When her children came home from their Aunt Betty's she had to explain to them what had happened, to let them know there were problems ahead.
Money was a practical problem. Since her marriage she'd paid all the bills for the household, the staff, the travel; she'd sent a lot of money back to relatives in Kentucky. Basically she was broke, paying her doctor in installments. A singer who'd called her audience "stupid" couldn't be choosy, so she worked wherever--at some Holiday Inn on a weekend, selling toilet tissue and paper towels in TV commercials.
Slowly, painstakingly, she was working her way back, learning to take control of her life. Frances moved back to Cincinnati, where she died in December 1973. Although Clooney had finished her analysis by then, she turned to her psychiatrist to sort out her feelings. Driving home from his office, stopped at a red light on Sunset Boulevard, she heard a familiar voice calling "Rosella! Rosella!"
Dante Di Paolo was waving from his old Thunderbird, in the lane beside her; he was back from Italy, his marriage over, too. When he came to dinner, he found that 20 years had wrought change: five teenagers staring at him around the table. But he and Clooney had always been so comfortable together that he merged naturally back into her life. not as married people ("I just don't see why we have to get married," Clooney says decisively. "I've been married, and once is enough") but like married people, even able to argue comfortably.
She had Dante again. She had her old friend Bing Crosby, who took her on tour with him in 1976, a major breakthrough that led to a successful act with three other singers, "4 Girls 4." And she had her sister, until the summer day in 1976, when Betty died suddenly of a brain aneurysm,without even a chance to say good-bye.
People were worried that Betty's death would send Rosemary back into the twilight zone. But she flew to Las Vegas for the funeral and made the return trip to Virginia Beach in time to do two shows that night.
In 1982 the road manager for "4 Girls 4," Allen Svirdoff, became her manger. He's kept her busy--her annual Christmas show, with Dante as Santa Claus, takes her on the road from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas Day--and he's guided her all the way back up, both symbolically and literally.
Inevitably there's been a tinge of nostalgia, but Clooney's recordings for Concord Jazz--ballads, showtunes--cut across generational lines. When she makes a personal appearance at New York's Tower Records, there are as many young people lined up to greet her as there are middle-agers. "She's timeless," declares a young customer. "One of the first videos I ever bought was White Christmas. When she sings it's so true and honest. She's the real thing."
In fact Clooney had landed her TV-commercial job, when she was working her way back, after the sponsor, Georgia-Pacific, showed supermarket shoppers a list of names and asked, "Which of these people would you believe?" Rosemary Clooney was voted the most believable. The most honest. So devastatingly honest that when her memoir, This for Remembrance, written a dozen years ago, was made into a TV film, she watched it when it aired in 1983 and hasn't wanted to see it again.
"I know now I had a lot of anger and hate inside of me, but it all came out in the way I behaved before my breakdown. I'm in control now. I can even handle my own money. There's no great mystery about it.
"I'm overweight," she continues. "That's a fact. I'm not always comfortable with it, but most of the time I am. Partly it's because of the shots I've taken for bronchitis, a cortisone derivative, make you swell up. But it's not big deal, and I don't want that to be a part of whether somebody likes me or not. Does it mean that much?" A pause. "I'm not stupid, though, and I think I should lose some weight, for my health. And when I feel it's that important, I will."
What is important to her is a living memorial to her sister--the Betty Clooney Center in Long Beach, which she and her cousins, Phyllis and Sherman Holvey, opened two years ago. It's a kind of clubhouse, a daytime activity center for brain-injured young adults, including the Holveys' daughter, Sandi, who was an honor student, about to enroll in medical school, when a water-skiing accident left her severely learning impaired. Now Sandi and other young adults can work and play productively--computers, a newsletter, a showplace garden, the "Cafe Clooney" where club members are in charge of all the food shopping, cooking, and serving. The first facility of its kind in the country, the center is supported by grants, donations, and an annual star-splashed benefit concert. For one such benefit honoring Jerome Kern posthumously, Rosemary went to Kentucky to tape an interview with his daughter that was shown at the concert.
At the Bank of Maysville--the oldest bank in Kentucky--the president, James Finch, clasps Clooney's hand. "I saw you in Reno," he tells her. "You know something? You look better now."
She looks better, even than he did a few days ago in Beverly Hills, rested and fresh in a crisp black dress with white collar and cuffs, a creamy-gray cape. "In Beverly Hills I do the feeding," she explains. "Here I'm the one who gets fed."
The drive through Maysville is a sentimental journey. She's been able to carry out the "someday" plans she and Betty and brother Nick made as kids in the Maysville attic. Rosemary and Dante, Nick and his wife, Nina, have gone to Singapore, fro drinks at Raffles. They've gone to Venice on the Orient Express.
Now about 20 miles from Maysville, in the house in Augusta that Clooney bought several years ago, Dante makes meatballs and spaghetti, with his own sauce, for a family supper. Clooney telephones her son Rafi, an actor in New York; she tried to talk to all her children every day. Maria is a graphics designer; Monsita is married with two children and living in Virginia. Miguel's an actor. Gabriel, whose wife, singer Debby Boone, joined the Christmas tour last year, paints and illustrates books; they live near Beverly Hills with their four children, who also joined the tour.
Everybody piles out into the front yard to take pictures as the sun sets, with the little hills, called "knobs," on the Ohio side of the river turning lavender and dusky blue. "Rosemary was in never-never land for a while," Uncle George reminisces. "She couldn't appreciate anything, not even her voice. She never could have appreciated this sunset. Now she's started over." The new start benefits the whole family. "There was a lot of tension in her, and people felt the last of it," says Nick. (A writer with a feature column in the Cincinnati Post, he, too, lives in Augusta.) "She still lashes out, but now it's just in a moment of pique. Once she would have had a facade for you. Now she's comfortable with who she is, and she's a much nicer person than she was before."
The living room is cozy, quiet, filled with pictures, even an 8 by 10 of the Labrador, Bill. From the kitchen come the comforting sounds of Dante, cleaning up.
"I can't honestly say to you, 'Now I'm fine, and I'll never be unhappy again,'" Clooney reflects. "I still see my doctor once in a while, just to touch base with somebody that knows me that well. And I'm physically all right. But at the end of the Christmas tour I'm wiped out. I don't know how long I'll be able to do that.
"I'll keep working as long as I live, though, because singing has taken on the feeling of joy that I had when I started, when my only responsibility was to sing well. It's even better now, because the young musicians I work with are so talented and caring. I can even pick the songs. The arranger says to me, 'How do you want it? How do you see it?' Nobody ever asked me that before.
"When I was trying to make it back, after my breakdown, I'd be waiting to go on, with sweaty palms, a new piece of material, so afraid. Bing would say to me, 'Just take the piece of paper on stage with you.' I'd say, 'Oh, I can't do that.' He'd say, 'Why not?' I'd keep saying, 'I just can't.' He'd keep saying, 'You can.'"
She laughs lightly, easily, and her graceful hands rest quietly in her lap.
"You can. And when somebody says something that sounds very sophisticated, and you think it's something you should know, you don't have to pretend you know. You can just say, 'I don't understand.'
"And you know what? It works. People love it when you ask them to explain. All you have to do is tell the truth. It's too bad I had to wait so long to learn that, but now I've learned it, and it's so simple.
"Isn't it extraordinary? That all you have to do is tell the truth?" She laughs again, and then the laugh becomes a smile--even better than a laugh, because it reaches into her eyes. "All you have to do is tell the goddamned truth, and it will set you free."