Melodrama queen

THE TIMES - LONDON - June 15, 2001

Life for Rosemary Clooney has been a wild ride but she still shines

Before she takes to the stage, there is the usual hubbub outside Rosemary Clooney’s dressing room in Los Angeles. After the concert has finished, it will be even busier backstage, as dozens of relations and assorted friends queue to pay their respects. A grandmother ten times over, Clooney takes her responsibilities seriously. Having suffered her share of slings and arrows, she appreciates the simple things in life.

Inside the room, all is quiet. Clooney sits impassively as her hair stylist makes some final adjustments. Through the loudspeaker on the wall comes the sound of her young musical partner, Michael Feinstein, gliding through the first half of the concert. Clooney has a little longer to wait before she joins him.

No longer the lithe beauty who starred in White Christmas, the 73-year-old singer is heavy-set now. The extra weight began to settle on her in her forties, when her private life began to spin out of control. Later, when she makes her entrance at the Cerritos Centre for the Performing Arts, a stylish venue marooned in an anonymous suburb of Los Angeles, she leans on the arm of her debonair husband, Dante DiPaolo. Then she settles on to a stool for the rest of the evening. She glances at the youthful big band alongside her: “They’re a third of my age,” she quips. “If they’re sitting down, I’m sitting down too.”

Her face, though, is still handsome. Catch her in profile and you can immediately see the shadow of her nephew, George Clooney. When he was a teenager, young George used to stay at Rosemary’s house in Beverly Hills. Now, he is famous, and his aunt watches him hurtle through the same dizzying trajectory that she knew as a young woman.

In a dazzlingly brief period of time, Rosemary Clooney travelled from a lowly Irish Catholic home in Kentucky to the summit of the pop industry. Hit followed hit. Tonight at Cerritos, she will still perform the biggest success of them all, Come On-a My House. She never much cared for this “quasi-Armenian, pseudo-folk number” when she recorded it 50 years ago, but her producer and her public had other ideas.

Married to the wayward actor José Ferrer, she lived what seemed, at first, a charmed existence. Marlene Dietrich was a close friend. When she travelled to London with Ferrer, she socialised with Gielgud and Olivier. It was only when her marriage began to crumble and rock’n’roll swept her brand of sweet innocence aside that Clooney was thrown back on her own resources. They were not enough to carry her through.

There is a garishly melodramatic quality to her rise and fall that comes straight out of a Jacqueline Susann potboiler. One of the more curious episodes in her life found her setting up home with Ferrer in the Dakota Building in New York — later to achieve notoriety as the place where John Lennon was shot. Heavily pregnant at the time, Clooney found the building oppressive and eerie. What is more, her children seemed prone to accidents there. One evening, a writer friend, Ira Levin, paid a call and went away with the same sense of unease. Several years later he published a bestseller called Rosemary’s Baby.

Triumph and disaster followed hard upon each other as Clooney entered middle age. At one point she was mingling with JFK and his intimates at the new Camelot. A few years later, as she tried to come to terms with divorce and tranquilliser addiction, she went on the road to campaign for her friend, Robert Kennedy. She was present at the Ambassadors Hotel when he was assassinated in 1968. A nervous breakdown followed. Clooney was admitted to psychiatric hospital and began a long and painful journey through therapy.

By the early Seventies, she was reduced to performing at county fairs and suburban hotels.

An invitation to work with Bing Crosby was the turning point. Reinvigorated, Clooney subsequently struck a recording deal with the jazz label Concord.

Over the past quarter century she has turned out roughly an album a year. Free to choose her own material, she has re-invented herself as a sophisticated interpreter of Gershwin, Kern and Rodgers and Hart.

Though she does not think of herself as a jazz singer in the purest sense of the word, she has quietly put together a body of work that stands comparison with Ella Fitzgerald’s Songbook series.

And like Ella, she has learnt to compensate for the effects of age and illness. The voice may not be as pure and flexible as it once was, yet her phrasing remains inimitable. At Cerritos she fluffed some lyrics and her breath control was less than perfect. But experience carried her through.

Clooney knows the ropes. Feinstein, a friend and admirer for 20 years, knows better than to try to upstage the grand old lady. Before she leaves the dressing room, I ask her who chooses the songs they perform together.

Clooney smiles and shoots back an answer: “I do. I’m too old to learn new ones.”

Rosemary Clooney and Michael Feinstein appear at the Festival Hall on Monday (020-7960 4242)