The New Yorker
August 3, 1992
Profiles: The Heart, The Head, and The Pipes
by Whitney Balliett
If it were possible to chart a human life on a graph, Rosemary Clooney's would show two peaks, divided by a chasm. The line would begin rising in 1945, when, at the age of seventeen, she and her fourteen-year-old sister, Betty, were hired as singers by radio station WLW, in Cincinnati, and it would continue upward through 1947, after they had joined Tony Pastor's band. The line would reach its first peak in the early fifties, marking four exuberant, almost simultaneous events in Clooney's life--her marriage to the actor Jose Ferrer ("Moulin Rouge," "Cyrano de Bergerac"); her famous hit record of "Come On-a My House"; her starring, with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, in the movie "White Christmas"; and her appearance on the cover of Time in February of 1953. The Time writer, clearly entranced wrote, "The Clooney voice is known to the trade as both 'barrelhouse' and blue, i.e., robust and fresh, with an undercurrent of seductiveness. It can spin out a slow tune with almost cello-like evenness, or take on a raucous bite in a fast rhythm. In a melancholy mood, it has a cinnamon flavor that tends to remind fans of happier days gone by--or soon to come."
In the early sixties, after the birth of her five children--three boys and two girls, born at the rate of one a year--the line would suddenly turn and drop. Clooney and Ferrer had separated, and she began taking pills. "I started taking pills to sleep," she said recently. "A lot of women took pills then--my mother took them. And everybody kidded about bennies--Benzedrine--and Miltown. I took downers--Seconal, Librium, Miltown, Nembutal, Doriden. Of course, if you take too many downers they have a reverse effect--you can't sleep at all." She and Ferrer were divorced in 1967. A year later, the line would reach the bottom of the graph; severely addicted, she had a breakdown. "I was dead behind the eyes," she continued. "The records I did then sound like they were made underwater. I misbehaved with everyone, onstage and off, and when my friend Bobby Kennedy was killed I cracked up. I was convinced that he was still alive, that his death was a cruel hoax. I went on a kind of self-destructive rampage, and it lasted until a priest I knew convinced me that it was God's wish that I sign myself into the psychiatric ward of Mt. Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles. I was there a month, and when I was released I started eight years of therapy, private and group. It was the worst time of my life. I was strapped financially. I had the expense of all that therapy, and word had got around among club owners that I was undependable. I was living with the five kids in Beverly Hills, in the house on North Roxbury that Joe had bought in 1953. My friend Jackie Rose from my early days in New York had taught me to cook, and I put in a garden. And I sold some of my jewelry. When I was well enough, I took any work I could get--usually in Holiday Inns on weekends."
The line would remain at the bottom of the graph until 1974, when Bing Crosby, who was concerned about Clooney, asked her to appear with him in a benefit concert at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, in L.A., celebrating his fiftieth year in show business. Several successful tours around the country and abroad with Crosby followed, and she became a founding member of a travelling show called 4 Girls 4, with Margaret Whiting, Helen O'Connell, and Rose Marie. Then the line would move steadily upward, and would reach its second peak in the late eighties. She had begun annual sold-out month-long engagements at New York's Rainbow & Stars, possibly the most elegant night club in the country, and she was making yearly albums for Concord Records. Critics talked about the great warmth and assurance in her singing, about the "new plateau" it had reached. She found herself hobnobbing in the minds of her admirers with the likes of Crosby, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, and Mabel Mercer.
Clooney, always attended by her friend the dancer and actor Dante DiPaolo, now works six or seven months of the year. The chief events in her professional life in 1992 have been her February stint at Rainbow& Stars; a brilliant concert early in March in the Baird Auditorium, at the Smithsonian; and the benefit concert--an annual event--she held in April at the Dorothy Chandler for the Betty Clooney Foundation, which works with brain-damage survivors and is also a memorial to her sister, who died of an aneurysm in 1976. (In her private life this year, three of her children have been married, in quick succession, leaving her "weddinged out.")
On several of her days off, Clooney talked about her life. She began in a New York hotel room. Many singers, when they talk, turn their singing into parlando. But Clooney, the most laid-back of performers, talks quickly, and laughs in low, barrelling monotone. The speed of her talk suggests that she is afraid her words--as lyrics always threaten to do--might evaporate, or sink to the bottom. Her speaking voice, though it has become deeper, sounds much as it did in "White Christmas" and "Deep in My Hear." (She has been in five movies.) Her classically arranged face, with its wide-set eyes, square-bridged nose, and secure chin, remains the same. But the rest of her, besieged by the flanking attacks of childbirth and middle age, has expanded. She has become a Maillol, a mother earth, a diva. Born in Maysville, Kentucky, and brought up there and in Ohio, she is a Southern-Midwesterner; utterly natural, she is the same onstage as off. When she sings, she holds the microphone casually in her right hand, and, with large glasses perched halfway down her nose, a half smile on her face, carries on as if she were gossiping over the back fence. She moves lightly, her pretty ankles flashing.
"There was music all over our family," Clooney said. "My father was a good singer, and my Aunt Anne Guilfoyle sang with local bands. Betty and I sang around the house, we sang on the street, we sang everywhere. Our daddy would take us to a creek that joined the Ohio, and the three of us would sit on a bank and sing 'Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue' and 'Home on the Range' and 'The Old Covered Bridge.' WLW, where Betty and I first worked, was the most powerful station in the Midwest, and it had a lot of musicians on the staff. The piano that Fats Waller had played in the thirties was still there, and you could see the rings his glasses had left. It was almost a shrine. When I was nineteen and Betty was sixteen, we auditioned for Tony Pastor's band. His singer, Virginia Maxey, was leaving. We got the job, but we needed a legal guardian to go with us when the band went on the road, so my Uncle George Guilfoyle, who'd just got back from the service, took us on. He was very watchful, very strict. Betty and I were paid a hundred and fifty dollars a week, apiece, and all three of us lived on that and sent money home to Grandmother Guilfoyle. In those days, you could stay in the Chase Hotel in St. Louis for eight dollars a night. We travelled in a rented bus. Betty and I sat in the front, and Uncle George sat behind us. Our dresses were hung in the back of the bus with the band's uniforms. The band did a lot of one-nighters, and often we'd make a three-hundred-mile jump after a gig, arriving around daybreak in the town we were working in that night. Danny Gregory, the band manager, smoked these awful Italian cheroots, and he loved hotel lobbies. When it was payday, he'd get up from his chair and say, 'The eagle flies today!' Danny's real name was Gregorio. The Pastor band was kind of an Italian band. Tony's name was Pestritto, and his boy singer, Tommy Lynn, was Tommy Leonetti. And there were other guys with Italian names. Tony played the tenor saxophone and sang--he was a good singer, who sang the way he played. He loved Ben Webster, and whenever we were in New York he hung out with Ben. Tony was also a good showman, a good clown. Betty and I sang in every possible combination--with each other, with Tommy Lynn, with Tony, with Tommy and Tony. And I sang by myself. It helped that I could sing in Virginia Maxey's keys. When I made my first record with the band--'I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry (When I Made You Cry Last Night)'--I was so scared that I sang in a whisper. A writer in down beat, or someplace, said it was a new style, so I tried to sing the same way on my next record, but it didn't work. We stayed with Tony about two years--until Betty decided to leave. I had a Columbia recording contract by then, and I went out on my own. For a while, I made less than I had with Tony. I lived in New York, but I worked in Philly and Detroit and Cleveland, and I did a summer radio show with Tony Bennett. Then Mitch Miller came in as the A. & R. man at Columbia and he gave me 'Come On-a My House'--an Armenian song sung in an Italian accent by an Irish-German girl. I hated the song, but Mitch told me if I didn't do it I was through.
"The doors opened. Starting in the early fifties, I worked on and off with Bing Crosby in movies and television and on the radio. If he smiled on you, you were anointed, and it made life a lot easier. He was Mr. Cool. 'Hiya, partner,' he'd say. 'How're ya doin'?"--and keep moving. When we were making 'White Christmas," Irving Berlin came to the soundstage and began walking nervously up and down before Bing did his takes on the song. Bing went over to Berlin and put his hand on his shoulder, and said, 'Irving, why don't you go to my dressing room and sit down and relax, and I'll be right along. There's nothing I can do to hurt your song.' I visited Bing at Rising River, his fishing place up near the Oregon border, and I visited him at his place down in Baja California. We became quite open and personal, talking on and on after dinner. But in the late sixties and early seventies, when I was mostly out of commission, I didn't see him at all.
"Then around Christmas of 1974, he asked me to do the benefit at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. I learned some new songs, but I was nervous, because I'd been out of the big time. Bing saw that I was afraid I'd forget my words, and he said, 'The audience is not here to hurt you, Rosie. If you walk out there with a piece of paper in your hand, nobody will shoot you.' We did several tours after that, and they put me back on my feet. In some ways, Bing was strange. He liked to eat dinner every night at six, then take a walk. He paid me a very small salary, but when I had all the kids with me in London he put us up at the Dorchester. The strangest thing about him was that he filled in all the swimming pools at his various places. He didn't destroy them--just had them filled in with dirt. I don't think he could handle illness or death very well. He never called me when I was sick, and he never called when Betty died. I found out later that he would ask people who were in touch with me, 'How's Rosie? She all right?'"
Rosemary Clooney stopped talking, and Dante DiPaolo came into the room. and handed her a batch of telephone messages. He is tall and handsome and graying, has laughing eyes, and looks constantly pleased. He sat down, and this exchange took place:
ROSEMARY: Dante's father was a coal miner in Colorado. He'd come over from Italy. In the mid-forties, he moved to California and became a labor boss.
DANTE: He was Cecil B. De Mille's favorite man on the set.
R.: As a kid, Dante could copy any dance he saw. When his mother took him to auditions in Hollywood, she dressed him in a top hat and tails, because she thought that was what you wore to auditions. She was a seamstress.
D.: I used to dance anywhere I could. A friend of the family would take me to these strip joints full of blue lights and fan dancers, and I'd ask the band to play "Dinah" or "Stars and Stripes Forever," and I'd do a buck-and-wing. I'd wear a sailor suit, and people would throw money. I got my first big break when I was thirteen, in 1939. I was a singing newsboy in "The Star Maker," with Bing Crosby.
R.: I met Dante in 1953, when I was making "Here Come the Girls," with Bob Hope.
D.: Nick Castle was in charge of the dancing, and he asked me to show Rosemary some steps. I was a chorus boy. I think we had lunch together, but fraternizing like that on the set was frowned upon.
R.: After I married Joe, Dante and I stayed in touch, but we drifted apart, and he married a French showgirl and went to Italy and made a dozen movies with titles like "Blood and Black Lace." He had to use his eyebrows a lot. One day in 1973, I was driving home from a therapy session in my Corvette when this white 1956 T-bird pulled up beside me at a light, and the driver leaned out his window and said, "Rosella," and smiled. That was Dante's nickname for me, and it was Dante. I told him to call me, and he wrote my number in the dust on his dashboard. We've been together ever since.
D.: You didn't say I was Shirley MacLaine's boyfriend in "Sweet Charity."
R.: You were only on the screen three minutes, Dante, and you had shades on.
Dante laughed, and left the room.
Rosemary said, "Dante and I banter a lot--the kids used to call it the 'Rosemary-Dante Show'--but he's the most selfless man I ever met. I couldn't get along without him. We'll never get married. We've both done it once. He's my friend. He's fine, I'm fine."
Rosemary Clooney's Washington concert was exhilarating. Half her songs were from her Rainbow & Stars show ("Straighten Up and Fly Right," introduced by part of the acetate that was made at WLW the day she and Betty auditioned; "Sweet Kentucky Ham"; three Duke Ellington tunes; "More Than You Know"; "Hey There"; and "Thanks for the Memory"), and half were fresh ("Just Friends," "Tenderly," "Sentimental Journey," "They're Either Too Young or Too Old," and "I'll Be Seeing You," among others.) She was backed by her jumping Rainbow & Stars band--Warren Vache on cornet, Scott Hamilton on tenor saxophone, John Oddo on piano, David Finck on bass, and Joe Cocuzzo on drums. Before the last number, "The Best Is Yet To COme," Janet Solinger, an official of the Smithsonian, read a citation and presented her with a large medal, the James Smithson Bicentennial Medal. In return, Clooney gave the Smithsonian the gold recording of "Come On-a My House," struck after the record sold a million copies.
In the car on the way to a Smithsonian supper at Bice, one of Washington's hot Italian restaurants, Clooney talked about singing. "Singing is the only thing I've done all my life," she said. "I've had lots of boyfriends, one husband, five children, small houses, big houses--but singing is the one constant. When I was little, I listened to the bands broadcasting from the ballrooms around the country every night, and that was my dream--to sing in the great ballrooms. I don't read music, but it has never seemed alien to me. My singing is almost automatic. I listened to everybody. My father was a Crosby fan, and Bing was important to me as a singer. So was Tony Bennett. He always sounded like Mildred Bailey to me. Ethel Waters was an influence, and I listened to Ella Fitzgerald and Doris Day and Helen O'Connell. You always felt the pulse in Doris's singing; she has a rhythm section in her voice. My songs are filtered through my sensibilities. They reflect what is going on in my life. Sometimes disastrously. When I was at the Royal Box in New York, my friend the pianist Buddy Cole died. I had worked a lot with him, and when I sang 'Tenderly' that night I started to cry, and had to stop."
When Clooney began recording for Columbia, she had a breathtaking voice. It was light and rich and unbelievably pure. She had an even, delicate vibrato, perfect time, and perfect pitch, and she swung. Her ballads lulled an insinuated, and her rhythm songs were joyous. Voices tend to sink and narrow with age, and Clooney's is no exception. She has become cautious--trimming her vibrato, shortening her long notes, easing her way between her intervals. But her voice still has its round sunniness, its embracing quality. Her friend the songwriter Alan Bergman has said of her," Rosemary never over sings a song. She is always true to the melody. Singers should have it in three places--the heart, the head, and the pipes. Rosemary does."
Clooney still lives on North Roxbury, Dante is with her, his Thunderbird in the garage. The house, a big two-story Spanish stucco-and red-tile, is two blocks from Sunset Boulevard and three from the Beverly Hills Hotel. When Jose Ferrer bought the house (from the singer Ginny Simms and her husband), Jack Benny lived across the street, Eddie Cantor was catercornered, Ira Gershwin was next door, and Jimmy Stewart was down toward Sunset. Clooney's house was built in the twenties by the actor Monte Blue, who got started in D.W. Griffith's "Intolerance." The house has baronial touches: a giant wooden front door, now painted but possibly old, that has a Prohibition-era peephole door; a two-story entrance hall with a four-abreast staircase, a wrought-iron bannister, and a sizable chandelier; and a huge sunken living room, furnished with facing sofas the size of whaleboats. The largest of the five upstairs bedrooms is driven by a massive silvery dressing table, made for Clooney of mirrors and glass at Universal studios--something "fitting for a star," Ferrer said when he gave it to her. The back yard of the house is early Beverly Hills de-luxe: there is a guesthouse on one side and fifty-foot tiled pool on the other; the pool has its own cabana, and beyond the pool is a tennis court. The house has ghosts. For ten months in 1936 and 1937, George and Ira Gershwin rented teh house and filed it with their compeers: Jerome Kern, Fred Astaire, Irving Berlin, Igor Stravinsky, Yip Harburg, Harold Arlen, Lawrence Tibbett, Moss Hart, Paulette Goddard, Arnold Schoenberg. In an upstairs workroom, the Gershwins finished "A Foggy Day" and "Love Is Here to Stay," and George painted his intense, staring portrait of Schoenberg. And, notoriously, in 1934 the crooner Russ Columbo accidentally fired an antique duelling pistol, possibly in the same room, and was killed.
A couple of days after the Betty Clooney Foundation benefit (the Bob Hopes, Debby Boone, Barry Manilow, Bernadette Peters, Joe Williams, Joel Grey, Cleo Laine, Margaret Whiting, Dianne Reeves, the Four Tops, Tony Martin, Harry Crosby, Donna McKechnie, Marilynn Lovell, Alan Bergman, herself, and a big band conducted by Peter Matz), Rosemary Clooney sat in a corner of her den, which looks out on the back yard, and talked about her rootless childhood, about Billie Holiday, and about Joe Ferrer. "This room always makes me think of Billie," she said. "In the summer of 1956, Joe and I had a box next to Dinah Shore and her husband at some tennis matches, and Joe asked them if they'd like to have dinner and go hear Billie at a place on Hollywood Boulevard. I'd had various fleeting meetings with Billie, and I didn't think she liked me. There weren't many people at the club, but she sang with flashes of brilliance. You'd hear the sound of pain, then the pain would turn to laughter. When she finished, she stumbled getting off the stand, and came over to say hello. She looked at Dinah Shore and said to me, 'What are you doing sitting with this woman?' Joe was always quick on his feet, and he said, 'Billie, why don't you come to the house tomorrow afternoon and visit with Rosemary?' Someone drove her over, and we sat in here and drank gin and orange juice for hours. She talked about Tony Pastor and how he had helped her when she was sick. She talked about dressing rooms and their isolation, and how alone we girl singers were. She talked about looking in the mirror and how hard it was, because you might look so awful. The one thing she didn't talk about was singing. The room was blue with smoke, and I remember looking out at the California sunshine and thinking that we had made a den of iniquity out of the room. Just before she left, I asked her if she would like to be the godmother of my second child, Maria, who was about to be born, and she said yes, that it takes a bad woman to be a good godmother. It was the last time I saw her.
"My mother and father were unstable people. My father was a drinker, and my mother was more interested in selling ready-to-wear than she was in raising children. I don't think Betty and I and our younger brother, Nicky, spent more than two weeks in the same house with them. We lived with one or the other, or with Grandmother Clooney or Grandmother Guilfoyle. Both my parents were from Maysville. Mother's name was Frances, and she was eight years younger than my father. She had dark hair and blue, blue eyes, and she was vivacious and theatrical. She had a large nose and a striking profile, like a face on a Roman coin. Watching her was like watching a movie. She was a high-powered salesperson, and it carried over into her personal life--she conned people and was manipulative. Betty was a lot more understanding of my mother than I was. We never really got on, even after Mother moved in with Jose and me. My father--his name was Andrew--had hazel eyes and black hair, and he played the ukulele and laughed all the time. He was a housepainter. his father was the mayor of Maysville, and when my father misbehaved my grandfather told them to lock him up for the night. Once, when he was drunk, my father walked right out a third-story window. A balcony broke his fall, and he wasn't hurt.
"We were Catholics in a Protestant town. The streets of Maysville were paved with bricks, and it was the hemp capital of Mason County. It also had one of the biggest loose-leaf-tobacco markets in the world. There were tobacco auctions in teh fall, and the whole town would smell of tobacco. Grandfather Clooney had a jewelry shop, and he and Grandmother Clooney lived over it. In the Ohio River flood of 1937, the water came right up to the second floor. My father tried to get him to move his crystal and china, but he just stood in the door of this shop and said, 'It won't come any higher." The shop was never the same, and neither was he. Grandmother Clooney was German, and she took morphine. She was a lacemaker, and she always smelled of violets. She and Grandmother Guilfoyle hardly knew one another; it was 'Mrs. Clooney' and 'Mrs. Guilfoyle.' Grandmother Guilfoyle had been a schoolteacher. She had nine children and was overweight. She cooked large amounts of food. When the Pastor band came for dinner, she killed, dressed, and cooked twenty-two chickens. She fed all the tramps who stopped at the back door. Once, during the Depression, someone suggested that she stop using butter, and she was furious and said, 'I'm going to the river,' meaning that she was going to the Ohio and jump in. She didn't like genteel words. The comics were funny sheets, a closet was a press, and playing the piano was chording. I corrected her once, and it hurt her feelings. Sometimes, when there wasn't enough money, they turned off the gas and electric. But then she cooked over the grate in the fireplace, and we made out.
Jackie Rose, attractive and gray-haired, was visiting Clooney, and she poked her head in the living-room door and said that she had made chicken salad for lunch and was off to do some shopping on Rodeo Drive. She lives in Waitsfield Vermont, and owns a country emporium called The Store. When she had gone, Clooney said that Jackie Rose and Joe Ferrer had taught her just about everything she knows.
"I met Joe in New York in 1951," she went on. "Jackie and I were living in a tiny studio in the posh Hampshire House. The apartment belonged to her mother. I'd been going out with people like Dave Garroway. I remember him saying the night before he hosted the first 'Today' show that he thought Pat Weaver, who was the head of NBC, was nuts, that the show would never work. I met Joe on the Robert Q. Lewis show. We saw each other at lunch with other people, then without other people. He was married but was getting separated, and he was sixteen years older than I was. He came from a wealthy family in Puerto RIco that had sugar-cane property. His father was a lawyer. He went to Princeton and did Triangle Club shows, and one summer he was a gofer at a theatre that Josh Logan ran in Suffern, New York. Joe was a jazz fan, and he played a little piano and was a great admirer of the bandleader Georgie Auld. Later, when each of our children was born he'd find Georgie and they'd celebrate.
"Things began to get more intense. He had a job in Europe, and he wanted me to go, but it was the tail end of the big studios, and Paramount, where I had a contract, let it be know that you didn't go to Europe by yourself with a married man. In 1953, we were married, in Durant, Oklahoma, not far from the Texas border. I had just finished 'Red Garters,' and I joined him in Dallas, where he was doing 'Kiss Me, Kate.' The screenwriter Ketti Frings stood up for us, and took the only pictures we have of the wedding. I went back to Hollywood to do 'White Christmas,' and Joe did a season at the City Center with Jean Dalrymple. After he bought this house, we went to Europe. It was the best vacation I'd ever had. We stayed at Claridge's in London for seven weeks, and I met Olivier and Gielgud and Emlyn Williams. We went on to Paris and down to the South of France and to Rome, where Bogart was making 'The Barefoot Contessa.'
"In 1955, I began having children. It was quite a trick having kids year after year and keeping a career going. Miguel was first. He looks like Joe and is an actor. He played Albert in 'Twin Peaks.' Maria came in 1956. She's beautiful--she has dark hair and looks like every picture I've ever seen of Joe's mother, who dies when he was at Princeton. Maria is a designer, and she just got married. Gabriel was premature. He's a good painter and a good cook. He's married to Debby Boone, Pat's daughter, and they've done three children's books together. Monsita Teresa was born in 1958 and lives in Virgina Beach. Her husband is a vice-president of the Family cable-television channel, and they have three boys, so I now have seven grandchildren. Rafael was the last child, and he came in 1960. He's the only one who looks like me. He lives in New York and is very successful in voice-overs--Uncle Ben's Rice, Miller Beer, you name it. He married a lovely Italian girl.
"Joe was supportive of my work, but I think he was envious. He constantly took singing lessons, because he marvelled at the ease with which I sang, and he wanted to be able to do the same thing. I gradually realized that one of my functions was to be a kind of once removed audience for him. He'd tell people on the phone in detail what he had done that day, or on a trip he'd just taken, and that was how I'd learn about what he had been doing. He was moved more by performances than by life itself. He could cry when an emotion was produced onstage, but not in actual life. I was having an affair myself when we broke up, so I wasn't blameless. But I'd known for a long time that he was conducting his life that way. He broke my heart in small increments.
"But Joe died in January, and the children are handling their grief. Maybe the reason I've been complimented so much on my singing in the past six months is that it reflects the stage I've reached. For the first time, I'm at east in my life."