"American Singer-Actress Rosemary Clooney Dead at 74"

by Kevin Krolicki

Reuters, June 30, 2002

LOS ANGELES -- Rosemary Clooney, a chart-topping "girl singer" who became one of Hollywood's biggest celebrities of the 1950s, died on Saturday night in her Beverly Hills mansion due to complications from lung cancer, her publicist said. She was 74.

Clooney shot to fame with a string of hits in the 1950s including "Come On-A My House" and "Mambo Italiano" and co-starred opposite Bing Crosby in the 1954 classic movie "White Christmas."

After virtually quitting music during a troubled period in the late 1960s, she reemerged in the 1980s, endearing herself to a new generation of music fans and a landing a recurring role on hospital drama "ER" opposite nephew George Clooney.

Born in Maysville, Kentucky in 1928, Clooney had a hardscrabble childhood clouded by the separation of her parents and lived much of the time with relatives.

Her first professional break came in 1945, when she borrowed money to make the trip to Cincinnati to audition for a radio job singing duets with her younger sister, Betty.

Two years later, the pair were touring with Tony Pastor's big band as "The Clooney Sisters," two of the early "girl singers" that were taking the spotlight as the Big Band era faded.

While Betty left show business to go back to Kentucky, Rosemary went to New York and never looked back.

"That's the way it started," Clooney said in a 1999 interview. "And the way it continued was just the fact that I wanted it very much."

By the time she was 21, Clooney had signed with Columbia Records. In 1951, she scored a mega-hit with "Come On A My House," something of a novelty song about an Armenian peasant seeking a man.

The million-selling record, which Clooney had initially resisted in favor of ballads, featured lyrics by author William Saroyan and music by his cousin, Ross Bagdasarian, who created "The Chipmunks."

A Hollywood career followed for Clooney with roles in musicals such as "The Stars Are Singing," and "White Christmas," a classic also starring Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen.

Clooney married Jose Ferrer, the Academy Award-winning actor, in 1953. She was 25, the Puerto Rican-born Ferrer was 41. The pair had five children in just seven years even as Clooney continued to appear on her own television show on CBS.

"I was usually pregnant," she recalled later. "I would start having to hide behind higher pieces of furniture on the set."

'A Symbol of Good Modern American Music'

What followed was a dark period that culminated in a public and harrowing collapse for the singer that collaborator and lifelong friend Frank Sinatra had praised as "a symbol of good modern American music."

Clooney and Ferrer divorced in 1961, reconciled for a time and divorced again in 1967. In 1968, she was waiting to see Robert Kennedy, a friend, at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on the day he was assassinated.

That same year, fighting an escalating addiction to painkillers, she stormed off stage in Reno, Nevada, part of a pattern of erratic behavior that prompted a hospitalization for what was later diagnosed as drug-induced psychosis.

"I felt trapped and fabricated in the fifties living up to other people's expectations," she recalled later.

After a long period of semi-retirement, Clooney returned to the stage in 1976 in an anniversary concert with Crosby that became a reunion tour and marked the start of her critically heralded return.

Although she chafed at being called a jazz singer, Clooney came to be seen as a treasure of American music during her comeback. Film director Mike Nichols once said that Clooney "sings like Spencer Tracy acts."

Clooney received a special lifetime Grammy award this year and had been nominated for an Emmy for her role on "ER" as an Alzheimer's patient who can only communicate through song.

Three years ago, she opened "Feinstein's at the Regency for friend, Michael Feinstein, returning to the New York nightclub stage. "Rosemary was a beloved friend to everyone who knew her," Feinstein told Reuters.

"She was a singer who made an incalculable contribution to American popular song by her extraordinary and wise interpretations of these classics," said Feinstein, a singer, pianist and songwriter considered the foremost modern interpreter of legendary composer George Gershwin.

"She will always live in my heart -- because she sang from the heart," said Feinstein. "The world will never be quite the same without her."

A longtime smoker, Clooney underwent cancer surgery at the Mayo Clinic in January to remove part of her left lung.

Infections delayed her recovery and she remained hospitalized until May, but had planned to resume performing.

Clooney is survived by her five children -- Miguel, Maria, Gabriel, Monsita and Rafael -- her husband, Dante Di Paolo, and her grandchildren.