Clooney Shaped, Sharpened by Turbulent Times
by Howard Reich - Chicago Tribune, July 1, 2002
When Rosemary Clooney first attained stardom in the early 1950s, she looked and sounded no different than a generation of blond beauties who had seduced the American listening public.
Like Doris Day, Dinah Shore, June Christy and scores more, Clooney was easy on the eyes and the ears.
It wasn't until Clooney's career and personal life took a nose dive in the late 1960s -- with a series of chemical addictions, romantic disappointments and psychiatric crises -- that she began to emerge as an artist with something distinct and profound to say.
When Clooney died Saturday night in her Beverly Hills home, at 74, she not only had long since reclaimed her place in American culture but, more important, had created a large body of recorded work of the highest artistic caliber.
Had Clooney simply disappeared from the scene at the time of her downfall in the late '60s, she would be remembered today merely as another '50s has-been who chirped the eminently forgettable lyrics to "Come on-a My House" (her first million-seller, in 1950). But like her friend and mentor, Frank Sinatra, Clooney used the most turbulent chapters of her life as grist for a new and deeper art form, which kept her before the public throughout the 1980s and '90s.
Though music lovers and moviegoers of the '50s may have assumed that the pert, perennially smiling singer epitomized an all-American wholesomeness, Clooney in fact already had seen a darker side to life. Her father's heavy drinking prompted her parents to separate frequently, with Clooney and brother Nick (father of actor George Clooney) and sister Betty shuttled among various relatives' homes in and around Maysville, Ky., where Rosemary was born on May 23, 1928.
Drafted into a form of show business by their grandfather Andrew Clooney, an Ohio politician who teamed Rosemary and Betty as a singing duo for political rallies, the sisters in the mid-1940s won a nightly gig crooning on Cincinnati radio station WLW. Like most singers of the day, the Clooney sisters launched their careers in earnest singing in front of a big band, with bandleader Tony Pastor hiring them in 1946.
The grueling road trips persuaded Betty to quit show business in 1949. But Rosemary persevered, heading to New York and in 1950 signing with one of the biggest labels in the country, Columbia. A year later, she became a national phenomenon, singing the insipid lyrics to "Come on-a My House," a tune she at first refused to record. But when she told Columbia executive Mitch Miller she wouldn't sing it, he said, "Well, let me put it this way. I will fire you unless you show up tomorrow," she recalled in her 1977 autobiography, "This for Remembrance."
Of the five musicals Clooney filmed for Paramount in the 1950s, "White Christmas" (1954) helped establish her as an American icon singing alongside no less than Bing Crosby, who became a close personal friend and later would help her salvage her career.
But even as Clooney enjoyed quick commercial success and international fame, the fault lines of her future were beginning to show. A marriage to actor Jose Ferrer in 1953 produced five children but also considerable heartache, with Ferrer disinclined to stay faithful to his wife, Clooney said. The two divorced in 1961, remarried and divorced again in 1967.
For Clooney, the turning point came in 1968, when her relationship with a young musician ended abruptly and her friend, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Clooney was at the hotel at the time.
These events, she said, heightened her depression and opened the door to addictions to sleeping pills, tranquilizers and other prescription drugs.
"Nobody could approach me," she wrote in her memoirs. "I was like a hand grenade with the pin pulled. Nobody could tell whether it was a dud or the real thing, because one minute I could be completely sweet and kind, the next, a raving monster."
In July, she stormed off the stage in Reno, jumped into her car and began driving on the wrong side of a mountain highway, dodging cars as they veered toward her.
Her son Miguel remembered that she had become "wild, uncontrollable. Once she told a cab driver she had a gun and would kill him. When I started to cry, she shoved a rosary in my hand and told me to pray for him."
Clooney was on the "brink of despair," she observed, and was admitted to the psychiatric ward of St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. "I was a violent case in a violent ward," she wrote.
But this was the point at which Clooney reinvented herself. Rather than succumb to her demons, she struggled through four years of therapy before gingerly attempting a comeback, in 1972, at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.
"She was so ill that it was doubtful that she would ever sing again," singer Michael Feinstein told the Tribune in 1992, on the eve of a joint performance with Clooney at Chicago's Shubert Theatre.
"So the fact that she came back is almost unbelievable. But she has come back with, of course, a greater maturity and a lower vocal range that has suited her nicely."
More than that, Clooney in the late '70s started to sing with a degree of control, understatement and interpretive depth that no one would have expected from the artist who had made her name with "Come on-a My House." She documented this new art with two dozen exceptional recordings for Concord, an independent California label that shrewdly allowed Clooney to explore the jazz rhythms and phrasings that she only had hinted at in an earlier incarnation.
Chicagoans heard Clooney often, at everywhere from the Fairmont Hotel downtown to the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park. In each instance, you had to be struck by the care with which she caressed every syllable of a lyric, the fearlessness of her incomparably slow tempos, the perfection of her pitch and the musicianship of her delivery.
"I never really thought about how long it could all last," she said in a 1992 Tribune interview, "but I do know that although I've been a mother and a wife, I've been a singer longer than anything.
"It's the thing that comes most naturally to me."