Rosemary Clooney, a voice stilled

BY MARTIN MERZER,, Miami Herald, July 01, 2002

Hardship and emotional turmoil sometimes produce sublime art, and that certainly was the case for Rosemary Clooney.

She overcame a turbulent childhood, emerging as one of the most popular singers of the 1950s, often compared to Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. Later, she surmounted mental illness, staging a remarkable comeback that inspired critics to celebrate her as a leading interpreter of American popular music and jazz.

Clooney died Saturday night from lung cancer. She was 74. She was at home in Beverly Hills, Calif., in a house once owned by composer George Gershwin, surrounded by friends and family, including actor George Clooney, a nephew so close that he called her ''Aunt Rosie'' to the end.

Tributes to her voice of velvet, her perseverance and her place in American music flowed Sunday.

''I'd certainly put her high on the list of classic American songbook singers,'' said Peter Graves, a Fort Lauderdale orchestra leader who worked with Sinatra and many other entertainers of that generation. ``She had great phrasing and a great voice. I always loved her.''

Radio personality Jonathan Schwartz, a longtime friend, began his Sunday show with a eulogy for Clooney, playing her version of Secret of Life by James Taylor.

``The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. Any fool can do it. There ain't nothing to it. Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill. But since we're on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride.''

Schwartz called her ``a helluva woman. She was funny. She was full of life.''

''Her music was absolutely spare and truthful,'' he said during his show, broadcast on WNYC in New York City and on XM satellite radio nationally. ``She was one of the greatest singers who ever lived.

``To say that she's a part of the great American songbook so diminishes both. She's iconic within the words and music of Rodgers and Gershwin and all the rest.''

No one who heard her rhythmic versions of upbeat songs and especially her renderings of melancholy ballads would argue with Schwartz.

Clooney poured herself into the lyrics, and her textured interpretation of P.S. I Love You, written in 1934 by Johnny Mercer and Gordon Jenkins, moved generations of listeners separated from loved ones by war or economic necessity or other vagaries of life.

``Dear, I thought I'd drop a line. The weather's cool, the folks are fine; I'm in bed each night at nine, P.S. I love you. Yesterday we had some rain, but all in all I can't complain; was it dusty on the train? P.S. I love you. . . .

``Nothing else for me to say, and so I'll close, but by the way, ev'rybody's thinking of you. P.S. I love you.''

The daughter of an alcoholic father and a mother with wanderlust, Clooney was born in Maysville, Ky., in 1928. She and her sister, Betty, often had to collect soda bottles to survive, returning them and pocketing the refunded deposits.


They eventually entered show business, singing duets for $20 each on a Cincinnati radio station after World War II.

In 1949, Clooney got her big break, signing a solo contract with Columbia Records.

Her first hit: a novelty number called Come On-a-My House, a song she hated and agreed to record only when threatened with being fired. Now a star, she graduated to higher quality material, co-starred with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the movie White Christmas and hosted two TV series.

Among her hits: Hey There, Our Love Is Here to Stay, From This Moment On, I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm, This Ole House, and Tenderly.

Her personal life did not unfold as easily.

She married actor Jose Ferrer in 1953, divorced him in 1961, married him again later that year and divorced him again in 1967. They had five children, including Miguel Ferrer, now 47 and a lead actor on the TV series Crossing Jordan.

Fighting depression in 1968, she became addicted to sleeping pills and tranquilizers. She later said the assassination that year of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a close friend, triggered a complete nervous breakdown.

She was treated in the psychiatric ward of a Los Angeles hospital and underwent therapy and counseling for years, eventually returning to emotional stability. At the same time, she worked herself back from Holiday Inn lounges, making it to New York's Carnegie Hall in 1991 and 1993.

She was in her 60s then, and her renown was growing.

''Clooney's voice,'' jazz critic Don Heckman wrote two years ago, ``has been one of the natural wonders -- too often underappreciated -- since her pop star days in the '50s.''

Clooney, who smoked for many years, underwent a lung operation in January. A month later, she received a lifetime achievement citation at the annual Grammy music awards, but she was too ill to attend.


She is survived by husband Dante DiPaolo, her five children, 10 grandchildren, brother Nick Clooney, a broadcaster, and sister Gail Clooney Darley. Memorial services will be held in California and Kentucky, but have not been scheduled.

The family requested that any donations go to The Rosemary Clooney Fund for Support of Pulmonary Research, c/o The Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., 55905.

Clooney's life, friends said, was difficult but also rewarding. Toward the end, she earned not only admiration but also a sense of serenity.

''She was so much fun,'' Schwartz said. ``She could be grizzled, but not glacial. There was nothing cold about her. She was just golden, as far as I was concerned.''