'Rosie' was pop music legend

By Peggy Kreimer, Post staff reporter - July 1, 2002

She was an American icon. She was superstar cabaret singer who overcame overwhelming odds to conquer show business. She was, as she would say with true humbleness, "just a girl singer."

Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton called her a state treasure in 2002. Residents of her hometown Maysville called her "Rosie." It amounted to the same thing.

Rosemary Clooney, a musical legend who never forgot her Kentucky roots, died Saturday of complications from lung cancer at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., her family by her side. She was 74.

Ms. Clooney was an internationally acclaimed singer and movie star whose fans span generations from the Big Band era to modern jazz. She could pack the house as a "girl singer" with bands in the 1940s and was still packing the top New York cabarets in the 1990s.

She would joke that she was becoming known as actor George Clooney's aunt, but she had no trouble holding on to her own star status.

New York Times reporter Stephen Holden wrote of her annual packed performances at Feinstein's at the Regency: "Her nightclub appearances have the feel of family affairs at which she presides like a benign grandmother, blending songs and anecdotes into a rich personal history that keeps you hanging on every word."

She captivated audiences through an almost 60-year professional career. In February, 2002, she received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award — the latest in a stream of accolades that included the international Jazz Hall of Fame, the National Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Pied Piper Award for career achievement by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers.

Her son, Miguel Ferrer, accepted her Lifetime Achievement Grammy in February as she watched the award ceremonies from her hospital room in the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

She discovered that she had lung cancer during a routine physical exam in January and she underwent surgery on Jan. 11. Doctors removed the upper lobe of her left lung.

Clooney, who again was hospitalized earlier this month after suffering a recurrence of lung cancer, died shortly after 6 p.m. on Saturday.

The singer, who documented her mental breakdown and her remarkable resilience in two autobiographies, greeted concerned relatives after cancer surgery with a joke and vowed to beat the disease and sing again.

The news of her battle with cancer generated a flood of prayers, good wishes and concern from fans around the world, who kept track of her recovery through Web sites that posted, among other items, the Cincinnati Post columns written by her brother, Nick Clooney, former newscaster and host of American Movie Classics.

Through his words, readers have come to know the personal side of one of the nation's singing legends. But residents of Maysville and nearby Augusta, where she owned a house, didn't need her brother's introduction. The star never really stopped being a part of the community.

Her intimate way with a lyric won praise from the icons of her field, but it was her intimate way with people that kept Northern Kentuckians calling her neighbor long after she hit the road with Tony Pastor's band in 1946.

Rosemary Clooney was born in Maysville on May 23, 1928, the oldest child of Frances and Andy Clooney.

Her father was an alcoholic who was away from the family more than he was with them. Her mother was a traveling representative for Lerner's dress shop and often left the children with relatives.

Her younger sister Betty and even younger brother Nick were virtually raised by their grandparents.

In her latest autobiography, "Girl Singer," she talked about a sometimes-chaotic life that lacked stability but never lacked love.

Family gatherings usually included music and homegrown entertainment. She made her public singing debut at the Russell Theater in Maysville at age 3 wearing a white dotted Swiss dress singing "When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver (I Will Love You Just the Same)."

At age 5, her grandfather led the applause for her at his Rotary lunch. By the time she was in high school she was singing at school dances.

In 1945, at age 17, she and Betty, then 14, auditioned for WLW Radio in Cincinnati and won a job singing as the Clooney Sisters for $20 a week — each.

When the Tony Pastor band toured through Cincinnati that year, they hired the sister act to join the tour. With the package came their uncle, George, to chaperone the teens.

A year later, Clooney's first record came out. She stayed with the band until she was 21 when she headed to New York and a contract with Columbia Records.

Mitch Miller of Columbia convinced her to record a spicy novelty tune called "Come On-a My House." It became a gold record and turned Clooney from a singer to a star.

She was in demand as a singer and movie companies started calling. Her first film, "The Stars are Singing" came out in 1953. She had so much clout, she made sure the film premiered in Maysville. She waved to neighbors and relatives from a shiny convertible in the premiere parade.

She did two more light films, one with Bob Hope who remained a lifelong friend. In 1953 she married movie star and Oscar-winner Jose Ferrer.

The next year she co-started with Bing Crosby in "White Christmas." It was a blockbuster film and the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the crooner.

In 1955 she added "mother" to her titles of "singer," "film star" "recording star" and "wife."

A year later, she started her own television variety show.

By 1960 she had five children, a soaring career, a deteriorating marriage — and a growing reliance on tranquilizers and sleeping pills.

She and Ferrer divorced in 1961, reconciled, then divorced again in 1967.

In 1968, her fragile balance faltered when close friend Bobby Kennedy was assassinated as she stood just yards away in his campaign entourage.

Kennedy's death triggered a nervous breakdown that she described in her books. At one point she yelled at her audience and stormed off the stage. She later announced her retirement amid uncontrollable tears. She ended up strapped down in a psychiatric hospital and went through years of therapy.

In 1976, Bing Crosby asked her to join his 50th anniversary tour. It became her comeback tour, reminding the world just why Rosemary Clooney had to be heard to be believed.

In 1997, the singer returned home to get married to longtime companion Dante DiPaolo in St. Patrick's Church in Maysville.

Her survivors include a brother, a sister and 10 grandchildren. Services are planned in both Maysville and Beverly Hills, however arrangements late Sunday were still pending. Moore and Parker Funeral Home at 305 Elizabeth St., Augusta, is in charge of local arrangements. Ms. Clooney was expected to be buried Friday at St. Patrick's Cemetery in Maysville, where members of her family are interred.