Rosemary Clooney

Singer who enjoyed two distinct careers and who appeared in White Christmas

LONDON TIMES - 6-30-02

 In the days just before rock’n’roll changed the face of music forever, Rosemary Clooney was the most popular female vocalist in America. It is impossible to exaggerate just how successful Clooney was in the 1950s, and not just on record. She also had her own variety show on television and appeared in several Hollywood films, including the perennial favourite White Christmas (1954).

Today she is most easily identified as the actor George Clooney’s Auntie Rosie. To her fans this seems unfair, but Clooney never minded sharing the limelight. In fact she began her professional career just after the Second World War as a doubles act with her younger sister, Betty. When the bandleader Tony Pastor heard The Clooney Sisters, as they were known, on a local radio station in Cincinnati he asked them to go on the road with him. They made their debut with Pastor’s band at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City in 1947.

Two years later Betty tired of the continual barnstorming tours. She retired and moved back home to their birthplace in Maysville, Kentucky. Until her early death, Betty remained her sister’s best friend and Rosemary tried on several occasions to convince her to return to performing. Clooney’s abundant love of family is publicly documented in her album Mothers & Daughters (1997). Each of the songs features a dedication to one of her daughters or granddaughters. In turn, each of them pays a generous tribute to Clooney in the album’s liner notes. Both on and off stage, Clooney remained one of the best-loved entertainers. Her friends add up to a veritable Who’s Who of Hollywood and the music scene — from Bing Crosby and Bob Hope to Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.

Clooney hit the big time in 1950 with her first solo recording, the novelty song Come-on-a-My-House. She thought the song corny, even though the words had been penned by the novelist William Saroyan, and the producer Mitch Miller had to threaten to terminate her just signed contract with Columbia Records before she agreed to sing it. It turned out to be an overnight sensation that was quickly followed by several other Clooney chart-toppers, such as Hey There and This Ole House.

White Christmas is her best known film, but she also appeared in a weirdly eccentric Wild West musical called Red Garters (1952). Set in the town of Paradise Lost in Limbo County, it was a concept film, a spoof and an avant-garde design experiment rolled into one. Throughout the film bold swaths of orange and vermilion replace conventional settings. Clooney, who played a saloon hall girl, drafted in her friend Marlene Dietrich to teach her how to roll a cigarette with sufficiently sexy sang-froid.

At the height of her career, in 1953, Clooney married the actor José Ferrer, who had won an Academy Award for Cyrano de Bergerac in 1950. Even though they had five children — Miguel, Maria, Gabriel, Monsita and Rafael — in seven years, it was a tempestuous relationship. Ferrer, who was 16 years older, had already been married twice and lived up to his reputation as a ladies’ man. According to Clooney, he was first unfaithful to her on their honeymoon.

Coupling the pressures of a high-flying career with a family, a life-long battle with her weight and a split from Ferrer, Clooney gradually slipped into a drugs dependency, which eventually led to a nervous breakdown.

In 1968 she was a campaigner for Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential bid. She and two of her children were in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was assassinated. A short time later she stormed out of a performance in Reno, Nevada. As she wrote in 1977, in This for Remembrance, the first of her two autobiographies: “Nobody could approach me. 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.”

She underwent a harrowing confinement in a psychotic ward, transferred to a double-locked room in St John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, the same hospital where she had given birth to her children. It took four years of therapy before Clooney could return to performing. In 1972 she made her comeback at the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen.

This marked the beginning of a second career which proved even more successful, though not as lucrative, as her first. At Christmas in 1975 Crosby asked her to appear with him in a concert at the Los Angeles Music Centre. She agreed, and the pair continued on to Chicago, New York and London. Her career was being reborn.

In 1977 she teamed up with Concord Records and for the next two decades recorded an album every year. Her voice, which had always had a bright sweetness, had begun to mellow into the distinctive honeyed tones that can be heard on these albums. As the years went by her style loosened, became more fluid, distinguished by a blend of warmth and swinging verve.

Clooney loved to reinvent the great American standards in her own inimitable and intimate jazz renditions. The majority of her Concord discs, including a tribute to Billie Holiday, are with small ensembles but she also returned to her big-band roots, recording with the bands of Woody Herman and Count Basie. To mark the millennium she took off in a new direction with the album Brazil and followed it up with her last recording, the vibrant Sentimental Journey, subtitled The Girl Singer and Her New Big Band.

Girl Singer was the title of her second autobiography published in 1999. Like her singing voice it is warm, humane, free of rancour and brimming with her love of life and especially of her family.

During her second career Clooney became one of the most popular regulars at supper clubs across America, notably Rainbow and Stars at the top of New York’s Rockefeller Centre. She performed at Carnegie Hall on more than one occasion and appeared in London for the last time at the Royal Festival Hall last year. She also landed a recurring role in the television series ER opposite her nephew. Clooney’s career was capped in February when she received a lifetime achievement award at the annual Grammy Awards.

Just a month earlier, surgeons at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota had removed the upper lobe of one of Clooney’s lungs in an attempt to stall the advance of her cancer. Doctors said the operation was successful and did not order subsequent radiation treatment or chemotherapy.

Clooney, who had been a smoker for years, told the CNN presenter Larry King that giving up smoking was the most difficult part of her rehabilitation, much harder to abandon than any of the drugs she had been on and that every day she still missed being able to smoke.

She is survived by her husband, and three sons and two daughters.

Rosemary Clooney, singer, was born in Maysville, Kentucky, on May 23, 1928. She died in Los Angeles on June 29, 2002, aged 74.