We had a crush on you

Rosemary Clooney one of past century's great song stylists

By Richard Ouzounian - Theatre Critic, Toronto Star
July 1, 2002

Singer Rosemary Clooney is pictured in this publicity photo from a 1967 performance.


She asked us all to "Come On-A My House" and for more than 50 years, we were happy to heed the invitation.

Rosemary Clooney died on Saturday night at her home in Beverly Hills, Calif., surrounded by her family. She was 74 and succumbed to complications from her six-month battle with lung cancer.

Universally regarded as one of the great song stylists of the past century, Clooney enjoyed two distinct and successful careers, divided by a decade of personal tragedy.

Singers who hit the skids are a dime a dozen, but ones who come back the way that she did are rare indeed.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote "There are no second acts in American lives," but then he never met Rosemary Clooney.

She was born in Maysville, Ky. on May 23, 1928, the granddaughter of the mayor. But her childhood life wasn't a picture-postcard dream of Americana. Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother used go off on unexplained "journeys," leaving Rosemary and her younger sister Betty with relatives, saying "You can do it, Rosie, you're the strong one. You can fix things for yourself."

Her mother finally remarried when she was 13, putting the girls in the care of their father. Three years later, he abandoned them at a bus station in Cincinnati, with 20 cents between them.

Rosemary took Betty down to radio station WLW, where they auditioned for a local music program and were hired as The Clooney Sisters. The salary was $20 a week and the station manager gave them a dollar in advance, so they could eat.

They were soon heard by bandleader Tony Pastor, who took them on the road. For two years they toured North America. By 1949, Betty wanted to quit, so the act split up and Rosemary headed to New York.

She soon landed a recording contract with Columbia, and broke through with a 1951 novelty number called "Come On-A My House." The song became such a big hit that her first cheque was for $130,000. Other humorous dialect numbers like "Mambo Italiano" followed, and then in 1952 Paramount Pictures brought her to Hollywood.

She appeared in five films, most notably the 1954 classic White Christmas. But by then, movie musicals were on the way out and Clooney had decided to settle down after marrying José Ferrer.

Ferrer has nearly been forgotten since his death in 1992, but in the early 1950s he was one of America's major stars, a theatre actor and director who made the move to Hollywood with ease, winning the 1951 Best Actor Oscar for his performance in the title role of Cyrano De Begrerac, and later receiving a nomination for his performance in Moulin Rouge.

To the outside world, their marriage looked perfect. They had five children in five years (Bob Hope once accused them of playing "Vatican roulette."). But the truth behind the scenes was very different. Ferrer was a womanizer who began cheating on Clooney during their honeymoon and convinced her that his infidelities were due to her inadequacy.

She put her still-sizzling record career on the backburner and devoted herself to Ferrer and the kids, reaching for tranquilizers to numb the pain. They divorced, remarried and finally split up for good in 1966.

Clooney had a heartbreaking affair with arranger Nelson Riddle, kept popping pills and resumed her performing career with manic intensity.

Manic was the operative word, however, and she gradually began to spin out of control. Matters came to a head in the summer of 1968. Fanatically devoted to Robert Kennedy, she began to follow him around on his campaign for the presidency and was present at the Ambassador Hotel when he was assassinated June 5.

Clooney refused to believe it, and finally broke down in the middle of a performance in Reno a few weeks later. She was forcibly institutionalized, suffering from "psychotic reaction with severe depression and paranoid features."

A long, slow and painful process of recovery began, weaning her off the prescription drugs that she had been living on for the past decade, and trying to locate the root of her mental problems.

Four years later, she tentatively started her comeback, 80 pounds heavier but clean and sober, with a concert at Copenhagen's Tivoli Gardens. Her voice was still recovering from the abuse of the past years, and so she kept away from the major performing centres.

I met her in 1973 when she was doing a guest shot on a television show in Edmonton.

I was working there at the time, and got myself invited to the taping as well as to the wrap party after. I remembered she had been a star when I was a kid and, like everyone, I knew all about her troubles.

At one point in the evening, I found myself alone with her for a minute. I made some pleasantries about her performance, and then, with the brutal honesty of youth, asked her simply, "How do you do it?"

She appreciated my candour and offered hers in return. "One day a time. One song at a time. One note at a time. And I make all of them as honest as I can."

I remembered that night as her career kept sailing on for the next three decades. Bing Crosby brought her back to the big time in 1974 with an appearance at the gala to celebrate his 50th anniversary in show business. Concord Jazz began an amazing series of albums with her in 1977, and from then on she was back, some say better than ever.

It's true her voice lacked the supple brightness of her early years, that open, unguarded quality that made a song like "Tenderly" grab you where you lived when she remembered how "Your arms opened wide and closed me inside."

But instead, she offered wisdom, warmth and the honesty that she had said she would try to give. As time took away the notes, it taught her more to put behind the words and the end result was still sublime.

Lyricist Alan Bergman summed her up best a decade ago when he said "Singers should have it in three places — the heart, the head, and the pipes. Rosemary does."

I think of her today singing Bergman's "The Promise":

"I am not afraid to say I love you,

"And I promise you I'll never say goodbye."