"Rosemary Clooney is finally enjoying life's ride"

February 20, 2000


Rosemary Clooney has grown fond of singing "The Secret of Life," a philosophical ballad by James Taylor whose message strikes a chord deep within her heart.

"The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time. . . . 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."

It's been quite a ride for Clooney, the 71-year-old singer who performs Saturday night with the Toledo Symphony Orchestra.

"I love this song so much, and it's something that, at this time in my life, I like to sing. It certainly tells the truth, as far as I'm concerned," Clooney said last week from her home in Beverly Hills.

"The thing about time is that time isn't really real. It's just your point of view. How does it feel for you."

Clooney's life has been a classic rags-to-riches story and then some. A small-town girl abandoned by her parents, she used her remarkable singing skills to become a star in the worlds of music and Hollywood.

But there were many strange twists along the way.

Clooney tells all in her new book, Girl Singer: An Autobiography (Doubleday 1999), which was written by Joan Barthel.

"I talked and she wrote," Clooney explained. "She was very insistent about getting into things I had never talked about before. Sometimes she would get so insistent that I would get uncomfortable and literally, like a child, I would run away. I would go to my house in Kentucky and stay by the river and not call her."

She needed to sort things out in her mind before talking them out for publication, Clooney said.

"It was very difficult. When you're past it, to revisit, it you almost have to go through it again," she said.

The painful memories included the day in December, 1941, when her mother left their hometown of Maysville, Ky., for California, taking her 7-year-old son Nicky with her. She left Rosemary, 13, and her 10-year-old sister, Betty, with their grandmother and other relatives. "You're the oldest, you'll manage," she told Rosemary.

And there are memories of her tumultuous relationship with actor Jose Ferrer, an incorrigible womanizer to whom she was married twice and with whom she had five children.

There also were her battles with pills and alcohol addiction.

And there was her 1968 nervous breakdown, right after the assassination of her close friend, Robert F. Kennedy, who was supposed to meet her after that campaign speech. The day after the shooting, an unbalanced Clooney called Kennedy's widow, Ethel, to tell her that she knew a secret: Bobby was still alive.

Shortly after the RFK tragedy, she took the stage in Reno and berated her audience: "Why are you people here? I'm sick of singing for you jerks!"

She got into her white Cadillac, which she had covered with flower stickers, and drove on the wrong side of a mountain road to "test" God: "If you really love me, you won't let me die," she told Him.

Clooney was hospitalized for "a psychotic reaction with severe depression and paranoid features," and she spent the next eight years in therapy to heal her mental problems and overcome her addictions.

"Certainly there are a few things I would rather not have gone through," she said with immense understatement.

For all the heartache and misfortune, Clooney has also reached many lofty heights in her roller-coaster life. The last few decades have been particularly satisfying, she said, both personally and professionally.

In 1997 she married her longtime friend and roommate, Dante DiPaolo, a former dancer. She loves doting on her nine grandchildren, seven of whom live close by her California home. And she enjoys virtually complete artistic freedom in her dealings with Concord Records, her label of 20 years.

"I work as much as I want to, and that's what I judge my success on," she said. "And Concord has been so good to me. I pick what I want to do. I even get to pick the artwork for the album covers."

Her singing career began at age 16 as a means to support herself and her sister, with whom she had collected soda-pop bottles for money. They entered an open audition at the powerful 50,000-watt AM radion station WLW in Cincinnati and were hired for $20 a week each.

"I worked for three years at WLW. I didn't have a burning ambition; I enjoyed the work," Clooney said. "I loved being in Cincinnati and singing at WLW. It was one of the best training grounds in the world. They had everything you could imagine. They had Chet Atkins playing country music early in the morning. They had a 20-piece band in the studio."

At 18, she and Betty went on the road with Tony Pastor's big band. They made several recordings and caught the ear of Manie Sachs , head of A&R for Columbia Records.

But Columbia didn't want a sisters act. They wanted Rosemary as a solo artist, and she was persuaded to leave her sister and her uncle who had been managing them, signing with Columbia in 1949 as soon as she turned 21.

One of her first memorable assignments was to record a duet with superstar singer Frank Sinatra, on a corny, conversational ballad called "Peach Tree Street." (It's included in a two-CD retrospective, "Songs from the Girl Singer: A Musical Autobiography," which Concord released in coordination with the book.)

"Terrible song, isn't it?" Clooney said frankly. "Dinah Shore hated it, and she turned it down. Frank told Manie Sachs, 'I'll record it with the last person you signed.' And that happened to be me. I think it was to get back at Dinah."

The song went nowhere, Clooney said, but the recording was still a highlight for the fledgling singer and for her hometown of Maysville, Ky., which Sinatra mentioned in the song.

Her breakthrough came in 1951 with her recording of "Come On-A My House," a jazzy novelty version of an Armenian peasant tune chosen for her by renowned bandleader Mitch Miller.

"I wasn't too keen on the song," Clooney admitted. "At that time I had had some measure of success. 'Beautiful Brown Eyes' was a folk song that was pretty and it was always Danny Kaye's favorite song I ever did. . . . I liked pretty songs and this seemed like such a departure from anything I'd done before.

"I think when you're young, you take yourself too seriously. I had a little streak of pomposity going through myself at that point and I thought at that time I should only sing death-defying love songs."

Miller made a convincing argument for the young singer.

"He said, 'If you don't show up the next morning [to record it], you're fired,' " Clooney recalled with a laugh.

She gave it her best shot - and the song shot to No. 1.

Suddenly Clooney was in demand. Her performance fees quadrupled. She was offered a Hollywood contract (her most memorable role was in White Christmas, with Crosby, in 1954). Job offers and interview requests poured in.

"It was like stepping on a merry-go-round going 60 miles per hour," she said. "You can't explain it to somebody."

She is making an effort, however, to share the wisdom of her years with up-and-coming jazz singer Diana Krall, a young friend and colleague with whom she has recorded an album of Brazilian music due for release this spring.

"She's on that train [to stardom] right now," Clooney said. "She's like my child. I see her going through these hard times right now and she's handling it very, very well."

Another person whose career Clooney has watched closely is her nephew, George, Nick's son who starred on TV's ER before graduating to the big screen.

"Aside from being one of the best-looking guys around, George is a very serious actor," said Clooney, who was nominated for a 1995 Emmy Award as a guest actress in the series.

"Did you see Three Kings? I think he took a giant leap in that movie. And he takes it very seriously."

Family is becoming more important to Clooney, who keeps in close touch with her children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, and brother.

When Betty died of a stroke in 1976, Nick suggested that they make a renewed effort to spend time together.

"We take vacations together," she said. "We did all the Hawaiian islands last year. We've done long cruises to Australia and New Zealand. This year I think we're going to go to the British Isles and Ireland."

And of course, she's devoted to her work.

"I'm making a living," she said, "and I'm singing well. And I know it. I'm working. That's what I do."

Rosemary Clooney performs with the Toledo Symphony at 8 p.m. Saturday in the Stranahan Theater. Tickets, $19, $29, $35, and $42, are available through the symphony, 241-1272.