A visit to Rosemary Clooney's hometown
by Matt Connor*
I'm coasting over the hilly terrain of Northern Kentucky in my rental car -- not much to look at but grass and trees and road on this late September day -- and on the car stereo I listen to two of the greatest singers who ever lived putting over a cute little mediocrity called "Peachtree Street." It's neither the worst nor the best song either of them ever sang separately, but it may be the best song they ever recorded together. It's a southern-tinged ditty about taking a walk with "my baby on my arm," and it's certainly better than two duets they did later, the stultifyingly repetitive "Love Means Love" and "Cherry Pies Ought to Be You."
The car is just coming to the crest of a hill when I come upon a sign that reads, "Maysville, 8 miles." Oddly, it's at that moment when the recorded voice of Frank Sinatra ad libs the line, "Miss Rosemary, how come the sweetest peach in Georgia hails from Maysville, Kentucky?" It's enough to put a little hitch in my chest. Rosemary Clooney loved that little town so, and here I am on my way there to celebrate her life, along with so many of her family and friends.
The 4th Annual Rosemary Clooney Music Festival in Maysville, Kentucky, held September 28, was billed as a tribute to Rosemary, who passed away from lung cancer in late June. As with the previous three festivals, proceeds from the event went toward the restoration of the Russell movie theater in her home town, the same theater that -- at Rosemary's insistence over fifty years ago -- hosted the worldwide premier of "The Stars Are Singing," her first Hollywood film.
Rosemary and I had gotten to be friends during the last nine or ten years of her life. I saw her perform dozens of times, and each time I would stroll backstage with a bundle of white roses surrounding a single blue rose. Blue Rose was, of course, the title of her brilliant record with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, and a favorite of both mine and Rosemary's. We bonded over the blue rose flower arrangement, and she never seemed to take the little gesture for granted. Indeed, I can't recall a single incident when I walked into her dressing room with the blue rose and she didn't throw her arms around my neck and give me a big kiss on the cheek. But she was like that with almost everyone -- enormously warm and affectionate and wonderful.
Pam Schereth, a close friend of Rosemary's family who once nannied Rosemary's grandchildren, had made a reservation for me at the Parkview Country Inn in Augusta, a town that neighbors Maysville, for the weekend of the festival. Rosemary owned a home in Augusta with her husband, Dante DiPaolo, a Hollywood hoofer and former child star (he played a newsboy in Bing Crosby's "Star Maker" and Matt, one of the seven brothers in the movie "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" among other various film roles). Pam was staying at the Clooney house with Dante and another friend. Rosemary's brother Nick (a cable TV personality and newspaper columnist) and her nephew George also own homes in Augusta.
As I unpacked my bag, Pam arrived at the hotel. "Why don't we head over to Dante's?" Pam said as I hung my suit in the closet.
I didn't wish to intrude, so I asked her if she was sure it was okay.
She just smiled and said, "I told him you were coming. I said, 'Dante, do you know who's coming this weekend? Matt Connor, from New York.' And do you know what he said?"
I shook my head, "No," I said, "What did he say?"
"He looked at me and said, 'The Blue Rose.'"
The Clooney abode is charming and country-ish. A banner reading, "Rosemary, Our Love Is Here to Stay," -- which was hung during her funeral last summer -- had, for the length of the festival, been returned to the iron fence surrounding the property. The interior of the house has lots of memorabilia scattered about, like a poster from "The Stars are Singing" and a little "White Christmas" music box snow globe on a coffee table. A pipe that belonged to Bing Crosby is on a mantlepiece. There are loads of Clooney family photos on every surface as well as awards and framed clippings on the walls and photos of Rosemary with folks like Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford.
There's also an autographed photo of Rosemary with Arthur Godfrey. I thought of Julie La Rosa -- another 1950s crooner friend -- when I saw that. Julie, you may recall, was famously fired by Godfrey while on Godfrey's live television show. Julie and Rosemary knew each other briefly during the 1950s, and the two singers maintained a kind of mutual admiration society ever since. Julie told me several times about Rosemary's kindnesses to him when he was first starting out. And after I mentioned Julie to Rosemary once, she smiled at me and said, "He's such a good singer."
Pam and her friend Mary Jo do a lot of yard work when they stay at the Augusta house, because Dante and Rosemary were only at the place a handful of times a year, in between touring and their place on Roxbury Drive in Beverly Hills, California. So a lot of the yard was overgrown and had to be cleaned up. At one point Mary Jo tossed a t-shirt at me and asked me to change and help haul some of the bigger branches to the rear portion of the property. Dante protested ("But he's a guest!") but I went ahead and helped out a little. I changed in their downstairs bathroom, where I was sorely tempted to steal a bit of soap for a momento (I didn't).
The loveliest part of the weekend was the amount of time I was able to spend with Dante, reminiscing about his days with his beloved companion. He had known Rosemary since 1954, when he coached her on a dance routine in "White Christmas." They dated briefly, then broke up, married other folks, and met cute again at a traffic light in L.A. in the late 1960s. She invited him to her house for a meal. He accepted: "I was the man who came to dinner and never left," he was fond of saying. In 1997 they finally got married, which was easily the happiest day of Dante's life. It's heartbreaking to think he lost her again just five years later.
Often during my earlier encounters with the couple backstage after Rosemary's concerts, the two of them were tired or rushed, but on this languorous September weekend, Dante didn't have terribly much to do but relax and attend a few events and tell his stories about old Hollywood and his adventures touring the country with Rosemary.
Consequently I spent hours chatting with Dante and another friend, Melinda Larson, at the house. Dante's a little "at sea" these days, as you can imagine, after losing the woman he carried a torch for for nearly 50 years. But he loved having company around and talked a lot about Rosemary's final illness with an understandable amount of ruefulness. He was second-guessing himself a lot, like wondering if she should have tried other treatments, etc. But the truth is, she received the best treatment imaginable and I'm told her life couldn't have been extended any more than it was. So sad.
On the Friday night of my arrival in town, there was a party at the home of a Clooney cousin in Maysville. Pam arranged for invitations for Mary Jo, Melinda, some other friends and I. When we arrived, we noticed that a beautiful bouquet of red roses and a red ribbon had been placed over a comfortable chair in a prominent spot in the center of the living room. That had been Rosemary's favorite chair, and it would remain vacant for the duration of the evening, in honor of her.
Within a couple of hours the party became overcrowded and our little group departed for the Parkview, where we stayed up late with "Mr. Lou," the hotel's proprietor, eating ice cream and looking at an album of photos of Rosemary and her grandchildren that Pam had brought along.
Next day we walked around Maysville, where all of the shop windows contained little tributes to Rosemary and where the Russell theater's marquee read, "Rosemary, Thanks for the Memories." Melinda and I also visited Rosemary's grave site, as yet unmarked. I placed a blue rose on the bare ground there, where she was finally reunited with so many of her departed family members. Here was her beloved Uncle George, for whom her film star nephew was named. There was the marker for her adored younger sister Betty, with whom Rosemary began her career in the mid-1940s. Her mother and father. Her grandparents.
The festival tribute itself featured three separate videos telling Rosemary's life story. The first was narrated by her brother, Nick; the second by her son, Miguel Ferrer, known to American TV viewers for his prominent role on the series "Crossing Jordan"; and the third by Dante. There were tears in the eyes of many in the audience when Dante's recorded voice came through the sound system, telling of his love for his beautiful "Girl Singer." On at least two occasions his grief over his loss was palpable, and his voice trembled and cracked as he read the tribute to her over a series of projected still images and video clips.
Performing at the festival were Bluegrass singer Allison Krausse and a few of the artists on the "O Brother Where Art Thou" soundtrack, which sold millions of copies in the U.S. Rosemary's nephew, international film star George Clooney, starred in the film of "O Brother," of course, and was instrumental in having Krausse and the other soundtrack artists appear at the tribute to his aunt.
Former Miss America Heather French Henry, who is married to the Kentucky Lieutenant Governor, sang a couple of songs. Her husband was there, too. Since the current Kentucky governor is embroiled in some kind of sex scandal and is about to step down, I guess Miss America's going to be the first lady of the state pretty soon. She can carry a tune, but not very far.
Family superstar George was there, too. He sat at table #1 down front and appeared onstage to celebrate his Aunt's life. His father Nick is enormously likeable, but tossed out bad jokes like an old vaudevillian. George seemed fairly natural and easy-going.
I was able to meet George briefly during the weekend. He had just come from a basketball game and was wearing jeans and a black t-shirt and was slightly sweaty. I had my photo taken with him and told him I loved his aunt. He said something like, "Wasn't she great?" There were crowds of other people nudging to get their photos, too, so that was the entire length of our exchange. A few days after the festival, I was rather pleasantly surprised to see, on a website devoted to Rosemary, a series of photos of me with the assembled Clooney clan, partly obstructed by a nearby tree (http://www.rosemaryclooney.com/rcmf4/augusta/index.htm). Though our contact was fleeting to say the least, George struck me as being well-grounded and very unaffected.
Thinking of some of the hysterical women of my acquaintance who were in a state of near dementia over the idea that I might actually meet George Clooney, I set out to pick up some George souvenirs after the concert/banquet on Saturday night. When the event was over, I went over to his table after he was gone and picked up some stuff. I grabbed the little card from his table with the "#1" on it, a little tea candle, a foil bag in which the centerpiece was held, and a plastic cocktail glass and cloth napkin that were near his place setting. I also got a wad of masking tape from the stage where he stood with the musicians and guests. The women for whom I snagged all of this contraband were suitably grateful for it.
After the concert/banquet I went to the "after-party" at the Italian restaurant Caproni's on Rosemary Clooney Street. When I went to the bar to pick up a couple of beers, George was two guys down from my left elbow and surrounded by hangers-on. At one point he was about three feet away from me with nobody between us to block the view. He's perhaps shorter than you'd think, rather thin and rather gray. And of course he's quite handsome.
Sunday afternoon there was a dedication ceremony for the Clooneys in the town square. From now on Rosemary's songs will be played at the bell tower in town several times a day. You haven't really lived until you've heard a slow, classical brass bell rendition of "Come On-a My House." A plaque in honor of Rosemary is being placed in the little park there, too. After the ceremony, crowds besieged George, and Dante became a little nervous. I overheard him ask Pam, "Where's Rosemary's plaque?" I told Dante I would find it. He was worried somebody would walk off with it as a souvenir before the town fathers had a chance to permanently mount it in the little park. I found the heavy iron thing and held onto it until a small reception started at the Parkview. Then I turned it over to one of the civic leaders in town. When I had my photo taken with George, I was still lugging that plaque around with me.
After the dedication and a bite to eat at a reception at the Parkside, I walked Dante back to the home he had shared with Rosemary. En route, we encountered a German tourist and her mother, who was sitting on a little park bench. Gesturing toward me with her camera, the German woman said, "Excuse me, but would you mind?" She wanted me to take a photo of her and her mother together. I was about to take the camera from her when Dante sat down next to her mother on the park bench and smiled into the camera. The woman with the camera laughed and snapped the photo.
I smiled, too, and gestured toward Dante, still seated next to the woman's mother.
"That's Rosemary Clooney's widower," I told the woman.
Her eyes went wide. "Really?" she said. "My mother doesn't speak English. I don't think she knows who he is."
So I said, "Would she know the movie 'White Christmas?'"
"I don't think so," she replied. "It wasn't called 'White Christmas' in Germany."
I brushed aside the comment and looked at the woman at on the bench, seated next to the dapper old Hollywood song-and-dance man in the denim shirt.
"I'm dreaming of a white christmas..." I began to croon to her. Dante picked up the lyrics and the old German lady immediately clapped her hands together and joined in, with her lovely, charming heavily-accented voice.
"...just like the ones I used to knowwwwww."
I'll close this tale with one rather poignant story that Dante told Melinda and I during a quiet moment at the house that weekend. Dante was with Rosemary 10-12 hours a day, every day, for the last months of her life. She was never in pain but sometimes had difficulty communicating her needs as she became increasingly ill. In late June she somehow indicated to her daughter, Monsita, that she needed one thing or another. Dante told them he would run out and pick it up right away. While he was out, Rosemary slipped away.
He thinks she probably waited till he was gone before she let go.
This article originally appeared in "Perfectly Frank," the Sinatra Music Society magazine.
*Matt Connor is an award-winning journalist based in the New York metro area.