May 23, 1928– Rosemary Clooney:
“I loved downers, almost any kind. Loved the colors of them. Loved them yellow… I did. I would just have a bouquet in my hands at night.“
She is much loved in my come-on-a-my house and she is well represented in my music collection. She is really one of my favorite vocalists. If you know me at all, you have heard me reference Clooney often. Plus, there is that other Clooney.
Her 65 albums are a glossary of late 20th century popular songs. Clooney’s innate musicality, plus a natural talent for acting, made her one of the biggest stars of Eisenhower-era USA. She was small town girl who made it, with hit records, films, her own television series, and a showbiz marriage to actor José Ferrer.
But when I think of her life, I think about the Kennedys. When John F. Kennedy decided to run for president in 1960, Clooney saw in him a kindred spirit. Kennedy’s father, Joseph Kennedy, had promised to ”sell him like soap flakes” and with the candidate linked into Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack through his sister Patricia‘s marriage to Peter Lawford, we had our first Hollywood Presidency.
Clooney had supported and sung for the Democrats at various events running up to the Election and she stayed close afterwards. In 1962, Lawford found her cooking scrambled eggs at the White House one morning with the President. After JFK was murdered in Dallas, Clooney began battling with her demons.
Her marriage had fallen apart a year earlier, her money was gone, and her career post-Beatles revolution was on a serious decline. With her home in Beverly Hills (formerly owned by George Gershwin) and five kids to take care of, she started to tailspin. Prescription drugs became her crutch; she became increasingly dependent on pills.
Clooney grew close to Robert F. Kennedy. When he decided to run for president in 1968, she was one of the first people he looked to for support. On June 5, after winning the California primary and giving his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Kennedy was murdered in the kitchen service pantry. Kennedy died 26 hours later. She had been with him every step of the way. On voting day, she had been with him in Los Angeles and sat in his car as he drove through the city. She was waiting for him at the Ambassador Hotel when she heard the shots.
RFK’s death sent Clooney over the edge. In the days that followed, she went to a world of her own, where Kennedy wasn’t dead, and it was a conspiracy, a plan by something or someone to teach everyone a lesson. Even a telephone conversation with Ethel Kennedy, his widow, failed to persuade her that the blood she had seen in the Ambassador Hotel had been that of the murdered Senator. Three weeks after Kennedy was buried, Clooney went to Reno for a three-week gig at a casino. Halfway through, she stopped the show, berated the audience, burst into tears and walked off stage. She headed for Lake Tahoe, purposely driving the wrong way up the old mountain road.
She was hospitalized for months and had years of therapy. When she was released, she was so broke, she took gigs singing at Holiday Inns on weekends. She had affairs that wounded her. But she came back bigger, and she brought new life to her song interpretations. She reinvented herself in a Jazz singer, surrounded by the brightest and best of a new generation of musicians.
She also wrote her first memoir, This For Remembrance: The Autobiography Of Rosemary Clooney, An Irish-American Singer (1977), where was not shy about chronicling her unhappy early life in Kentucky, her career as a singer, her marriage to Ferrer, her breakdown, and her diagnosis of bipolar disorder, concluding with her comeback as a singer and her new happiness. Her good friend Bing Crosby wrote the introduction. Actor Jackie Cooper produced and directed the television movie, Rosie: The Rosemary Clooney Story (1982) starring Sondra Locke (who lip syncs Clooney’s songs), and Tony Orlando as José Ferrer.
Clooney’s warm distinctive vocals puts her at the top of the list of Greatest American Popular Singers. She may not have dug as deeply into the emotional content of a song as Sinatra; she never was show-off with her instrument like Mel Tormé; she couldn’t scat like Ella Fitzgerald, instead, she sang with an assured simplicity and an honesty that made her recordings rich, yet accessible. Mike Nichols:
”She sings like Spencer Tracy acts.”
Her strength was the ability to give every song she recorded a glowing intelligence and a subtle but swinging energy that brought purity and focus to the great standards. Her emotional perspective was dry-eyed. I dig that.
Her best records had fidelity to the composers: Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, The Gershwins, Johnny Burke, Jimmy Van Heusen, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, yet she somehow became most famous for doing novelty tunes like Come On-A My House, Botch-A-Me, and Mambo Italiano.
Clooney could really swing, but I like her best doing pensive ballads like Tenderly or especially, Richard Adler and Jerry Ross‘s Hey There, with her simple, approachable, intimate delivery.
In the 1980s and 1990s, when Clooney should have been done, should have been irrelevant, she released her best albums, 25 in two decades. It is my favorite Clooney era and I listen to them frequently. I am playing her radio station on Sonos as I type this.
In 1995, Clooney guest-starred in the NBC television medical drama ER, starring her nephew, George Clooney. She received an Emmy Award nomination for her performance.
A longtime smoker, Clooney was taken by lung cancer in 2002 at her home on Roxbury in Beverly Hills. George Clooney was a pallbearer at her funeral. She was 74 years old.
I believe she has a place as a Gay Icon: Tragedy, Drugs, Unique Talent, Beauty and Empathy. Can we add her to the list?