In 1951 American singer-actor Rosemary Clooney (1928–2002) rose to prominence when Columbia Records issued "Come On-a My House," her first single to sell a million copies. She also starred in one of the most beloved holiday movies, White Christmas , with Bing Crosby in 1954. The pressures of fame, however, led to drug addiction and mental breakdown during the 1960s. By the mid-1970s, Clooney had overcome her personal demons and returned to performing, eventually receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2002.
Emerged From Troubled Childhood
Born on May 23, 1928 in Maysville, Kentucky, Clooney had a turbulent childhood. Her father, Andrew Clooney, was an alcoholic and seldom at home, while her mother, Frances Guilfoyle, often worked away from home. The young Clooneys, Rosemary, Betty, and Nicky, lived with various relatives. "I don't remember all of us living together under the same roof for more than a few weeks at a time," recalled Clooney in her book, Girl Singer: An Autobiography . "Sometimes I was with an uncle or an aunt, sometimes at Grandma Guilfoyle's, sometimes with my Clooney grandparents." Because of the turmoil, Clooney learned to fend for herself and look after her younger siblings.
Clooney was surrounded by music from an early age. She sang on stage for the first time at three, performing "When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver (I Will Love You Just the Same)" at the downtown movie house, the Russell Theater. Her Aunt Olivette had led her own band, and Clooney listened to the jazz combos and big band groups on the powerful WLW radio station in Cincinnati. At the age of 17, she and her sister were abandoned once again by their father, and after they ran out of money they gathered and returned pop bottles to collect the deposits. Desperate and unwilling to contact family for help, the Clooney sisters auditioned on the local radio station WLW and were offered a job. "I began singing for a living in April 1945," recalled Clooney. "I was sixteen; Betty was thirteen. The Clooney sisters were paid $20 a week. Apiece."
During the summer the Clooney sisters performed on two programs, the "Crossroads Café" in the afternoons and "Moon River" at night. In the fall, after returning to school at Our Lady of Mercy, they sang afternoons and evenings. They also sang with a combo at high school dances on Saturday nights, and worked with local bandleader Barney Rapp in Cincinnati. In the summer of 1946 the sisters auditioned for Tony Pastor, another big band leader with a national reputation. Before the Clooney sisters could begin their new career, however, they were faced with an obstacle: both were underage and would require a chaperone. Finally, their uncle George Guilfoyle agreed. "Within a year," wrote Clooney, "we'd gone from schoolgirls in knee socks to big band singers in nylons—with contracts. It was almost too much to take in, an overflow of good luck."
Established Solo Career
For the next three years, Clooney and her sister crisscrossed the United States with Pastor's band, playing one-night stands, traveling in a bus, and sleeping when they could. They performed at nightclubs, fairs, schools, and parks, and each sister received $125 per week, minus hotel and eating expenses (and expenses for Uncle George). The pace was grueling, but fronting a large band trained Rosemary Clooney in diction, delivery, and volume. "Three years is a long time to be on the road," wrote Clooney, "living out of a bus, ironing clothes on hotel room floors, away from people you love."
During this time, the sisters also recorded with Pastor's band on Columbia Records. Critics singled out Clooney's whispery version of "I'm Sorry I Didn't Say I'm Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night," and eventually she was offered a solo contract with Columbia and the backing of Joe Shribman, an agent in New York City. While she felt conflicted over leaving both Uncle George and her sister behind, her sister had tired of the road and was happy to return home.
Despite her new contract, Clooney was one of many young talents hoping to launch a solo career with hit records. "The competition was tough; I'd landed in the big pond now, and so many people were after the same thing that I couldn't be sure how far I would go." She leased an apartment in New York City and signed with Columbia on her 21st birthday, a contract that paid $50 per recording and paid royalties after the costs of the recording had been covered (about $5,000). In the fall of 1949 Clooney made her television debut on The Ed Sullivan Show , singing "Boy Wanted," and she also appeared on the radio program Camel Caravan . She had only been in New York City for a year when Frank Sinatra, one of her idols, asked her to sing on "Peachtree Street."
"Come On-A My House" Topped Charts
Clooney's career advanced slowly at first. She recorded "Beautiful Brown Eyes" in January of 1951 and it became her first hit, eventually selling 400,000 copies. Her royalty rate increased, from 3% to 5%, and she was guaranteed $250,000 over the next five years. She also appeared on the cover of the jazz magazine Downbeat . "But one magazine cover and one hit record didn't change my professional life overnight," wrote Clooney.
Clooney's professional life was about to change, however, thanks to a nonsensical song written by William Saroyan and Ross Bagdasarian, the team who had created the Chipmunks. "Come On-a My House" was based on an Armenian folk tune and suggested by arranger Mitch Miller, but Clooney resisted recording what she considered a silly and suggestive song. Even after Miller persuaded her to record it and had 100,000 copies pressed, she still believed the song would flop. "Come On-a My House" had an unusual arrangement featuring harpsichord, further underlining the nonsensical nature of the song. Returning to New York City following a short trip to Havana, Clooney heard "Come On-a My House" pouring out of every record shop along the street. The song, eventually selling over a million copies, established the young singer as an up-and-coming star, and paved the way for other hits including "Batch-a-Me," "Tenderly," "This Ole House," "Hey There," and "Suzy Snowflake."
Soon after, Clooney made her first appearance in Las Vegas, a date that had been booked before her hit. One of her shows was attended by a Hollywood agent, and she soon signed a contract with Paramount. Clooney landed her first role in The Stars are Singing , and returned to her home town in Maysville for the film's opening in January of 1953. Her next outing was Here Come the Girls with Bob Hope, followed by Red Garters (1953), an imaginative Western that mingled songs and satire. On February 23, 1953, Clooney appeared on the cover of Time . In the summer of 1953 she teamed with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen in White Christmas (1954), a movie that has remained a perennial holiday favorite. "Singing together," noted Clooney of singing with Crosby, "came as naturally to each of us as breathing."
Joined Hollywood Jet Set
Clooney moved to Beverly Hills in the early 1950s and married actor Jose Ferrer on July 13, 1953. The couple had their first child, Miguel José Ferrer, on February 7, 1955, and would have four more children by 1960. Clooney's half-sister, Gail, also became part of the household. In Beverly Hills, Clooney immersed herself in the Hollywood lifestyle, associating with noted stars such as Marlene Dietrich and Crosby, and attending lavish parties. She returned to working at the Sans in Las Vegas for $20,000 a week, only six weeks after her first child was born, and shortly thereafter signed a contract for 39 half-hour episodes of The Rosemary Clooney Show . During this time, she also recorded duets with her husband, "Man (Uh-Huh)" and "Woman (Uh-Huh)," and with Dietrich, "Dots Nice Donna Fight."
The Rosemary Clooney Show began in May of 1956, and featured Nelson Riddle's Orchestra and the Hi-Los. In 1957 she fronted the The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney , and also appeared in the award-winning The Edsel Show with Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. In 1958 Clooney, six months pregnant, recorded Fancy Meeting You Here with Crosby.
The non-stop activity exacted its toll on the development of Clooney's career. Her film roles came to an abrupt halt in December of 1955 when Paramount released her from her contract due to her current pregnancy. The Lux Show was canceled for the same reason. She was also released from Columbia Records, partly due to a conflict between her husband and producer Mitch Miller. "I still thought I could do it all," wrote Clooney. "I would continue to be the perfect wife…. I would sign for another television series. I would become pregnant again. I would do it all."
Underwent Personal Crisis and Breakdown
For much of the 1960s, Clooney was plagued by relationship, money, and drug problems. She and Ferrer divorced in 1961, remarried the same year, and divorced again for good in 1967. She also had an on-again/off-again relationship with Nelson Riddle. Clooney became interested in politics in 1960 and made appearances for Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy. She continued to record for Coral, MGM, and RCA, but her classic style, like Sinatra's and Crosby's, became less popular following the advent of rock-n-roll. Clooney's personal life was also complicated by her addiction to sleeping pills.
In 1968 Clooney had a nervous breakdown. She had continued to work in Democratic politics, and had befriended Robert F. Kennedy. She worked with his campaign during the Democratic primary during the summer, and was in attendance at the Ambassador Hotel following the California primary. Clooney had also brought two of her children, and they were standing only a few yards from Kennedy when he was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan. From that point, her life spiraled quickly into chaos. In Reno for a show, Clooney announced her retirement at an impromptu news conference, then broke down during a show, berating the audience. She later admitted herself to the psychiatric ward at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, and entered therapy.
Re-Established Singing and Recording Career
During the mid-to-late 1970s Clooney returned to performing, slowly rebuilding her career at small venues like Holiday Inns. While far from the glamour of her Reno and Hollywood days, she considered herself lucky to be working at all. Her old friend Merv Griffin invited her to make a number of appearances on his television show. In March of 1976 she joined Bing Crosby during his 50th anniversary tour, including an appearance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. "Bing's invitation to work with him was a breakthrough both personal and professional, like an apostolic blessing," wrote Clooney.
Clooney recorded her first album for Concord Records in 1977, leading to numerous albums including Everything's Coming Up Rosie (1977), Show Tunes (1989), and Do You Miss New York? (1993). Bob Harrington wrote in Back Stage , of a live show in 1992, "What's remarkable is that Clooney, of those singers who are highly musical, sacrifices not a bit of her emotional wallop to achieve her musical feel." In 1995 Clooney received ASCAP's Pied Piper Award, the premier award for performing artists, and an Emmy nomination for a guest appearance on ER .
Clooney's sister Betty died of an aneurysm in 1976, eventually leading Rosemary to found the Betty Clooney Center in Long Beach, California. In 1997 Clooney married Dante DiPaolo, a dancer with whom she had been involved during the time of her first marriage in 1953. In 2001 she was diagnosed with lung cancer and underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Because of her surgery, Clooney was unable to attend the Grammy ceremony to receive her Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. Clooney died from complications six months later on June 29, 2002, at the age of 74. "For over 50 years she has brightened our lives with the richness of her personality and her voice," Daily Variety quoted Dolores Hope [Bob Hope's spouse]. "Her courage and love have been an inspiration to all who called her friend."
Clooney, Rosemary, Girl Singer: An Autobiography , Doubleday, 1999.
Backstage , February, 14, 1992.
Daily Variety , July 1, 2002.
Entertainment Weekly , July 12, 2002.
People , October 15, 1990.