By Joseph Hurley
Rosemary Clooney, who died of lung cancer at age 74 at her Beverly Hills home on Saturday, June 29, hosted the Irish Repertory Theatre’s annual gala benefit on June 5, 2000.
Before she sang the Gershwins’ “A Foggy Day,” she pulled a sheet of notebook paper out of her pocket and held it firmly before her, casually adjusting her glasses. As the pianist played the introduction, the audience, gradually realizing that the great singer felt she needed to check the words of a song she’d sung, in all probability, hundreds of times over the course of a long career, laughed audibly.
With a slight smile, Clooney lifted her head and said, “I’m entitled. I’m 72 years old.” The offhand comment was utterly typical of the singer’s directness and her lack of pretension, qualities that were clearly reflected in her music, particularly in recent years, as she became more and more widely recognized as a sterling jazz and pop singer, capable of breathing fresh life into ballads such as “Hey, There” and “Tenderly.”
The Irish Rep’s artistic director, Charlotte Moore, recalls a telling detail about Clooney’s behavior through a taxing day of rehearsals and preparations. “She left her dressing room door open,” she said, “because she wanted people to be able to come in and chat with her.”
Moore also recalled that Clooney had reminded her that she was, in fact, entirely Irish American, her mother’s original name having been Frances Guilfoyle.
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The Irish Rep’s 2000 gala was, significantly, titled “Song for the Century,” a phrase that never seemed more appropriate than when the singer was performing. Clooney had been a ranking vocalist for at least the latter half of the 20th century, having scored her first real hit, “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” for Columbia Records in 1950.
The number that really put her on the map, “Come on a My House,” came along the following year. Clooney initially loathed the song, which was based on an old Armenian melody given new lyrics partly written by novelist William Saroyan, an American of Armenian descent.
When she refused to sing it, the label’s artist and repertory man, Mitch Miller, pressured her into recording it, and the result was a megahit that, on one hand, made the singer a star, and, on the other, linked her for the rest of her life with a song she never much liked. In addition, it led to a string of other “novelty” tunes, “Mambo Italiano,” “Botcha-Me,” and “This Old House,” among others, which, impressive sellers though they unquestionably were, gave no hint that the woman who performed them would eventually mature into one of America’s finest interpreters of the music of composers and lyricists such as Johnny Mercer, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Burke, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, not to mention the younger, less well-known writers whose work she championed so enthusiastically.
With the passage of time, Rosemary Clooney became the equal of beloved and widely acclaimed singers such as Ella Fitzgerald, with whom she shared much of her repertory.
The singer had a brief movie career, making five films, mainly for Paramount Pictures, in 1953 and ’54, the most memorable being “White Christmas,” in which Clooney appeared alongside Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye and Vera-Ellen. The film, a weakish partial remake of an earlier Crosby vehicle, 1942’s “Holiday Inn,” did business but didn’t manage to make a film star out of Clooney. Her next movie, a biopic about composer Sigmund Romberg in which she had only a cameo role, was her final appearance on screen.
Born in Maysville, Ky., on May 23, 1928, one of the five children of an alcoholic house painter, Andrew Clooney, the singer and fragments of her family eventually moved to two towns in Southern Ohio, first Ironton and then Cincinnati. It was there that Clooney, while still in high school, began singing professionally on radio station WLW, as part of a musical duo, the other half of which was her younger sister, Betty, who was still in junior high at the time.
In 1953, Clooney married actor Jose Ferrer, with whom she had five children: three sons, Miguel, Gabriel and Raf’l, and two daughters, Maria and Monsita Teresa. The marriage, which ended in 1967, was not a happy one, and the singer once accused her husband of breaking her heart “in small increments.” Clooney married and divorced Ferrer twice.
She wrote two books, “This for Remembrance” in 1977, and “Girl Singer” some 15 years later. In both, conforming to her basic nature, Clooney was extremely candid, mainly blaming herself for the sorrows and depressions that had dogged her through so much of her life.
She attributed one particularly trying period, which included abuse of medication, and even a month in the psychiatric ward of Mount Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, to her having been in the kitchen of the Commodore Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968 when presidential candidate Robert Kennedy, for whom she had worked tirelessly, was murdered by Sirhan Sirhan.
Devoted all her life to her sister and onetime radio partner, the singer struck another rough patch when Betty Clooney died of an aneurysm in 1976, but she gathered strength and wrote openly of her feelings in her first volume of memoirs.
Actress Heather O’Neill, currently playing Sara Tansey in the Irish Repertory Theatre’s new production of J.M. Synge’s “The Playboy of the Western World,” is married to Rosemary Clooney’s son, Raf’l Ferrer. When the singer died, O’Neill took leave of the show for a few days in order to fly to California in support of her husband.