Rosemary Clooney: The best friend a song ever had
Although it was not the only time the phrase would be used to describe a singer, it was certainly appropriate when Frank Sinatra said of Rosemary Clooney that she was, “the best friend a song ever had”.
There is a commonality among people of achievement in that an overwhelming number come from hardscrabble beginnings. Rosemary was certainly no exception. The oldest of three, Rosemary was born in Maysville, Kentucky on May 23, 1928.
Her childhood was a difficult one; Clooney and younger siblings Betty and Nick were shuttled among their alcoholic father, Andy, their mother, Frances—who traveled constantly for her work with a chain of dress shops—and relatives, who would take turns raising the children. When Clooney was 13 her mother married a sailor and moved to California, taking Nick with her but leaving the girls behind. Her father tried to care for Rosemary and Betty, working steadily at a defense plant, but he left one night to celebrate the end of World War II—taking the household money with him—and never returned. As Clooney described in her autobiography, This for Remembrance, she and Betty were left to fend for themselves. They collected soda bottles and bought meals at school with the refund money. The phone had been disconnected, the utilities were about to be turned off, and the rent was overdue when Rosemary and Betty won an open singing audition at a Cincinnati radio station. The girls were so impressive, in fact, that they were hired for a regular late-night spot at $20 a week each. “The Clooney Sisters,” as they became known, began their singing career in 1945 on WLW in Cincinnati.¹
“You can’t imagine the price I’ve paid to be here to sing a bunch of dumb songs for you.”
But Rosemary Clooney started to careen out of control after 23 boilerplate years as a singer, actress, and mother. Rosemary’s life was demanding. She juggled having five children in five years at a time when she also hosted two TV shows. Her problems were exacerbated by her husband’s infidelity, her own affairs, and the resultant divorce. Rosemary sought solace in an abusive prescription drug habit that aggravated the problems in her troublesome life. Her despair was complete when, only yards away from her and two of her children, her personal friend Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed.
In 1968, during a Reno engagement the grief, stress, and addictions culminated in disaster. During the show she ranted at the crowd, “You can’t imagine the price I’ve paid to be here to sing a bunch of dumb songs for you.”² She broke down, leaving the stage during what was to be her last show for very long time. She had become irrational and dangerous, at one time pulling a gun on a cab driver.³ Her career apparently over, she checked herself in to the psychiatric ward of Mount Sinai Hospital. Alan Ebert writes that according to “J. Victor Monke, M.D., the psychiatrist who treated Rosemary for six years, she suffered a ‘psychotic reaction with severe depression and paranoid features. Her symptoms included hallucinations, fear, depression, violently aggressive behavior and an inability to distinguish between the real and the unreal.'”² She remained in therapy for many years.
A second chance.
Rosemary continued to sing, but infrequently and without passion until one night in Copenhagen where, after singing at Tivoli Gardens she actually felt good about performing.⁴ It was a turning point, and her big break came when Bing Crosby asked her to join him for his his 50th anniversary tour. The performance was at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles on St. Patrick’s Day, 1976. The sold out event received positive reviews.⁴
Rosemary Clooney sang up until the time of her last hospitalization for the lung cancer that ended her life. Although she was a top paid performer, for many years Rosemary struggled to be heard. During her initial therapy sessions she was surprised to have people actually listen to her, hearing what she had to say rather than merely to be entertained.²
And that is why Rosemary Clooney is the inspiration behind the painting “The best friend a song ever had”. Clooney’s Catholic upbringing are given a nod in the composition made famous by Michelangelo in his Pietà. The painting is of an older woman holding the deceased body of a younger self, the younger self depicting a life sacrificed for fame and all the debris that came with it. Although an accomplished performer, Rosemary Clooney struggled to be heard, but unlike many others in this series, she survived her demons. Her career and her relationships were ultimately healthy and fulfilling. She died in Beverly Hills, California of complications from lung cancer on June 29, 2002.⁵ She was 74.
At long last, Rosemary Clooney, you were heard.
¹http://www.rosemaryclooney.com/biography.html© 2001 Gale Group
²Alan Ebert, “Rosemary Clooney’s Saddest Song”, Ladies Home Journal, March 1976
³2002 The Associated Press
⁴Sara Pileggi, “Rosemary Clooney, People, December 1982