Her nephew, George, might be the bigger and better-known star now, but there was a time when Rosemary Clooney was the real celebrity of the family. One of the most popular pop and jazz singers of her age, Clooney’s rich voice, clear diction, and uncanny ability to understand a tune, made her a great favorite of her fans—but few know about her scandalous and heartbreaking life behind the scenes. Let’s dive into her melodious world as we read through these 50 facts about the Blue Rose of Jazz.
1. A Star is Born
Rosemary Clooney was born to parents of Irish ancestry in Maysville, Kentucky in 1928. She was the eldest of three siblings and spent most of her early childhood at various relatives’ houses with Nick and Betty, her brother and sister. This was because her parents, Andrew Joseph and Marie Frances, were hardly home.
The reason behind the Clooney parents’ absence was a sad one. Andrew was an alcoholic and was never around, and Marie was more interested in being a saleswoman than a mother. Clooney was mostly the caregiver for her younger siblings. She was 15 when her mom moved to California with her brother Nick, leaving the girls with their dad.
3. Child Star
Would you believe that Rosemary Clooney was only three when she sang her first song on stage? It was at Russell House, a downtown movie theater and the song was, “When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver (I Will Love You Just the Same).” Clearly, age is just a number.
4. The Sound of Music
Clooney was destined for stardom—and maybe genetics had a role to play in it too. Her father’s sister, Olivette, led a band and her mother’s younger sister, Ann Guilfoyle, was a nightclub singer. The aunts were a great influence on their young niece. But her singing career truly began when she was 16—but there was a dark side to her early start.
5. The First Time
Andrew Joseph had been successfully sober for quite a while after his wife left, but he fell off the wagon again and disappeared, leaving Rosemary and Betty alone and penniless. Determined not to ask for money from their relatives, they auditioned on WLW, the local radio station, and were each offered a job for $20/week.
They were only 16 and 13 when they started singing every day just to stay afloat.
6. To Make Ends Meet
Since their father had left them high and dry, without so much as a goodbye, Clooney knew she and her sister had to find a way to make money. Before Betty had the bright idea of auditioning for the radio, the only money they were making was from returning soda bottles and collecting the deposits made on them.
Rosemary Clooney had a great stage presence. She played the role of the witch with great gusto in a high school production of Snow White. The crowd loved her, especially when her taped on nose fell off during a scene and she continued her lines without missing a beat. “She was a regular comedienne,” reminisced a former classmate.
8. Playing with the Big Bands
The Clooney sisters were still at school while they started singing for the radio. They went to school during the day and sang in the afternoons and late evenings. Another big break was when they got regular work as singers for Barney Rapp and his band. This gave them a chance to sing at big clubs. Rapp also helped them find more work with other bands.
9. The Pastor Chronicles
When Rosemary and Betty auditioned with Tony Pastor, he offered them a contract. This small victory changed their lives forever. The girls needed a chaperone to travel with the band and their uncle, George Guilfoyle stepped up to take that responsibility. He took his duties seriously and the band members only saw the girls on stage or on the bus.
According to them, the girls “were squeaky clean.”
10. Finding her Voice
Clooney wowed critics with her first solo recording with Pastor’s band. Her whispery rendition of “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Say Sorry When I Made You Cry Last Night” was a huge hit, which was funny because she had only sung it that way because she was too nervous to sing it in a full, loud voice. The best case of stage fright ever!
11. Going Solo
After touring with the Pastor band for three years, Betty made an utterly heartbreaking decision: she told her sister that she was done with the nomadic life and went back to Cincinnati. Rosemary stayed on for another year but left the band when she turned 21 and was offered a solo contract by Columbia Records.
12. Hitting Big Time
Clooney was not the only soloist hoping to make it big, but luck was on her side. Her first song “Beautiful Brown Eyes” was a hit that sold around 400,000 copies. However, it was the song she sang after that, “Come On-a My House,” that really cemented her position as a singing superstar—but in a strange twist of fate, she almost didn’t sing it!
13. The Right Choice
Mitch Miller, a representative at Columbia Records, was the one who convinced Clooney to sing “Come On-a My House.” She was reluctant because she thought it was silly and “cheap” and did not want to put on a fake Italian accent for it. He managed to persuade her though and accompanied her on a harpsichord. Good thing she ended up listening to him!
14. Baby Love
Clooney’s popularity as a singer as well as her looks landed her roles in films like Here Come the Girls and Red Garters. Dante Di Paolo was a dancer assigned to give her lessons. They had a light-hearted, happy relationship that was rumored as a romance. He called her “Rosella” and she called him “Whirlwind.” Aww.
15. Just Married
The romance didn’t lead to a lasting relationship, though. Di Paolo was away on location for another film when Clooney met Jose Ferrer, and after a brief relationship, they eloped and got married in 1953. Sadly, there was a dark side to the happy moment—reportedly, Di Paolo was “shattered” when he heard of the marriage.
As we will see, Clooney really wasn’t the best judge of character.
Ferrer and Clooney moved to a lavish Beverly Hills home where they were living it up, partying with the who’s who of Hollywood. Clooney’s star was also on the rise professionally, as she appeared in movies and on magazine covers, along with her continuing to sing.
17. A Christmas Miracle
One of the biggest hits of Clooney’s career was White Christmas, a movie in which she co-starred opposite Bing Crosby, Vera-Ellen, and Danny Kaye. This was also the beginning of a lifelong friendship with Crosby. Theirs was a camaraderie that was meant to be as singing together “came as naturally” to both of them “as breathing.”
18. Dance Woes
Rosemary Clooney was an excellent singer and actor, and had a great stage and screen presence, but guess what? There was one thing she wasn’t so good at: dancing. This problem was addressed by giving her character only two moments of dance in the whole film, the choreography of which was quite simple and easy to manage.
19. One Singer One Dancer
Clooney couldn’t dance, and Vera-Ellen, who plays her sister in the movie, couldn’t sing. Originally intimidated to be dancing alongside a professional dancer, Clooney relaxed when she learned that her co-star wasn’t perfect at everything either and that either she or Trudy Stevens would be singing for her.
20. Take Me Home
Apart from her home in Beverly Hills, California, Clooney had bought a house in Augusta, Kentucky in 1980. This was near her hometown of Maysville in Kentucky, and since her death, it has been converted into “The Rosemary Clooney House,” which has the largest collection of White Christmas memorabilia in the world.
21. Musical Experiments
Once she felt reasonably confident that her career was on the right path, Clooney decided to experiment a little, musically. She collaborated with Duke Ellington and Billie Strayhorn to release Blue Rose, which was different from her usual style. It didn’t do too well then but is considered a jazz classic now. Proof that the lady knew what she was doing.
22. TV Tales
As if she already wasn’t doing enough, Clooney starred in her own television show in 1956. The Rosemary Clooney Show ran for a year. It was a half-hour-long musical variety show, which also featured a singing group, The Hi-Lo’s and Nelson Riddle’s orchestra.
23. Political Leanings
Clooney had always been interested in politics. Her grandfather, Andrew Clooney, had been the local mayor, and she and Betty had often sung at his rallies. As she grew older, her political loyalties lay with the Kennedys and in 1968, when Robert Kennedy decided he would run for president, Clooney was one of the first people who supported him.
Clooney faced yet another personal shock when her beloved sister, Betty, passed away suddenly because of a brain aneurysm. She had been only 45 years old.
25. Return to the Fold
Perhaps the universe felt Clooney had suffered quite enough by then, because the same year as Betty’s death, her old friend Bing Crosby asked Clooney to join his 50th Anniversary tour. He thought his last tour could mark her comeback. The highlight of the show was a duet they sang together called “On a Slow Boat to China.”
26. Things Get Rosy
Clooney called Crosby’s invitation to join him on tour a “blessing.” The next year, she recorded her first album for Concord Jazz titled Everything’s Coming Up Rosie. She continued recording with them all through the 90s, and was very popular among jazz audiences even though she didn’t consider herself a “true jazz singer.”
27. It Must’ve Been Love
Love found Clooney again—and how! It was 1973, and she had stopped at a signal in her Corvette when she noticed that the man in the Thunderbird next to her was an old flame, Dante Di Paolo. They honked hello, and Clooney yelled out her phone number before driving away. Di Paolo had the presence of mind to quickly scribble it in the dust on his dashboard.
Truly, what is meant to be will be, and all that jazz.
28. Legally Bound
After spending 24 years together as companions and partners, Clooney and Di Paolo decided to make their relationship legal in 1997. It was due in part to their grandchildren’s questions, and so they could have “a married grandmother.”
29. A Fairy Tale
Clooney and Di Paolo got married at St. Patrick’s Church in Maysville, Kentucky amidst family, friends, neighbors, and celebrities. The couple exchanged rings and heartfelt vows, as Di Paolo told her: “I will love you all the days of my life.” An “aww” moment if there ever was one.
30. Friends like Family
Clooney’s old friend Bob Hope also made it to church, 15 minutes late, but singing, “Get me to Church on Time” as he walked down the aisle to the laughter and applause of all the guests present.
31. Singing like a Man?
It was the 50s, so gender roles were still very clearly divided in most households. Clooney was aware of this and felt children preferred songs sung by men because they were used to hearing their mothers as the voice of discipline every day at home. Her strange solution to this perceived problem? “Sing it like you’re a man with a feminine voice.”
It seemed to have worked for her, at least.
32. Proud Aunt
Rosemary Clooney was amused at how a younger audience came to connect to her because of her actor nephew, George Clooney. Many young girls would come up to her to say, “We love your music—where does your nephew live?” Clooney was very proud of “Georgie,” and his hard work and success. He came to live with her when he was 19 and became like her sixth child.
33. Working with Georgie
It was George who got Clooney a recurring role as an Alzheimer’s patient on ER. She credits him for the TV scripts she started receiving after that. However, none of the scripts appealed to her as much as ER. She went on to win a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series for her role on the show.
34. A New-Found Appreciation
Rosemary Clooney eventually came to feel that some good had come out of her breakdown. Before it, she felt she had become a star too easily. It was after she lost it all and had to rebuild herself and her career that she began to appreciate her voice and her music. It also helped her understand that she wanted to work for as long as she lived.
35. Writing to Cope
Apart from singing and acting, Clooney also did some writing. She penned her autobiography in collaboration with Raymond Strait in 1977: This for Remembrance: The Autobiography of Rosemary Clooney, an Irish-American Singer. She published her second autobiography in 1999, titled Girl Singer: An Autobiography.
36. In Memoriam
Clooney founded the Betty Clooney Foundation in Long Beach, California, in memory of her sister. This is a facility for survivors with cognitive disabilities and runs entirely on grants and funds. Clooney would also perform at annual concerts, the proceeds of which would go towards the running of the foundation.
37. And the Award Goes to…
Clooney was nominated for a Grammy quite a few times but was unable to go on stage to receive the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 for a tragic reason. She was in hospital after her surgery for lung cancer. She was also awarded the Society of Singers’ Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998 and has a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in California.
38. Telling It Like It Is
Clooney wasn’t one to give false consolations. Once, she was performing at Hollywood Bowl with singer/pianist, Michael Feinstein, and they were both quite nervous. Feinstein was taken aback when instead of helping him calm his nerves, she told him matter-of-factly, “Don’t think this ever gets any easier.”
39. Born to Sing
Always in awe of his sisters, Nick Clooney had admired their spunk for auditioning at the radio station when they were only teenagers. He claimed that Rosemary and Betty had always been singing and they sang before they talked. He said that singing was their way of dealing with everything, from life to relationships.
40. Final Bow
Clooney had been diagnosed with lung cancer towards the end of 2001. She sang in her last concert shortly after that, in December of the same year. She had toured in England, Dublin, Honolulu, New York and many cities in between in that year, but her final show was in Red Bank, New Jersey at the Count Basie Theater.
41. Till Death Do Us Part
Di Paolo lived up to the vow he had made to his “Rosella” and remained her constant bedside companion after her surgery for lung cancer. Unfortunately, despite all his care, Clooney passed away in June 2002, less than a year after the diagnosis. She is buried in Maysville, close to her mother and grandmother’s graves.
42. Singing ‘til the End
Nick Clooney has fond memories of his older sister, right until the end. He visited her a day and a half before her passing and asked her if she was in pain. She replied that “nothing hurt” and she could still sing. She then sang, “When October Goes,” which he said still sounded good. He said of his sister, “I think everybody should know she still was singing.”
43. Trouble in Paradise
By all accounts, Clooney’s marriage to Ferrer was a tempestuous one. They had five children, with the first one born in 1955 and the fifth one born in 1960. Unfortunately, although her life seemed happy and peaceful from the outside, Clooney was having trouble managing a home, five kids, a career, and her marriage.
44. Friends with Benefits?
Whether it was because their marriage was already on the rocks, or because Ferrer was having an affair, Clooney became involved with bandleader Nelson Riddle while working with him on The Rosemary Clooney Show. Sadly, there was no stability in this scandalous relationship either, and their on-off status led to increased stress for her and the further breakdown of her marriage.
45. To Leave or Not to Leave
Eventually, the stress became too much to bear, and Clooney divorced Ferrer in 1961, seven years after they had gotten married. But that wasn’t the end of their stormy union. They remarried each other soon afterward, but this remained a bad idea, and she finally divorced him again in 1967. This time there was no going back, and she admitted that Ferrer’s womanizing had been “breaking her heart in small increments.”
Her relationships, her need to juggle her marriage with her career and children, and keep all the balls in the air had a heartbreaking effect on her. She became overly dependent on, and eventually addicted to, sleeping pills. Her work suffered, she started to get labeled as “undependable.” On top of that, her singing declined.
She confessed that “the 50s myth of family and career” had made her feel she could do it all, but “it certainly wasn’t easy.”
47. The Final Straw
Already battling with stress and her addiction to sleeping pills, one devastating incident tipped Clooney over the edge—the assassination of Robert Kennedy. She had been just a few yards away from him when it happened, waiting to greet him with her two children in the Ambassador Hotel in California.
48. A Different Life
Rosemary Clooney’s mental health spiraled after the tragedy. She refused to believe that Kennedy had been assassinated. A few weeks later, it got worse: she had a nervous breakdown on stage in Reno. After yelling at her audience, she left the venue and was later found driving the wrong way up a dangerous mountain road.
The terrifying incident made her realize she needed help.
49. Returning from the Abyss
Rosemary Clooney was admitted into a psychiatry ward to deal with her mental collapse. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and had to continue therapy even after leaving the hospital. Thankfully, the treatment helped her get back on her feet. Workwise, things were much slower, but she took whatever came her way.
She started singing at small hotels and appearing in commercials as well.
Things began looking up for Clooney after her breakdown. Her son Gabriel Ferrer remembered how she started spending more time with her children and loved cooking for them. She would choose a recipe and keep making it until it was perfect. Their house also “became a center for the neighborhood kids who came from broken homes.”