For years, I kept a telephone message I received in 1996. “Matt,” a warm, hearty voice said, “this is Rosemary Clooney.”
I was one of hundreds of reporters who interviewed Clooney during her long career as a singer, actress and TV host, and what I remember most about her is the easygoing, almost maternal familiarity that she could inspire, even in a phone call.
By the time I talked to Clooney, she was well into the second half of her career, which Ken Crossland and Malcolm Macfarlane allude to in the title of their new biography, “Late Life Jazz.” At one point, though, you could have called her America’s Sweetheart. She was a clear-voiced pop singer with four No. 1 hits in the early 1950s, the host of TV shows and the co-star of the popular film “White Christmas.” Her career hit bottom in the 1960s, and she struggled to overcome a decade-long addiction to pills. She eventually became better known as George Clooney’s aunt than as a celebrity once so famous that she was on the cover of Time magazine.
Before her death at 74 in 2002, she enjoyed a renaissance as a jazz-oriented singer of classic American songs. All the ingredients are present for a remarkable tale of perseverance, resilience and self-reliance, but that is not the story you will find in “Late Life Jazz.” Crossland and Macfarlane are two British researchers — I hesitate to call them writers — who compiled an earlier book on another singer from the 1950s, Perry Como. They have listened to all of Clooney’s records, watched every TV show, noted each visit to a studio and interviewed seemingly everyone who knew her. They’ve done everything, in fact, except shape that mass of information into a coherent biography.
Clooney was born in Maysville, Ky., in 1928, three months before her parents were married. She and her sister, Betty, and a brother, Nick — George’s father — grew up mostly with their grandparents and other relatives. Rosemary was 17 and her sister 14 when they began singing on radio and with a band in Cincinnati. In 1949, Rosemary signed with Columbia Records and launched her solo career under the direction of record producer Mitch Miller — the same Mitch Miller who later had a sing-along television show.
He guided Clooney toward a series of novelty songs that she hated, including “Come On-a My House,” co-written by the author William Saroyan. When Clooney balked at singing it, Miller said, “Let me put it this way. You show up tomorrow, or you’re fired.”
“Come On-a My House” spent eight weeks at No. 1 in 1951 and was Clooney’s biggest hit.
In 1953, she married Oscar-winning actor Jose Ferrer and settled in the same Beverly Hills house where George Gershwin had written his final songs. She had five children in five years, all the while being the host of two TV variety shows. But marital and financial strains soon emerged, and in 1961 Clooney filed for divorce. “Rosemary was now a single parent with five young children aged from two to seven,” Crossland and Macfarlane write. “She was in debt and facing the need to take every booking she could to pay her way.”
But instead of exploring the emotional upheaval of a fading star, the authors inexplicably introduce an unrelated subject with the next sentence: “There was also a new complication and interest in her life: politics.” This ham-handed approach is typical of Crossland and Macfarlane, who quote from dozens of moldy reviews, tell us the curtain times of a British tour in 1955 and include more than 100 pages of appendixes detailing each recording and TV appearance Clooney made. The authors have the bizarre ability to catalogue every tree without noticing the forest. We learn that Edward Everett Horton and Paula Kelly were guests on Clooney’s TV show on Oct. 10, 1957, but nowhere do Crossland and Macfarlane clearly state that Clooney and Ferrer were married and divorced two times.
They also have no ear for music. One paragraph from the Time cover story of Feb. 23, 1953 — a date I learned from Google, not from a book that purports to be a biography of Clooney — tells us more about her singing than we learn in this entire book: “The Clooney voice is known to the trade as both ‘barrelhouse’ and blue, i.e., robust and fresh, with an undercurrent of seductiveness. It can spin out a slow tune with almost cello-like evenness, or take on a raucous bite in a fast rhythm. In a melancholy mood, it has a cinnamon flavor that tends to remind fans of happier days gone by — or soon to come.”
Crossland and Macfarlane are blinded by the stage lights and cannot convey the human sorrows, struggles and triumphs that breathed life into Rosemary Clooney’s ever-evolving art. When I asked her in 1996 what her secret was, she said simply, “I sing from the point of view of a 68-year-old woman.”
Matt Schudel, a Washington Post staff writer, often writes about jazz.
late life jazz
The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney
By Ken Crossland and Malcolm Macfarlane
323 pp. $29.95