“I think acting is the most thankless profession in the world.” –Rosemary Clooney
There are so many signature voices and interpreters of the Great American Songbook and Rosemary Clooney is certainly one of them. A talented singer and actress, Clooney remains a respected talent among fans of the the Great American Songbook and classic cinema. Furthermore, her iconic appearance in White Christmas (1954) is appreciated time and again each holiday season.
Clooney was born in Maysville, Kentucky, to Marie Frances and Andrew Joseph Clooney. She was raised catholic and was one of five children. By the time she turned 15, her mother and brother, Nick, relocated to California while she and her sister, Betty, lived with their father in the John Brett Richeson House in the 1940s.
Despite being apart, several of the Clooney children entered into the performing arts. Nick worked as a television broadcaster while Rosemary and Betty worked to become entertainers. Clooney made her singing debut on Cincinnati radio station WLW in 1941 at 13. She would also work on WLW with band leader Barney Rapp. Over time, she and her sister sang in her grandfather’s mayoral election campaigns. By 1945, the Clooney sisters won a spot on WLW as a singing duo, performing together for frequently.
Clooney continued her singing career by performing with Tony Pastor’s big band and recording for Columbia Records. She worked with Pastor until 1949 and shared her singing voice on radio and on television. As she traveled and worked with various performers, her hometown would occasionally be mentioned. In her recording of “Peachtree Street” with Frank Sinatra, Sinatra alludes to her hometown (at 2:05 in the clip below).
However, it was her 1951 recording of “Come On-a My House” that became a hit, becoming the first of her singles to hit the charts–regardless of the fact that Clooney herself did not particularly enjoy the song. Clooney would go on to record duets with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Arthur Godfrey, in addition to fulfilling various television appearances.
Clooney met and married Puerto Rican movie star José Ferrer in 1953 and the couple moved to Santa Monica. They had five children: Miguel, Maria, Gabriel, Monsita, and Rafael. The couple appeared together in Deep in My Heart (1954), performing “Mr. and Mrs.” They divorced in 1961 but remarried in 1964. Unfortunately, the marriage ended again in 1967, due to Ferrer having an affair.
In 1954, Clooney would appear in what would become a beloved holiday classic–White Christmas–alongside Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen. She would follow this with other film appearances in addition to working on her own half-hour television show, The Rosemary Clooney Show. Clooney would also appear with Crosby for The Edsel Show and the duo progressed through a concert tour of Ireland together. In the meantime, Clooney also recorded in a variety of recording studios, including Columbia Records, MGM Records, Coral Records, RCA Victor Records, Reprise Records, and Dot Records.
Clooney suffered a nervous breakdown in 1968 following the assassination of her close friend, Robert F. Kennedy. At this point, she also became dependent upon pills and struggled with addiction and depression.
She reignited her recording career when she signed on with United Artists Records in 1976. Unlike many of her peers, Clooney continued to record until her passing. She also went on to appear in various television commercials and television show guest appearances–including a role in ER alongside her nephew, George.
Clooney’s sister, Betty, died from a brain aneurysm in 1976, leading Clooney to begin a foundation–the Betty Clooney Center–in her memory. During the same period, she wrote her first autobiography, This for Remembrance: the Autobiography of Rosemary Clooney, an Irish-American Singer, with Crosby writing the introduction. Jackie Cooper would go on to produce and direct the made-for-television film version of the book.
By 1983, Clooney and her brother, Nick, would co-chaired the Betty Clooney Foundation for the Brain-Injured. The foundation expanded to address the needs of survivors of cognitive disabilities caused by strokes, tumors, and brain damage from trauma or age.
As the years went on, Clooney reconnected with her longtime friend and former dancer, Dante DiPaolo. The two married in in 1997 at St. Patrick’s Church in Maysville, Kentucky.
In 1999, she would write her second autobiography, Girl Singer: An Autobiography, detailing her challenges in overcoming addiction and depression.
Sadly, Clooney was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001, giving her final show that year. She passed away on June 29, 2002, in her Beverly Hills home and was buried at St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Maysville, Kentucky. Her funeral was attended by many friends and family members in her hometown, with George being one of the pallbearers. Her brother, Nick, delivered the eulogy at the end of the Catholic mass.
Today, there are many places of relevance to Clooney’s life and career, largely located in Clooney’s home state.
The Maysville, Kentucky street where her parents lived when she was born was renamed in her honor.
In 2003, Clooney was inducted into the Kentucky Women Remembered exhibit. A portrait of Clooney was crafted by Alison Lyne and is on permanent display in the Kentucky State Capitol rotunda.
In 2007, one of the Maysville flood walls was painted in order to depict moments from Clooney’s life.
By 2016, Cinncinatti, Ohio, also honored Clooney with a mural featuring her from the “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” number from White Christmas.
Clooney’s childhood home exists at 331 W. Third St., Maysville, Kentucky.
St. Patrick’s Church, where Clooney married DiPaolo, stands at 110 E Third St. in Maysville, Kentucky.
On October 1st, 2005, Clooney’s Augusta, Kentucky home was partially transformed into the Rosemary Clooney House by Heather Renee French Henry (Miss America 2000). Henry spearheaded the creation of the museum, which amasses a large amount of memorabilia from Clooney’s film, television and recording career. The opening ceremony was attended by Nick Clooney and Dante DiPaolo, among others, while her recording of “Bless This House” was played.
I visited the Rosemary Clooney House in early 2019, more than ready to enjoy walking in the footsteps of this fine talent who had a deep love for her hometown. The house stands at 106 E Riverside Dr. in Augusta, Kentucky.
It was a wintry day but, thankfully, the snow subsided and I carefully made my journey to Augusta. Once I got close to the town, I immediately appreciated the quaint and historic feel of Augusta. The town showcased charming assortment of well-kept antique shops, a cozy diner called the Beehive, and a gorgeous view of the Ohio River–directly across from the Rosemary Clooney House.
Since my visit could not fall on one of their usual dates for tours, I easily arranged for a private tour via the staff. Once I arrived, I was greeted by my friend and Rosemary Clooney pro, Elizabeth Schellenberger. Schellenberger has been a tour guide at the Rosemary Clooney House for several years and is decidedly enthusiastic about all things Rosemary Clooney. She has represented the Rosemary Clooney House as part of the town’s annual White Christmas Parade, sporting a Clooney costume homage that she designed herself. Schellenberger wore her Clooney dress as she guided me through the artifacts housed in the collection. (Parade photos were supplied to me by Schellenberger.)
Upon entering the home, one will find a family tree detailing Clooney’s genealogy. There are also several of Clooney’s outfits on display near the entrance.
Clooney’s nephew, George, is also represented in the museum, as he offered up several costumes to be displayed. Augusta is of relevance to his life, as he went to high school in town. More recently, he and his wife visited the home and enjoyed the displays. His prom date’s dress also happens to be in the collection. To this day, the Clooney family is highly involved with the home and in preserving Clooney’s legacy.
Some of my favorite pieces to see in the collection were movie costumes from a variety of Clooney’s roles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Some of her co-stars are also represented, including Bob Hope. One piece, in particular, which captured my interest was a burlesque-style costume. The piece started off as a dress but could be deconstructed by Clooney as she progressed through her number.
The museum also had remnants of Clooney’s Beverly Hills home, which as since been razed. Included in the collection are also some of Clooney’s personal items from the home.
When I visit star homes and museums, the more humbling moments for me are when I am taken to places or objects that were personal to them. At the Rosemary Clooney House, the bedroom area is the most relaxing but also the most intimate. Looking out the window and beholding the river, it is easy for me to get lost in the thought that this was Clooney’s exact view when she resided here. The room itself is filled with effects in relation to Clooney and her husband.
On a more somber note, the bedroom is located on the second floor of the home. Later in her life, Clooney struggled with weight and climbing the stairs could prove to be difficult. As a result, Clooney had a red couch placed between floors, where she could relax. Often, she would sit here and smoke. To this day, the holes in the couch from cigarette butts are still visible.
Today, the Rosemary Clooney House is owned by Former Miss America Heather French Henry. It is Henry’s passion for Clooney and White Christmas that drives the museum forward with exciting exhibitions and acquisitions. There is one room, across from the bedroom, in honor of Henry’s pageant career.
Of the many items in the home, it is the White Christmas collection that fascinates me most. In this beautiful exhibit, visitors can view many original costumes from the film.
My favorite costumes to see were the “Sisters” dresses, which were reunited thanks to the efforts of the Rosemary Clooney House. The dresses are on display together in addition to one of the fans used in the number.
A re-creation of Clooney and Vera-Ellen’s signature red and white gowns from the film were painstakingly assembled by Henry and her mother (who used to design Henry’s pageant costumes) by watching the film frame by frame. The original dresses are considered lost. The reproduction of Clooney’s dress is visible in the exhibit with the “Sisters” dresses.
I was also absolutely thrilled to see Vera-Ellen’s “Mandy” costume in the collection, which is another number I enjoy immensely.
In the “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me” number, Clooney sings and interacts with a male dance chorus. One of the dancers is George Chakiris, who would go on to have a successful film career. He, too, is represented in the museum. His costume is on display with Clooney’s gloves. In April of 2019, I was able to meet Chakiris and we spoke about his career and Clooney. Chakiris had only kind words to say about Clooney and was delighted to know that her gloves and his costume have a happy home in Augusta.
Finally, another item I was excited to see–and play!–was Clooney’s rehearsal piano. This piano was used by Clooney and Crosby to rehearse their numbers for White Christmas and was located in Clooney’s bungalow. While rehearsing, Clooney would sometimes feel frustrated or upset when working on a particular song posed some challenges. As a result, Crosby carved a note of encouragement to her across the piano, writing, “Bing loves you.” It is still visible on the piano.
Out of the many hometown tributes a star can have, I think one of the most exciting ones is a museum dedicated to him or her–let alone one situated in the abode in which the individual once lived. To this day, Maysville and Augusta are deeply proud of Clooney and her legacy is certainly being celebrated accordingly. A visit to the Rosemary Clooney House is not to be missed.