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Rosemary Clooney: A Look Back Through the Hollywood Icon’s Life and Legacy

Learn more about her legendary life and legacy!

With her warm, expressive, mellow voice, Rosemary Clooney rose to fame with her 1951 single “Come on-a My House.” But her first professional break came six years earlier when she borrowed money to make the trip from Kentucky to Cincinnati to audition for a radio job singing duets with her younger sister, Betty.

Two years later, the pair were touring with Tony Pastor’s big band as The Clooney Sisters, during which Rosemary signed with Columbia Records. There she cut her first record with Pastor’s band, 1947’s “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Say Sorry,” which was followed by 13 additional songs.

She made her solo recording debut in 1949 with “Bargain Day” backed with “Cabaret.” The rest is Hollywood history, complete with its ups and downs.

Rosemary Clooney points to her nameplate on a door, 1945
Rosemary Clooney points to her nameplate on a door, 1945Hulton Archive/Getty

Rosemary Clooney: Her rise to stardom

Born in Maysville, Kentucky on May 23, 1928, it was that fortuitous trip to Cincinnati some 60 miles away that shaped Rosemary’s upward rise to fame. Betty left the act to return to Kentucky while Rosemary, with starry-eyed ambitions, went to New York and never looked back. “That’s the way it started,” she said in a 1999 interview. “And the way it continued was just the fact that I wanted it very much.” 

Yes, 1951 was a big year for Rosemary Clooney with a somewhat minor hit song “Beautiful Brown Eyes,” followed four months later with “Come on-a My House” produced by Mitch Miller. Ironically, Clooney despised the song and only agreed to sing it for fear of losing her record label contract. She considered the song “dumb,” with lyrics that “sounded more like a drunken chant than an historic folk art form.”

Within weeks of recording the song, she found herself with one of the biggest-selling hits in the country, moving more than a million copies.

“I think it was a musically snobbish time in my life,” she wrote in her memoirs. “I really hated that song. I hated the whole idea, and my first impression was, what a cheap way to get people’s attention.”

But it it got Rosemary’s attention, too: Her first royalty check amounted to $130,000, more than she had seen in her lifetime, and she soon signed a contract with Paramount Pictures. Still, whether on stage or making nightclub appearances, the audience always asked her to sing this song, but she tried to squirm out of it every time. At the same time, it is the song that catapulted Rosemary Clooney into becoming a television and film star.  

Throughout the 1950s, Rosemary recorded duets with Marlene Dietrich and did several guest appearances on the Arthur Godfrey radio show. As a freckle-faced Godfrey strummed his ukulele, she would sing along and, at times, would sing one of her latest hits. 

A star on the big screen

Portrait of Rosemary Clooney, 1955
Portrait of Rosemary Clooney, 1955Hulton Archive/Getty

In 1954, Rosemary co-starred with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in the hit movie White Christmas, which is at the top of everyone’s list of Christmas classics. Let’s face it: there’s nothing like watching this good ole holiday film with its festive soundtrack and dynamic dance numbers — though she later confessed that her talent stopped at that melodic voice.

“This could have been a near-perfect movie if only they could have dubbed my dancing,” she once mused.

Promo shoot for White Christmas, 1954
Promo shoot for White Christmas, 1954Paramount/Getty

Even so, this box office great gave her entrée to television’s top shows — even her own self-titled half-hour syndicated musical variety show in 1956, which, due to its overwhelming popularity, moved to prime time the following year.

She also appeared often with Crosby on TV and radio. In fact, from 1960 to 1962 the duo hosted The Bing Crosby-Rosemary Clooney Show, a 20-minute radio program aimed at women that aired daily from 11:40AM to 12:00PM as a lead in to the news.

Rosemary Clooney and home life struggles

Rosemary Clooney holds her son with husband, actor Jose Ferrer, 1955

Clooney’s life and career certainly had its share of maladies in the form of alcoholism, drug addiction and depression. Her mother abandoned the family when Rosemary was a tot, while her father was an alcoholic.

In her first autobiography, she chronicled her unhappy early life coming from a broken home and having to live with grandparents, her tempestuous marriage to Jose Ferrer in 1953, a mental breakdown in 1968 and the diagnosis of bipolar disorder that all came together to stall her career twice. The first instance was her marriage to Oscar-winning actor Ferrer and the birth of their five children.

The couple divorced in 1961, but, incredibly, were remarried in 1964 until they divorced again in 1967. The career of Rosemary Clooney languished throughout the 1960s as a result of depression, drug addiction and a 60-pound weight gain. She did attempt to return to performing, but her erratic behavior made her persona non grata in show biz.

Rosemary Clooney, 1960

After divorcing Ferrer due to his well-publicized womanizing, she became a part of the presidential campaign of her friend, Robert F. Kennedy. As she was standing with her children waiting to greet him , he was shot and killed. That experience seemed to have tipped Rosemary over the edge. A month after hearing the shots that killed Kennedy, she suffered a nervous breakdown on stage in Reno, Nevada, where she began shouting insults at her audience and had to be taken off stage.

“Nobody could approach me,” she recalled. “I was like a hand grenade with the pin pulled. Nobody could tell whether it was a dud or the real thing, because one minute I could be completely sweet and kind, the next, a raving monster. My brink of despair was rushing up to meet me like the end of a runway for a plane lumbering in vain to get off the ground.”

She was hospitalized and underwent traumatic confinement in a psychotic ward’s double locked room due to her violent nature. A dark period in her life, but gradually Rosemary resumed her career and reached new heights as a singer.

Rosemary Clooney performing, 1960

Rosemary Clooney returns to the limelight

In the middle of her eight years in therapy, Rosemary returned to performing in 1972 at Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, finally finding enjoyment in entertaining again. But it was in 1975 that her good friend and former collaborator, Bing Crosby, gave her a call that turned the page on her career for the better. “At Christmas in 1975, Bing called me. He said he was going to do a concert at the Los Angeles Music Center. Would I appear with him?”

What was considered a one off-benefit concert by Rosemary Clooney, morphed into a mini-tour where they continued on to Chicago, New York and London. Rosemary’s career was given a rebirth; she got a new record contract, a stronger singing voice, and her agent’s phone was ringing off the hook with singing dates pouring in.

Rosemary Clooney, 1977

For the remaining years of her life, she reinvented herself as a jazz singer and recorded nearly 20 albums that most critics called outstanding. After switching to United Artists Records in 1976, Rosemary recorded two albums and, beginning in 1977, recorded a jazz album every year for the Concord Jazz record label, hailing back to one of her favorite genres in music. She continued singing and in 1994 sang the duet “Green Eyes” with Barry Manilow on his 1994 album, Singin’ with the Big Bands.

Related: Barry Manilow Hits: 10 of His Most Memorable Songs That Make The Whole World Sing

Life after stardom

Rosemary also found happiness out of the spotlight: One sunny day in Beverly Hills, sitting in her convertible at a red light, dancer Dante DiPaolo pulled up beside her. Instant karma!

The pair had dated in the 50s, but hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. He moved in with Rosemary a few months later, and not only became her road manager, but her husband, the couple remaining together until Rosemary’s passing. 

Rosemary Clooney and Dante DiPaolo
Rosemary Clooney and husband Dante DiPaolo (1997) Darlene Hammond / Contributor / Getty

The legacy of the Clooney name in Hollywood didn’t end with Rosemary. Lest we forget, Rosemary Clooney is the aunt of famous actor, writer and director George Clooney, who is also from Kentucky and who affectionately referred to her as Aunt Rosie.

And in 1995, Aunt Rosie guest starred on the medical drama ER alongside her nephew, receiving an Emmy nomination for her performance.   

Rosemary Clooney and George Clooney
Rosemary Clooney and George ClooneyL. Cohen/WireImage

In 1999, she founded the Rosemary Clooney Music Festival, held annually in her hometown of Maysville, which brought folks from far and wide to hear her sing. She performed every year until her death in 2002, proceeds benefitting the restoration of the local Russell Theater, where Clooney’s first film, The Stars Are Singing, debuted in 1953.

Rosemary Clooney, a longtime heavy smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2001 and passed away the following year at age 74. She was buried in Maysville – the big star coming home to rest.

Rosemary Clooney
Rosemary Clooney (1985) Harry Langdon / Contributor / Getty

More on Rosemary Clooney…

In 2003, Rosemary was inducted into the Kentucky Women Remembered exhibit and her portrait is on permanent display in the Kentucky State Capitol’s rotunda

Daughter-in-law Debby Boone released an album in 2005 as a musical portrait of Clooney

In 2007, a mural honoring moments from her life was painted in downtown Maysville.  Her brother Nick Clooney spoke during the dedication. 

George Clooney worked as Aunt Rosie’s driver when he was a struggling actor. 

Gave one of her final performances in Hawaii with her last song being “God Bless America”

At the height of her career, Rosemary would make and send out records of her singing carols and wishing happy holidays to people instead of Christmas cards. 

George Clooney was one of Rosemary’s 10 pallbearers. Also sitting in the church was Al Pacino and Beverly D’Angelo, Debby Boone and Maysville native and former Miss America, Heather Renee French. 

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