By Ken CrosslandThe story of Rosemary Clooney’s rise, fall, and rise again to the summit of American music is unparalleled in American showbiz history. From her emergence at the archetypal girl-next-door in the Fifties, through to her late life renaissance as an interpreter par excellence of jazz and popular song, Clooney’s 57-year career scaled all the heights. But for almost seven years, from 1968 to 1975, Rosemary Clooney was missing, the victim of a catastrophic mental breakdown that almost destroyed her career and her sanity, and which was triggered by one thing — the curse of the Kennedys.
When two young Irish couples shared their marriage vows in the middle years of the 19th century, no one realized that the weddings — one in Massachusetts, the other in Kentucky — would be the foundation stones of two dynasties. Patrick Kennedy’s marriage to Bridget Murphy gave birth to America’s most charismatic political family whilst Nicholas Clooney’s betrothal to Bridget Byron began a chain of descent that begat not just Rosemary Clooney, but a generation on, actor and director George, Rosemary’s nephew.
For a time, it seemed that the Clooneys’ destiny might be a political one too. With her parents both largely absent during her childhood, Rosemary spent much of her time with her paternal grandfather, Andrew, and it was he who instilled a liberal tradition into the Clooney line that lasts to this day. An active politician and local mayor, Clooney Senior was, said Rosemary’s brother Nick, “closer to libertarianism than we would like.” It was at one of Andrew’s rallies in the 1930s that Rosemary made her public singing debut.
Rosemary’s innate musicality, coupled with a natural flair for acting, made her one of the biggest stars of Eisenhower’s America. Hit records and movies, her own TV series, and a showbiz marriage to actor José Ferrer delivered a fairy story of small town girl made good. When JFK launched his bid for the White House in 1960, Rosemary immediately recognized a kindred spirit. Kennedy’s father, Joe, had promised to “sell him like soap flakes” and with the candidate linked into Sinatra’s Rat Pack through his sister’s marriage to actor Peter Lawford, America’s first Hollywood Presidency was born.
Rosemary had sung for the Democrats at various events running up to the Election and stayed close afterwards. In 1962 after singing at a dinner for the new Ambassador to Ireland, a late night call from Lawford found her cooking scrambled eggs at the White House with the President and his coterie. They talked into the early hours. When Rosemary made to leave, she was stunned by the President’s final question. “What was it,” he said, “that kept her off-the-shoulder jacket from falling off?” She paused before revealing a simple clip.
After the events in Dallas brought Camelot crashing down, Rosemary found herself battling demons of her own. Her marriage had collapsed, her money was gone, and her career post-Beatles revolution was on the slide. With her home in Beverly Hills and five kids to look after, she was beginning to tailspin. Prescription drugs had become an irredeemable temptation. Nevertheless, Rosemary had met and grown even closer to the President’s brother, Robert Kennedy. When he made his bid for the White House in 1968, Rosemary was one of the first people he looked to for support and by the time he contested the California Primary in the spring, she was with him every step of the way. On polling day, she flew with him to Los Angeles and sat in his car as he drove through the city. She was waiting for him at the Ambassador Hotel when the shots rang out.RFK’s death was the final straw. In the days that followed, she substituted the reality that everyone else saw with a world of her own. Kennedy wasn’t dead. It was a conspiracy, a plan by something or someone to teach everyone a lesson. Even a telephone conversation with Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, failed to persuade her that the blood she had seen in the Ambassador Hotel had been that of the murdered Senator. Three weeks after Kennedy was buried, Rosemary traveled to Reno for a three-week season. Halfway through, she stopped the show, berated the audience and walked off stage. She headed for Lake Tahoe, purposely driving the wrong way up the old mountain road and “playing chicken with God.”
A month’s hospitalization and years of mental therapy followed but she did come back, bigger and with a world-wisdom that she used to breathe life into her musical interpretations like no one before or since. She reinvented herself in a jazz idiom, surrounded by the brightest and best of a new generation of jazz players, and continued to sing until her death in 2002. She was lucky — and so were we.
Ken Crossland is the co-author of Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney. He has written two other books, including The Man Who Would Be Bing: The Life Story of Michael Holliday and Perry Como: A Biography and Complete Career Chronicle.