This article is part of a series titled “GRITS: Girls Raised in the South,” in which we profile some of our favorite Dixie ladies and the things that make them awesome. Got an idea for a fabulous femme we should feature? Shoot us an email at email@example.com! (Alliteration optional.)
Born: May 23, 1928 in Maysville, KY
Died: June 29, 2002
Profession: Cabaret singer, actress, and vixen of the stage and screen.
Reasons she’s awesome: Rosemary comes from a family of beautiful, talented folk (you may have heard of a certain nephew of hers), but her own accomplishments should not be overshadowed by those of her progeny. She started recording for Columbia Records when she was just 18, as part of Tony Pastor‘s band. She broke off into a solo career in 1949 and had her first hit in 1951 with “Come On-a My House” (apparently the song was much more popular with the masses than it was with Rosemary — she hated the tune with a passion and only recorded it because Columbia forced her to). During this time, Rosemary also recorded several duets with fellow foxy lady Marlene Dietrich, appeared on Faye Emerson’s Wonderful Town, and was a frequent guest on Arthur Godfrey‘s radio show (so you know she has true old school cred).
Rosemary quickly garnered a reputation for her approachable, jazzy sound. While not as technically gifted as some of her contemporaries, her warm sound and comfortable delivery endeared her to audiences around the world. As Richard Severo wrote in the New York Times, “Ms. Clooney did not dig as deeply into the emotional content of a song as Frank Sinatra did; she never tried to emulate the sound and delivery of an instrument as Mel Tormé seemed to do so easily; she did not burst into the scat choruses favored by Ella Fitzgerald. But she sang with so much assuredness, simplicity and honesty that these elements became her trademark and endeared her to audiences and critics alike.”
In 1954, Rosemary really hit the big time, starring alongside Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen in a little flick called “White Christmas.” The holiday classic catapulted her into the spotlight with iconic songs such as “Sisters,” “Love, You Didn’t Do Right By Me,” and “Count Your Blessings,” She and Bing, her onscreen paramour, instantly hit it off, and the blue-eyed duo continued to collaborate throughout their careers. (In fact, Bing is largely credited with reviving her floundering career by inviting her to perform with him in a T.V. special celebrating his 50 years in show business in 1974, after a nervous breakdown had sent her off the rails and out of popularity.) She continued to explore the big and small screen well into her 70s and was even nominated for a Emmy for a 1995 guest stint on E.R. alongside her nephew, George.
Despite her apparently sunny demeanor, Rosemary’s charming facade masked a life that was anything but. Her father was a raging alcoholic whom her grandfather had thrown in jail for public drunkenness. Her brother Andy drowned in the Ohio River as a child. Her mother abandoned the family when Rosemary was 15, moving to California and taking only one son with her. Rosemary’s love life was no less rocky: She and her first husband, José Ferrer divorced in 1961 after eight years of marriage, only to remarry in 1964, and then divorce again three years later when Rosemary discovered that Ferrer, who was 16 years her senior, was sleeping with another woman. In 1968, she witnessed the assassination of her friend Robert F. Kennedy while standing just yards away, along with two of her children. Eight years later, her sister Betty died suddenly of an aneurysm, inspiring Rosemary to start a foundation in her memory. And to top it all off, she suffered from bipolar disorder, depression, and an addiction to sleeping pills.
But this Kentucky dame refused to let life’s troubles get her down, channeling her pain into her music and two memoirs. She was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2002, shortly before her death from lung cancer. When asked about her life, she reportedly said, “If you hang around long enough, you get a lot of good stuff.”
Favorite Songs and Stories: