Sunday, February 24, 2002
Excerpt from Rosie's autobiography
Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer
>From the porch, the river looked smoky brown sometimes, rosy and lavender when the sun was going down, then slate gray, just before it turned pitch black.
>From the porch, the light of the Island Queen beckoned, like reachable stars.
>From the porch, the river promised better times coming, faraway places just around the bend.
>From the porch, the river was a wide tranquil ribbon, no hint of dangerous current. All you could see from the porch were possibilities, not perils.
The porch was at my grandmother's house in Maysville, Kentucky, on the Ohio River. Although Maysville was called a port city, it was a classical small town, it's life centered in a few downtown blocks between the train station and the bridge: Magee's Bakery, Merz Brothers Department Store, the diner with the swinging EAT sign and the six stools at the counter, where we sat and watched our hamburgers - the size of half dollars - frying on the grill.
Now that house on West Third Street, high above the river, is spruced up, glistening white, with window boxes full of scarlet geraniums and trailing ivy, listed in The National Register of Historic Places.The side street leading down to the river is named Rosemary Clooney Street. Then it was a rented house, well-scrubbed, but the linoleum on the kitchen floor was peeling, curling up at the edges. There was no central heating, just little potbellied stoves and a fireplace with a grate where my grandmother cooked when the bills hadn't been paid and the gas was turned off. On winter days, my sister Betty and my brother Nicky, and I licked the ice that formed on the inside of the kitchen window.
But my grandmother loved that house, loved sitting in her high-backed rattan rocking chair on the porch, where she could look down at the river rolling by. She loved to cook-floured chicken pieces with lots of salt and pepper, fried to the crackling stage in bubbling hot Crisco, green beans boiled with a chunk of country ham; piles of cole slaw. Once she made strawberry shortcake on the fireplace grate. She loved listening to her daytime serials on the big Zenith console in the living room, always tuned to WLW in Cincinnati: "Stella Dallas," "Backstage Wife." She loved her little garden beyond the porch, with its straggling hollyhocks and snapdragons, late-summer rows of the juiciest tomatoes, the twisted hackberry tree at the far edge of the yard.
Best of all, she loved us.
My grandmother, Ada Guilfoyle, was my mother's mother, one of the strongest women I've ever known. I like to think-and I do believe-I've inherited some of her strength. When she was a young wife, expecting, she and my grandfather were working on a rented farm outside of town. She began to bleed and fell over in the tobacco field. The doctor came in his horse and buggy and carried her back to the farmhouse, where they hung clean sheets on the walls and spread them over the kitchen table. With warm beer bottles pressed tightly against her body, she was operated on for an ectopic pregnancy and warned not to have children. But she and my grandfather, Michael Joseph Guilfoyle, had planned on children, so they had nine: four boys and 5 girls. When my grandfather dropped dead on the street at the age of fifty-two-an aneurysm-their youngest was three. So my grandmother had to get a job. Before she was married, she'd taught in a one-room rural schoolhouse, but now with young children, she needed to be home during the day. She worked nights as a practical nurse.
Frances, my mother, was the third child, the second daughter after Rose, followed by Jeanne, Ann, and Christine. My Aunt Rose was always labeled-even honored-as the beauty of the family, while my mother wasn't even considered pretty according to the conventions of the time. She was straight and slim, with deep blue eyes and thick dark hair, but her features were sharp and angular. So she made up in flamboyance what she felt, and was often reminded, she lacked in looks. She would be the best dresser, the most stylish; she would have flair. She was barely five-foot-four but she seemed taller, with shoulder pads and spike heels and a way of holding herself proud and erect. When she walked to work as a salesclerk at the New York Store, she wore a cartwheel hat and carried a showy purse. She almost always won the Charleston contests on the Island Queen.
She had grown up saying she would become an actress or a dancer. "I want to get out of Maysville. I want to be somebody." Instead, she married a charming funny, handsome man, Andrew Clooney, who was eight years older and who had already decided his dreams were submerged at the bottom of a bottle.
When I was born on May 23, 1938, she has just turned eighteen. She and my father had already separated at least once, then they had gotten back together briefly - a dismal pattern that would be repeated often, that would frame my childhood. I don't remember all of us living together under the same roof for more than a few weeks at a time. Sometimes I was with an uncle or an aunt, sometimes at Grandma Guilfoyle's, sometimes with my Clooney grandparents. Because my father was so rarely around, it was his father whom I called Papa. It was easy for my mother to decide where to leave Betty and Nicky and me when she needed a place for us. She just left us with whoever had room. Whoever wasn't rock-bottom broke, looking for work,.Whoever said yes.
"You're the oldest. You'll manage," my mother would say. "You'll be fine." She had been promoted from salesclerk to manager of the dress shop, but she yearned to get out of Maysville, so she jot a job as a traveling sales representative for the Lerner chain. When her weekly envelope came, with a five-dollar bill, I'd scan the postmark to see where my mother was or where she had been: Dayton, St. Louis, Detroit. "I don't know when I'll be back," she would say. "But I know you'll be a good girl."
So I was. I was very careful never to say the wrong thing or do the wrong thing. I tried to figure out, early in a stay, what people expected of me, then I'd make sure I was just what they expected.If I wasn't a good girl, I wouldn't be able to live there anymore. Then Betty and Nicky wouldn't be able to live there anymore, either. Then what?
In all the comings and goings of those years in Maysville, my sister was the one constant.I was six years older than Nicky, and we became real friends later. But I was just three when Betty was born, so we grew up together. There was hardly ever a time when I didn't share a room with her, play with her, laugh and talk and fight with her. And there was absolutely no time when I didn't love her.
Betty always listened to me, always did what I said we'd do. One very cold winter day, when I was five and Betty just about two, we got dressed up in one of our aunt's long dresses. "Now we have to go down to the river," I told Betty, "because we're going on a long trip, and we have to wait by the river until the boat comes."
Somehow we managed to sneak down the stairs and out of the house without being seen. We scurried across Front Street, clutching the folds of our long gowns. We were standing at the edge of the river grading, and I was looking upriver, pretending I could just see the boat coming, when Betty skidded down the slick grading into the river. The dark water closed above her head.
I leaned over, grabbed her hand, and dragged her out. She wasn't crying, just coughing and sputtering. I got her home and into the bathtub and then dried off, all by myself - my mother had told me I would manage, I would be able to do whatever had to be done. Betty and I formed a bond, very early, that I was sure nothing would ever break. "We'll always be together," I promised her one day, when we'd just been moved from one place to another. "I'll never leave you behind." I felt absolutely certain nobody else would ever come between us, and I was right. Nobody else did.
Grandma Guilfoyle's house was cozy, but my Grandmother Clooney kept a stylish house, perhaps because when she married an Irish shopkeeper, her family let her know how far down she'd stepped. My grandfather was a watchmaker, with a jewelry store where, in those Depression days, he had more merchandise than customers.
My grandmother was christened Crescentia Koch, called Cynthia, nicknamed Mawley by her grandchildren. At finishing school in Ohio, she'd learned crocheting and tatting and the piano, how to discern fine lace; taught me needlepoint, the difference between Waterford and Lalique.
Papa was tall, with a mop of white hair, always dressed in a blue suit with a white shirt and cream-colored silk handkerchief. He usually had his main meal in the middle of the day, sometimes at Caproni's Restaurant by the railroad station, with a view of the Ohio River. When he came home from talking politics with friends, he'd wake me up to join him in a late-night snack of potted shrimp, a wedge of Limburger cheese, orange slices arranged like a flower on the plate. He was the only person I knew who had an egg cup.
People said that Mrs. Clooney would go to unusual lengths to please a man. People also said that she took a lot of pills.
I inherited some of her traits, too.
She and Papa lived above the store on Market Street in an apartment with voile curtains and a gleaming piano. I never learned to play it - never even learned to read music - but I loved to stand by it and sing. My father had a vibrant singing voice, and when he was around - when he was sober - he'd take his ukelele and walk with Betty and me down to the riverbank, where we'd sit under a willow tree and sing. Never country music, which was so widespread in our little town. "Blood on the highway and dust on the Bible. Nothing good ever happens to those SOBs." He'd say, laughing. So we sang Cole Porter. At home, listening to the radio. He praised Bing Crosby, while I insisted Frank Sinatra was better. Frank had such beautiful clear diction: He dotted the i's and crossed the t's in every word.
My father's sister Olivette led her own small orchestra, which played at parties at the country club. My mother's sister Ann sang in clubs, including Joyland in Lexington with Sammy Kaye's band. At home, she played Billie Holiday records: "Gloomy Sunday," "Strange Fruit." Sometimes she would come sweeping into the house, trailing a glorious scent and a glamorous black feather boa, laughing and singing, lighting up the house like a Fourth of July sparkler. But sometimes she would wander listlessly around the house, weeping. She swallowed a vial of pills one night, and her brother George raced her to the hospital. But the emergency room was jammed, and either they didn't have a stomach pump or they couldn't find it right away, so Uncle George tried to keep her awake. He walked her up and down the hall, but she just slipped out of his arms on to the tile floor and died.
I made my first public appearance when I was three, on the stage at the Russell Theater, the downtown movie house with the twinkling stars on the ceiling. Aunt Olivette made me an orange crepe paper hat; I wore a white-dotted Swiss dress with a big bow and sang "When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver (I Will Love You Just the Same)." When I was four, Papa Clooney took me with him to a Rotary lunch, where I sang "Home on the Range." At five, I sang at the high school in a revue, Little Tots on Parade. At St. Patrick's School, I played the wicked queen in an operetta version of Snow White.
I liked singing at home, too, even though my mother argued with me about it. When I started singing without musical accompaniment, I'd wait for the beat, holding the four bars.
"Don't do that," my mother said. "Don't leave those holes."
"I have to Mama," I said.
Then she was cross. "Why do you have to?"
I couldn't explain it. I was four, maybe five years old: How could I explain to a grown-up that I had to wait a certain amount of time before starting the next phrase? I didn't know how to explain the beats, didn't even know the word. "I don't know why, Mama. I just know I have to."
If my father happened to be there, he'd take my side. "She's right, Fran," he'd tell my mother. "She's doing it just fine." Then he'd grin at me. "You just keep on singing the way you want to."
I kept on. From the corner of Front and Market to the London Palladium, from porch swing to padded cell, strapped down in the violent ward, I never stopped singing. I always sang.
My Clooney ancestors came from Kilkenny, the Guilfoyles from Cork, part of the great surge of Irish who fled to this country from the hunger at home. Maysville had been settled by Presbyterians and Anglicans, members of the planter society - burley tobacco - who built themselves Georgian brick houses trimmed with New Orleans-style lacework balconies. But by the turn of the century, so many Irish had settled in that they built a Catholic Church: St. Patrick's. I was baptized there, made my first holy communion there, walked to grade school there in my itchy wool jumper with white collar and cuffs, red tie, and knee socks.
Papa Clooney served on the city council, and for one two-year term was elected mayor. He was passionate about politics, an FDR Democrat, thrilled when President Roosevelt appointed one of Papa's friends, Judge Stanley Reed, to the Supreme Court. But Papa never really fit in with the Maysville establishment - not only because he was Irish Catholic, but because of his views, which many people considered eccentric at best, maybe downright dangerous. His volatile Irish temper flared most insistently when he argued social issues and injustices, when he felt a civilized code of honor had somehow been broken. He published a free newspaper once in a while, in which he urged people not to pay their water bills. "Water is given freely from God," he declared. "No man should be asked to pay for his water." I know he wanted to make an important social point, but the only point he made, as far as I was concerned, was that for a long time we didn't have running water in the house and had to go across the street to haul it back in buckets from the kitchen at the New Central Hotel.
He was an enthusiastic reader and student of history. Both Civil War presidents, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were born in Kentucky; Papa liked to tell us about Lincoln's wry reasoning at one of his first Cabinet meetings, with war looming. "I hope I have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky." There'd been a slave-holding pen in Maysville and at least two lynchings.
Harriet Beecher Stowe had witnessed a slave auction near Maysville; in Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eliza inches her way across the frozen Ohio to Ripley, where in real life there had been a stop on the Underground Railroad. I never heard anyone say that the only good Negro was a dead Negro, but our daily paper's column of "Colored News" consisted mainly of flowery obituaries: "Friends, holding her in esteem as they did, will sorrowfully receive the news of her passing."
Papa's store was across the street from the New Central Hotel, where he took me to meet Lizzie Chambers, the black maid. "Lizzie didn't have no chance to go to school," he told me. "She didn't learn how to read because nobody would teach her. That was very, very wrong. When she was just about as old as you are now, she was working in the tobacco factory. Doesn't matter what people say, doesn't matter what color her skin is, and don't you ever forget that."
I never did. I became best friends with Lizzie's daughter, Blanchie Mae, who came to the hotel after school to wait for her mother to finish work. Lizzie worked late, so when I got home from my school, I'd go over and bring Blanchie Mae back to Papa's. Aunt Olivette, a born snob with a cruel streak, disapproved. "She shouldn't be bringing that colored child here. What will people think?"
"They'll think that these little girls are friends," Papa said firmly, reminding his wife to make some of her fancy sandwiches for us to eat as we played together after school.
When he took us to Bethel Baptist Church some Sundays to join in the spirituals, we all sat together. But when he took us to the Russell Theater, Blanchie Mae had to sit upstairs in the "buzzard's roost." After the show, we'd walk home, stopping for ice cream cones. Blanchie Mae could eat with us if we were outside, but not indoors. Papa liked to have us put on impromptu shows in his store window - I'd sing and Blanchie Mae would tap dance - and if people passing by didn't like it, that was just too bad.
Between my mother telling me what a bad man my father was and my Grandmother Clooney telling me what a bad woman my mother was, I heard far more about grown-up life than I wanted to know. "She doesn't deserve to be married to my son," Mawley would say. "Your mother has boyfriends. Wouldn't you rather live here with me all the time? Where would you rather live?" Clasping her white silk shawl around her shoulders, she would lower her voice as though sharing a secret, as though I were her contemporary and confidante, as though a second-grader could make that crucial choice.
"Your father was drunk again last night," my mother said. I was in the bathtub; she was sitting on the edge, washing my back. "He told me he would stop drinking, but he won't. Your father is a liar. Never trust your father." She scrubbed my back so hard that I squirmed. "Your father is a ladies' man. He has another child, but he's your father's child, not mine." I'd known there was a young man named Clooney working at Murphy's dime store, but it had never dawned on me that we were related. Every time I went to Murphy's after that, I'd hang around the counter and watch Andy Clooney. He looked amazingly like me: blond hair, blue eyes, same turn of the mouth. I never got to know him well. He was twenty-nine years old, still working at Murphy's, when he went on a picnic one summer Sunday, went wading into the Ohio River, walked into a step-off, and drowned.
I never heard Grandma Guilfoyle say mean things about anyone. I saw her angry just once. My mother was sleeping in the bed with me when my father burst in and began dragging my mother out of bed. Grandma came running in behind him and grabbed hold of his arm.
"Get out and stay out!" she said. "Don't you come near my daughter again! Don't come near this house again!" As he stumbled away, she came around to my side of the bed, where I was huddled, and held me tight.
But I didn't have a frightening childhood, certainly not an abused one. I didn't even feel particularly poor. I never got a bike or roller skates for Christmas - but none of the kids I knew did, either. Lots of people were out of a job, lots of fathers and sometimes mothers were drinking moonshine or taking stuff to help them manage. As the black joke goes: a lot of folks were in the CIA: Catholic Irish Alcoholics. As I got a little older, I could laugh about it, too. One night when my father got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, he was what was delicately called "under the influence," and instead of opening the bathroom door, he stepped out the second-floor window. The awning of my grandfather's store broke his fall. He rolled off the awning, picked himself up, opened the front door - in those days, never locked - walked back upstairs, and went to the bathroom, Later, Nicky made a joke of it, because he said we had to laugh about a lot of stuff or we'd never have gotten through it all. "Other people's ancestors were knighted. Ours were dazed."
Mawley died when I was eight. I don't remember the wake or the funeral. I remember people saying that Papa was taking it hard. Grandma Guilfoyle said it would be easier for him if we came to live with her. So I wasn't there when the flood came.
The Ohio was rising, but slowly. A small river like the Licking River, which tumbles down through the hills and hollows of northern Kentucky, can come jumping up twenty-five feet in a day, so a person better not be asleep or slow-moving. A big river will cause more damage, but not so quickly. So Papa stood outside his store, one hand holding a corner of the awning, smoking a cigar. When his friends tried to get him to move his things out, he shook his head. "The river's not coming any higher."
It was the worst flood in Kentucky's history. The water rose to seventy-nine feet; Blanchie Mae, waiting for her mother to finish work at the New Central Hotel, was taken out of a second-floor window in a skiff. Moat everything in Papa's store was either swept away or ruined by the thick muddy water. He opened another store later, higher up on Market Street, mostly repairing broken watches; people shopped for new watches and jewelry at Traxel's around the corner. I was in fourth grade that fall, Betty in first, and we tried to walk home from school by way of his shop so we could stop in and see him. Papa would always say to me, "Watch out for your sister."
Nickey started writing songs when he was six. He walked around the house singing: Oh, Jesus / Jesus, Jesus / I'm so lonely, / Lonely, lonely ÷ Uncle George couldn't stand it. "That song is too doggone sad,'' he declared. "Let's give you a song with some pep to it." Uncle George devised a specialty number based on "The Sheik of Araby." Betty and I would harmonize on a phrase of the song, and Nicky would chime in after each phrase with the distinctive refrain "without no pants on!"
All my uncles were musical. Uncle Neal won a contest at the Opera House in Maysville, singing "Melancholy Baby." Uncle Chick sang pop tunes nonstop around the house. Uncle William was riding the rails into Michigan, looking for work, when he wrote "South Boy" (I look at the snow and dream about cotton / I long to go back where I'm not forgotten / South Boy wants to go home). But it was Uncle George who choreographed our family musicals and coached us in the finer points of ensemble singing.
Uncle George was the youngest of the Guilfoyle boys, tall and lanky, with a wry grin and a wraparound heart: He gave up his scholarship to Xavier University to take care of us. Money was stretched thin; Grandma always wore the same black cloth coat and little black hat with a bunch of artificial violets in front, right over her forehead. Once, when my mother's weekly envelope was late, uncle George took his high school class ring down to the pool hall and exchanged it for three dollars, just for a couple of days. He came home with a sack of potatoes and onions, which Grandma fried in her cast-iron skillet on the fireplace grate.
Mama was somewhere on the road, working; Dad was just somewhere, so when uncle George got a job with the Baldwin Piano Company in Cincinnati on their loading dock, Grandma packed up and we moved downriver. To Nicky especially, Uncle George became a role model of responsibility and honor. Twenty years later, Nick named his only son after Uncle George.
Our house on Fairfax Avenue in Cincinnati was bigger than Grandma's house in Maysville. There was a living room on the first floor - we called it the front room - and a big kitchen. Two bedrooms on the second floor, and on the top floor, an attic room for Nicky and Betty and me.
Betty was only ten when we moved, but already sure of herself in a way I could only admire, never expect to achieve. When a kid down the block began bullying Nicky, and Nicky told Betty and me, my sister took action.
Betty marched down the block, Nicky and I trailing, and found the kid sitting on his porch steps. "You've been beating up my brother," she said fiercely, making a fist. The kid looked at this knobby-kneed, skinny little girl and laughed. Betty's fist shot out and clipped him alongside his ear. The boy ran into his house, howling.
That evening his parents pounded on our door. "Your granddaughter beat up our son,'' they informed Grandma. "We expect an apology."
Again, Nicky and I trailed along. Betty walked briskly up the steps, not a moment's hesitation, and knocked. Instantly the door was yanked open. The boy's mother loomed in the doorway, arms folded, glaring; her husband was a frowning figure behind her. Betty regarded them for a moment, then folded her arms and turned to Nicky and me. ""My, my," she said brightly. "Look what we have here! A reception committee!"
Our Aunt Olivette had once summed it up cruelly. "Betty has guts but no talent. Rosemary has talent, but no guts." I was as angry as Betty about the bully, but I handled confrontation the way that worked for me even then: I avoided it.
Betty's "reception committee" line came directly from the movies. We spent nearly every Saturday or Sunday afternoon - sometimes both - at our neighborhood theater, the Ritz at Hewitt's Corner. Sometimes we took the streetcar downtown to the Shubert or to the Albee, a magnificent movie palace, all gilt and cherubs and chandeliers. The urinals in the men's room were so imposing - black marble monoliths - that Nicky would go to the Albee only if Uncle George went, too.
Movies were our gateway to a boundless world. The screen glowed with the possibilities we'd always known must be out there - people to see, places to go - around the bend in the river. At night in our attic bedroom, three narrow cots in a row, scrunched under Grandma's worn warm quilts, we'd review the movie we'd just seen, quoting dialogue, planning trips we'd take together. To Singapore, after seeing Sydney Greenstreet under the ceiling fans at Raffles. To Venice on the Orient Express. To magical marvelous places. No matter where we went, we'd go together.
When we weren't replaying movies, we were listening to the radio. Grandma's big Zenith was the centerpiece downstairs, but in our private realm, we terrified ourselves with our little table model: "Suspense," "The Clutching Hand," "Lights Out." We were thrilled by the big band remotes: "Live from the Grill Room of the Hotel Roosevelt in New York City! It's the music of Guy Lombardo and his royal Canadians!" Sometimes at midnight, long after we were supposed to be asleep, we listened to "Moon River," a program of poetry and music on WLW. We planned our own brilliant career: footlights, fans, and gowns with ostrich feathers for Betty and me.
Happily, we had relatives in town. Aunt Jeanne had moved to Cincinnati to find work and help support the family; she'd met her husband, Roy Dudenhoeffer, while they were both attending Hughes High School at night. Aunt Rose lived in Bond Hill with her with her husband, Isadore, and their daughters, Phyllis and Joan. Their home was bigger than anyone's I knew; it had a big downstairs room called a rathskeller, with a Ping-Pong table and a jukebox. Isadore had grown up in Maysville, but his family - the Middlemans - had opposed his marriage as strongly as the Irish Catholic Guilfoyles had objected to their daughter marrying a Jew. So the young couple had eloped to Cincinnati. Phyllis was four months old when her parents took her to Maysville, leaving her in a basket on Grandma's porch. Aunt Rose knocked on the door, then slipped around the side of the house as Grandma opened the door and saw her baby granddaughter.
When Uncle Isadore did the same thing at his family's house, everybody pretty much kissed and made up.
Betty and I loved having girl cousins our own age around. Phyllis and I started high school together that fall. The four of us were at the Shubert Theater seeing The Barkleys of Broadway - while Nicky, at the Ritz, watched Ida Lupino in Ladies in Retirement - on Sunday afternoon, December 7, 1941. At home, the news of Pearl Harbor crackled from the big old Zenith all that day and into the incredulous night.
Uncle George singed up for aviation cadet training, eventually to pilot a B-17 on bombing missions over Europe. Aunt Christine, who was still single, joined the WAVES. Uncle William signed up within weeks of Pearl harbor, enlisting in the Army Air Force; he was later assigned to Wendover Air Force Base, where he was a part of what would be called the Manhattan Project, where crews were trained for the war in the Pacific, where the Enola Gay would be outfitted with the bomb.
Our cousin Tom Anderson lost his hands in a booby trap near Cologne. Uncle Roy, an infantryman, spent a year on the German front. Even Uncle Chick, who had a glass eye from a childhood bout with meningitis, joined the effort as an Army recruiter. When I made an album in 1991, For the Duration, I wanted to honor them all. Nick wrote the liner notes; on the cover, we put a photo of Uncle George in his jaunty pilot's gear.
Grandma moved to an old farmhouse on Indian Hill Road at the edge of town, with a big yard where she could keep a chicken coop and grow vegetables in a Victory garden. With Uncle George liable to be called up at any time, Mama came back. She moved us to a just-put-up apartment building on Clinton Springs Avenue. It had hardwood floors and, instead of the familiar brown paper shades on the windows, Venetian blinds; to us, it was palatial. I had to change schools, but I didn't mind. I didn't mingle much or sing in school shows as Betty did; in seventh grade, she gave the sultriest rendition of "Temptation" people had ever heard from a twelve-year-old. People thought I was shy, but it wasn't that simple. I was learning detachment as a protective measure. It was a much more accessible emotion than after, I found, and useful.
Mama got a job managing a Lerner shop downtown; we all had supper together, and sometimes she'd bring home a coffee cake from the Federal Bakery in the Arcade. On most Sundays, Uncle Roy and Aunt Jeanne picked us up in their black LaSalle to go visit Grandma over on Indian Hill. Grandma would make fried chicken, then the grown-ups would play cards, alternating between the Irish game 500 and the Germans' pinochle.
Betty and Nicky and I were on Grandma's back porch with the Sunday comics when we heard the voices from the kitchen growing louder. We opened the screen door and slipped in. Nobody paid any attention to us.
"She's too old to be taking care of three children," Aunt Jeanne was saying.
"You simply cannot ask her to take care of them anymore," Aunt Rose said to Mama. "Absolutely not."
"Not three," Mama said. "I'm taking Nicky."
"I can do what I want to do," Grandma said stubbornly. "And I want to take care of them."
"It won't work, Fran," Uncle George said to Mama. "I'll be called up any day now."
Uncle William shook his finger at Mama. "You and Andy didn't mind making kids," he told her. "You just don't want to take care of them."
Betty started to cry. When I started crying, too, Uncle William turned around and glared at us. "Stop that!" he said. "Stop your crying! Be quiet!"
Nicky walked up to Uncle William and stood right in front of him. "No, Uncle William," he said in the sternest voice a seven-year-old could muster. "You be quiet. They can't help it."
It was the first time my brother had stepped up to defend me, certainly not the last. And he was right; we couldn't help crying.
Mama was going to California to marry a sailor.
"Your father is coming to take care of you and your sister," she told me. "He has stopped drinking, and he says he'll never drink again. You can trust him."
I stared at her. What father was she talking about? Did she mean the father who was a hopeless liar, the man she'd warned us we could never, ever trust?
"I'm taking Nicky with me," Mama continued, "and as soon as I get settled, I'll send for you girls."
When the taxi came to take them to the train, she put her hands on my shoulders and looked steadily at me. "You'll manage."
Nicky knelt on the back seat of the taxi, waving as they pulled away. Betty was crying as she waved. "We'll be going to California soon," she said.
I was crying, too. I kept looking down the driveway, although the taxi was out of sight. "No I won't." I said.
Dad looked around and shook his head. "Too new, too fancy." We moved again, to a third floor walk-up in an old house on Elberon Avenue. I changed schools once more, and this time I made two friends. Marge Wehringer and Pat Jones. Pat and I met in home ec class; we formed a bond because we both hated home ec, where Pat made a pair of pajamas without enough room in the seat. After school we sat in booths at Peggy's Grill, with Cokes and French fries, smoking cigarettes and playing Sinatra records on the jukebox. I was more than a fan; I was obsessed. I saw the movie Reville with Beverly seventeen times by actual count, because he sang "Night and Day" in the picture. I'd idolized Frank from the first time I'd heard him on the radio back in Maysville; I would stop whatever I was doing to hear him on "Your Hit Parade," savoring his exquisite diction and his supple sexy tone.
On weekends, Dad would take us downtown, to see a movie and hear a big band at the Albee, then have a milkshake at Fountain Drug and play the jukebox: still Bing Crosby for Dad, and always Frank for me. He was working at the Wright Aeronautical defense plant, making good money and bringing it straight home. Some would go into the yellow bowl in the pantry to be used for groceries and bills; some he'd stash in the top dresser drawer until there was enough to buy a savings bond. There was a lot of money in both places the April evening he came in and emptied both the bowl and the drawer. A buddy had persuaded him to have a beer after work - just one - o celebrate V-E Day. He didn't come home that night, or the next, or the next.
When our food ran out a day or two later, Betty and I scoured the house for empty soda bottles and turned them in for the deposit. We could have called Aunt Jeanne, or Aunt Rose, or Grandma. But Mama had said, "You'll manage.''
Radio Station WLW was one of the first stations in the country to begin broadcasting, in 1922. One of the first programs to be heard regularly was a series of swimming lessons, every Wednesday evening at eight o'clock, taught by an instructor from the YMCA. ("Don't take the radio into the pool with you!")
WLW called itself "the nation's station," an understatement for a while in the 1930s, when it was authorized to use a high-powered transmitter on an experimental basis. Transmitting at 500,000 watts - the legal limit today in the continental United Sates is 50,000 - this radio station on Crosley Square at Ninth and Elm in downtown Cincinnati could be heard as far away as Calgary and Buenos Aires. Closer to home, people complained that they were receiving broadcasts on the banisters of their porches or in the fillings of their teeth.
Music was always a priority at WLW, which had a full orchestra on staff, along with a jazz combo. A large stable of musicians covered all the bases of genre and audience, almost around the clock: Chet Atkins started his country music program at four-thirty in the morning to reach his listeners, the farmers who were getting up then to milk cows, gather eggs, and do whatever else farmers need to do at four-thirty in the morning. The Mills Brothers had sung there, and the Ink Spots with their falsetto and their hilarious deadpan delivery. Fats Waller worked there until he was fired for plying jazz on the new organ that Powell Crosley, the boss, had dedicated to his mother. A Cincinnati girl named Doris von Kappelhoff had sung on "Moon River" until she left town and became Doris Day.
But for Betty and me, flat broke and clean out of soda bottles, the best thing about WLW right then was the open auditions they held every Thursday.
"Where's your music?" the piano player asked us. All we had was our schoolbags.
He shrugged. "Well, then, what are you going to sing?"
We sand "Hawaiian War Chant." Some of the words we'd made up to replace the real lyrics we didn't know. But we were well matched to sing together. I was comfortable in the upper register, so I sang lead. Betty had a natural ear for harmony and a range about three notes lower, a voice close to mine in timbre, but a little darker and warmer. We thought we made a pretty good sound.
A man in a blue suit came out of a small room and asked us to sing something else. We sang "Patty Cake Man" and "Dream." He left and returned with another man. We sang one of our favorites, a Nat Cole tune, "Straighten Up and Fly Right." When they offered us a job, Betty smiled and asked for an advance in our salary.
I began singing for a living in April 1945. I was sixteen; Betty was thirteen. The Clooney Sisters were paid $20 a week. A piece.
Now that we didn't need to ask for help, I had no hesitation about calling Aunt Jeanne; I'd managed, like Mama said I could. Aunt Jeanne was thrilled about our job, but dismayed that we'd been on our own. "You girls are coming to us," she insisted. And we were glad to agree, now that we could pay our own way. When Dad turned up again, broke and contrite, he wanted us to come back. But we stayed where we were. I couldn't trust him again.
"Turn your head away from the microphone when you're sounding a b or a p," the engineer told us. "Otherwise, you'll make a popping sound into the mike.
That was the sum total of our professional vocal training at WLW. Neither of us read music - we could tell if the melody went up or down, that was all - but we had to learn the songs somehow. Aunt Jeanne and Aunt Rose chipped in to buy us a few lessons from Grace Raine, who'd been Doris Day's coach. Mrs. Raine would play some songs on the piano for us, lead and harmony; then, at the studio, we'd just keep an eye on the accompanist and follow the movements of his hands for the beat, the tempo, the rising or falling line. On our own time, we worked hard, rehearsing the songs we'd learned, working out intricate harmonies. Betty would come over and hum a line in my ear: "What do you think?" Then we'd go downstairs and sing for whoever was home, saying to each other, "Wait till they hear this at the station."
All that summer, Betty and I sand on "Crossroads Caf»" in the afternoon - talk and music, with a big bad right there in the studio. The script was typed on paper with yellow carbon copies behind, including commercials, with some words underlined and some all in capital letters to guide the announcer's delivery. Once when I was putting on lipstick in a break and didn't have a tissue, I blotted my lips on the corner of a carbon for a Vicks VapoRub spot: "It invites restful sleep and brings such GRAND relief."
Nights it was "Moon River," with Hap Lee as organist. Aunt Jeanne would take us to the station in the LaSalle and wait to bring us home. Sometimes we'd stop for White Castle burgers - "sliders" - three for a quarter. In the backseat of the car, we applied makeup to our bare legs to get the look of stockings. "You're going on the radio, Aunt Jeanne would say. "They're not going to see your legs. We'd laugh and try to draw seams with eyebrow pencil as the car bounced along. We knew the radio audience couldn't tell what our legs looked like; we were just caught up in the excitement of the performing world.
And the world was welcoming us. When Mary Wood, a writer at the station, took us to the lunch at the Wheel Caf», we talked shop. Over our club sandwiches with fancy toothpicks stuck through them, she gave us all the insider gossip. Because she was well known, she was constantly getting phone calls from listeners. When someone called her at two in the morning to ask, "How old is Loretta Young?" she changed her phone number and had got listed under the name of Buster Wood, her dog.
In the fall, Betty was a freshman and I was a senior at Our Lady of Mercy. It was close enough for us to walk to the station in our uniforms - plaid skirts, white cotton blouses, knee socks - carrying our schoolbags, just like the day we auditioned. We sang after school and into the evening, doing our homework in snatches.
But school had lost its urgency. I was a professional singer now, and I felt sure I would always be able to make my living that way. My confidence seemed to come naturally, based on my early and continuing interest in music. I'd listen so carefully to so many singers that I just somehow knew I could do it as well as almost anybody. I might never leave Cincinnati, but I knew I could always sing, I could always find work. Anyway, I loved to read, and figured that anything I wanted to learn, I could learn on my own.
We began picking up side jobs around town. Billy Petering, a high school senior who lived around the corner from Aunt Jeanne and Uncle Roy, had organized his own combo. Betty and I sang at Saturday night dances in the high school gym while the kids spun and jumped and swayed on the gym floor with its basketball court markings, and I fell desperately in love with Billy. It's a clich» - the girl falling for the leader of the band - and it was glorious. Even after Billy left to join the Navy, he wrote letters calling me his "sweetheart" and "dearest." On the backs of the envelopes he wrote the code of those days, SWAK (Sealed With A Kiss), next to the little drawing of an anchor.
Billy's group may have been small-time, but with them we were band singers, and that carried a kind of glamour that transcended stuffy gyms. And it turned into a pathway when Barney Rapp, a local bandleader who'd discovered Doris Day, discovered us, too. We began singing with Barney's band at major venues in town - Castle Farms, even at the Netherlands Plaza Hotel in downtown Cincinnati, which always had remote network broadcasting when the big bands came to town. Barney acted as our agent, too: He booked un into Moonlite Gardens with Clyde Trask's orchestra, and he recommended us when he heard that Tony Pastor was looking for a girl singer.
Tony Pastor's band was big-time: an established well-known big band, the real thing. Born Tony Pestritto in New Haven, Connecticut, Tony had been boy singer and tenor sax in the 1930s with Artie Shaw. When Shaw walked out on his band in 1939, heading for Mexico, Tony was good enough to be offered the top job. Instead, he struck out on his own, backed by a ballroom operator in Boston, Sy Shribman, who'd bankrolled a bunch of bands, including Glenn Miller.
Tony's road manager, a slick mustached guy named Charlie Trotta, knew Barney Rapp. So when the band was coming into Cincinnati to play a date, Charlie called Barney and came ahead to scout. Tony's vocalist, Virginia Maxey, was leaving; Cincinnati was a logical place to turn up a replacement. The city was known as a mecca for music: Local No. 1 of the Musician's Union was formed in Cincinnati.
When Barney came looking for us, we were taking a dip in the community pool, and it was a soggy sister act that Charlie Trotta auditioned that early summer in 1946. Our hair was uncombed and stringy; we wore shapeless cotton dresses and floppy sandals. That didn't faze Charlie, apparently; he reported to Tony Pastor that now the band had not one new girl singer, but two.
We were introduced to Tony when he came to town for his one-nighter. He was short and round, good-humored and easygoing. "You're good," he told us, "but your arrangements are corny. We'll get you some new arrangements - Ralph Flanagan will do some for you - and I'll see you in Atlantic City.''
Betty and I had never been out of out tiny tri-state area: Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. We'd never seen the ocean. Now, within a year, we'd gone from schoolgirls in knee socks to big band singers in nylons - with contracts. It was almost too much to take in, an overflow of good luck. Up to that point, I'd been, it seemed to me, a burden to anybody I was left with; suddenly I knew I could take care of myself, and my sister, and my grandmother, and my brother, if necessary - and I could do it quite handily.
But it wasn't quite that easy, getting going. "You gals are underage," Charlie Trotta said when he presented us with the paperwork. "You need somebody in your family to sign for you, to be responsible for you on the road." Betty and I looked at one another, and made a beeline out to Indian Hill.
"We need somebody to take us on the road," Betty said to Uncle George. "We can't go by ourselves."
Uncle George played it straight. "Can't work by yourselves? What a shame."
Betty looked stricken, but I was pretty sure Uncle George was stringing us along. He was just home from the war, not yet settled, and besides, he's always been our most musical uncle.
"Come on, Uncle George," I pleaded. "We need a legal guardian because we're not twenty-one. Wouldn't you like to travel with a band?
"Not twenty-one?'' he asked, deadpan. "How old are you girls, anyway?'
"I'm fifteen, Uncle George," Betty said innocently. I didn't answer; I knew he was putting us on.
"So you're asking me to be your chaperone," he said, looking stern.
"Yes," I said.
"You want me to drop everything and come on the road with you?'
"Yes," I said.
He shook his head, still frowning. But when he saw that Betty was about to cry, his face cracked into that wonderful wry grin.
"When do we leave?'
Goodbyes were difficult, but there was a tremendous excitement-not just ours, but everybody's for us. Uncle Roy drove us down to Maysville in the back of the LaSalle, the backs of our legs sticking to the hot car seats.
Papa Clooney was standing on the sidewalk on Market Street, one hand holding on to the awning, cigar in the other. There were no customers in the shop.
"You're going to see more of the country than most people ever do," he said.
Betty laughed. At least we're going to see the inside of a bus and lots of theaters."
"When you go to a new town, find something interesting," he urged us. "Go to a drugstore and look at the picture postcards. They'll tell you what's worth seeing." He hugged us. "Be sure and send me one."
We walked down Casto Street to say goodbye to Lizzie and Blanchie Mae. Blanchie was thrilled.
"I'm sure going to miss you," she said. "But I'm so happy for you."
I put my arm round her shoulder. "Don't worry, Blanchie Mae," I told her. "We'll always be best friends.
Her mother was less thrilled. "You haven't finished school yet, have you?"
"No, ma'am," Betty said.
"Almost,'' I said. I had spent four years in four different schools, but lacking two credits, I didn't have a diploma. Betty, with only one year of high school, was a true dropout.
"Well, Lizze said, clearly disapproving. But she took our hands. "God bless you."
When we climbed aboard the George Washington, we were loaded down with boxes of Grandma's fried chicken, angel food cake, cardboard suitcases into which we had jammed everything we owned. Grandma had been sewing nonstop-stage outfits for Betty and me to wear-two by two, everything matching. We took along pictures of every relative who had ever stood in front of a box camera. And I had my own private stash of Payday candy bars.
Uncle George sat across from us on the aisle. "You can sit on the river side first," I told Betty. "When I'm ready, we'll switch."
When the conductor came by - "How far you folks going?'' - Uncle George brandished the tickets, gestured toward Betty and me, and said the line he'd been rehearsing. "All the way," he told the conductor. "We're together, and we're going all the way!"
Reprinted with permission from Rosemary Clooney: Girl Singer, An Autobiography by Rosemary Clooney with Joan Barthel (Broadway Books, 2001). Copyright 1999. A hardcover edition of this book was originally published in 1999 by Doubleday, a division of Random House Inc. For more information on the book visit www.broadwaybooks.com
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