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THE HIGH AND LOW NOTES OF ROSEMARY CLOONEY

THE HIGH AND LOW NOTES OF ROSEMARY CLOONEY

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In Rosemary Clooney's new memoir "Girl Singer," the celebrity quotes on the back cover are part of the fun.

Rosemary Clooney, says actress Janet Leigh, "is one hell of a person -- and the book tells us why."

" 'Girl Singer' is an extraordinary and heartbreaking book," chimes in Joanne Woodward.

And Tony Bennett beams, "To know Rosemary Clooney is to love her. After reading this book, you will, too."

They're all right on the money. The tone Clooney strikes in "Girl Singer" -- part gossip, part confessional, part rueful "here's what I did, and why" -- makes it one of the more charming autobiographies around. Clooney's narrative has an easy pace and sense of humor. Most importantly, this smart woman faces up to her foolish choices (and there were many, from husband Jose Ferrer to all those amphetamines that, for a while, ruled her life) with an unapologetic accountability.

Released separately to coincide with the book is a double-CD set, "Songs From the Girl Singer." From salad-days hits like "Come On-a My House" and the silky duet with Frank Sinatra "Peachtree Street" to more mature numbers like "The Coffee Song" and "Secret of Life," the songs illustrate how Clooney has become part of the fabric of American life. Let's not forget, either, that for awhile she was part of the fabric of Western New York life in particular: Her brother Nick Clooney, father of heartthrob George, was briefly an anchor at WGRZ-TV. (Now, Nick Clooney is a movie host on AMC.)

Like her singing, Clooney's book is simultaneously graceful and gritty.

"Girl Singer" is dedicated to the memory of Clooney's sister, Betty. The friendship and closeness the sisters (and Nick) shared is one of the book's most endearing aspects. Growing up in Maysville, Ky., and later Cincinnati, Clooney and her sister watched movies incessantly, switched schools frequently and sang on street corners. Their act turned professional in April 1945, when Rosemary was 16 and Betty was 13. They sang on the radio for $20 a week. "Apiece," Clooney adds, proud even now.

Their childhood was perilous. "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," Clooney observes wryly.

Throughout Clooney's life, stability would be in short supply.

It's a pity that at 25, when her musical career was going so well, she had to stumble into unhappiness by marrying the dapper actor Jose Ferrer. Sixteen years older than Clooney, Ferrer (whom Clooney refers to as Joe) was married when Clooney began seeing him, and after he married the 25-year-old singer, his problems with fidelity continued. In one of the heartbreaking passages to which Joanne Woodward must have been alluding, Clooney tells of how, shortly into their marriage, she overheard him on the phone with a buddy, bragging about a recent sexual escapade. Confronting him did no good:

"I heard you," I said. "I heard everything." As soon as the words were out, I started to sob.

With all my heart, I wanted him to come to me, to comfort me, to say it wasn't true. But he just stood at the foot of the bed, watching me cry. "I'll call (Joe) Shribman," he said. "He'll arrange to get you home."

So my marriage would end almost as soon as it had begun. I was not the kind of wife Joe wanted; I was not strong enough to handle what I'd heard. If our marriage failed now, it would be my fault.

"I'm sorry," I heard myself say. "Don't call him."

Her sister, for a time, dated Sinatra. The way the two met, in a restaurant, was like something out of a '40s movie:

Joe Shribman (Tony Pastor orchestra manager) took us to Patsy's one night. I was tackling my tagliatelli when suddenly Frank Sinatra was leaning against our table, looking steadily at Betty. "I don't believe we've met,' he said in the silkiest tone I'd ever heard him use. I stopped eating, the pasta still twisted around my fork, as Joe Shribman introduced them. Frank took Betty's hand. She was wearing one of my dresses, a deep forest-green silk with a V neck; her dark hair was a tumble of curls. She looked fresh and lovely, wide-eyed, absolutely charming.

"Can you have dinner with me tomorrow night?" Frank asked Betty, still holding her hand. I just stared.

"Well, yes, I guess so," Betty said. Then she smiled widely. "Sure."

The fling didn't last long but, oddly enough for a Sinatra romance, it had a happy ending. Clooney writes: "For the next several years, even after she was married, Betty got a tall bottle of Arpege, her favorite perfume, at Christmastime. 'Who's sending you the perfume?' her husband would ask. 'My sister,' Betty would fib, because her husband was a jealous man."

In Beverly Hills, the Ferrers settled into a house where George Gershwin used to live. Gershwin's brother, Ira, still lived next door, though he didn't come over too often. "He was reminded too much of George; he got depressed," Clooney explains. "He showed us a home movie of a particularly gala party, with tables set up all over the back lawn. Lillian Hellman was there, and Harold Arlen, and Paulette Goddard, who table-hopped with George, draped over his arm."

The house was weird in another way as well. "In 1934, the singer Russ Columbo -- considered a worthy rival to Bing Crosby -- was killed in a freak accident in the den," Clooney writes. "He'd been visiting a friend whose family owned the house then, and he was inspecting an antique dueling pistol when it suddenly fired." She adds, "In all the time Bing Crosby came to the house, more than 20 years, he avoided that room."

Nothing seems to have been boring in Clooney's life. Her artistic associations, though, come as welcome relief from her personal problems.

Once, Billie Holiday stopped by, and the two singers, each dysfunctional in her own way, chewed the fat over a long hazy afternoon of gin and cigarettes. The occasion, though it never repeated itself, was memorable:

Until that afternoon in my den, we'd met only in passing, and I never thought she liked me very much. Then Joe and I went with Dinah Shore to hear Billie at a little club on Hollywood Boulevard. She'd stopped by our table, and now the two of us were sitting together, drinking in a blue haze of smoke in our own little den of iniquity.

"To girl singers," she said. "Especially us Irish singers."

I looked surprised; she laughed. "Yes, Irish. One-eighth, anyway. My great-grandmother was a slave in Virginia and my great-grandfather was the master, Charles Fagan."

"Like me, she was shuffled among relatives when her parents couldn't care for her," Clooney points out. "When she performed at the club," she adds, "I'd heard the pain in her voice, a raw sound just beneath the smooth surface of the melodic line."

Clooney enjoyed easy friendships with Sinatra and Crosby. And who could help envying Clooney's association with Nat "King" Cole? Cole, she explains, was a frequent dinner guest when she was married to Ferrer. "As the table was being cleared, Nat would stand up and stretch. 'How about a little music for dessert?' In his loose, athletic stride, he'd amble the length of the living room and settle down at the piano."

Nelson Riddle proved more problematic, because Clooney was drawn into an affair with him. "When we recorded 'Love' on RCA Victor, we were at the height of our feelings for one another," she remembers. "Tears ran down my face as I stood at the microphone." Clooney was 33 then, and soon to divorce Ferrer. (When she did, she recalls, a screaming headline read, "STAY OUTTA MY HOUSE.") She moved in with Riddle in a house Riddle's secretary, Naomi, found for them. Frank Sinatra, of all people, advised her to knock it off with the bandleader.

"It won't work, Rose," he told her. "You have five kids, Nelson has six. That makes 11 kids."

"I can count," I said edgily. "I know how many kids there are."

"You can't break up families with so many kids," he said. "Nelson can't get a divorce."

"He was wrong about Nelson," Clooney adds. "Nelson did get a divorce. He married Naomi. And Joe Ferrer married Stella Magee, the secretary who'd worked for Nelson in London when I was writing him love letters. Just another of those secretarial-pool jokes God likes to play."

Now, having recently entered her 70s, Clooney seems happy. She beat the drug habit that dogged her for years. And, in a twist of fate that's lucky this time, she's married to Dante DiPaolo, whom she describes as "one of her first and long-lost loves."

It's a heartwarming conclusion for an an entertaining book, worthy of a singer of Clooney's stature.

Girl Singer, an Autobiography

By Rosemary Clooney with Joan Barthel

Doubleday

301 pages

$24.95.

On an afternoon with Billie Holiday:

She'd stopped by our table, and now the two of us were sitting together, drinking in a blue haze of smoke in our own little den of iniquity.

"To girl singers," she said. "Especially us Irish singers."

I looked surprised; she laughed. "Yes, Irish. One-eighth, anyway. My great-grandmother was a slave in Virginia and my great-grandfather was the master, Charles Fagan."

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