Rosemary Clooney was born in Maysville, Kentucky, the daughter of Marie Frances (née Guilfoyle) and Andrew Joseph Clooney. She was one of five children. Her father was of Irish and German descent and her mother was of Irish and English ancestry. She was raised Catholic. When Clooney was 15, her mother and brother Nick moved to California. She and her sister Betty remained with their father. The family resided in the John Brett Richeson House in the late 1940s.
Rosemary and Betty became entertainers, whereas Nick became a newsman and television broadcaster (some of her children, including Miguel Ferrer and Rafael Ferrer, and her nephew, George Clooney, also became respected actors and entertainers). In 1945, the Clooney sisters won a spot on Cincinnati, Ohio's radio station WLW as singers. Her sister Betty sang in a duo with Rosemary for much of the latter's early career.
Clooney's first recordings, in May 1946, were for Columbia Records. She sang with Tony Pastor's big band. Clooney continued working with the Pastor band until 1949, making her last recording with the band in May of that year and her first as a solo artist a month later, still for Columbia. In 1950–51, she was a regular on the radio and television versions of "Songs For Sale" on CBS. In 1951, her record of "Come On-a My House", produced by Mitch Miller, became a hit. It was her first of many singles to hit the charts—despite the fact that Clooney hated the song passionately. She had been told by Columbia Records to record the song, and that she would be in violation of her contract if she did not do so. Clooney recorded several duets with Marlene Dietrich and appeared in the early 1950s on Faye Emerson's Wonderful Town series on CBS. Clooney also did several guest appearances on the Arthur Godfrey radio show, when it was sponsored by Lipton Tea. They did duets as he played his ukulele, and other times she would sing one of her latest hits.
In 1954, she starred, along with Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Vera-Ellen, in the movie White Christmas. She starred, in 1956, in a half-hour syndicated television musical-variety show The Rosemary Clooney Show. The show featured The Hi-Lo's singing group and Nelson Riddle's orchestra. The following year, the show moved to NBC prime time as The Lux Show Starring Rosemary Clooney, but only lasted one season. The new show featured the singing group The Modernaires and Frank DeVol's orchestra. In later years, Clooney often appeared with Bing Crosby on television, such as in the 1957 special The Edsel Show, and the two friends made a concert tour of Ireland together. On November 21, 1957, she appeared on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford, a frequent entry in the "Top 20" and featuring a musical group called "The Top Twenty". In 1960, Clooney and Crosby co-starred in a 20-minute CBS radio program aired before the midday news each weekday.
Clooney left Columbia Records in 1958, doing a number of recordings for MGM Records and then some for Coral Records. Finally, toward the end of 1958, she signed with RCA Victor Records, where she stayed until 1963. In 1964, she went to Reprise Records, and in 1965 to Dot Records.
Upon her recovery from a nervous breakdown in 1968, Clooney signed with United Artists Records in 1976 for two albums. Beginning in 1977, she recorded an album a year for the Concord Jazz record label, which continued until her death. This was in contrast to most of her generation of singers, who had long since stopped recording regularly by then. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Clooney did television commercials for Coronet brand paper towels, during which she sang a memorable jingle that goes, "Extra value is what you get, when you buy Coro-net." In the early 1980s, Jim Belushi parodied Clooney and the commercial on NBC's Saturday Night Live. Clooney sang a duet with Wild Man Fischer on "It's a Hard Business" in 1986, and in 1994 she sang a duet of Green Eyes with Barry Manilow in his 1994 album, Singin' with the Big Bands.
In 1995, Clooney guest-starred in the NBC television medical drama ER (starring her nephew, George Clooney); for her performance, she received a Primetime Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. On January 27, 1996, Clooney appeared on Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion radio program. She sang "When October Goes"—lyrics by Johnny Mercer and music by Barry Manilow (after Mercer's death)—from Manilow's 1984 album 2:00 AM Paradise Cafe, and discussed the excellence of Manilow the musician.
Clooney was also awarded Society of Singers Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. In 1999, she founded the Rosemary Clooney Music Festival, held annually in Maysville, her hometown. She performed at the festival every year until her death. Proceeds benefit the restoration of the Russell Theater in Maysville, where Clooney's first film, The Stars Are Singing, premiered in 1953.
She received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002.
Clooney was married twice to American movie star José Ferrer, 16 years her senior. Clooney first married Ferrer on June 1, 1953, in Durant, Oklahoma. They moved to Santa Monica, California, in 1954, and then to Los Angeles in 1958. Together, the couple had five children: Miguel, Maria, Gabriel, Monsita, and Rafael. Clooney and Ferrer divorced for the first time in 1961.
Clooney remarried Ferrer on November 22, 1964, in Los Angeles. However, the marriage again crumbled while Ferrer was carrying on an affair with the woman who would become his last wife, Stella Magee. The couple divorced again after she found out about the affair, this time in 1967.
In 1968, her relationship with a drummer ended after two years. At this time, following a tour, she became increasingly dependent on pills.
She joined the presidential campaign of close friend Robert F. Kennedy, and heard the shots when he was assassinated on June 5, 1968. A month later, she had a nervous breakdown onstage in Reno, Nevada, and was hospitalized. She remained in psychoanalytic therapy for eight years afterwards.
Her sister Betty died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 1976. She subsequently started a foundation in memory of and named for her sister. During this time, she wrote her first autobiography, This for Remembrance: the Autobiography of Rosemary Clooney, an Irish-American Singer, written in collaboration with Raymond Strait and published by Playboy Press in 1977. She chronicled her unhappy early life, her career as a singer, her marriage to Ferrer, and mental health problems, concluding with her comeback as a singer and her happiness. Her good friend Bing Crosby wrote the introduction. Katherine Coker adapted the book for Jackie Cooper, who produced and directed the television movie, Rosie: the Rosemary Clooney Story (1982) starring Sondra Locke (who lip syncs Clooney's songs), Penelope Milford as Betty, and Tony Orlando, who played José Ferrer.
In 1983, Rosemary and her brother Nick co-chaired the Betty Clooney Foundation for the Brain-Injured, addressing the needs of survivors of cognitive disabilities caused by strokes, tumors, and brain damage from trauma or age.
In 1997, she married her longtime friend and a former dancer, Dante DiPaolo at St. Patrick's Church in Maysville, Kentucky.
In 1999, Clooney published her second autobiography, Girl Singer: An Autobiography, describing her battles with addiction to prescription drugs for depression, and how she lost and then regained a fortune. "I'd call myself a sweet singer with a big band sensibility," she wrote.
A long-time smoker, Clooney was diagnosed with lung cancer at the end of 2001. Around this time, she gave one of her last concerts in Hawaii, backed by the Honolulu Symphony Pops; her last song was "God Bless America". Her final show was at Red Bank New Jersey's Count Basie Theater in December 2001. Despite surgery, she died six months later on June 29, 2002, at her Beverly Hills home. Her nephew, George Clooney, was a pallbearer at her funeral, which was attended by numerous stars, including Al Pacino. She is buried at Saint Patrick's Cemetery, Maysville.
Clooney lived for many years in Beverly Hills, California, in the house formerly owned by George and Ira Gershwin at 1019 North Roxbury Drive. It was sold to a developer after her death in 2002 and has been demolished. In 1980, she purchased a second home on Riverside Drive in Augusta, Kentucky, near Maysville, her childhood hometown. Today, the Augusta house offers viewing of collections of her personal items and memorabilia from many of her films and singing performances.
In 2003, Rosemary Clooney was inducted into the Kentucky Women Remembered exhibit and her portrait by Alison Lyne is on permanent display in the Kentucky State Capitol's rotunda.
Also in 2003, Bette Midler joined forces after many years with Barry Manilow to record Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook. The album was an instant success, being certified gold by RIAA. One of the songbook selections, "This Ole House", became Midler's first Christian radio single shipped by Rick Hendrix and his positive music movement. The album was nominated for a Grammy the following year.
In 2005, the album Reflections of Rosemary by Debby Boone was released. Boone, who was Clooney's daughter-in-law, intended the album to be a musical portrait of Clooney, or as Boone put it: "I wanted to select songs that would give an insight into Rosemary from a family perspective".
In September 2007, a mural honoring moments from her life was painted in downtown Maysville. The mural highlights her lifelong friendship with Blanche Chambers, the 1953 premier of The Stars are Singing and her singing career. It was painted by Louisiana muralists Robert Dafford, Herb Roe, and Brett Chigoy as part of the Maysville Floodwall Murals project. Her brother Nick Clooney spoke during the dedication for the mural, explaining various images to the crowd.Tony Pastor and His Orchestra (1947) (short subject)
Slaughter Trail (1951)
The Stars Are Singing (1953)
Here Come the Girls (1953)
Red Garters (1954)
White Christmas (1954)
Deep in My Heart (1954; cameo appearance)
Conquest of Space; (1955; uncredited appearance)
Radioland Murders (1994)
Marlene Dietrich: Her Own Song (2002) (documentary)