Rosemary Clooney and two of her children were there when Robert Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968.
The New York Senator had just wrapped up his victory speech before a throng of ecstatic supporters: the election results were in, and Kennedy had claimed a tight victory over Eugene McCarthy in California’s Democratic Presidential Primary.
The plan was for Kennedy to leave the stage, come to the table where Clooney and other key supporters were seated, and then head to a fifth-floor suite for some serious celebration.
Because the crowd was so exuberant and densely packed, the Kennedy team reversed course to make their exit through the kitchen. It was a fatal decision. This path took him directly to the assassin.
In her autobiography, Girl Singer, Clooney remembered the gunshots were mistaken for firecrackers or flashbulbs — when Clooney saw a woman run from the kitchen covered with blood, she understood events were much more sinister. Later, she and her children saw Kennedy removed from the hotel by ambulance.
The Clooneys returned to their Beverly Hills home to begin a vigil in front of the television. When Kennedy’s death was announced, Clooney described her reaction: “I didn’t cry, I laughed,” she recalled. She sincerely believed it was a hoax.
After talking to several Hollywood friends, and then, Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, Clooney came to a deluded realization: “I was the only person in the world who knew Bobby was still alive.”
The tragedy at the Ambassador was the uppercut that sent Clooney completely off the grid. A dysfunctional childhood, two failed marriages to the same man, José Ferrer, and a bittersweet fling with arranger Nelson Riddle had already led Clooney into an addictive quagmire well before the Kennedy assassination.
As Clooney wrote, “drugs had taken over. It no longer occurred to me to ask whether I needed them to sleep. The question was no longer relevant. I didn’t ask it when I went into the bathroom at someone’s house, opened the medicine cabinet, and just scooped up whatever I found. All I asked was my first question to myself in the morning: ‘How many pills have I got? How’s my stash?’ As soon as I woke up, I had to make sure that I’d be all right for that night. I loved seeing the colors of the pills, like a bouquet in the palm of my hand: Percodan, Seconal, Miltown…”
Following the Kennedy tragedy, Clooney’s grip on reality became shakier and shakier. “I saw demons everywhere,” she said. Events reached a crescendo when she played a booking at Harold’s Club in Reno later that summer. She was convinced Kennedy would come to see her sing.
Given her unbalanced state, the shows were problematic. Finally, one night, she appeared wearing a raincoat, a disguise in her mind. Instead of singing, she insulted the audience and stormed offstage. After trashing her hotel room, Clooney sped off in her Cadillac, driving up the wrong side of the mountain road towards Tahoe. “I was playing chicken with God,” she remembered. “If He loved me, He wouldn’t let me die.”
It was a miracle she survived this episode.
“She suffered a psychotic reaction,” Clooney’s psychiatrist Doctor J. Victor Monke explained. “Her symptoms included hallucinations, fear, depression, violently aggressive behavior, and an inability to distinguish between the real and the unreal.”
After a month in a psychiatric unit and many years of therapy, Clooney’s life began to come together. A 1976 tour with her friend Bing Crosby marked the beginning of a career resurgence. She signed with a new record label and at the age of 50 began singing jazz — this was a remarkable transition for a performer from the pop idiom.
The last two and half decades of her life were personally and professionally rewarding. She married her longtime sweetheart, Dante DiPaolo, in her hometown Catholic church, St. Patrick’s in Maysville, Kentucky. On the choice of venue, Clooney said, “When people wondered why I hadn’t married in New York or Beverly Hills, I wondered why they would think I’d marry anywhere except my hometown church. As a kid on the way home from school, I’d sometimes stop in for a while. I found a kind of peace there.”
She played the top clubs around the country, received 6 of her 8 Grammy nominations after her 60th birthday — she was one of those rare singers whose voice improved with age. She had two number one selling albums in back-to-back years. In 2002, Clooney was presented the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
“She’s peerless,” Stephen Holden wrote in The New York Times. ‘”The compassion and common-sense Ms. Clooney conveys…deepens when she sings in a voice that is alluringly warm…Ms. Clooney is the real thing: a performer incapable of sounding an emotionally false note.”
The Hollywood Reporter’s Robert Osborne said, “No one ever put their arms around a song more effectively than Rosemary Clooney.”
Surrounded by her family, Clooney passed away due to complications from lung cancer at home on June 29, 2002 at the age of 71 .
Incidentally, that home, 1019 North Roxbury, Beverly Hills, once belonged to George and Ira Gershwin. The final song the Gershwins wrote when they lived on North Roxbury was Love is Here to Stay. Clooney loved the Gershwin association and frequently used Love as the closing encore number in her concerts.