Rosemary Clooney's Journey With Bipolar Disorder

Music Legend Recounts Struggles in Two Autobiographies

Rosemary Clooney
Rosemary Clooney in 1953. Paramount Pictures/Archive Photos/Getty Images

 

Rosemary Clooney (May 23, 1938 to June 29, 2002) was an American singer and actress best known for such chart-topping hits as "Come On-a My House" and "Mambo Italiano."

After reaching the apex of her career in the late 1950s as the co-star of the movie "White Christmas" and the star of her own, self-named TV series, Clooney's career languished in the 1960s due to challenges she faced with bipolar disorder (then known as manic depression).

Clooney's family history and personal trials mirror many of the struggles common among the 2.6 percent of the U.S. adult population living with bipolar disease.

Early Life

Clooney was born in Maysville, Kentucky as one of five Irish-Catholic children. Her father, Andrew, was an alcoholic who was rarely at home. Her mother, Frances, was forced to take work elsewhere for long periods of time. For much of their youth, the Clooney kids were shuffled between relatives and were rarely under the same roof.

Clooney and her sister Betty were eventually abandoned when Frances remarried and only took their younger brother, Nick. Andrew Clooney, meanwhile, disappeared from the scene altogether. The two girls were left to fend for themselves, often making money by collecting soda bottles for the return deposit. In 1945, a singing contest turned things around and landed the pair their first regular job singing on the radio.

Christened the Clooney Sisters, the girls were soon after hired by famed bandleader Tony Pastor. After three years on the road, Betty decided to return to their home in Cincinnati for a quieter life. Now a solo act, Rosemary went onto great success, hitting the top of the charts with "Come On-a My House" in 1951.

Struggles With Mental Illness

In 1953, Rosemary married actor Jose Ferrer with whom she had several children (including actor Miguel Ferrer). After co-hosting a morning radio show with Bing Crosby, Clooney was cast in the 1954 hit film "White Christmas" alongside Crosby and co-stars Danny Kaye and Vera Allen.

The frenetic pace of her A-list lifestyle, which included a string of chart hits and her own prime-time series, took a toll on Clooney's life. It led to an addiction to tranquilizers and sleeping pills that Clooney used to manage often-rollercoastering mood swings.

This contributed in part to Clooney's divorce from Ferrer in 1961. While the couple would later reconcile, they again divorced in 1967. By this time, Clooney's addiction had reached a critical point. Still on the Hollywood fast track, she was among a group of people who joined presidential candidate Robert Kennedy on the campaign trail and was in the hall of the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968.

It was only a month later that Clooney suffered a nervous breakdown while onstage in Reno, Nevada. She was immediately admitted to a psychiatric hospital and was often double-locked in a padded cell when her behavior would turn violent, at times.

In his recorded analysis, psychiatrist Dr. J. Victor Monke reported that Clooney experienced psychotic episodes accompanied by severe depression, hallucinations, and paranoid features. Even after her release, Clooney would remain in psychotherapy for the next eight years.

Recovery

By the time Clooney was again seen in public, she had gained a great deal of weight which stayed with her for the rest of her life. Her voice, however, still had the same warm, dulcet tone that had become her trademark.

Clooney's career was reborn after she appeared in a benefit with Bing Crosby in 1976. A year later, she signed with United Artists Records and released an autobiography, "This for Remembrance," detailing her life and struggles with manic depression.

She continued to work for many years after. Among her achievements, Clooney made two appearances with nephew George Clooney on the television series "ER," winning an Emmy for one.

Clooney published a second autobiography in 1999, "Girl Singer: An Autobiography," which recounted her problems with addiction to the drugs prescribed for depression.

Death and Legacy

A few month's after being honored with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Rosemary Clooney died on June 29, 2002, after a year-long battle with lung cancer.

Clooney's candor about living with bipolar disorder brought light to a subject that was largely taboo in the 1970s. She was among the first public figures to speak about the illness and was largely responsible for opening the door to others celebrities who would share their own experiences.

These would come to include Canadian First Lady Margaret Trudeau, U.S. Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, TV news anchor Jane Pauley, country singer Charley Pride, and actors Richard Dreyfuss, Carrie Fisher, Burghess Meredith, Jean Claude van Damme, Margot Kidder, Ned Beatty, Mel Gibson, Robert Downey, Jr., Patty Duke, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

Source:

National Institute of Mental Health: National Institutes of Health. "Bipolar Disorder Among Adults." Washington, D.C.; updated April 2016,

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