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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 lights 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 a 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, its 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 six stools at the counter, where we sat and watched our hamburgersthe size of half dollarsfrying 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, curled 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, 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 cookfloured 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 thinkand I do believeI'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 five girls. When my grandfather dropped dead on the street at the age of fifty-twoan aneurysmtheir youngest was just 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 labeledeven honoredas 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 that his dreams were submerged at the bottom of a bottle.
When I was born on May 23, 1928, she had just turned nineteen. She and my father had already separated at least once, then they had gotten back together brieflya 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 got 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 till 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 myselfmy 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; she 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 a 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 its wide view of the Ohio River. When he came home from an evening of 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 itnever even learned to read musicbut I loved to stand by it and sing. My father had a vibrant singing voice, and when he was aroundwhen he was soberhe'd take his ukulele 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 that 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 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 any 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 societyburley tobaccowho 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 establishmentnot 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.