It was a decision made in heaven. Rosemary and I are sure of it. Pretty sure, anyway.
For 10 years, my wife Nina, my sister Rosemary, her long-time friend Dante DiPaolo and I have visited some of the most exotic, entrancing places on the planet, and we have specifically done it because of one person who does not go with us. Or, if she does, the airlines and hotels don't charge us for her.
Let me tell you how it was. We were Rosemary, Betty and Nick, the Clooney kids. Or simply "the kids," as neighbors and relatives called us when we ran the summer streets and climbed the winter hills in little Maysville, Ky., hard by the Ohio River.
The three musketeers. Wherever we went, it was together; whatever we did, it was together. Sometimes we'd sit on the bank and stare at the river and dream of the places it was taking that lucky piece of driftwood bobbing in the current. Perhaps the river would sweep it past nearby Cincinnati and Louisville. If it survived the dangerous whirlpool turn at Cairo, Ill., where the Ohio joins the Mississippi, it might be rushed past towns that increased in mystery with their distance from Maysville: Memphis, Natchez, New Orleans, then the Gulf of Mexico and an open gateway to the rest of the world.
We knew all about the world because of our books and because of the Russell Theater in Maysville. We could sit on Saturday afternoons in the democratic darkness where poor could be rich for the precious hour and 35 minutes running time, and anyone could go anywhere on God's green earth, anywhere at all.
It was only later that we learned how much those faraway places had become a part of the three long ago Clooney kids.
By then we were no longer kids, and we were no longer three.
A lot happened in the intervening years. Rosemary and Betty followed that driftwood 60 miles downriver to Cincinnati and began singing careers. It led Rosemary to hit records and movies and Time magazine covers and a vocal sound that would create milestones for a generation, and it carried Betty to a television career that included every major program of her time, including Jack Paar and the "Today" show. Meanwhile, I became a broadcast newsman.
Then Betty did a dumb thing. She died. I think it was the first time she ever hurt us. She must have been saving up because it hurt so much we've never gotten over it, Rosemary and I. Neither has anyone else who knew Betty. She else who knew Betty. She was the best of us. Bright, funny, loving. Incandescent.
When that light went out, Rosemary and I were shocked to find that without knowing it, we had grown apart. I hadn't seen Betty for more than a year before her death, and it had been at least that long since I had seen Rosemary.
Wait a minute, weren't we the three musketeers? Hadn't we stood together through Depression times and our parents' divorce and whatever slings and arrows outrageous fortune could produce? Didn't we dream inexpressible dreams together and make unbreakable promises? What had happened?
Life had happened, that's what, as it does to all of us. But this time Life had bitten off more than it could chew. We were the Clooney kids, after all, and Betty had just showed us why it was important to make time for one another.
And so the Great Vacations were born. We would go to the places that Betty never went but dreamed about with us. And while we were about it, we'd take along Grandpa Clooney and Grandma Guilfoyle and all the others who had watched the river and wondered what it must be like, but left us before they got a chance to see. . . .
Venice!. My God, Venice!
June, 1982: We couldn't just fly in. It had to be something more befitting our silver-screen image of the city.
Ah, the Orient Express. Start in London, sit in the compartment with the sliding door, wait tensely for a man in a trench coat to burst in, saying, with a continental accent, "Your papers, please."
Instead, the man who comes in wears a crisp white jacket and serves strawberries with double cream and Champagne. They last to Folkestone, and the boat train.
Then Boulogne, where we are assigned our impeccable little rooms for the rest of our journey across Europe. Elegant dining room. A club car with a big grand piano. How in the world did they get it in there? Did they saw it in half? Take off the top of the car?
We rattle by Paris at midnight. Too excited to sleep, we see peaks of the Alps turn pink in the sunrise as we snake our way among them. Milan flashes by, then we're on a long causeway that leads to a railway station. Just a train station, like any other--from this side.
But go through the door, and it's "Alice Through the Looking Glass." Nothing--not even the books and movies--could have prepared us for it--Venice!
Suddenly, we were in a city where every ordinary function of life was done by boat, and that simple difference created magic.
If you're waiting for a bus, it's a boat. If you whistle for a taxi, it's a boat. When the grocery truck pulls up to unload, it's a boat. When the mailman delivers a package, it's by boat. When the garbage truck collects rubbish, it's a boat.
The Bauer-Grunewald Hotel has a couple of penthouses. We take them. Nothing's too good for Betty. I take out a coin she once gave me and place it carefully on the bureau. I do the same with Grandpa Clooney's watch. It's all Irish superstition, of course. No meaning or relevance. I put them there anyway, near the window overlooking the Grand Canal, a stone's throw from Piazza San Marco.
We leave the door open to our tiny balcony, and the soft June night comes in as Nina and I lie wide awake. The busywork of this floating city is ebbing, quieting. It's almost silent now. Quite clearly and naturally, a man's voice floats up to us: "Saaannntaa Luuuu- ciiiaaaa . . . ." So help me. A gondolier taking one last couple back to the hotel.
I get up and walk to the balcony. Rosemary is already at hers, a few feet away. We look at each other for a moment, smiling. Remembering. Well, Betty, it's even better than we thought it would be, back in the Russell Theater.
I went back to my room. I felt peaceful and warm and content.
The Great Vacations were launched.
If the movies were responsible for our first choice, we can blame Somerset Maugham for our second.
All those stories of the steamy tropics, the dissolute men and fading women clinging desperately to the Equator. Above all, we were intrigued by Maugham's association with Raffles.
Raffles Hotel in Singapore--the stuff that dreams are made of. The four of us would go there.
Singapore Airlines was every bit as wonderful as we were told it was, and it had to be. Seventeen hours sitting up is 17 hours sitting up--in a straight-back chair or a couch--and that's the time it took to go halfway around the world.
The new airport is huge, beautiful and--when we were there--virtually deserted. Singapore is prepared, we were told, to steal much of Hong Kong's thunder when that city reverts to China in 1997. Already important, Singapore intends to be pre-eminent in the Pacific Rim by the turn of the century.
The attitude spills over. Residents, while not denying their colonial history, are contemptuous of it. We are urged not to stay at Raffles. It is "old," "outdated," "none of the best people stay there . . . . " and so forth.
We can't explain that our own fictionalized version of their history is more real to us than their pragmatic vision for the future, so we simply shrug and head for Raffles where a turbaned Sikh takes our bags and we walk into . . . 1925.
Rosemary and Dante have the Somerset Maugham suite; Nina and I bunk with Rudyard Kipling. His pithy admonition hangs above our heads in the dining room: "When in the East, feed at Raffles."
Now we explore. Any opium dens? "No, no, no, no," says our Indian guide, much distressed. He conducts us around a sparkling city ruled with authoritarian discipline. At noon this metropolis hugging the Equator spews people out of brand-new skyscrapers, and they hustle and bustle enough to match any New York October day, heat and humidity notwithstanding.
An inadvertent turn in our car takes us behind a street market and reveals a long row of tiny cubicles. Inside them are lethargic, emaciated men, one to a cell, looking for all the world like survivors of Dachau.
Opium addicts, we ask? "Yes, well, there are one or two left. The government subsidizes them. Just a few, you know, and mostly old." Chagrined, our guide points us toward the orchid gardens. Safer ground.
Days later, Hong Kong is part of this trip, too. The opulent Regent Hotel overlooks the island and the harbor. Hong Kong is not quite what the old movies portrayed it to be. Instead, it is the world's largest shopping mall. Nina, certain that she has bypassed purgatory and gone straight to heaven, is coaxed to leave just hours before Chapter 11 is invoked.
There were stunning but briefer interludes. Santa Catalina, where we took over the Wrigley mansion on Mt. Ada for a time and took eerie pictures of buffalo in the mist. San Diego's Del Coronado, where we invoked the spirit of great hotels past.
But Jack London was the catalyst for our next long trip. Who could hear names like Ketchikan and Juneau and fail to respond to a personal call of the wild. The call is now packaged, and the wild is much tamer, but it's still Alaska and it was our turn to see it.
A beautiful white ship plowed the Inside Passage. There was fishing and a fantastic flight in a float plane. There was whale watching and eagle gawking, and we even saw a bear and a few Dall sheep.
Poignantly, there was even Valdez's last summer.
When we were there, mist had settled low over the unlovely little city. As it lifted, the surrounding mountains lent their majesty to the scene and transformed it.
rince William Sound was pristine and the sea life was active, almost antic. Sea otters played and chased our wake and fish teemed in the brilliant blue water.
Of course we didn't know then, in July, 1988, how fragile it was. To the four of us it seemed impervious to man, invulnerable, eternal. We didn't understand how wide man's destructive swath would prove to be.
It was the glaciers that riveted our attention. We thought they were silent, slow, inexorable. We assumed that's what "glacial" meant.
We won't make that mistake again.
Glaciers are noisy, angry, impatient, dangerous. We pulled up to the massive Columbia Glacier very early one morning, and we were startled to hear a pop , and then a craaack , followed by a boooom and then a craaaash . This ancient river of ice was fighting its way into the bay, dropping building-size chunks of blue ice every now and again just to get our attention. Jack London left out that part.
So the list of Great Vacations grows and the world, our world, shrinks. Venice, Singapore, Hong Kong, Alaska and a dozen other places. Now what? How do we top them?
One of our intentions was to travel somewhere new, but it soon became apparent that there are few places on earth where Rosemary has never been--or been heard. She has touched huge numbers of people everywhere, including a souvenir vendor in Johore and a sweeper in the waiting room at Taipei airport.
Our target, we decided, would be London, and the difference would be how we got there and how we returned.
In New York, we board the stately Queen Elizabeth 2 and sail down the Hudson past the most famous skyline and most famous woman in the world in sunshine so brilliant it hurts our eyes.
The QE2 is more than we imagined. The legendary British attention to detail is everything we could have wished. Even the notorious North Atlantic behaves itself, and the four days flash by in an Art Deco blur.
Soon we're disembarking at Southampton, then heading for London. To the Ritz.
Three blocks from Picadilly Circus, overlooking Green Park, the Ritz is pink decorating confection inside, impeccable bedrooms, lovely dining rooms.
Dante looks more at home here than any of us. A great dancer who grew up with Donald O'Connor and hoofed with Fred Astaire, Dante looks like top hat and tails even when he's in pajamas. Of course he's comfortable. This is a definite Fred and Ginger hotel.
Even while we're exploring an uncharacteristically sun-splashed London, we're anticipating our return. Not because we want to leave, but because of the method of our leaving.
As we board, Nina is busted.
Beautiful, stylish, she gets stares as a Cockney security man goes through her purse. She soon gets even more stares.
"Wot's this, then?" he asks loudly. Nina whispers a reply. "Wot? Oh, it's biscuits, is it?" She had saved three cookies from breakfast and squirreled them against a future hunger pang. Now all Heathrow knows.
We flashed down the runway and soared. On this brilliant September Saturday morning we raced the sun across the Atlantic and won by 1 hour and 18 minutes.
We had been warned that the Concorde was cramped, the windows too small, the flight noisy. Nonsense. Those are flyspecks on the Sistine Chapel. It was wonderful.
At 58,000 feet and traveling at twice the speed of sound, we were higher and faster than we had ever been or would ever be.
Oh Betty, remember another Saturday morning and the Buck Rogers serial? His ship looked just like the Concorde, didn't it?
The end of the flight means the beginning of plans for our next Great Vacation. Our choices are endless because, as children, we saw a lot of movies, read a lot of books, watched a lot of driftwood bobbing by.
At one of our family gatherings not long ago a relative expressed concern that we were spending too much on vacations, that we should invest the money and collect dividends.
Rosemary had a great answer. "No, you're wrong. This is the best investment we can make. We're buying memories."
Exactly. And we've been collecting dividends for nearly 10 years.
DR, COLOR, Rosemary Clooney / KAZUHIKO SANO