Woman's Own


CONNIE FRANCIS

Her life reads like a TV mini series. Girl-next-door to world-famous singer, rape, murder, miscarriages, mental institutions, attempted suicide . . . then, magnificently, she claws her way back to the top. No wonder Connie Francis has both a book and a film about to hit Britain. On a new bubbling high, she talks exclusively to Ron Roberts

"I’m being a good girl now"

AFTER the tragedies and he disasters of the past 10 years, it’s difficult to imagine how she can summon up the sheer guts to put herself back in the limelight again.

Few people may now remember that she was once the world’s most successful female singer, whose records sold more than the combined tallies of Diana Ross and Barbra Streisand today. Fewer still may be able to recall just one of her 100 hit songs, most of them translated into nine languages, which stormed into pop charts all over the world in the late Fifties and early Sixties. But they’ll remember the rape, all right—and the divorces, the committal to mental institutions, and the gunning down of her lawyer brother, apparently in a gangland vendetta. No wonder, they’ll surmise, that we haven't heard much of Connie Francis lately. But the reason for her silence isn’t what it so justifiably could be—a deep, suspicious fear of putting her life up for analysis and speculation. Connie, who's now 45, is preparing to share her tears in a book and film about her life.

“I’m very happy these days,” she says. “For the first time in my life I really have my act together. I’m on a wonderful and natural high. The next few years will be very exciting.” Her arrival in London next April to do her first concerts here for 20 years will coincide with British publication of the book, Who's Sorry Now?, a title taken from her biggest chart hit in 1958. But, she points out quickly, she’s come through the bitterness. The first chapters she wrote were those concerning the rape and her brother’s murder. “I wanted to get them out of the way and concentrate instead on the happy times,” she said. So she threw her mind painfully back to that November night 10 years ago when, three days after a triumphant opening at a top New York nightspot, a masked intruder broke into her hotel room and raped her at knife-point.

“He said: ‘I’m going to slit your throat from ear to ear.’ He cut me to show he wasn't kidding, and I could feel the blood trickling down my neck,” she once explained.

The series of concerts she was giving then was meant to be therapy for her, an antidote to depression following her third miscarriage earlier that year. But after the humiliating violation of her body, it was understandable that she just wanted to run away and hide. Only when she teamed later that the faulty lock to the room where she’d been staying was still not repaired did pain give way to anger. She sued the hotel owners for negligence and received $2-5 million in damages.

But if the rape itself was horrific, the trial held even greater horrors—particularly for Connie’s 14-month marriage to her third husband, Joe Garzilli. “It was disastrous for me, my husband and my family,” she said later. “I had to retell and relive everything that happened that night—details which I hadn’t discussed with anyone before.

“There I was on the witness stand opening up my whole life, testifying that for about three months after the incident I was not sexually responsive. For me and my husband—a proud man and very Italian—that was a violation of our privacy.” Not even the long-awaited arrival of an adopted son, Joey, now 10—who, ironically, they were told about the morning before she was attacked—could keep the singer’s mind off these terribly painful memories for long. Eventually the child was sent to stay temporarily with his adoptive grandparents while Connie teetered slowly and inexorably towards a nervous breakdown.

“I couldn’t face singing in public. I couldn’t bear the thought of sex with my husband. He walked out on me—and I couldn’t blame him," she explained later. "When Joey came I couldn’t even take care of him, I was so sick, so crazy and paranoid. I had to call someone in to do it.”

Even her attempts to get back on the stage seemed doomed. In 1967, cosmetic surgery on her nose had made it impossible for her to sing in an air-conditioned room, but when she tried to have another operation to repair the damage, her vocal range was cut to only seven notes.

Yet, tragically, still more misfortune was making its cruel plan against her. In March 1981, her only brother, George Franconero, was gunned down outside his home after he allegedly gave evidence to the FBI about the Mafia. It was said that he informed to avoid prosecution for his own illegal activities.

For Connie this was the final suicidal straw. “I had no voice, no career, no brother and no husband. What did I have to live for?” She was about to swallow 80 sleeping pills, and was only stopped when Joey came into the bathroom and told his adopted mother he loved her.

That touching scene proved a turning-point. “Joey made me want to live again, gave me the will to get back to normal and out into the world with new hope in my heart,” she said.

She devoted more attention to her son and parents. Then, when she discovered that her voice had returned, she started planning her comeback. And, as if to prove she was the victor in this long battle with her memories, her first performance was at the festival where she’d been appearing when she was raped.

The standing ovation she received wasn’t merely admiration for her courage. Connie Francis was back—and she knew it. But the once vulnerable star was determined that some good should come from her years of isolation. She started planning an autobiography and found a new cause that she could fight for —adequate compensation for victims of violent crime.

“I was a very visible public figure until that terrible night,” she said after the rape. “For years afterwards I received in excess of 1,000 letters a week from victims of violent crimes. All the while I felt powerless to do anything for these unfortunate people because I was such a lost soul myself.”

But, by the end of 1981, she felt strong enough to take action. Her first campaign stop was the White House, where she spoke as one of President Reagan’s top aides. “They agreed to enact a bill,” she says with fleeting pleasure. “But nothing happened. The Reagan administration has been utterly derelict in prescribing a law to compensate crime victims—to show compassion.”

Connie threw herself into a frenzy of activity. It was as if, by trying to devote herself to so many diverse projects, she was making up for those years of solitude. “I was foolishly attempting the impossible," she admits, "to write my book 24 hours a day, resume my career 24 hours a day and fight for crime victims 24 hours a day. I was a lunatic.”

Her strongly disciplinarian father, George Franconero senior, thought so, too. He and Connie's mother moved out of the family home which they had shared with Connie for over 20 years, leaving her and Joey in a house which doubled as an anti-crime office.

Inevitably, the pressures of running three campaigns—the personal ones of her career and book, and a national one—eventually became too much, and Connie fled to Texas. Her continuing tirades against the Reagan administration convinced her father that she'd become a manic depressive. He had her placed in a psychiatric hospital and took Joey home with him.

Mr. Franconero claimed Connie had squandered all the money she received in damages on her anti-crime crusade, and was a danger to herself and others. Connie fought the claims rigorously and was released after three days.

But when she left for Florida, her 73-year-old father followed her there and had her committed again—this time in a top security psychiatric unit. Once more he alleged that her wild spending and destructive behaviour was not consistent with that of a rational human being. “My daughter hates me,” he said, “when all I wanted to do was protect my little girl.”

Connie doesn’t defend her spending sprees. “I spent my settlement money on all the things I usually spend money on. I’ve always been extravagant.

“My father is not privy to statements about my finances, but it’s true that I spent a fortune in the area of violent crime—hiring employees, mailing pamphlets and statistics, and flying around the country attempting to pressure politicians into enacting more stringent legislation to aid rape and potential rape victims, law enforcement, a myriad of things.”

Neither does she deny her single-mindedness. “As a result of my own experience of rape and my brother’s subsequent murder, the area of violent crime became an obsession for me. Like any misguided fanatic, it was all I ever talked about, day and night.

“The only thing I succeeded in doing was squandering a great deal of money, alienating a ton of people and causing those closest to me a tremendous amount of justifiable concern and distress.

“I drove those who loved me crazy. Most of all, I literally drove myself crazy.

“I was manic and truly mentally disturbed. That kind of occurrence had never happened before in my life, and I doubt that anything close to it will ever happen again.”

Nevertheless, she is still clearly angry at the way her father treated her. “I love my mother dearly and with no reservations. I love my father too, but I feel a measure of resentment as well. It’s hard to believe that my father actually thought he was helping me by having me confined against my will under the worst of conditions, denying me the right to calls or visitors, having me institutionalised in a strange city in a hospital he never even saw, and then leaving town with absolutely no-one to see that I was cared for properly. It was a nightmare.”

Mr. Franconero had always had a high degree of control over his daughter's life. He tried to stop her romance with the young Fifties heart-throb Bobby Darin, objected to her first two marriages albeit on rather reasonable grounds, as one husband was a drunk, and the other marriage lasted only a few months. But he was reluctant to relinquish control over the singer, who in 1959 was earning £90,000 a year, twice as much as the then American president, Eisenhower. And, Connie now concedes, she didn’t try to stop him doing so.

“Until the writing of my autobiography and the events of last year, I had allowed my father to exert more influence on my career and my personal life than he had any right to. On the other hand, in the past 10 years my parents have experienced the worst of human tragedies, and I don’t want or intend to add to their unhappiness by airing our differences publicly.”

The letters and calls from victims of crime still come in, but Connie accepts that she can no longer involve herself so heavily in her crusade. “Of course I still answer the mail from victims, but for the time being I’m going to leave causes to someone else. All I want to do at this time is what I love doing best—to get on that stage and sing for the people.” Her career was re-launched earlier this year when her book was published in the States and she spent a gruelling, but highly successful, six weeks touring the country promoting it.

Her life-long manager, George Scheck, who steered her to stardom, died suddenly of a heart attack this summer, but, devastated as she was, Connie had new-found strength to deal with that crisis in her life. George Scheck had a full list of engagements for her, and she is committed to fulfilling them.

A new manager will now master-mind this important phase of her career. But, Connie says: “I’m being a good girl now. I no longer insist on doing everything myself—I leave it to him.”

When British audiences see her next spring, they’ll find a strikingly attractive woman of assured calmness, a woman who can savour life again.

Joey is happy to be back with his mother, and she’s enormously grateful for that. Ex-husband Joe Garzilli has since remarried, but he and Connie still see each other. ”He’s a wonderful man,” she says. “I know and appreciate now what a true and dear friend he is.” But she also knows, and appreciates, how much the music business has changed since she was last an active force. Although re-issues of her 2,000 recordings are still being sold throughout the world, she doesn’t want to rely entirely on her old, but distinctive. sob-in-the-throat style.

“Recording again is going to be very exciting,” she says enthusiastically. “I’ve been working with the very best song-writers and putting together a whole new act. I have some very young and dynamic people working with me now. It will be a tremendous kick for me to appear on a London stage for the first time in so long. The British public has always been most loyal and good to me.”

Spring 1985 is as far ahead as she will allow herself to plan. “It’s a mistake to look too far into the future,” she says. “But these days every day is an adventure that I look forward to.

“It may sound like a platitude, but to all those people who think that life is a disaster and not worth living, I say things always seem to have a way of getting better, and there really is a light at the end of the tunnel if you can hang in there. Someone once said to me: ‘Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.’

She’ll have to be particularly tough when it comes to starring in that brutally frank film about her life. “It will not be easy to relive that awful attack for the camera,” she admits. “"But it was a milestone in my life and I can't hide from that.”

When she made her courageous comeback performance on a stage just a mile from the hotel room where she was so savagely abused. Connie Francis opened her show with the Gloria Gaynor hit, I Will Survive. Halfway through she forgot the words.

But that was three unhappy and exhausting years ago. When she starts singing again this time, lyrics like that will come straight from her heart.

THE END