Before Britney, before Madonna, there was Connie—the original female teen idol. From the late fifties to the early sixties, she charted thirty-five hit singles, of which half were in the national Top Ten. Her signature song, Where The Boys Are, by Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield, also became the title song of her classic teen film (just released on DVD) which co-starred George Hamilton and Paula Prentiss. Her first hit record, Who’s Sorry Now, a remake of a 1923 tune, went Gold for the nineteen-year-old Francis. In 1984, it was the title of her autobiography. Francis was the first female singer to have a rock and roll million seller with Stupid Cupid, another Sedaka and Greenfield song.
Francis has an uncanny ability to convey searing emotions with her “tear-in-the-voice” style. During one of Connie’s many Las Vegas performances, Elvis was in the audience. As she sang the tender tune, Mama, he became so overwhelmed with emotion that he had to leave the theatre. In Dick Clark’s 1959 poll, she and her boyfriend, Bobby Darrin, were voted “Most Popular Male and Female Vocalist.” Francis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show forty-two times, the most of any performer. She has recorded over three thousand songs, speaks two languages fluently, and has recorded albums in ten languages (she has an enormous international fan base). Connie is currently working on a screenplay of her life, Who’s Sorry Now with Gloria Estefan (A&U December 2003), who will also portray Francis in the biopic. Danny DeVito and Olympia Dukaksis are being considered to play her parents.
“My sex life is terrific. Now, all I need is another person,” joked Connie Francis recently from the concert stage of the Texas Station hotel in Las Vegas. At sixty-six, Connie Francis is still America’s Sweetheart. Attending her autobiographical show was a melodic visit to simpler times, when record hops were all the rage, gals wore poodle skirts, and guys slicked back their hair, drank soda pop, and tried to evoke hepcats like James Dean—the cool fifties and the pre-Beatle sixties.
Her Las Vegas concert was so personal, I felt as though Connie Francis were singing directly to me, but with a few hundred friends sitting beside me! She ended the concert with what she proudly called “the highlight” of her career” -- a song she delivered to the troops in Viet Nam in 1967. She explained that before taking the stage, the General asked her what she was going to sing. She replied, “God Bless America.” The General was taken aback and advised against it. “These men are angry with their country,” he warned. Listening to her instincts instead, Connie began the patriotic hymn, and 25,000 men stood up and placed their hands on their hearts. “It was a sight I will never forget, seeing these military men crying.” Her Las Vegas audience that evening was treated to the same song, only this time two overhead screens projected heart-rending images of 9-11.
The following day, as Connie preps in her hotel suite for an afternoon party in her honor, she recalls the mid-eighties. “I was going out on tour so I called my longtime hairdresser, Robert. I was told he had died of AIDS. I cried the whole day. The next day, I called another hairdresser, Bruce. They said he had died of AIDS. I was wrecked for a week,” notes a sullen Francis. She sits at a dining table while Patrick Paglia, her hairdresser, works his magic. Connie is clad in a V-neck tan striped silk dress, accented by a long gold cross, diamond necklace and medium-size gold hoop earrings. The black hair has been replaced by golden brown locks that she wears in an upsweep style. Connie is attractive and elegant, yet down to earth and friendly. Bright, engaging, vibrant, and candid, she still exudes an air of innocence.
The loss of two close associates, Robert and Bruce, was Connie’s personal introduction to the AIDS epidemic. Months passed and Connie lost more friends to AIDS, including longtime lyrist and pal, Howard Greenfield. “We were very close. One day I called him and teasingly said, ‘I’m doing a recording session, what songs have you got for me? He answered, ‘None.’ Why I asked? ‘Because Torrie [his lover] is dying of cancer.’ In a few months, they were both dead.” Connie licks the dryness away from her mouth and takes a hard swallow. “All that incredible talent. The wonderful way he had with lyrics. You could always recognize a Howie Greenfied song.”
To confront her grief, Connie took action. A mysterious illness was killing her friends and she wanted to know what it was and what was being done to stop it. She had read a Newsweek article that peaked her interest. “It said that the epidemic began because of Castro. Apparently, Cuban mercenaries fighting the Angolan war caught this disease from green pygmy monkeys. When the mercenaries returned to Cuba, Castro sent many of them, along with criminals, to the U.S. in the Marial boatlift.” Although the Newsweek proved to be more speculation than fact, it did arouse an intense curiosity in Francis. Determined to learn more about the disease she spent several years consulting medical researchers and visiting laboratories that were conducting research, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, into possible drug therapies.
Just about this time, Francis became active with AIDS organizations, even donating some of her gold records to celebrity auctions. During her national tours, she often visited hospices in the cities where she performed. She even sponsored a “Connie Francis look-a-like contest” at gay clubs. Naturally, she picked the winner. “The only trouble was that most of the guys were prettier than me!” raves Connie. She admits that throwing these contests was her way of adding levity to a grim situation. “Sit back a little,” instructs Pat, intently styling Connie’s do for the afternoon event. “Oh, yes sir!” she answers playfully.
“One time when I was playing San Francisco, I was invited to The Eagle for an event where proceeds went to the Coming Home Hospice. I was with some rather stiff people, and they said, ‘Oh, we’re not going there.’ I said, ‘Fine, I’ll go myself.’ They saw that I was little ticked off, so they relented. When we arrived, there were guys in leather and chains standing outside with their motorcycles, and my friends fled.” As a memory flashes, she folds one arm, and supports the other one by placing her hand on her cheek ala Jack Benny, and continues: “One picture of mine that we had blown up sold for $20,000, and that went to AIDS charities. I remember one guy came up to me, pulled his pants down and asked me to sign. I said, ‘How much you donating?’ He said, ‘$1000.’ So I pulled out my pen and autographed his butt,” she roars with laughter. Connie’s laugh is effortless, honest, and infectious. “I think I signed more butts that night! We did have fun.”
Fun and success has been tempered over the years with personal tragedy. In 1974, following a performance in suburban New York, Francis was raped and robed in her hotel room. She filed suit against the hotel and was eventually awarded 2.6 million dollars. Her case led to public concern about hotel security and the eventual adoption of more effective security by the hotel industry. Francis was also instrumental in drafting the Crime Victim’s Bill of Rights for local law enforcement, and she became heavily involved with victims of violent crimes organizations, for which she appeared in several PSAs. The rapist however, was never caught, Connie stopped singing for several years, and she became reclusive, haunted by the memory for years.
Francis also battled an addiction to prescription drugs, and bouts of manic depression, even attempting suicide. Her father hospitalized her several times involuntarily, and on one occasion, her close friend, Dick Clark, committed her to a psychiatric hospital. Clark has publicly said, “It was difficult, awful. Probably one of the worst experiences of my life.” Once the manic disorder was fully and correctly diagnosed in 1983, Connie refused drug therapy, fearing further drug dependency. Then she read Dr. Ronald Fieve’s book, Mood Swing, and it changed her attitude. “I was stunned because it was as if I was reading about myself – every aspect of it. When I went to visit Dr. Fieve, he opened the door, and greeted me with, ‘I wondered how long it’d take for you to get here!’” Connie began taking Lithium in 1989, which indeed stabilized her moods, though she doesn’t take it when she performs, as it depletes her energy.
Four failed marriages, two miscarriages, a botched nose job, and the loss of her brother, Georgie, who was killed by the mob, added to Francis’ misfortunes. How did she survive? “I don’t forget but I forgive,” she says plainly. “I don’t hold a grudge. It’s unhealthy and it only destroys the person who is doing the hating. Years later, I learned that depression is anger turned inward.”
Over the past few years, Connie’s parents both died. Her father, George, who played a major role in her career (he was the one who demanded her to record “Who’s Sorry Now,” against her adamant wishes to the contrary—she initially hated it) confessed on his deathbed. “Connie, I’m sorry I was so strict. I ruined your life. What can I say?” She replied, “Daddy, all I want is for once in my life to hear you say ‘I love you.’” He said, “I love you,” then explained, “We were thirteen children, and my parents could barely feed us. When did we have time to learn affection or to be demonstrative? It was a struggle for survival.”
“Losing the ones I’ve loved leaves me with an empty feeling,” says Connie. “I stare at my mother’s pictures every day, also my brother’s, and my father’s. I think about the friends I’ve lost from AIDS. There’s just such sadness attached to …” She stops and ponders a moment. “But good friends get me through, like Terry. We are like sisters.” Since 1989, Terry Hall, Francis’ personal assistant, has brought balance and stability into Connie’s life and surrounds Connie with her loving, jovial family. Later, Terry reveals to me, “A lot of people think I’m there for Connie but she’s there for me.” Both have shared the pain of losing someone. Soon after the new millennium began, Francis’ mother, Ida, died. Two weeks prior to Ida’s death, Hall’s twenty-year-old son, Alan, died of cardiac arrest.
After Alan died, he wrote a book that Connie talks in length about. Indeed, Connie believes in an afterlife, and yes, you read correctly—after he died. Through a medium, Terry contacted her son and he wrote nearly a hundred pages about the spirit world. Entitled Resting in Peace is Optional, the book will soon be published. “It’s a wonderful, uplifting story,” Francis remarks. “There are so many signs Terry has received from Alan. It gives a tremendous amount of hope and consolation to people who have lost others. People who think they see their loved ones, well, this book will confirm it.”
A very special love in Connie’s life is her adopted son, Joey, who turns thirty this year. A flying instructor living in Florida, Joey grew up in the eighties, the cradle of the AIDS epidemic. In 1985, Francis and her eleven-year-old son were living in Los Angeles at 1100 Bel Air Place, an address made famous by a Julio Iglesias album, an earlier occupant. “I had a whole staff of people working for me at that time, many of whom were gay. One day Joey said to me, ‘Mommy, you have gays working here for you. Do you think we should get plastic cups and dishes?’ And I said, ‘No sweetheart, that’s not necessary. You can’t catch AIDS that way.’” Frustrated, Francis immediately called Joey’s school, Beverly Hills Grammar, and wanted to know what they were teaching these kids. ‘You’re not teaching them the truth,’ snapped Connie. She reminds me that at that time some people were unclear how a person became infected. The next day, Francis met with Joey’s educators to learn firsthand about their sex education courses. She was assured that the teachers definitely were aware of HIV/AIDS and that they were providing as much information to the students as was available. Pat is putting the finishing touches on Connie’s hair, so she leans in on the table and sums up: “Joey and I have a good relationship. Back then he would ask about homosexuality so we’d openly talk about that and also AIDS prevention.”
“More AIDS-themed films need to be made,” yearns Connie. “Kids go to the movies and watch a lot of television. This medium has a greater impact than all the speeches a teacher could make about AIDS prevention.” She mentions that her seamstress’s son, thirty-two, has AIDS, and applauds her for taking care of him for eleven years. “He was so young when he got infected,” she says pensively, then sits up very erect, sternly looks at me with those luscious brown eyes and adds: “We need more understanding. Parents need to be more accepting—not be in denial.”
At that moment, Francis’ limo arrives, yet she has more to say. She invites me along and we finish up during the ride. Connie sits back in her seat as we pass thru the city’s canyons of neon lights. “Bush needs to focus more of his time and energy on his AIDS agency, which was established to attack the AIDS epidemic. We need to keep the issue before the public. Terrorize them!” she declares. “Anything that will wake them up.” We sit across from one another while her entourage occupies the other seats. Connie is revved. “This whole situation in Africa is tragic. Do you know how many people are dying each day in Africa? It’s ridiculous. It’s far worse than people think. And if the American public doesn’t believe it’s coming over here, they are sadly mistaken. Unfortunately, America will soon feel what it’s like in Africa.” May God bless America….
SWINGING WITH CONNIE
Is there anything you don’t like about fame?
Is there anything you’d most like to change about yourself?
Lose about thirty pounds.
Where is you favorite place to disappear to? Where do you go to recharge your batteries?
Terry’s house [who lives just a block away].
Any thoughts on growing older?
[She gives a wicked sideways glance] PLEASE! Who wants to grow older?!
Do you have a role model?
Marlo Thomas, Penny Marshall, Oprah.
What is your favorite city?
What is your favorite sitcom?
Golden Girls, Maude, Rhoda, the Nanny—in that order.
What are some of your favorite movies?
Godfather 1 & 2, Judgment in Nuremberg, Inherit the Wind, Anatomy of a Murder, Witness for the Prosecution—and anything that has to do with law or medicine.
Name your favorite Connie Francis movie.
There were none! [She laughs.]
At one point in your young career, your father was occupied with a business meeting at a record company. You (seventeen years old) and Bobby (nineteen years old) were alone in the next room. What went on?
We kissed a lot. We didn’t even pet. We were so in love. The thought of ever having sex with Bobbie….I never even thought of it. One time my father said, ‘I’ll shoot him if you marry him.’ I don’t know why he hated him so much.
Out of the many people you have met, is there one in particular who stands out who impressed you or inspired you the most?
Is there anyone you’d like to meet that you haven’t met yet?
Prime Minister of Israel Abba Eban…but he’s dead.
What do you think about the singing talent today?
I think most of the people who have hit records today are good dancers.
Name some other charities you are involved with.
The Heart Fund, diabetes, victims of violent crimes, and rape survivors.
Unfortunately, throughout your life you have battled manic depression, and your father had you committed several times.
Yes, four in all. I was very angry with him, and at one point, I didn’t speak to him for two and a half years.
What would you like to be remembered for?
To have brought happiness to others. Well, when I hear and read letters like ‘you’ve brought happiness to so many millions of people’ what else could I possibly want?
“I just heard on CNN that fourteen million people worldwide will die of AIDS this year alone.”
“I salute Elizabeth Taylor for dedicating her life to AIDS”
“There are four areas that need to be covered by politicians: the mentally ill, the homeless, AIDS patients, and children.”
“My first book was published in 1984 before I was diagnosed. My next book will be about being bipolar. I want to help others.”
In the early 80s, Alan Carr, film producer (Grease,
Can’t Stop The Music) called Connie, and asked
her to write the screenplay to the sequel of Where
The Boys Are, since he wanted to make it. “You
can stay at my villa in Malibu for three months while
you write it.” Connie replied, “Alan,
I’ve seen your movies, and aside from Grease,
your movies are filth. I can’t understand what
you would want from me to bring it up-to-date. When
parents and kids saw the original movie they left the
theatre with an up feeling. And you’re
going to make this into a sexploitation film. And I
don’t really want to write it.” Carr
insisted, “Well, write it and we’ll see.” She
said, “No, I’m on the road with a new record. You write
it and I’ll look at it.” Months past
and one day in the mail comes the script from Alan. “And
of course, there it was, just as I thought,” Connie
says today. She called him and said, “It’s
a piece of shit.” Alan said, “Fuck You” and
hung up. “I never talked to him again;
I don’t think he died…” she wonders. I
point out that Alan Carr indeed died in 1999. “Oh,
that’s why I never talked to him again!!” Connie
says with sidesplitting laughter.
Connie gives a few words on some of those people who have touched her life.
Dick Clark – my mentor
Gloria Estefan – role model
Bobby Darin – need I say any more than what I already have said?
Jack Benny – I loved him (she says endearingly.) He was very funny
Ed Sullivan – my biggest fan
Bob Hope – Love him! He was great. A patriot
Elvis Presley – The King
Frank Sinatra – The Champ
Name one word to describe Connie Francis – Complex
It’s Coolsville at Connie’s Web site:
Special thanks to Terry Hall, Mike Church, and Pat Niglio.
Dann Dulin is Senior Editor of A&U. He interviewed Mo’Nique for the February issue.