By Jane Wollman Rusoff
If you grew up in the 1950s or ’60s, the mega-hits recorded by pop singing star Connie Francis are indelibly etched on your soundtrack: Who’s Sorry Now?, Stupid Cupid, Lipstick on Your Collar, Vacation and, of course, Where the Boys Are, the theme from the film that made Fort Lauderdale – if not college spring break – famous.
In December, Francis, 78, will publish her second autobiography, Among My Souvenirs: The Real Story (Bookmasters), detailing a tumultuous life from child singer to international star and marked by a jumble of dark, personal struggles.
This past October, the Newark, N.J.-born singer held a public auction of treasured memorabilia. Top lot: a 1956 love letter from singer Bobby Darin that fetched $4,200.
Four-time divorced Francis, who last March received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Palm Beach International Film Festival, enjoys Florida nightlife with her celebrity-impersonator companion Tony Ferretti. She has made her residence in Parkland for two decades.
PRIME Magazine: After living in a Hallandale Beach apartment part-time for many years, why did you build a house and relocate from New Jersey?
Connie Francis: I sort of put Fort Lauderdale on the map. I’ve always felt at home in Florida. And – no boots, no parkas, no heavy coats!
PM: You haven’t done much film acting since Where the Boys Are. How come?
CF: Where the Boys Are was like Gone With the Wind for me. After that, it was all downhill – terrible movies. When I see ‘Connie Francis – Actress,’ I want to delete it.
PM: Why did you recently auction off your beautiful gowns, furs, jewels and more?
CF: I wanted to give something to my fans while I was still here. The gowns are a female impersonator’s dream!
PM: Your second memoir is due in December. Why did you write another one?
CF: The first was sugar-coated, and I wrote it in one year. The second is 645 pages and took me six years to write. It’s the first of three volumes.
PM: Bobby Darin wrote several love letters to you, one of which you’ve sold at auction. Why did you select that one?
CF: It said it all: ‘At the risk of coming on too strong, I’m so M-I-S-E-R-A-B-L-E, so damned unhappy and miserable without you that I feel the lump inside like the one you get when you’re going to cry.’ He was the love of my life.
PM: Bobby wanted to elope with you, but your domineering father chased him away at gun-point.
CF: He would have killed us. He had this pathological hatred for Bobby that lasted until he died.
PM: How would you characterize your relationship with your dad?
CF: Combustible – love-hate. I’m sorry I allowed him to control so many aspects of my life, but I was intimidated by him. He was the architect of my brilliant career, but at the same time, the source of my greatest pain. He was a lousy father.
PM: He advised you to sing with a tear in your voice. That became your trademark.
CF: If your father was as strict as mine, you’d have a tear in your voice too.
PM: Are you still touring?
CF: I’m not singing these days. I don’t like the way I sing now. I don’t want people to say, ‘She doesn’t sound like she used to.’
PM: When you moved to Dallas in the 1980s, your father had you committed to a psychiatric hospital. Why?
CF: My moving there was bizarre in his eyes. He lost control of me, and he couldn’t stand it. That was the turning point. Before, I tolerated him. After that, I didn’t speak with him for six years. I felt terribly betrayed.
PM: But after that first time, you were treated for mental illness in other hospitals, 17 in total.
CF: My father committed me to all of them – in Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida and California. At one hospital, I tried to help the older patients feed themselves and to read. But I was put in solitary confinement for interfering with hospital procedure.
PM: Doctors diagnosed you with bipolar disorder.
CF: Yes, but I didn’t have that. I had post-traumatic stress disorder. I finally found a psychiatrist [in 1991] who said that every time I suffered highs, I had every reason in the world to be exhilarated, and when I suffered lows, it was because of external circumstances.
PM: What strength have you drawn from to help you cope?
CF: My sense of humor. I’ve seen funny things in everything, even in mental hospitals. I attribute that to having been surrounded by comics since I was 10. A sense of humor is a great defense against pain.
PM: How do you feel nowadays?
CF: Wonderful. Aside from the fact that my son and I are estranged, which is very painful, I have a very good life.
PM: As a spokesperson for the trauma campaign of Mental Health America, you work to help veterans.
CF: It’s very important because 26 veterans a day commit suicide. But you don’t have to be in a war to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sometimes our own daily lives become too unbearable.