On New Year’s Day 1958, Connie Francis turned on her television to watch American Bandstand. “Dick Clark said, ‘There’s a new girl singer, and she’s headed straight to No. 1,’” Connie recalls to Closer. “Then he played ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’. I knew in that five seconds that my life would never be the same.”
Connie was right. After several singles that didn’t chart, “Who’s Sorry Now?” would sell a million-and-a-half records and make her a star. Follow-up hits like “Stupid Cupid” and “Lipstick on Your Collar” would also prove that she was not a one-hit wonder. In all, Connie has sold more than 80 million records in her long career. But her charmed existence came to a screeching end after a violent assault, the murder of her younger brother and the loss of her greatest love. “I have some regrets,” Connie, 84, admits. “But I hope that I did OK.”
Music was always a huge part of Connie’s life. One of her earliest memories is of her father, George Franconero, playing a concertina, an accordion-like instrument. “His father brought it with him from Italy to Ellis Island,” recalls the performer, born in Newark, N.J. “Every night he would play songs for me, and I became infatuated with music at a very early age. One of my first words was radio. I wanted to hear music all the time.”
Connie began to sing and play the accordion as a youngster. “I gave my first concert at the age of 4 at Olympic Park in New Jersey. I played ‘O Sole Mio’ and ‘Anchors Away,’” she remembers, adding that her father “had a vision” of her stardom that was “unshakable.”
As a teenager, Connie spent three years performing on NBC’s Startime Kids, but after it went off the air in 1955, she had a hard time gaining traction as a solo artist. She released several singles that stalled and was about to accept a scholarship to attend New York University when “Who’s Sorry Now?” launched her career into the stratosphere. “It was a cosmic, unforgettable moment for me,” Connie says.
The energy and passion that her father devoted to making his daughter a success could be a double-edged sword. “I never felt that it was a struggle to be a female in show business because I had my father to protect me,” says Connie. But George could also be very old-fashioned and protective. Connie was not allowed to date in high school and did not attend her prom. George also quickly put an end to Connie’s romance, at age 19, with fellow teen singer Bobby Darin.
Upon hearing that the “Mack the Knife” singer and Connie were planning to elope, George stormed into his daughter’s dressing room and chased Bobby off with a gun. The young lovers continued to write to each other for a time, but Bobby wed actress Sandra Dee in 1960. “Bobby had everything: charisma, talent, he was brilliant. He had the greatest sense of humor in the world,” says Connie, whose own four marriages ended in divorce. The news that Bobby had died of a heart ailment in 1973 left her devastated. “I never felt quite the same about anyone the way I still feel about Bobby to this day,” she says.
Connie has known other sorrows, too. In 1974, a man broke into her hotel room while she slept and raped her at knifepoint. “For seven years after the rape, I became a recluse and didn’t work,” recalls Connie, who says that “family, good friends and belief in God” helped her survive.
But she very nearly didn’t. In the early 1980s, Connie attempted to commit suicide by swallowing sleeping pills in the aftermath of the death of her younger brother. George Franconero Jr., then 40, was gunned down, execution-style, one wintry morning as he scraped the ice from his car windshield. “I couldn’t accept my brother’s murder. I didn’t know he was working with the Mafia until it was too late,” Connie says. “I watched my mother suffer every day. That was just heartbreaking, to lose your only son. It was the catalyst that really drove me crazy and initiated my stays in the mental hospitals.”
Therapy and the love of her family would eventually help Connie regain her center. “I had to take the reins and be the matriarch of the family again, and that’s what I did,” she says proudly. “I had three families to take care of: my brother’s wife and two children, my mother and father, and my own child. I went back to work.”
Connie resumed touring and wrote two memoirs, Who’s Sorry Now? in 1984 and Among My Souvenirs: The Real Story in 2017. “I’ve written two more extensions to my last book, and I’m looking to get them published,” says Connie, who has also been a proponent of victims’ rights and an advocate for the destigmatization of mental illness. “There is hardly a family in America that hasn’t had someone who has suffered from depression, anxiety or worse,” she says. “I think we all suffer from mental illness at some point in our lives.”
Today, she makes her home in Florida. “I miss the excitement of traveling and show business, but I’m enjoying my life and enjoying my friends,” Connie says. “For the first time, I have free time on my hands to do only what I want. I’ve never been able to have that before.”
—Reporting by Katie Bruno
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