Storm Clouds Over Connie

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First it was pills.

Then rape.

Now, a stay in a psychiatric ward.

“My whole life is like a novel,” says Connie Francis


The Miami Herald

September 11, 1983

By Keith Epstein Herald Staff Writer

In Where the Boys Are, the 1960 beach movie for which she is remembered around these parts, a college-age Connie Francis embarks on a Fort Lauderdale boy-shopping spree and lives happily ever after. For a while, it seemed her life was going that way, too. Hit songs like Who’s Sorry Now? earned the young singer the statistics of stardom. By 26, she had set records for records — 42 million sold, more than any other woman at that time. She commanded $12,000 a week performing in hotels and clubs; she made more than $500,000 a year.

But beneath the veneer of stardom were the ugly rumors and the unfortunate circumstances. She spoke of her reliance on pills. Marriages failed. And in 1974 there was the rape, at knifepoint, for 2 1/2 hours, by a burglar in her suite at a Howard Johnson’s in Westbury on Long Island. When police found her in the morning, the diminutive singer was still naked, gagged and tied to a chair. The widely publicized tragedy left Francis so traumatized she quit her singing career. Later, after nose surgery, she lost her ability to sing. In 1980, the voice returned and so did she, starting her comeback tour in the town where she was raped. Profiles have chronicled the rebuilding of her career.

But the storm clouds over Francis are gathering anew: In Broward County, a former Playboy Bunny is suing Francis for failing to pay for clothing the woman designed for her. In Dallas a little more than a month ago, sheriff’s deputies entered her home, found her at her swimming pool, handcuffed her and took her in her swimsuit to the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital. She had been seized at her father’s request. While she was gone, her belongings were packed up and hauled off from the house. In New York, she split with her manager of 30 years because, she says, he wanted her to sing at the Madison Square Garden wedding of 4,000 Moonies on July 1.

Despite her troubles in Texas, Francis, now 44, still lives there. Her father says she’s just running away from the traumas that once engulfed her in the Northeast. She says she loves Dallas. She’s working on her autobiography. She’s been working on it for two years.Barbara and Jules Rusoff came into Francis’ life by way of her fingernails. Jules is the manager of a Plantation beauty salon for nails. One day, he heard Connie Francis needed her nails done. So he sent his best “nail technician” to Francis’ Hallandale condo. Jules, 73, had Vicki Blickley bring with her some photos of his wife, Barbara, a 33-year-old former Playboy Bunny who once had a role playing an Indian in the movie High Chapparal. In the photos, Barbara was modeling some clothing she designs.

Francis liked what she saw. “She was very gung-ho,” the nail technician recalls. So were Barbara and Jules. In two years, they had only lost money on Barbara’s fledgling line of clothing. They frequently went to the fashionable Turnberry Isle Yacht and Racquet Club to peddle her wares. They thought having a celebrity flashing Barbara’s expensive one-of-a-kind fashions among other stars could be the break needed to make a part-time interest a full- time business.

Their biggest celebrity customer before Francis was somewhat less visible: a local radio talk show host. ” ‘Oh, Barbie, I love you. I’m going to make you a star, introduce you to people,’ ” Barbara says Francis told her. “She promised Barb she’d … put her on ‘P.M. Magazine,’ ” says Jules. “She wanted Barb to be her private and only designer.” The relationship between the Rusoffs and their star lasted just a few months. Now they agree only on this: Francis did buy some of the Rusoffs’ clothes. Some she paid for. Some she didn’t. Francis says it’s hard to tell how much she might have paid the Rusoffs. After all, she says, she makes out $40,000 in checks each week.

The Rusoffs sued Francis in small claims court, alleging in legal documents that look more like a Worth Avenue shopping list that Francis owes $2,992 for a red sequin dress, jacket and hat; a satin caftan and belt; a blue suede Indian fringe coat; and a purple Oriental quilted coat and jumpsuit. Plus alterations. Then there’s the $102.50 for Barbara’s “shopping services” — a trip she made to the store, Barbara says, to buy Francis earrings, panty hose and a wig. Francis says she has “filed the Rusoffs away, under ‘nuisance,’ with a capital ‘N.’ ”

“She made clothes for me which were inferior,” she says. “The sequins fell off.”

“What?” responds Barbara. “There’s not one sequin dress living in this country where a sequin isn’t going to drop off.”

Francis also says some of the garments already had been worn by other people. Rusoff denies this, too. In any case, Francis refused to defend herself in court; she ordered her Miami attorneys off the case. The Rusoffs won by default Thursday when Broward County Judge Steven Shutter did not hear from Francis or new lawyers. “I told my attorneys not to blow a lot of money on idiots like this,” explains Francis.

“It happens all across the country,” she snaps. “I’ve got $20,000 bills for accountants and $20,000 bills for lawyers. When people hear I’m Connie Francis, they go outside and count the stars. I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by shysters and crooks and people like this who ripped me off.”

connie4The list of combatants recently has been expanded to include her father. Francis says she wants him arrested. “He had me committed under an insane persons warrant,” she says, “and then took all my belongings out of my house.” According to Capt. Charles McKinney of the Dallas Sheriff’s Department, Francis was swimming in the pool in her Dallas home July 25 when three plainclothes sheriff’s deputies flashed their badges and, with a psychiatrist at their side, rather unceremoniously carted her off to nearby Baylor Hospital.

McKinney said Francis first put on a terrycloth robe, then resisted leaving. The deputies seized her and slapped handcuffs over her wrists. “She tried to run off,” McKinney says. Francis was taken to the hospital for psychiatric tests, says Galen Samford, administrator of Dallas County’s Mental Health Department, the agency involved in such cases. It turns out she was admitted under a protective custody order sought by her father, George Franconero. Under Texas law, getting a person involuntarily admitted to a hospital is easy, said probate Judge Joe Ashmore. “It has to be easy,” says the judge. “All we can do is put stiff penalties in there if you do it maliciously.”

Francis’ case followed standard operating procedure. Ashmore issued the protective custody order based on an affidavit signed by Franconero that said he believed his daughter was mentally ill and needed to be examined. Such affidavits state “the patient is mentally ill” and “for the patient’s welfare or the protection of others … requires observation or treatment in a mental hospital.” It wasn’t necessary for Franconero to spell out any specific disturbances in the affidavit. Now, he says, his concern was that his daughter had, in his opinion, spent money “foolishly” and that an “irrational” fear of crime had caused her to flee the Northeast and settle in Dallas.

Among other expenditures, Franconero didn’t like Francis’ recent purchase of a limousine or her recent investment in a Dallas record company. “She’s invested money down there foolishly,” Franconero says from his Parsippany, N.J., home. “She rented a home for $5,000 a month and put new rugs and sofas in. That’s not rational. She’s just throwing her money away.” Also “irrational,” Franconero says, is his daughter’s flight to Texas. “A person has to be psycho to move to Dallas only because of the tragedy she had here. She’s very irrational,” he says. “When somebody says all the crime is here in New Jersey and not in Dallas, I know they’re not making sense.” And, Franconero says, Connie has been “shooting her mouth off all over Dallas about the Mafia, and communists in government.”

Once Francis was in the hospital, all that was needed to keep her there, says Samford, was one doctor’s signature, after examining her, on a “Certificate of Mental Illness.” With this, a person can be kept under observation for up to 72 hours. Ashmore says the signature on Francis’ certificate looked like a Dr. “J-U-D-something Cook” — he couldn’t make out the rest. There is a psychiatrist he knows of named Judith Cook on the staff at Baylor. That Dr. Cook has declined to confirm or deny any invovlement in the case. The physician who examined Francis concluded she was suffering from “manic depressive illness.”

To keep a person, involuntarily, beyond 72 hours, a second physician’s signature is required. But the second doctor who examined Francis, Dr. Mary Cannon, testified at a hearing that Francis should be let free. A judge then granted Francis’ attorney’s “writ” to release her from “illegal imprisonment.” The writ said Francis wasn’t even aware that any psychological evaluation of her was taking place and that she had been “illegally restrained of her liberties.”

“She may need help, but she doesn’t need to be institutionalized,” said Samford. If he were her, he said, “I’d be upset about it, too.” William Geyer, the lawyer who defended Francis, refused comment. Ashmore said Francis’ file indicated that she was released in Geyer’s custody and would seek professional help outside the court system.

On July 29, four days after Francis was taken to Baylor, she was back home. That morning, police say, she filed a burglary report. Her home had been emptied. By the afternoon, Dallas police investigator Ken Coop had pieced it together: Francis’ father and several of her employes, he said, had packed up the furniture and clothes and hauled them away. Coop says Franconero told him “he was trying to protect her furniture and get her home where he wanted her.” He dropped the case. At first it looked like a burglary, he says, “but it turned out to be a thing between father and daughter.”

When Francis’ employes found out a police report had been filed on the belongings’ disappearance, Coop said, they had them back in the house within 12 hours. Franconero has since denied being involved in packing up his daughter’s belongings. He says the staff did it — except for some of his daughter’s jewelry he took back to New Jersey for safekeeping. But staff members say Franconero was the one who gave the orders to pack things up. When Francis discovered her six employes had taken part in the move, they were fired, said Jay Beckum, one of the six.

Francis’ possessions were never removed from the truck they were loaded into, he said. Beckum had only been with Francis for six weeks. He was her appointments secretary. “She felt we’d betrayed her,” he said. “This case’ll end up just kind of dying on the vine,” said Dallas mental health official Samford. “But, Lord o’mercy, I’m not sure what the hell kicked it off.” So what did happen?’ Investigator Coop’s theory: “Everybody I talked to mentioned money, that she was haphazardly … taking care of the financial end of things. Her father> was concerned that she’d be left with nothing one of these days.” “If your brother was murdered, and you were raped, would your head be straight?” asks Franconero.

Connie Francis’ own theory: “My father wants me under his thumb.”

Connie Francis in a 1965 promotional photo

Connie Francis in a 1965 promotional photo

Connie Francis was first thrust in the limelight at the age of 3, playing an accordian almost bigger than her. By the time she was 11, she had appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s “Talent Scouts” television show, singing Daddy’s Little Girl to her father. After her first hit song, Who’s Sorry Now?, Francis grew to depend on her father’s judgment. He picked her songs. George Franconero, a roofing contractor who once had had no ambition beyond making a comfortable living for his family, suddenly found himself in charge of a celebrity. A rich one. And, it turned out, a troubled one. At 21, Connie wrote in Parade magazine that she had decided to throw away her pills — often mentioned in interviews — after Perry Como had advised her to “slow down and win.”

About the same time, in 1959, in a profile done during a family visit to Miami, a Miami Herald reporter observed that Connie was still asking her father for spending money and bickering with her mother about playing with her food. Her first marriage, at age 27, lasted five months. The second one, to a hair stylist once charged with extortion in credit transactions, lasted nine. In 1974, came the rape. In its aftermath, she was unable to let her husband anywhere near her, thought she saw her attacker’s face everywhere, was too terrified to go back on stage and spent most of her time in bed, sedated, watching television.

Along the way, husband No. 3 left her, calling her “a loser.” Francis sued Howard Johnson’s and eventually collected a $1.5 million out-of-court settlement. Then in 1981, her brother was gunned down in front of his house. Police believe the mob was responsible. The younger George Franconero was a government witness when he was killed. “All she had,” says Jay Beckum, “was her family and career. Now she has neither. That can be tough.”

Francis names a marketing manager at the InterFirst Bank of Dallas, and Dallas District Attorney Henry Wade as her two closest friends today.

“I’ve never met her,” says Wade, “though she’s talked to me by phone about our rape procedures and about lots of national issues.”

My whole life is like a novel,” Connie Francis says. She is still in Dallas and she is still writing her life story. The manuscript is overdue, even with several extensions, and at least two ghostwriters have been fired, says George Scheck, who was her manager for 30 years. Until nine months ago. Scheck and Francis split because, he says, “she didn’t like a theater I booked her into.” The theater, says Francis, was Madison Square Garden. “He offered me a $40,000 appearance at Madison Square Garden … for the Moonies.” She thought that was un-American.

“We broke up before that,” Scheck says. “It was over some theater in Albany.”

Francis says she’s doing well without Scheck and the rest of her former employes who had short-lived careers because they “can’t take the pressure.” At least two of those former employes now are eager to sell their story of “life with Connie” to the highest bidder — hinting at “sordid, nasty and ugly things,” in the words of one, Beckum. But they’ll only sing for money. Francis, meanwhile, goes on, talking of many projects, many plans, an ever-busy lifestyle. “I love life, and I love Dallas,” she says.

One of Francis’ projects — the autobiography — “has been postponed indefinitely,” says Cindy Hyber, publicity assistant at St. Martins Press. “I don’t know when the book will be available, if it will be available at all.” Joseph Bellino, Francis’ latest lawyer — for two days — quit, he said, after Francis stormed out of a meeting with Dallas bank executives on Aug. 24. “She wanted a loan and wouldn’t accept anything under $1 million” to lease an office building in North Dallas and launch several project ideas, Bellino said. He said the bank offered only $30,000 because Francis had few liquid assets. A spokesman for InterFirst Bank would neither confirm nor deny Francis’ visit.

Francis, meanwhile, forges ahead with a new staff. On the phone from Dallas, she says she plans two movies and a discotheque called Connie’s. She’s exuberant about spending time with a National Enquirer reporter who wants to know what’s become of her. “I promised him a byline,” she says, “but not an exclusive.” Then comes a playful invitation to Dallas. “Want to come? I’ll take you dancing. Put on your dancing shoes. I’m going to Switzerland for a few days, but I’ll be back on Friday. Maybe.” And with a click, Connie Francis is gone again.