Enter Connie Francis, novice crusader, the kind who believes that because she's in Washington "to change the laws" for victims of crime, the laws will change overnight. The words that spill from the glossy lips that wailed out "Who's Sorry Now" (and sold more than 80 million records) are now the catch phrases of the law-and-order set: "The criminal is the big winner today," she says, and "Crime does pay." Her arguments are peppered with lobbyist's jargon like "effective deterrents . . . permissive and overworked judges . . . intricate walls of protection for criminals . . . exclusionary rules."
Sitting in her elegant Hay-Adams Hotel suite, the one-time pop star, now 42, is surrounded by crime reports, books, copies of the numerous telegrams she's sent to the president and Congress, letters ("I keep all victim letters"). There's also a publicist, a longtime personal secretary and a hairdresser who is currently crashed out on the bed after struggling to get the singer's hair to overcome its wind-tunnel look. Francis' face shows the cost of both trauma and time. She mentions that she doesn't let anybody see her without her false eyelashes or the three-inch stiletto heels that are still unable to push her above 5 1/2 feet.
Some of Francis' opinions are as loose as the sheets of paper spilling from her notebook, and she admits she's still grappling with the facts. "I know I'm going to have to do a lot of reading because when I go on television, I don't want to appear to be a idiot in front of half a million lawyers."
Connie Francis is planning on doing lots of television, lots of talking about a bill of rights for victims. She knows all about victims.
On the morning of Nov. 8, 1974, the police found Connie Francis naked, bound and gagged, tied to an overturned chair; a burglar had broken into her suite at the Howard Johnson's Motor Hotel in Westbury, Long Island, terrorized her for 2 1/2 hours at knife-point, raped and robbed her. It became one of the most publicized crimes of the year and led to a nervous breakdown, ended a marriage and almost strangled the singer's career. The assailant was never caught.
Francis says she surprised herself during the rape by controlling her "Italian temper. I thought, 'How could I be pulling this off?' I mean, I wanted to kill this animal. But I talked to him like he was a human being: 'Having problems with a job? Why do you have to do this?' " She thinks she's alive only because she told her attacker she was famous and that her death would provoke a big investigation.
"Probably I would not have been brave enough to report it," she says. "I kept flashing, 'Let's see how we can squelch this whole thing.' But as soon as the police were notified, the whole Nassau police station was swarming with reporters. I had no choice, but I would have kept quiet about it."
Keeping quiet is the last thing on Connie Francis' mind these days. Not only has she resumed her career with a much publicized return to Westbury last month, she has thrown herself into the political fray over victims' rights. She was in town last week to join the board of directors of the Crime Victims' Legal Advocacy Institute, founded in 1979 by presidential counselor Edwin L. Meese. "We're here to change the laws," Francis says with conviction.
"For seven years, I was virtually in total seclusion after being raped at Westbury. But I was getting thousands of letters from people who'd had bad experiences. Now I feel like I'm myself and I feel like I want to do something to help the people of this country."
An omen: The night of the attack, Francis was in her motel room opening fan mail. "This one package looked different," Francis recalls. "In it were pictures of a beautiful 2-month-old baby boy from a woman who had read in Earl Wilson's column that the reason I was going back to work was because I'd had a miscarriage and was depressed about losing the baby." The woman was offering her own child to Francis, hoping that he would have an opportunity to grow up in better circumstances than his present home.
Francis pauses for half a breath and races on in a semi-nasal voice that has never overcome its New Jersey origins. "I went 'Wonderful, I have a baby!' I'm impulsive, called my husband, couldn't reach him; reached my lawyer at 2:30 in the morning. 'Call this number tomorrow and get this baby for me.' He said I was a lunatic, but finally wrote it down. An hour later, I was raped."
When her assailant finally left, he took Francis' fur coat; in it were the letter and photos of the child. She says she forgot about him until mid-December when Joey arrived on her front doorstep, wrapped in a red bow, accompanied by a little black suitcase. "All my life I'd wanted a baby . . . But I found I couldn't even handle my baby. I had to hire someone to come into my house to take care of my baby."
Six months later Francis officially adopted Joey, but by this time her third marriage was deteriorating. One of the causes, she says, was the self-loathing and guilt about the rape -- which she attributed to her strict Catholic upbringing. "That was one of the worst factors," she explains, "that rigid, rigid code, especially with Italian men."
"Do you know what my father said to me after I was raped? 'It's a good thing you have a husband like Joe.' Isn't that interesting? Does that sum it up? " asks Francis, who grew up Concetta Rosemarie Franconero. "My father thinks of me as asexual and that was the worst thing that could happen to me. I used to play the accordion; every Italian can play the accordion, it makes you asexual. It could be Sonny Tufts behind there."
Though she refused at the time to talk about the rape, Francis couldn't stop reliving it. She saw her attacker's face everywhere. Not only couldn't she go back to the stage, she was terrified to step into the street. She'd lie in bed, semi-catatonic, downed by Darvons, mostly watching television, refusing contact of any kind with her husband. "I don't blame him for leaving," she says. "I wasn't the same person. How many weeks can you see somebody lying in bed and encourage them but nothing gets through? You get disgusted. He was a weak man and he didn't have the time to wait it out, so he just left."
That was four years ago, and Francis thought about making a comeback then. "I didn't know if I was ready, but I was losing my husband and I thought if maybe he sees me with a microphone again, he'll love me." Which might have worked, except that she suddenly lost her voice. She'd had nasal surgery to correct a condition that left her unable to work in air-conditioned facilities. When she came out of it, she couldn't sing a full octave. Three more operations had no effect. "I was decimated. The two things in my life that I've always been sure of were my mind and my voice; I could always count on them. I'd lost my mind already, and now I lost my voice."
Francis ended up blocking music out of her life entirely -- no listening to records or radio, no watching of television variety shows. She went to England to make a record, "four to eight bars at a time, 20 to 30 takes to get something that sounded like a voice. It was so bad I wouldn't let them release it in the States. And I did a silver anniversary album for MGM, I'd been with them since I was 15; but it was old, unreleased material and two new songs -- they were the worst." She also appeared on Dick Clark's silver anniversary show -- lip-synching.
The hardest part for Francis was trying to keep secret the loss of her voice; she couldn't even tell her old friend, Frank Sinatra, when she turned down a personal request that she perform "Mama" at a Las Vegas tribute to his recently deceased mother, Dolly. "That hurt. Dolly and I were very close, our families were close enough to listen to dirty Italian records together. That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do . . . and I gave such a feeble reason."
As if to prove there was still room for more pain in her life, Francis' younger brother, George Franconero, was gunned down last year in front of his house. A former partner in the law office of New Jersey Gov. Brendan Byrne, Franconero had pleaded guilty to bank fraud charges and been a government witness; police have indicated that it was a mob killing. "My father called me in Florida," Francis says somberly. " 'Your brother's been shot.' I asked what hospital he was in. 'He's dead.' I screamed and then I grabbed a legal pad and started making a list. I realized there were suddenly a lot of broken homes. I couldn't afford the luxury of self-pity anymore. It was truly a turning point."
Earlier this year, Francis met a wealthy Florida construction executive. "He was very introspective, insightful, had undergone psychotherapy for a number of years. He had empathy and compassion and understood my loss." At his urging one night, Francis put on a tape of an old Ed Sullivan appearance that had been sent by a fan. She started singing along softly . . . and found that her voice was back.
Going back to Westbury was, of course, catharsis. Eight months earlier, she had gone shopping for shoes with a friend, not really aware of which town she was in. When a clerk said "Gee, Miss Francis, it's nice to have you back in Westbury,' she went screaming out of the store, jumped into the car and locked all the doors. Six months ago, when she appeared on the David Hartman show, she refused to use the word "rape." "One of the stipulations was that they use the words 'criminally assaulted.' "
The return to Westbury on Nov. 12 was a personal, not an artistic, triumph. Francis loaded her performance with new songs that had potent symbolism: "I Will Survive," "Love on the Rocks," "I Made It Through the Rain," "If I Never Sing Another Song Again." She forgot lyrics, her voice was weak; she told the audience, "I'm rusty, I'm klutzy, I'm starting all over again." She got five standing ovations: "It was the best, even though it was strictly amateur night. By the time I got to Boston, they got a good show. My voice isn't as strong as it was, but I'm not the perfectionist I used to be."
Francis' life has resumed with an urgent buzz -- she's working on an autobiography, a screenplay (to be fine-tuned by Mario Puzo), concerts, television appearances (mostly on talk shows). She sued Howard Johnson's for failure to provide reliable locks on the glass door through which her attacker entered. She was awarded $1.5 million, but insists she "didn't go into that for money." Several months after the incident, her lawyer went back to Howard Johnson's with a court order and an engineer and inspected the rooms. " Many of the doors "were defective and could be opened from the outside while they appeared to be in a locked position from inside. The room in which I stayed, the door had never been fixed. I got livid."
With the award, she says, have come some changes in hotel security. "That's why I did it," she says, "and to give women the guts to stand up there."
Joey is 7 now, a bit put off by all the attention his mother is receiving. "He thinks it's awful," Francis says. "He asked me recently what rape was and I said it was when someone is hurting someone else; that's something I'm going to have to handle very shortly."