(Photo credit Michael Razler)
Her breezy pop hits and beach party movies made Connie Francis one of the biggest stars of the ’50s and early ’60s, but her life has been far from sunny.
After a successful singing career with mega-hits like “Who’s Sorry Now,” “Lipstick on Your Collar,” and “Stupid Cupid,” plus a starring role in the 1960 spring break classic Where the Boys Are, the chanteuse suffered hardship and heartbreak in the decades to come—including rape, murder, and the death of her true love.
But all that was behind her on Wednesday night as she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Palm Beach International Film Festival.
“It’s truly an honor to be recognized by my peers,” Francis, 78, tells PEOPLE during the festival’s opening night in Boca Raton, Florida. “After all of these years, I still love to sing!”
Music has helped her move past a string of tragedies. She suffered through a 1974 rape in a motel room, 1977 nasal surgery where she temporarily lost her voice, eight years and 17 involuntary commitments to mental institutions in five states, and the 1981 gangland-style murder of her brother, Georgie.
“I am working on an autobiographical series of books where I talk honestly about these struggles and heartbreaks,” Francis says of Among My Souvenirs (The Real Story), to be published in July.
“I talk about the love of my life, Bobby Darin. There has been no one else, not even my four husbands, who could compare with him. He was explosive.”
Darin, the crooner of hits like “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea,” wanted to marry Francis in the 1950s but her father disliked him. He wanted his talented daughter to concentrate on her career with no romantic distractions.
“My father tried to beat him up and made sure we could never be together,” she says of the singer, who died in 1973 of heart failure at age 37.
“I kept all of Bobby’s love letters, and last year I was able to get back the love letters I had written to him in a four month period during 1956. I am in the process of recording all of my letters to music and having a male sing the letters Bobby sent to me.”
Those revered letters are being recorded on her own label, Concetta Records, where she is also remixing compilations of her favorite recordings and introducing them in new and unique ways.
“I just finished ‘Love Me Tender’ with Elvis Presley,” she says of the hit tune they both sang in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “When you hear the two of our voices it sounds like we are in bed together!”
Keeping her nostalgia flowing, Francis is also preparing for a public auction of her memorabilia on Sept. 24 at Heritage Auctions in Beverly Hills. There she will sell her gold records, American Bandstand recordings, 60 snazzy gowns and hundreds of other personal items. “I want to share my life and memories with my fans while I am still alive,” she says.
While Francis keeps busy with her projects, she often ventures out in the evenings with her companion Tony Ferretti to raise money for those in need: homeless U.S. war veterans.
“I did a telethon three years ago, and I am planning another one as well as other events to showcase this cause,” she says. “I think it’s terrible the way we treat veterans. I want to do all I can to help them in every way.”
As for her own legacy, Francis once said she would like to be remembered “not so much for the heights I have reached, but for the depths from which I have come.”
Today, the singer says simply that she would like her tombstone to read: “I hope I did okay.”