She sang of teen dreams and puppy love to the innocent '50s and spun gold records from tunes like Who's Sorry Now, My Happiness and Lipstick on Your Collar. Yet for singer Connie Francis, the daughter of protective parents of Italian ancestry, life offstage held harsher realities—failed marriages, two miscarriages and, on Nov. 8, 1974, a night of terror she would never forget While she slept in a second-floor motel room after a concert appearance in Westbury, Long Island, an intruder jimmied a lock on her balcony door, raped her at knife point, then left her tied to an overturned chair and covered by a mattress. He was never caught Six months later she sued Howard Johnson's for $5 million, won $2.5 million, then settled out of court for $1,475,000. The ordeal contributed to the breakup of her third marriage and finished her performing career. Connie, 42, now shares a suburban New Jersey home with her parents and adopted son, Joey, 6. Although she has just released I'm Me Again, her 72nd album, she has no plans to resume live concerts and is studying at New York's Parsons School of Design with a new career as a designing lady as her goal. Recently she spoke to PEOPLE reporter Richard K. Rein about the rape and its impact on her life.

Until that night, I had been through all sorts of harrowing experiences and had never been afraid. I was intrepid. Once in California a girl called my fan club president and threatened to kill me because I was going to be married. On the night of my appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, she was in the second row with a loaded revolver when the police caught her. I went on and performed as usual; I had no fears.

But when you have a knife at your throat and your life is hanging in the balance for two and a half hours, you realize you're lucky to be alive. When the attacker as counting down from 20 and saying he'd slash my throat when he got to zero, I told him who I was and that I had to perform at the Westbury Music Fair. I think that's what saved my life. He had a towel over his face and I was never able to identify him. I looked at thousands of mug shots. I began to think that every face I saw was that man.

After the rape I couldn't pick up a newspaper or listen to a newscast. I was afraid to be with people. I would lie in bed for a month at a time and wouldn't want to get up. I wouldn't go traveling with my husband, Joe Garzilli, and he was in the travel business. To this day I never go anywhere alone and never do anything by myself. I have never been in a motel since that day. Performing scares me to death because I think I'm a target. You can't make sense out of fear.

How a woman survives an ordeal like this depends on so many things. It depends on what kind of husband and family you have. If you have someone who sticks by you until you return to normal, you are lucky. My husband was marvelous—always supportive and understanding, always at hand. People wondered why I bothered to sue Howard Johnson's. The trial was not for money; I had enough of that. My attorney, who is also a good friend and my son's godfather, said I had an obligation to come forward and encourage other women who experience the same thing, and also to force hotels and motels to protect their guests better. All this could have been avoided if the motel had had a $6 gizmo known as a Charley bar to place in the tracks of the sliding door to the balcony and hold it shut. Still, the trial was disastrous for me, my husband and my family. I had to rehash everything that happened that night, which I hadn't done before with anyone. There I was on the stand, opening up my whole life, testifying that for a long time after the incident—about three months—I was not sexually responsive. For me and my husband, a proud man and very Italian, that was a violation of our privacy.

Until Joe, I'd had no luck at marriage at all. Neither of my first two husbands treated me well, and I was unhappy. Joe was different, and after Westbury he manifested only love, affection and respect for me. Later, when I was getting some strength back, I learned he couldn't stand being married. I couldn't believe it; he just left home and got an apartment in New York. I should have seen that my husband was a New York person and not a New Jersey person. A whole bunch of things destroyed my marriage, but I don't believe that we would be apart today had it not been for the attack and the trial.

Yet it did have a positive effect on many women. A lot of them wrote to me and said they had been afraid to report a molestation or rape because they couldn't stand to go through the ordeal of a trial, or because they were afraid to tell their husbands. I answered every letter personally and advised them to be brave and report any incidents. If someone's husband is going to be angry at her for this, then maybe she'd be better off without him. Others wrote that it had happened to them the same way—in a motel. Most women said they were still not out of the woods, and I don't remember a single letter from a woman saying she had conquered it. It made me feel pretty awful. But it also made me press my case in court.

Unfortunately, some people don't think of rape as such a horrendous crime. People are saying that everyone is screwing around so much anyway, what's the difference? They don't realize what an ordeal it is. Until Westbury I lived a charmed life. I believed every word of every song I ever sang. I was never exploited. I had a very traditional upbringing and a mother and father who loved me. I was a very disciplined performer. I didn't go to clubs after a show. I didn't drink or party. I'd go back to my room with my aunt or my mother and play Scrabble. I was never abused. My manager was very protective. I never saw agents directly. I never knew the old show business story about having to deal with the producer on his couch. I was never asked for money by disc jockeys. I was never asked for any sexual favors. Even while I was traveling around the world after my career took off, I was still a Goody Two-shoes. I thought sex was a store on Fifth Avenue, and I was a virgin until the day I married at the age of 25. didn't have affairs. When I fell in love, I got married.

Now I haven't had a single date in more than three months. I don't think that women need sex as much as men do, despite what the movies and some of the women's magazines say. If I'm happy doing other things, then I'm happy. I really have a good life now, and I hope I don't meet some man to mess it up again.

After Westbury I was living my life like a Greek tragedy, and I didn't like it. So instead of wallowing in self-pity, I decided I had to get out and do something. I am a voracious reader, and I read everything I could on the issue of rape. Now I have been named chairman of the National Association for Crime Victims Rights, based in Portland, Oreg., and I hope to do some public appearances for them. Last year I appeared before Senator Kennedy's committee, which was looking into laws that protect the criminals and put the victims through hell.

I had been doing interior design as a hobby for 12 years, and now I'm taking courses in architectural drafting and design. I've joined a gym that has a Nautilus body-building program, and I'm also taking a course in gourmet cooking. One of my greatest joys is participating in my son's life. Joey has made the whole difference, and if I had to experience some of these things without him, I don't know what I would have done. I have wonderful parents, an unbelievable child, and I don't know how many more things someone can have.

People still ask me about the rape. It's an ever-present thing, and scars from that will never heal. It's a gift that I'm still here, and I think about that whenever I get a little down. I will not be the same again, but maybe that's good. I may never get over it, but I think I have put it in the right perspective, because I am enjoying life again. You have to work at being happy. It's not a right; it's a privilege.

  • Contributors:
  • Richard K. Rein.