When visiting Connie at her Beverly Hills home, she looks every inch the star that she is. However, her manner is the antithesis of what one usually thinks of as diva behavior. Not only did she proudly give me an extensive tour of her gorgeous home, but she also invited me for an intimate peek into her closet, showing me the famous Mitch Leisen gowns that she wore in performances during the ‘60s, at major New York nightclubs such as The Persian Room and The St. Regis. They were referred to as ‘string’ or ‘fringe’ gowns and cost around $10,000 in 1961! Connie explained that each piece of string had to measured and placed just so to conform to the shape of your body. The dress and all of the draping was done with pieces of silk string. She still owns two—originally three but when a struggling singer didn’t have a dress to wear for a gig, Connie let her have one of the Leisen’s. They are really the most stunning gowns I’ve seen.
Constance began her career singing at top nightclubs while still studying drama in New York City. While singing at the Maisonette, she dazzled Max Arno, the head of casting for Columbia Studios, and was off to Hollywood with a studio contract. Her first movie being Blake Edwards, Bring Your Smile with Frankie Laine. Other quickly followed including; Marty Rackin’s The Horse Soldiers with John Wayne, and John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. Her Broadway credits soon added to her resume when she portrayed Anna opposite Yul Brenner in The King and I. But wait, there’s more! In addition to movies, theater, and nightclubs, Connie appeared in countless television shows, playing leading roles on Capitol and General Hospital.
Connie mused with me about her very early days and some of the first venues she ever performed. “The first place I appeared in New York was a little show where Gena Rowland’s and I were the two ingénues,” she told me. It was called ‘All About Love’ and was at a restaurant called the Versailles—Edith Piaf also performed there, but not with us. This was a place where you could dine and watch a show and this was absolutely the first thing I ever did—ever—so I was terrified the whole time. We were such a hit that they kept us on for over a year. Both our careers went up from there because we had a ton of exposure and were taken to other things.
“I don’t think that even today there are many people that know Gena Rowland’s was a singer. Well, she wasn’t really a singer, she spoke her songs. She came out with a holder and a cigarette and looked very sophisticated. She knew so much more than I knew. She did this whole…not narration but monologue on sex, which I thought was very racy but today it really wouldn’t be anything. I was still in drama school so this was the ‘50s.
“When I began at the St. Regis, I met Julie Wilson and all the ladies who were already established there. I remember a small lady, also named Julie, who was an ex-Ziegfeld Follies girl. Her job was to help us younger newbie’s along. She’d follow me upstairs at night and tell me, ‘you were too close to the microphone tonight, Connie,’ or ‘You did this’ or ‘Try that.’ She was really wonderful and I actually consider her my mentor.
“Mr. August, the matri de of the St. Regis, also looked out for me—maybe a little too much. One night Errol Flynn came in with some people I knew, and Mr. August was so appalled that Errol Flynn came to see me perform that he called my father at home, and said, ‘Mr. Tower’s you have to come pick your daughter up tonight. Errol Flynn is here in the audience and has his eye on her.’ He was really concerned about my reputation. My father responded very well. He said, ‘She’s old enough and can take care of herself. I’ll meet her at the subway like I always do.’ And he was there when I got off the train.
“It’s interesting, New York has changed so much since those times of the St. Regis and The Plaza. In fact, Julie Wilson and I talk about it sometimes when we’re together. It was such a wonderful time. My parents lived at 36th and Park, and they could walk home at night without any fear at all. You would be out at shows and clubs until at least 1 or 2 in the morning, then run into Ed Wilson and the other columnists that were covering all the things going on. It was just a different time. My parents always went to the El Morocco on Saturday nights—it was such a big spot to go. Sherman Billingsley’s Stork Club was also an extremely popular place. That’s where I first met Yul Brenner, but he didn’t remember me when I told him about it. Sherman had a television show at the club, and Yul directed it while I sang. Of course, we later worked together on The King and I.”
Connie married John Gavin, the former Mexican ambassador, in 1974, and they are both still actively involved with a multitude of charitable organizations.