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Frances Faye: Let Me Hear It Now Part 1

I hope a tall fellow sees this, reads it and flips. The Kim Sisters I love you, Buddy Hackett, you're gonna get it too!"

Copyright Tyler Alpern 2001 - 2017

 

BEGINNINGS

"I was born on Stone Avenue in Brownsville and I've been stoned ever since," quipped the wild Frances Faye in 1975. She was in fact born Frances Cohen on Stone Avenue in Brooklyn's Brownsville Section on November 4, 1912, a Scorpio and Reform Jew. It would still be nearly eight years before women got the right to vote and ten years until the first sponsored radio program was broadcast. Her father David was an electrician, her mother Rebecca was a homemaker born in Russia, "they used to sing privately, and they adored music," recalled Fran (Charles Highman, '68). She had two brothers: Marty Faye who became a controversial DJ and TV personality in Chicago, and Benny who kept the family name. A younger sister Mitzi died suddenly in her early 20's. According to family sources Rebecca, "was a riot - very funny... a real pistol...everyone adored her, she was a woman before her time." When one of Rebecca's (Becky's) sisters died, her daughters Frances and Molly Shepetinsky spent much of their childhood at thier aunt's home, Molly growing close to Fran and Frances close to Mitzi. The whole extended family lived within a few blocks of each other and always remained a tightly knit unit - except for Fran.

 

Oddly, it is Rebecca's taste in decorating where the story really begins. A 1940's biography claimed that as a child Fran, "fooled around on the piano in her living room, pecking away at the tunes current then. Though the piano was there, neither Miss Faye nor her brothers took lessons, her parents merely wanted a piano in the living room." Fran and cousin Molly did take some lessons from the same piano teacher who thought Molly had more talent. Fran never learned to read music and always played by ear. Early on, Fran shared her love of music with cousin Danny Kaminsky who grew up to be entertainer Danny Kaye, "I was the first one, I taught Danny Kaye - I taught him 'Minnie the Moocher,' " boasted Fran to reporter Arthur Alpert (3-26-62), "his mother and my mother were sisters. I taught him a lot" (Tattersfield). Actually, it was their grandmothers who were sisters.

 

Young Frances attended to P.S. 84 then Girls' High on Nostrand Avenue and planned on becoming a schoolteacher. In the 20's, teaching was still one of the only avenues of independence open to women. However she left school at the age of 15 after suddenly finding herself in show business. It all began when Fran was asked to fill in at the last minute for a piano player who did not show up at a banquet. Fran accompanied a young singer and the pairing that evening was so successful that the two budding artists formed what was to be Fran's first act, "I got a job when I was 15 years old - at $120 a week" (Alpert 3/62). What happened was "one night, at a banquet of some sort, she was called upon to stand in for a sick friend, to play a piano accompaniment to an amateur singer. She mightn't have been all that pretty but she was plump and strong and she all but picked that piano up and cuffed its ears. There was a theatrical agent at the banquet. Two months later, despite the entreaties of Mama and Papa, Frances was making $200 a week in a Chicago nightclub" (Ron Saw 6-23-67).

 

She started her career as an accompanist, but soon became a solo act. Frances recalled: "We were playing a big nightclub in Detroit, and the singer said to me, 'What would you do if I left you here alone?' I started to cry. Just then the boss came in and said to the singer, 'You're fired, but the kid stays.' 'What am I going to do?' I asked him. 'Just play the piano and sing,' he told me, you've got no figure, you're not pretty, but everybody likes you.'... It just happened right away like God said, 'You're Frances Faye, and this is it'" (John S. Wilson 11-17-78). "I was always a crazy chick," Fran was prone to explain. "When I was 17, forget about it, anything you wanted ... anything." At age 18, I bet she really was, "having a malted at Croyden bar" (Caught in the Act).

 

Frances paid her dues playing in New York speakeasies and bigger venues such as the Cotton Club and Le Martinique during her teens. She started at the Club Richman, near Carnegie Hall, and soon after developed a following playing at the Prohibition era speakeasy Club Calais where she was booked solid for most of 1931. Arthur Jarwood, the son of the Calais' owner remembers, "Frances Faye pounded the piano so hard that it had to be tuned every week... A room like the Famous Door could introduce an unknown and if he had talent, he could be a star overnight" (qtd. in Arnold Shaw 325). In just that manner Frances Faye quickly rose to such star status.

 

Faye recalled,"Prohibition was so exciting! I remember one night Harry Richman, the big star of that time, who had his own nightclub, where I was playing, bought Clara Bow a silver convertible and drove her in it right into the club! One night Alice Faye came in to see me. I made her get up and sing, and that was the first time she had ever done that. All the gangsters, Capone's Mob, they were all my fans. Those who lived are still my fans. I remember Lepke, of Murder Incorporated, coming in regularly to hear me. I knew these guys were dangerous, they'd shoot it out at the back of the club, and I was scared to death all the time, but somehow I kept going" (Higham, 1968). "And Al Capone came. And his wife was beautiful - and religious! So much so you can forget it! And she had this boy; she brought him up like a monk" (qtd. in Higham, 66). "The gangsters were great guys. Men like Legs Diamond. Names so big in the underworld that I still don't even like to talk about them. But they loved me and that was wonderful for any teenage girl's morale. I'd sing and dance for them and they'd come and see me as my fans. Then they began to disappear, one by one. What a time it was! It will never be quite so wild again. There was so much money around...you could get a new Cadillac for only $1200 and all the jewelry you wanted, practically for nothing" (qtd. in Curnow).

 

Fran sang popular songs of the day like 'Singin' in the Rain,' 'Mississippi Mud' and 'You're Driving Me Crazy'; and in 1930 incorporated "the hardest song of all: 'Love For Sale'" into her act. Joe E. Lewis dubbed Fran "Queen of the Supper Clubs" because in her words, "I worked 48 weeks a year. I was on 52nd Street forever - from 1934 until God knows when" (Wilson 11-17-78). She worked on the Loew's circuit touring the country. Just a few examples: In 1929, she was at the Showplace in Lynbrook Long Island; in 1931 she was entertaining on board the S.S. Belgenland where, "Frances promenaded the deck in her best pajamas. They were a rose-velvet and had set Frances back about a hundred bucks" (Sidney Skolsky 8-1-31). She was sharing the bill with Bing Crosby in January 1932 at the NY Paramount, in May of 1933 she was performing at Chez Paree in Chicago. She worked at Barney Gallant's and the Simplon. For only six dollars you could dine at Manhattan's Thru The Looking Glass and celebrate the New Year of 1936 with Frances Faye. Over the span of her long career, Frances spent many a New Year's Eve entertaining.

 

By the mid 30's Fran was a fixture on 52nd Street, and that is when stardom came. "I was at the Hickory House, the Yacht Club, Club 18, Leon and Eddie's" (Wilson 11-17-78). "I was all over that street and they wouldn't let me leave when I wanted to play some of the city's bigger rooms like Versailles. As soon as I closed the Yacht, I had an offer from Club 18 or the Famous Door, and they kept raising my salary. My first booking could have been Hickory House...but the first big booking was at the Yacht Club...They were paying me like $500 a week, an enormous figure for those days, and the club was so jammed every night that they kept raising it" (Shaw 182). After hours Fran would head up to Harlem to catch the acts there and often got on stage to participate in wild late night jam sessions. By 1937 she had numerous bookings at clubs like the Famous Door, the Stable, and already had her habit of working the names of supporters and important people in the crowd into her act. That was around 1937. Despite of her success in Manhattan during the 30's, Fran continued to live in Brooklyn at 1175 Linden Boulevard.

 

Ralph Watkins, co-owner of Basin Street East, recalled that Frances was the star of the Stable on 51st in 1937, "Frances was big and packed the place. She was not much of a pianist even though she wanted a Steinway when she played...she gave a piano a big workout. She was quite a character, exciting with a cute way of delivering and very likable. She had a way of shouting and made up little tunes. She was not a great singer, not a great pianist but she could capture an audience. One of her shtick was to take the names of people in the audience and put them together in a comedy bit" (qtd. in Shaw 217). In May of 1937, Frances was again touring and happened to be in Chicago where she was billed as the "Hottest Gal Ever in Town, Ed Sullivan's and Walter Winchell's Favorite FRANCES FAYE The Syncopating Cyclone - Originator of Zaz-Zu-Zaz." She played 3 shows nightly at 9, 12, and 3:15am which was typical in those days of big nightclubs. Again the "singing and piano pounding wonder" found her contract several times extended. In 1938 "Lady of Swing, Frances Faye's mighty rumpus" rocked Billy Rose's Casa Manana and the perennially hard working entertainer had been abroad performing at the Paradise Club in London, "originally booked for a fortnight, she was held over for three months. Miss Faye was also featured in a British television broadcast" (NYEJ 9-22-38). Upon her return to the States, Frances appeared on stage at the Strand in Brooklyn where she, "included in her repertoire...her swing arrangement of 'Old Man Mose' and 'A-Tisket, A-Tasket' (NYEJ 9/38).

 

During this period Frances was nicknamed 'Zazz Zu Zazz' after her trademark scat phrase, and was famous for her piano banging and torch songs like 'No Regrets'. Bing Crosby was known his whole career for generously helping out fellow performers and he was the one who brought Fran to his label Decca in 1936 to make her first record. Fran also offered a break to many a talented newcomer. One of the first was a then unknown Alice Faye. In 1941 Dorothy Kilgallen reported: "Last week Alice Faye flew 3,000 miles to be with her husband, Phil Harris. The very day she arrived, she saw that Frances Faye was to be the guest of honor that night at Leon and Eddie's Celebrity Party. It would seem logical that after her long trip and in view of her delayed honeymoon, Alice might want to be alone with her bridegroom for a quiet evening. Instead, she and Phil called some friends, reserved a ringside table for the event and sat there - all smiles and enthusiasm - from 11 in the evening to 4 in the morning. Alice insisted on being on hand to pay tribute to Frances Faye. About 10 years ago, Frances was making her first big hit at the old Club Richman. One night a friend of hers came in with a shy, wide-eyed young girl who was then enjoying her first taste of Broadway as a debutante in the chorus ranks. Intrigued by the coincidence of sharing the same surname, Frances asked the youngster what her great ambition was. Alice confided that more than anything else, she wanted to be a singer. The Club Richman was jammed with celebrities, agents and newspaper columnists that night. Frances took Alice into the manager's office, had 2 busboys roll in a small piano into the room, and for 40 minutes rehearsed Alice in 2 popular songs. Then she brought her out on to the dance floor, gave her a glowing introduction, and played the piano for her - and Alice Faye sang before and audience for the first time in her career" (NYJA 8-14).

 

In 1936 Frances was booked in Chicago then went to California to make a picture. She appeared in a number called 'After You' in the Paramount film "Double or Nothing" with old Pal Bing Crosby (who incidentally shared Frances's fondness for marijuana). Musically, Fran was right at home; however, she was not presented well visually . This large gal, who could not be slimmed by her ample black and bejeweled gown, first appears pounding loudly on a piano and "coon-shouting" as Variety described her singing. Soon she is successively scatting 'Zazz Zu Zazz' with Martha Raye, then Bing, and then again a whole chorus and finally winds up the number giving a new and literal meaning to the term "hoofing." "Ever see an elephant dance?" wrote a devoted fan describing her performance. 40 years would pass before Frances would appear again in a major motion picture. After filming completed she stayed in L.A. for several months during the summer and fall performing nightly at L.A.'s Famous Door. During this time doomed gay singer Bruz Fletcher was at the height of his fame performing for a celebrity filled crowd on the Sunset Strip at Club Bali. His name and club regularly appeared in the gossip columns. Frances certainly would have taken notice and it must be then that she first heard him perform his plaintive ballad 'Drunk with Love,' that would later become one of her signature songs. Email below for info on new Bruz Fletcher Bio and CD.

 

A 1937 radio show exemplifies Frances's early style:

Announcer: Are you ready to swing into action, Frances?

FF: As ready as I'll ever be. All I need is a piano.

Announcer: A piano? Well, here's five of them.

FF: Five pianos, what's the idea of that?

Announcer: You see, we've heard that when you go to work on a piano you're so energetic that few pianos can hold up to the strain.

FF: OK, well line them up and see what happens. She then hurls herself into Mr. Paganini, Swing Me Swing Song, and Copper Colored Man (Norge Kitchen Committee Airchecks).

 

 

The 30's were a wild decade of late nights and glamorous social intrigue for 'Queen of Zazz Zu Zazz', "Everyone who was anyone in the world went to those little clubs on 52nd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues during the 30's. Dukes and duchesses packed into rooms that could seat only 100 people ...and the shows were broadcast live from coast to coast on radio. Every night was bigger than New Year's Eve. And everyone wandered in. Every movie star, all the society people, the politicians, everybody. Every kind of person that a kid from Brooklyn could ever want to meet... And afterwards there were parties until dawn and beyond. Nothing ever stopped. It was a mad, wild wonderful merry-go-round" (qtd. in Curnow).

 

 

As her star rose, Frances's life was filled with drama that resembles the B-movies of the day. In late September 1932 Fran "limped" back to the New York club scene after a 9 month break from her busy schedule, "spent in the hospital, crippled by a mysterious ailment" (NYJA 9-26). In July 1933, Frances and boxer King Levinsky made headlines with their engagement and were anxious to be married within a few weeks. But the boxer’s manager/sister the colorful tough girl Leapin’ Lena Levy publically urged them to postpone the marriage until after the scheduled bout with former World heavywieght Champion Jack Sharkey later that September. Levinsky was one of many athletic men that Fran would become associated with.

 

 

A few years later after a night out on the town club hopping, Frances chatted with detectives as she left a restaurant with a male companion at 3am. When the two got to her car parked at 53rd and 7th Avenue, they were held up by bandits masked by handkerchiefs. They shoved a gun in her side so hard she thought a rib was broken. “All right, get them hooples off your mitt,” Faye was colorfully ordered and two rings were snatched off her fingers, "one a 6-carat star sapphire valued at $1200 and the other a 19-carat diamond valued at $5000 [Depression dollars!!!!]" (NYJA & NYT 11-30-35). Then she and her date were told, "Now give us the dough out of your kick,” and $160 was taken. Fran ran back to the restaurant, alerted the detectives who chased the get away car while emptying their revolvers as the bandits shot back. At one point, the bandits were forced onto the sidewalk driving one whole city block off the road at a speed of 60 miles an hour. About 40 shots were fired before the thieves crashed into the "L" pillar and fled on foot, they all spilled into the lobby of the Empire Hotel at 63rd and Broadway where gunfire broke out again. The muggers were wounded, caught, hospitalized, and sentenced to 10 to 30 years. That same day the press reported that Frances "was faced with the dilemma of saving her father David Cohen, from jail" (NYJA 11-30-35). He had been alleged to have attempted to set fire to a tailor shop so the owner could collect insurance. Frances's dad had been already incarcerated once in Sing Sing for another arson conviction. To add to the plot of her 1930's cinematic-like life drama, Fran was "part manager" of boxer Babe Risko! "We were all so rich after the Depression! One night a man said, 'Do you know the song, 'Girl of My Dreams, I Love You'? And I said, 'Yes' and he gave me a $1000 bill, right there in the club. He said, 'Would you please play that again' - he gave me another $1000 bill. In the end he gave me $8000 for playing the song eight times. I took it all home and gave it to my mother. She never questioned it, either, " (Sometimes when Fran retold the story, the song became ‘Love for Sale’).

 

Faye recalled working with a mega diva: "Helen Morgan! Look at my arm! Just mentioning her makes me feel goose-pimples. I shiver. She never wore make-up, and just a black crepe sleeveless dress and a bracelet - just one - with a zillion charms on it - so now remember, she was always a star - maybe one to the greatest stars of the nightclubs - and so remember I came from Brooklyn (well, I was playing at a Brooklyn theatre and it was mine - I mean, I was the star, and I would just swing there). Anyway, I saw her name way down below in small letters, below mine, and I cried so much, I cried and cried! I said, "My God, I'm not going to allow this, and I went to the manager before the first show, said, 'Mr. Brandt, how dare you put Helen Morgan's name so small,’ and he said, 'She won't bring me any audience at all, Fran,' and I said, 'You will change that billing!' and he said, 'You're the first artist who ever came to me and asked me to do something like that.' I knew she was going down for ever when she came in for the first show and you just know she'd never taken her dress off the night before. She was still wearing it. She was rotten - rotten - on bad liquor, and she died in Chicago, and she was the greatest until Judy" (qtd. in Higham '66).

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Fran at theStrand billed over legendary Helen Morgan.

Courtesy of Warren G. Harris.

A NEW FRANCES

During the 40's Frances transformed herself and her style. In one of her three 1942 musical shorts or "soundies," the newly svelte Frances sweeps in singing her own version of the hit song she co-wrote 'Well, All Right.' She is remarkably different from the hefty awkward gal we last saw on the screen banging, shouting and galumphing 'After You.' It was reported that she has gone from a size 20 to a size 12, "dieting from 180 to 121" and spent, "$15,000 for a new wardrobe to fit the new chassis" (NYJA 2-6-42). In three months she lost 23 pounds. At the time one of her most popular numbers was 'All that Meat and No Potatoes,' a bit of pre-Atkins, high protein diet advice (National Song, 1/43).

 

Frances always had style and was attractive but she was not a beauty in the traditional sense. Like her elusive album covers of the 50's, her 1942 soundie 'I Ain't Got Nobody' shows as little of Frances as physically possible. It mostly depicts Frances's head poking out of a fat farm type steam box and wrapped towels while glamour girls in short maid uniforms bend and flip up their skirts to show off their panties. This was at a time when the brunette Frances was thin, elegant, looking the best she ever had, quite a clothes horse giving full-on 40's drag. As Leonard Maltin pointed out, it is as if some male director did not know what to do with her so he hid her. It is no wonder that Frances frequently mentioned in her act and interviews "I'm not pretty but..." Her third soundie 'I Shut My Mouth for Uncle Sam!' finds our Frannie singing an amusing song she had written for the war effort, yet parked next to a poster of chickens with the caption "Don't Squawk!" and the usual cheesecake cast.

 

Besides nightclubs, Faye was also found in the spring of 1943 performing USO shows in California. That autumn the hardworking chanteuse even appeared on Broadway in "Artists and Models" with Jane Froman and Jackie Gleason. In that poorly received revue Fran gave a mini concert, billed as "Symphonic Interlude" in which she played piano oddly backed by not 1 but 4 lady harpists playing uptempo swing style jazz! It was costar Jane Froman's first NY gig since being crippled in that Lisbon air disaster and, just like Fran would be nearly 20 years later, she had to be presented already seated onstage when the curtain rose and carted off after it fell. All 9 reviews in the major New York papers panned the show disliking the concept, new songs ('Swing Low, Sweet Harriet' was the standout good song if that is any indication of quality), costumes, writing and microphonic sound, but the reviews were generally favorable for the performers except one. One bitter critic absolutely hated every moment, performer and aspect of the $225,000 extravaganza and wrote a scathing review, giving Fran very rare negative press. He called her, "another hard blonde who bangs swing out of a piano accompanied by four lady harpists who apparently took xylophone lessons" (Nathan 11-5-43). The show closed after 27 performances.

 

By this time, not only had Frances changed her look, but also her sound. Latin rhythms that really characterize her later work began to creep in as she introduced songs like 'Tico Tico' into her act. The layers of bongos and horns of the 50's were not there yet, but neither was the frenzied banging of the 30's. Frances played alone or with a rich rhythmic accompaniment of bass, guitar and drums. Her 1946 album of records for International is characteristically lively but far less frantic and more lyrical that her earlier work. The collection included the daring choice of the obscure song "Drunk with Love" originally written and recorded independently for a small under-the-counter "party" label a few years earlier by gay (termed "pansy") performer Bruz Fletcher who committed suicide at age 35 in 1941 after police crackdowns on pansy performers made it virtually impossible for him to find work (David Diehl). It became one of Fran's signature tunes and it is my opinion that by performing it she let her gay audiences know immediately what she was all about. "Drunk with Love" appeared on three separate albums over her career and she included it in her act until the end.

 

Irving Berlin said that Frances "is one of those fortunate mortals who has rhythm in her body and soul" (Hilda Sakolsky 9-15-45). This 1945 review reveals the germination of a Frances later immortalized in Caught in the Act and so different from the so-called "coon-shouter" of the 30's: "she has a natural, relaxed delivery and includes the audience and her bosses in her act and peoples it with imaginary ex husbands...That battle cry of the hep-cats, 'Well, All Right' is her bon bon. Her newest confection is intuitively called "A Man Will Always Be a Dog" (Sakolsky 9/45). 'You're Heavenly' is another song that Frances wrote circa the 40's, recorded several times and kept in her repertoire until she retired.

 

By now Fran had finally left Brooklyn to live in Manhattan. "Her mother Becky used to make potted chicken with matzoh balls. This was Frances' favorite meal. Becky used to send my Aunt Molly and Grandmother in a taxi to Frances' apartment in Manhattan on 86th Street with food. Finally, my mother said that the Queen of 52nd Street was beyond flamboyant, driving a pink Cadillac and furnishing her house with a white grand piano" (Parker Taylor). An article Parker found reported that Frances drove a custom built red Packard that the neighborhood kids used to drool over. They would all look forward to seeing it when she would visit her mother and brothers in Brooklyn.

 

Throughout the 40's Fran continued her heavy touring schedule. For instance in 1941 she was a headliner at the New State Theatre and expected "to leave New York after that engagement for a tour of South America. A sort of Carmen Miranda in reverse" (NYJA 8-13). In 1942 she was the featured attraction at the Beachcomber and sharing the bill with the Will Bradley Orchestra in Passaic, New Jersey. Later she was under contract to Lou Walter's famous Latin Quarter "Exciting theatre restaurant" where she played in a several different revues. A typical evening at the Latin Quarter is exemplified by the following program featuring: Fran, the Latin Quarter Lovelies in several numbers, The Stadlers Novelty Dance Artists, Singer Tommy Ryan, and Dr. Giovanni the World's Greatest Pickpocket. Heading such a diverse bill in a restaurant/showroom was typical for Frances and other singers of the era. In both May 1945 and February 1947 Frances played the Rio Cababa in Chicago with comedian Larry Kent (in 1946 she was back at Chicago's Chez Paree) and in June 1947 "Frances Faye, the Atomic Bombshell of Rhythm" shared the bill with comedian Jan Murray at Buffalo's Cool Town Casino, "America's Greatest Showplace and Restaurant."

 

The press linked Frances romantically to a number of men in the 40's, "did Frances Faye, the Za-zu-zaz girl, become the wife of a wealthy Buffalo man in a secret ceremony 3 months ago?" asked the NY Journal-American in August 1941. Frances did in fact have two brief marriages in the 40's to exceptionally handsome men. First she wed Abe Frosch in January of 1942 and October 1944 she married business man and former football star Sam Farkas in Las Vegas. She spent 4 months starting the day after her second wedding in encased in plaster from neck to knees after a head-on collision. In 1945 while Fran was under contract to the Latin Quarter, the couple was rumored to be adopting a child. The marriage ended in early 1946 when the "red-haired" Frances filed for divorce in Chicago. The grounds were cruelty as she alleged having suffered three beatings that week from the 29 year old former jock.

 

As Frances put it, "I don't talk about my husbands. Let's just say that I think a husband has to be the boss and he can't really be the boss when he's making less in a year than his wife's making in a week" (Saw 6/67). Grandnephew Parker Taylor offered the family's perspective: "Frances dated my great-uncle Murray. Frances and Murray didn't hit it off, but she decided to set him up with her cousin, my great-aunt Molly. They subsequently married and had a happy life together for about 70 years. He passed away about five years ago. In his eulogy, my mom regaled everyone with the story about how Frances was "too fast" for Uncle Murray and how grateful we all are to Frances for setting up Aunt Molly with such an amazing man. I always recalled my grandmother saying that Frances married bums -- figured she didn't like the good guy, my great-uncle Murray Cohen." Another family memory is that "Frances and one of her husbands had a fight one night. He took all of her minks and threw them down the incinerator -- they were completely destroyed. Later, he also allegedly stole her car and held it for $5,000 ransom. Finally, my grandmother said that my grandfather testified on behalf of Frances in one of her divorces. As a thank you, Frances offered to buy him a new suit. To quote my grandmother, "He's still waiting for the suit."

 

Reading a 1945 article about her appearance at Baltimore's Club Charles and knowing Frances's bisexual orientation, my eyebrows were raised at the interaction of the married Frances flirting with a lady reporter: "she has often given away a piece of jewelry, a hat or a bauble to a friend who voiced a liking for it. Having been told in advance about this trait I sat and drooled at her new mink coat...Oh well, it would have been too long for me anyhow. She did sprinkle me with Hattie Carnegie "wolfbait" before dabbing some behind her ears. Floating in, as I did, on a wave of friendliness, I did not have to go through a warming up period. She was Frances and I was Doll from the very first moment" (Sakolsky 9/45).

 

For a short time, Fran retired, "I gave the whole business away for a while in the late 40's. I'd always made plenty of money and spent plenty but I had enough invested not to worry about where my next dollar was coming from. Yet it was a sad time not having anything to do...I used to be pretty good at golf. Until my arthritis put an end to that” (qtd. in Curnow).

 

In 1949, another crime brought Frances's name in the papers (and mention of a 3rd! husband): "Police today were searching for burglars who escaped with $10,000 worth of jewelry and furs from the four room apartment of Frances Faye, singer and pianist now appearing at the Latin Quarter, Broadway nightclub. Miss Faye and her husband-manager Carson Cameron, told police that sometime after 8 p.m. Thursday and before 4 a.m. yesterday, thieves entered their apartment at 10 W. 65th St. Among the items taken, they said, were a ruby and diamond bracelet valued at $3,500; a mink coat, a leopard coat, and several rings, watches and other jewelry. Police said the burglar or burglars probably gained entrance through a fire escape window" (NYJA 5-14). Handsome Carson (Fran only dated very handsome men) was never married to Fran, though they dated a long time.

 

As the 40's drew to a close the era of big bands and nightclubs was also coming to an end. Reporter Earl Wilson who covered the New York "saloon beat" for decades wrote in his 1949 book: "With the shrunken attendance, there's been less money to pay stars' salaries, and hence a flight of stars from some clubs. But Joe E. Lewis, Sophie Tucker, Kay Thompson and the Williams Brothers, Danny Thomas, Peter Lind Hayes, Jackie Miles, Ted Lewis, Harry Richman, Benny Fields, Lena Horne, Jane Froman, Frances Faye, Martin and Lewis, Willie Shore, Henny Youngman and a few others are usually able to pack in big crowds and give their suffering bosses a profit. Then there's also the biggest money earner, Milton Berle, who when he chooses, can corral $10,000 to $15,000 a week" (Earl Wilson, 237). Frances was always able to change with the times. In 1949 she was already performing on network television, a new medium that was still a novelty and not yet a part of the mainstream culture, and by the mid-fifties she rarely toured (performing mainly in her new home of California, and Las Vegas and Florida) and instead found a new source of income as a recording artist.

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THE FABULOUS FIFTIES

The 1950's was the period of greatest artistic achievement and productivity for Frances. It is also when she shunned the smart black dresses, oversized "architectural" hairdos and obligatory orchids that were her signature style of the 40's. For most of the decade she sported a parakeet style crew cut that still has shock value today and knocked her photographic likeness right off her album jackets. Frances appears so butch in the photographs of her singing with straight Mel Torme that her mere presence gives him an effeminate swish. The small photo of a trousered and mannish Faye allotted to the back of the cartoon covered album "I'm Wild Again" had to send a frightening jolt to the gender conscious and conformist 50's audience. This was a time when masculine womanizer Chet Baker was described in the press as 'fey' because of his sensitive singing style and it was illegal for more than two homosexuals to congregate, group or meet in California. Frances's appearance was the very antithesis of the fifties' ideal. "When you're pretty, it doesn't matter how you wear your hair..." joked Frances Faye with her audience. Her self-deprecating humor put them at ease from the shock of her looks. Later, her partner and manager of 31 years from the late 50's until Frances's death remembered in the film "Chop Suey Club" how "Fran" hated the gowns and wigs they made her wear whenever she was put before television cameras. A 1956 article in Picture Week, is a typical reaction to Frances: "...a rather plain looking woman with a startling short haircut will sit down at the piano, sing a few bars and break up the joint. ... Her short hair, which is fast becoming a Faye trademark, is a recent development. When her first audience after the haircut greeted her in stunned silence, she said in her most biting tones: 'What does it matter how I wear my hair, as long as I'm pretty?'" The article ends with a telling quote, 'I love to make people happy and as long as they accept me for what I am, it makes me happy too.'"

 

So different was she than the norm, that esteemed jazz critic Leonard Feather began his 1952 Downbeat article about Frances Faye by harping on her looks, comparing her to some now largely forgotten yet pretty canaries: "After studying the physical characteristics of typical recording stars of the last couple years - the Toni Ardens, Eileen Bartons, and Mindy Carsons - you wouldn't be likely to pick, as Capitol's best bet for a new recording star and fresh sound a matronly looking woman with a Brooklyn birth certificate, arthritis, a tough vocabulary, a quarter of a century in show buisness and hardly any records at all, none of them hits." An example of the conservatism of that era is revealed in the 1952 Downbeat review of Faye's very tame 'I Wish That I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate,' and 'She Looks,' which reads, "both sides stand a chance of being banned by some radio censors...inocuous enough if you ask us, and neatly done, well geared to her personality." Despite the conformist environment of that decade, the misfit Faye still was able to achieve some of her greatest successes.

 

There exists a wonderful demo that Frances must have made just before her Capitol days around 1951 that presumably was used to audition for record executives. It has on it some of the same songs that later appeared on 1953's "No Reservations" and a few others she never again recorded. Musically it is the same style of her International Album and more similar to her live act; that is just Frances, her piano, a guitar bass and drums in rhythm accompaniment. It is the first showcase of Frances's habit of singing only fragments of songs and has on in one brazen lesbian aside. While singing what would become one of her signature songs, 'The Man I Love' - no crazy cowbell in this version - Frances sings, "...the man, the man, THE MAN???? What am I saying that for?" It was a very bold thing for her to do, especially given the function of a demo. Fran credited Phil Kahl of Walt Disney and later founder of Roulette Records "for drawing her to Capitol's attention."

 

The story of how this demo came to be and how Frances came to Capitol Records from nightclubs must be akin to the following excerpt describing nightclub performer Yma Sumac and her Trio's arrival at Capitol:

In early 1949, the Trio had a return engagement at the Blue Angel, a now defunct supper club on East 55th Street in Manhattan... That particular night Walter Rivers of Capitol Records was in the audience. He had been sent by the recording firm to hear ... a singer they were interested in signing to a contract and who was performing the same night as the Inca Taky Trio. The Peruvian group performed first, however, and that was enough for Rivers who immediately went backstage to discuss a recording contract with them. ... Although not exactly sure what could be done with them, he went backstage and approached them about the possibility of making a set of Demo Recordings that would then be sent to the main office of Capitol Records to see if an actual recording contract could be negotiated... Rivers explained that although there were no guarantees, together they would select some of the Trio's most impressive numbers to record. Once the recordings were completed, Rivers would send them to Alan Livingston, then Vice President of Capitol Records in Los Angeles, to see what his thoughts were... As a young man, Livingston had begun at Capitol Records as a writer and a producer. Later he became Vice President in charge of repertoire -responsible for the creative operations such as signing artists and recording them (Nicholas E. Limansky, Chapter 3). Alan Livingston explained, “One of my goals with Capitol Records was to record for posterity so much of the great, classic talent that had been around for a long time and whose earlier records were such bad (audio) quality by comparison to what could be done in the 1950’s... In those days, you’d go in with a twenty-five or thirty-peice orchestra and do the whole session ‘live’ in effect. You could do retakes, obviously - as many as you wanted - but it was all done at once. Today they do a rhythm track, and then add whatever they want to that, piece by piece - most of it electronically. And they spend hours and days and weeks...we’d go in and do a whole album in three or four sessions; that was it” (qtd. in Fricke).

 

Frances's recording career really took off in the 50's. She began the decade at Capitol Records where she released a series of singles beginning with 'Night and Day.' "As far as Miss Faye remembers, she made one record for Decca around 1936, and an album a couple of years ago for some company whose name she is not even sure of. 'This is the first time I've come out sounding like myself on a record,' Frances explains. 'The other times they would hear me in a club, but when they would ask me to record they would make me close the piano, ask me to sing softly, tell me not to bang, and they didn't let me keep my shoes on. The Capitol date was different. All these strange men came in...Dave Dexter got them together-and I sat down and played 'Night and Day' for them and they dug the way I did it, and so we recorded it without rehearsal, without any arrangement. I had never done 'Night and Day' before in my life. The idea just came to me a couple of days before the session. And the other side, 'Tweet Tweet Tweetheart' was made the same way. They brought me a demonstration record two days before the session and I recorded it reading the words off the sheet music. I've made another session since then. This time I didn't go into the whipping room; Dave Cavanaugh wrote some arrangements and I didn't even play the piano on that session'" (Feather 12-31-52). Later, in 1953 when LP's were introduced, the album "No Reservations" was made from many of those singles. The cover features an illustration of a waiter and happy crowd with a tiny poodle-cut Frances way in the background downplaying her actual appearance. It is a great album with some very inventive Dave Cavanaugh arranging that showcased Faye's muscianship and on it Frances sings mostly memorable songs. However, there are a few novelty tunes such as 'Tweet Tweet Tweetheart', 'The Dummy Song,' and the newly discovered 'When Love Comes A-Knocking' that she was given to sing; and songs like that are why Frances said she left Capitol Records.

 

After leaving Capitol, Frances moved to Bethlehem Records, a major jazz label of the 50's founded by Gus Wildi, where her photographic likeness never appeared on the front cover of the four albums she made for them. Young and gifted Bethlehem art director Burt Goldblatt did however create two terrific and now classic cartoon covers that truly captured the lively, expressive and unconventional character of Miss Faye. It was a wonderful association because Frances's recording work really blossomed at Bethlehem. She worked with terrific musicians (some of whom were even willing to record with her without credit due to contractual problems) such as Maynard Ferguson, Milt Bernhart, Frank Rosolino and Herbie Mann and most importantly conductor and arranger Russ Garcia and she really developed her sound. On "Relaxin'" ('which wasn't, it was terrifying' quipped Frances) Fran boldly and lovingly sang 'My Baby Just Cares for Me' not even implying but clearly stating that the object of her affection was a woman. And you believed her.

 

Gus Wildi recalled how Fran came to Bethlehem: "Frances Faye was approached by us, i.e. Red Clyde. No demo was made. After all, we were familiar with her work, and I trusted Red's judgment. Together with Red Clyde we visited her in her beautiful apartment on New York's 59th Street, overlooking Central Park. On the way to see her, Red wanted to sort of prepare me for the visit, stating that Fran was very "down to earth" and at times disposed to use some good old four-letter words as part of her conversation, which at that time one did not expect to hear as often as today. Well, none of this happened at all! Fran was an impeccable and charming hostess. Frankly, I was impressed with her as a human being...Red Clyde, Russ Garcia and wives saw each other socially. Red Clyde in his capacity as A & R man, I assume, brought Russ and Frances together... Bethlehem gave its artists total artistic freedom." According to Burt Goldblatt, " She was wild. I never had a chance to have a conversation with her. I was at the recording sessions. I always went to rehearsals or recording sessions when I made a cover. I was not paid to do that. Many designers did not know anything about or have a feeling for the music they were packaging. I always wanted to know. The Faye covers were cut out paper. The A-line dress is exactly what she was wearing that day. I went to my studio and just worked from memory. She was wild. She would bounce things off the wall. She got the drummer so pissed off that I thought he'd hit her with his cymbal or something. He walked out of the session and they could not persuade him to come back. They had to find another drummer at the very last minute."

 

By this time Frances had been living in California for quite a while. Her injuries and arthritis were eased by the local climate, "I can't walk lots of places. Even in Las Vegas and Palm Springs, I just played in Reno and couldn't walk there, but in Los Angeles where I live, it doesn't bother me" (Downbeat 12/52). She was a continually sold out hit on the Hollywood Strip and was playing the major venues in Las Vegas and Miami earning about $4000 a week. In LA she was booked at the Interlude, "I was there for nine months and they had lines that spilled into the street. I was one of the early stars on the Vegas Strip. Played the Thunderbird when Dave Victorson, now at Ceasars' Palace, was there and the Frontier" (Shaw 183). Frances even "broke all the audience records in history by drawing more that 1,000 fans to the main room of Las Vegas' Thunderbird Hotel for a show on a Wednesday at 5 a.m." (Bruce Vilanch, 2-1-73). Fran's most exciting work and those legendary recordbreaking engagements were acheived with the innovative bongo player Jack Costanzo by her side. In interviews "Mr. Bongo" said that playing with Frances was the most fun he had in his career and he saw first hand how her unconventional lifestyle hurt her career. Jack recalled how Frances was a very generous performer and let him take the spotlight for about 35 percent of HER act. Jack explains, "Of all the stars I have worked with, the most exciting was Frances. She allowed me the freedom to stretch out and also be a part of her show. While there was never a doubt that Frances was the star of her show she featured me very much. I have to say there was only one Frances. She and I were dear friends and when her grilfriend joined up with Frances, she and I also became good friends."

 

In January of 1955 Fran was arrested at her Hollywood apartment along with 3 men for possession of marijuana. She had 4 joints in her pocket and even more on her bedroom dresser. In May the charges against her were dropped, but not against one of the men. Eventually as times changed Frances worked such occasional and private recreation into her act, "Someone's getting high and I love it'' rasped Frances from the stage catching a whiff, "it does smell good...we were at the airport for 4 hours last night. Airports are such a drag, even if you wanted a bowl you can't. I don't drink or smoke but..." Later that same show Frances quipped, "You know how hard grass is to come by this time of the year," as she launched into 'If I Were a Rich Man' with her own twist, "If I had kilo, dadadadadadada, I wouldn't have to worry, dadadadadadada, All day long I'd puff and puff away if I had a kilo every day..." Banter like that was mostly saved for the San Francisco crowds becasue they expected it from Fran, but is not to be taken too literally. For most of her career, such activity had to be kept private: "When Frances Faye was at Caesar's Palace, Mitzi Gaynor reportedly came to her dressing room. 'What do you take before you go on?' she asked. "Do you take brandy or something before you say 'Good evening!'?" Faye does not drink or smoke, never has. What do you take,' Miss Gaynor pressed, 'that immediately turns the whole room on?' Faye, who is unpretentious but not without an awareness of her magic, asked me: 'Would you call it talent?'" (Shaw 182). Fran had high blood pressure, would occassionally have a brandy, but did not smoke or indulge in drug use.

 

Fran's live act had really gelled by mid decade. Songs, hairstyles, and musicians would change, but La Faye had found the successful sound, style and format that she would use until she retired, "she is pure dazzling show business - part jazz, part comedy, all energy and heart. Her act is a rummage sale of musical bits and pieces, full of chaos and savvy and musical thunder" (Rex Reed 10-17-75). Faye describes her show: "I never had a theme song. But I came on when the room was dark. As the lights went up I would sing: 'Good evening, ladies and gentleman, how do you do?' Accompanying myself, I sang this in rhythm, still do today. And I go off singing 'I gotta go go go,' also to a melodic thing I wrote" (Shaw 182-3). Yet Frances reportedly could not read music, "not knowing a "c" from and "e" doesn't keep Frances from arranging the songs she sings and also composing. Working with someone who does know what notes to put on what lines she makes music" (Sakolsky 9/45). "I play by ear and never do the same show twice." Fran did extensive rehearsals with her musicians, "but once she signals her musicians for the downbeat, it's every man for himself" (Reed 10/75). "I knew the band wouldn't be ready for that," she'd say when getting ahead of them, "I never should have rehearsed, that is where I goofed. 4 hours!"

 

Drummer Hal Blaine learned the trick how to follow her: "I traveled with Vido Musso's band to San Francisco to back Frances Faye, a very hip entertainer in those days. Another great piece of basic training transpired with Vido and Frances at the infamous FacksNumber 2 Nitery. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Frances had a way of throwing curves at drummers as part of her act. She would have the drummer set up very close to her and in the middle of whatever tempo we'd be playing she'd go off into some other tempo leaving the drummer with egg on his face. We rehearsed all sorts of tunes at her palatial mansion in the Hollywood Hills, but when it came to opening night I had to forget all her arrangements. She immediately did her thing, going off into these other tempos, but I was on my toes and immediately noticed that every time she went into another tempo her right foot went to the sustain pedal on the piano, I was now ready for anything! After we finished out first show, Frances called me into the dressing room. "Okay pal, how do you do it? No drummer has ever done it before!" (Blaine & Dave Goggin 49-50). In Las Vegas, a wise-guy drummer removed the foot pedals off the piano right before the show. When Fran's frantically tapping feet hit the floor instead of the pedals she let out a basso roar. The grinning drummer offered her a paper sack, spilled out the pedals and said, "Take your pick!" Frances was even more startled when a person appeared from the audience and said, "Allow me, I am a piano tuner."

 

Another drummer had a different take on working for Frances when he was interviewed:

Q: This is Jimmy Nicol...he appeared last night at Chequers with Frances Faye. You played drums with her, though, I believe, during her act, didn't you?

JN: Yes, her whole second... second performance at the club, yeah.

Q: Isn't this difficult to do, not having worked with her before?

JN: If you've got soul, man, you can do it (Bob Rodgers 6-12-64).

 

Frances really knew how to schmooze. To endear herself to her supporters, she would be sure to mention them by name onstage and work into song lyrics as many of them as she could: "thank you, John, for doing my hair," sang Frances under a horrible platinum flip performing on the Playboy Penthouse TV Show; and for instance while recording the second "Caught in the Act" she belts out the name "Dave Victorson" among others. He was managing the T'bird at the time; "the singer had a gift for naming nearly everyone who has ever written a line about her, broadcast with her, played her records, made her dresses, supplied her makeup, hired her, fed her, or said they loved her" (qtd. in MacLean 67). Frances took the time to sign as many autographs as a crowd wanted. (Just check Ebay online auctions or a used record store - there is usually a signed Faye album for sale. Frances once signed all 10 albums brought by one fan I know.) In that manner Faye won friends and built bridges so if she needed a favor or publicity all she had to do was make a call or drop a line, "Faye could pull and audience from little more than her personal phone book...she kept costs down and audiences up always remembering in the bargain that others also had egos" (MacLean 66-7). She was a meticulous self promoter, when her first Captiol single was released Faye "spent a whole week sending out personal letters to disc jockeys all over the country' (Downbeat 12/52). I even found a letter Fran wrote with a fountain pen and red ink in her flowing script on her personal stationary addressed to Jimmy Starr at a used book store here in Boulder: "Dear Jimmy, I'm writing to as a favor, I presume nearly everyone does the same thing, but here's the situation: As you know, the Forty One Club is for members only, & there isn't much the management can do about publicity for me - so any mention from you, would mean so much to me - & I'' appreciate it so very very much - Please come by with your wife, it's been so long & I'm looking forward to seeing you - Sincerely Frances." Another letter on Fran’s distinctive personal stationary written in 1953 reads: "Hello Doll - Besides ‘digging you the most’ hope you’ll be in Las Vegas Dec 17th - open there at the Thunderbird - did I remember to tell you, you’re still my favorite. Frances Faye." Many letters and telegrams sent to influential Chicago based columnist Irv Kupcinet still exist as well. They compliment him and his wife Essie, include updates, ask for publicity favors and often include photos of Fran and her younger girlfriend Teri Shepherd. One photo shows the two of them cuddling together in bed, and on another of beautiful Teri, Fran writes in lovingly in red, "There's only 'one' Teri." Faye must have handwritten hundreds of letters like these each year.

 

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 Frances Faye was appearing at the Cameo in New York and on March 5, 1956, one of her shows there was featured on NBC's national radio show "All Star Parade of Bands" sponsored but the US Treasury Bonds.   She bravely performed a daring 30 minute set for Eisenhower's America.   It is hard for us today to grasp the courage it must have taken her to perform what was then very racy and taboo material.   To put her show in context, remember that Eisenhower had signed into law an order that banned homosexuals from government service and many lost their jobs and careers.   Owning artwork and literature that the government considered pornographic was a federal offense.  Gay bars and gathering places were illegal, gay men could not even safely gather in groups in private.   Items with homosexual content could not even pass thru the mail.   Censorship was very strict.  Many songs has two sets of lyrics, the original and "radio safe" versions.  Back in the early 50s, one of Frances's first singles "She Looks" was banned from the radio for the simple, tame lyric "...she looks as though she is but isn't."  It was in this environment that on the national airwaves Frances boldly sang "Frances and Her Friends" about the gay couplings of the many characters: "Tillie goes with Millie....Moey goes with Joey, Joey goes with Tommy, Tommy goes with Seymore..."   In the song, Faye gave a solitary shout out to movie star Tab Hunter, who just a few months earlier was famously scandalized by being outed in Confidential Magazine. In just such a coded way she reached out her gay fans when really no one else publicly did.  During the broadcast Faye told two different men that they were not her type, chanted "gay, gay, gay, what is there to say?" thus giving a very rare and dear shout out to a deeply repressed group in a very dark and closeted era. It is was an amazingly bold show given the strict radio censorship then and the extreme homophobia of the 50's, a clear example of why Frances didn't get many gigs like that. The regular bassist at the Cameo was Whitey Mitchell who recalled, "then the ancient and outrageous Frances Faye showed up with her terrible home-made piano playing, which she more than made up for with her bawdy hilarious routines, her orange hair, and her over-the-top Jewishness. If you didn’t know any Yiddish, you did after an evening with Frances Faye. During one of her shows I was onstage and was about to do a bass solo, but she stopped the music and said, 'Put down that bass and go home, you schmuck! You just became a father!'”

 

At a nightclub around the late 50's Frances met the much younger and very glamorous 22 year old female who became her lifelong companion, her "secretary" referred to in the press and on album covers of the "Caught in the Act" albums. They were her biggest hits, selling lots of copies when they first came out. That first electric album was amazing in Eisenhower's America for its frank embrace of gay people. She sang out, "Gay, gay is there another way?" She quipped, "this next song I never do on account of the gay kids. They resent one word," then sang, "there is heaven right here on earth with those beautiful queens..." (Caught in the Act). Many in the mainstream did not yet know that the word "gay" meant homosexual. However, there was no misunderstanding the song 'Frances and Her Friends,' which went: "... Shirley goes with Pearly and Pearly goes with Yetta... and Charlie goes with Ollie and Ollie goes with Eddie and Eddie goes with Teddy and... Seymour goes with Hymie and Hymie goes with Georgy and Georgy goes with Orgy!" The song mentions some of her real friends and even her poodles (Cuddles goes with Suzy). Even the ambiguous cover article on "Caught in the Act" hinted at an unusual domestic arrangement; Frances "resides in a hillside home high above the famous Sunset Strip in Hollywood which is shared with her secretary and four French Poodles...she admits she's an unconventional character with a wide range of interests" (Caught in the Act). It was just enough information for other unconventional characters and types to know exactly what she was doing, yet subtle enough not to alarm those multitudes who could not even imagine an alternative lifestyle even existed. At a time when there were no sympathetic gay characters in film, on TV or any publicly out performers who had reached Faye's level of mainstream success nor would there be for decades, Frances was quite brave, literally a pioneer. By showing her pride, she gave a gift to so many. Even while promoting "Caught in the Act" on national TV's The Ed Sullivan Show and Playboy's Penthouse, Faye boldly wove her girlfriend's name into the lyrics of the songs she performed just as she had done on the album.

 

Frances's next studio album (surely one of many more flattering photos could have been chosen for the cover!) was for Imperial Records, the home of Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson. Imperial was founded by Lew Chudd who initially sought out artists and genres that had been overlooked by major record companies (Mike Callahan). Lew was also shrewd businessman and dollar driven; records there were made and released as cheaply as possible, "Lew never wanted to spend any money on promoting and advertising," recalled Gordon Stoker (Sandie Johnson 8/94). "Chudd was a cut-throat operator...might not have been ethical," but as Haskell admitted later, "[Chudd] knew how to make hit records" (Jimmie Haskell). "Imperial held part of the publishing rights to "I'm Walkin' [Fats Domino Songbook]," which saved Chudd money when Fran strangely recorded a whole album of Domino songs for him (Johnson 8/94). After the first Imperial cover fiasco, Fran's second album for Chudd did not even feature a cartoon, just an inkblot under her misspelt name and included a track also used on her first Imperial album! She did not have her usual stable of great arrangers and musicians and despite a few terrific cuts, it is not her best work. Even Imperial star Ricky Nelson, "was increasing dissatisfied with the session musicians provided for his recording sessions" (Rick Coleman). But it was also at this time the wonderful live "Caught in the Act" series was independently recorded. Then mercifully, after Imperial, Frances went to jazz label Verve where she again worked with great musicians including Jack Costanzo, Frank Rosolino, Bud Shank and Howard Roberts. There she made a wonderful jazz album with the brilliant arranger Marty Paich and was reunited with Russ Garcia for the amusing Latin album "Frenzy!" that had a wild candid close up on the cover.

 

For years when in Los Angeles, Fran had become a must-see fixture on the Sunset Strip first at the Interlude then downstairs at the Crescendo where she would be booked for months in a row. Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and virtually all of Hollywood came to see her. The world's first transexual Christine Jorgensen remembered those electric nights:

"When I first played here it was 1957, '58, I can’t really pinpoint the date, because I came into Hollywood many years ago to play at the Interlude and it was so much fun. Frances Faye was downstairs at the Crescendo banging at her piano singing, 'gay, gay, gay , Frances Faye' and uh, one of the great nightclub performers of all time, Frances Faye. And the old building was so thin, the walls and everything. Frances’ voice would permiate thru the floor during my performances upstairs and I’ll tell you I’d hear her down there and she’d say 'Christine, eat your heart out,' and I’d say, 'the old bag is down there doing it again.' We could hear each other thru the floor..."

Fran and friend Lily Pons (called the wierdest two-some of the week by a bemused Walther Winchell) finally caught all of Christine's act in person in December 1959.

 

Suddenly in 1958, disaster struck. While playing at the Hotel Riviera to capacity crowds, Fran tripped on a bathroom carpet and broke her hip. She was flown to LA's Mt. Sinai Hospital and was replaced at the Riviera by husband and wife team Jackie and Roy, "the irony of the whole thing," wrote Louella Parsons, "is that she was signed for 20 weeks at the Riviera. Judy Garland, Martha Raye and all the entertainers on the strip came to applaud here and it was one of her biggest first nights" (NYJA 10-14). For eight years Frances was in terrible pain, had to endure 3 major operations and couldn't work for long periods of time. For much of that time she couldn't walk and had to be carried. Then she got around on crutches and a cane. "The only time I don't feel pain is when I am sitting," Frances explained in 1962 (Alpert 3/62). When she did perform, she did so at a crazy pace, "You see I am sitting - and when you are sitting you can't afford to let a second go by" (Alpert 3/62). During these years because of the injury, when her act began the lights would go up and she would already be seated at the piano. Finally, while performing in London, Fran met a doctor who made her a third hip that solved the problem: "One day I came home, using two canes. I walked up my terrace with the canes and put them on a chair. Then I walked into the house and suddenly got hysterical: where were my canes? I couldn't remember where I had put them. From then on I started walking. The pain went away and nothing hurt me anymore" (Wilson 11-17-78).

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Faye with producer Red Clyde recording for Bethlehem Records. Photo by Burt Goldblatt.

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