A romance with a life of its own

Singer Sergio Franchi, who died in 1990 at the age of 64, may have been one of the more famous of the many artists who have made Stonington home over the years.

Franchi performed in the White House for four presidents, sang in Carnegie Hall and on Broadway, headlined on the Vegas strip for many years and, in the early years of television, appeared some 47 times on the Ed Sullivan Show.

The remarkable career of this Italian immigrant, who sang his way into the hearts of so many Americans, a striking tenor, might have faded into a hazy past if not for the enduring devotion of his wife, Eva, who to this day continues to make him the center of her life and an enduring local celebrity.

Saturday was to be the 25th memorial fundraiser concert held in Franchi's honor, an annual event on the grounds of the couple's magnificent 240-acre Stonington estate. Attendance is limited to 5,000 people who come to hear performances by some of the world's leading young tenors — personally chosen by Mrs. Franchi — who compete for prizes.

The event has created an endowment of more than a million dollars, which distributes scholarships to aspiring young singers.

I went to see Eva Franchi this week, after a news release announced the postponement of the 25th concert until next year, to make sure all is well at Farmholme, the Franchi estate. I will confess, I looked forward to meeting again the charming and engaging Hungarian-born Franchi, who puts almost everyone she meets at ease at once with a drawn out "daaarling."

She greeted me in the gracious front hall of the brick manor house, which you reach after driving what seems like a mile down a driveway lined with trees and trim stone walls, past outbuildings, a barn and pond.

Sergio Franchi was a collector of art and antiques, and the house remains a museum to his wide interests, with displays of copper and pewter, furniture, vintage cameras, car models and china, which he and Eva found on endless antiquing missions around New England.

Some of the walls are covered with photographs of his career. There is a drawing of him by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld and a few handsome oil portraits, including one which hung in an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution.

The living room is still a unique red that Sergio painted himself, a shade he matched from a lobster he seized on one night at dinner, after having looked for a long time for the perfect color.

The Franchis bought Farmholme in 1978, when Sergio went to see an antique car he wanted to buy. They ended up buying the house and the estate, which suited him well because there was room to store the other 17 cars in his collection, Eva said.

It was bliss for both of them, Eva Franchi told me this week, after they both left behind previous marriages and moved in with no possessions other than the car collection.

"I got to be with the love of my life, and to live here in heaven on earth," Franchi told me this week.

Sergio Franchi's cancer was diagnosed in 1989, soon after he fell ill, and he had to cancel a performance at the Warwick Musical Theater, his first cancellation ever, his wife recalled.

She said she fell into a funk after he was gone. Her mother came to live with her in Stonington. She took a job as head of the hospitality division of a hair products company, Conair Corporation, run by an old friend of Sergio's.

But she didn't feel settled again until she started planning the first concert, a few years after he was gone. She sent invitations telling anyone to come if Sergio ever put a smile on their face. More than 1,000 people showed up. It kept growing.

"I wanted the romance to live on," she told me.

"I'm 75 and not dead yet," Franchi said, when I called to ask about the postponement. A lot of people have been asking about her health because of it, she said.

The decision to cancel was made after eight close friends, including some involved in running and sponsoring the event, died in the last year. She also is in talks to change the foundation that hosts the endowment.

The show will go on next August, she promises. But that will probably be the last. She said she may put Farmholme up for sale after that and move to California to be closer to her family, including nine godchildren.

That might break the Franchi spell in Stonington, but it won't end Eva Franchi's charming devotion to Sergio.

"I still haven't said goodbye," she said.

This is the opinion of David Collins.



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