Young people may not be familiar with Doris Day. That’s understandable since her peak occurred during the 1950s and 1960s, and she retired in 1994. But those of us of a certain age remember her very well.
Doris Day was one of the most versatile and successful entertainers of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, although her career spanned seven decades, from 1939 to 1994. During this time she made 39 movies, recorded some 600 songs and starred in her own tv show. At her peak, she topped both the billboard and box office charts. In the early 1960s she was the #1 box office star in the world four times. Her acting versatility was extraordinary. She starred in comedies, dramas and musicals. She co-starred with a virtual Who’s Who list of the male film stars of the time, such as Rock Hudson, Kirk Douglas, Jack Lemmon, Frank Sinatra, James Garner, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable, Cary Grant, and Ronald Reagan, to name a few. She received a plethora of awards, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a Legend Award from the Society of Singers, The Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in motion pictures, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association Career Achievement Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff was born on April 3, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her mother was a housewife, and her father was a music teacher and choir master. Her parents soon separated due to her father’s chronic infidelity, and Doris was raised by her mother. She had two older brothers, one of whom had died before she was born. Oddly, for years she was under the impression that she had been born in 1924, until the Associated Press discovered the error. As a youngster she became interested in dancing, and as a teenager she performed in local venues in the Cincinnati area. She had hopes of becoming a professional dancer, but a serious car accident when she was 15 ended that dream.
However, one might say that the car accident proved to be a blessing in disguise. As Doris told one of her biographers, A. E. Hotchner, “during this long, boring period [when she was recuperating] I used to while away a lot of time listening to the radio sometimes singing along with the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller.” Her favorite, however, was Ella Fitzgerald, whom she admired for the “quality [of] her voice” and the “subtle ways she shaded her voice.”
During this time her mother, recognizing Doris’ ability and potential, arranged for singing lessons. Her teacher, Grace Raine, quickly recognized Doris’ “tremendous potential.” Doris always credited Raine with having “the biggest effect on her singing style and career.”
In the late 1930s Doris was singing on the radio when she got her first big break. Orchestra leader, Barney Rapp, was looking for a female vocalist. After hearing Day sing he auditioned her, and she beat out some 200 other girls for the job. It was Rapp who prevailed upon Doris to change her name. Rapp felt that “Kappelhoff” was too long for marquees. Furthermore, he had liked Doris’ rendition of the song, “Day After Day,” so, voila, “Doris Day” was born.
In the early 1940s Day moved on to sing for other bandleaders, such as Jimmy James, Bob Crosby and Les Brown. In 1945, while working with Brown, she recorded her first “hit” record, “Sentimental Journey.” This song came to symbolize soldiers’ desire to return home after the war.
Day’s next big break came in 1948. Betty Hutton, who was set to star in the Mike Curtiz film “Romance on the High Seas,” became pregnant and had to withdraw at the last minute. After a frantic search, Curtiz ended up hiring Day, despite her lack of acting experience, because she “looked like the All-American Girl.” Curtiz always said that his discovery of Doris Day was one of the proudest moments of his career.
Day was now on her way to being a megastar. Movie roles came in quick succession, as Hollywood played up her image of the “All-American Girl next door.” In 1950 US servicemen in Korea voted her their favorite star. In 1952 she got her own show on the radio.
Probably, my favorite movie of hers was “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” a spy thriller directed by the great Alfred Hitchcock and co-starring Jimmy Stewart. I remember seeing it as an 11 year old and again recently on tv. In my opinion, it holds up very well. One of the songs Day sang in the movie, “Que Sera, Sera,” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song” and became one of her biggest “hits.”
Perhaps, Day is best known for her roles in romantic comedies. She starred in a series of them beginning in 1959 with “Pillow Talk” starring Rock Hudson. She received an Oscar nomination for her role in that film. Additional romantic comedies came in quick succession, including “Lover Come Back” (1961), “That Touch of Mink” (1962), “The Thrill of It All” (1963), and “Send Me No Flowers” (1964), among many others. Each of these was highly successful, but “Mink” became the first film in history to gross $1 million in one theatre (Radio City). These movies had various male leads, but Day was the common denominator.
This period was her golden age. From 1960 to 1964 she ranked number one at the box office four times. During this period her box office success began to overshadow her renown as a singer, even though “Billboard’s” annual poll of disc jockeys ranked her the number one female vocalist nine times during the ten year period from 1949 – 1958. Based on her image, movie critics referred to her as the “World’s Oldest Virgin.”
In stark contrast to her successful professional career, her personal life was plagued with problems and misfortune. Day was married four times. Her first husband, trombonist Al Jorden, beat her. Her third husband, Martin Melcher, squandered her money, leaving her bankrupt. Her one child, Terry Melcher, was believed, by some, to have been the actual target of Charles Manson and his followers when they raided the house occupied by Sharon Tate. Apparently Melcher had lived in that house before Tate and had had a disagreement with Manson.
In 1994 Day retired from films and withdrew from public life. She set up residence in Carmel-by-the-Sea in CA. She became an animal activist. She adopted stray animals, co-founded various charitable foundations dedicated to animals, and spoke out against the wearing of furs.
According to David Kaufman, one of her biographers, Day’s private life was in sharp contrast to her public persona as the wholesome, virginal, “All-American girl next door.” He described her as a “very sensual woman” who “had affairs with a number of people. She was never happily married. She had a son but was never really a mother; he was more like a brother to her. She was in many ways the opposite [of] the girl next door.”
Throughout her long career, Day has received many testimonials from her fellow entertainers and critics. For example, “The Atlantic” called her “the people’s actor;” Helen Mirren said she “admired her acting,” (high praise from an actress of Mirren’s caliber), Bob Hope, who knew a thing or two about comedy, praised her “natural comic timing;” and James Garner called her the “sexiest sort of co-star.”
Day passed away on May 13 at 97 from pneumonia. Rest in peace Doris. You entertained us and made us laugh for seven decades. You will be sorely missed.