Doris Day, 1922–2019
The sunny film star who became America’s girl next door
Doris Day’s on-screen presence was so wholesome that it became a joke. “I’m so old, I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin,” went the well-worn quip, variously attributed to Oscar Levant and Groucho Marx. But in the exuberant years between World War II and Vietnam, the blue-eyed, buttery-blond actress and singer was America’s undisputed sweetheart, with theater owners giving Day the No. 1 spot four times in their annual poll of box-office draws in the early 1960s. Audiences flocked to see her in romantic comedies such as 1959’s Pillow Talk and 1962’s That Touch of Mink opposite the likes of Rock Hudson and Cary Grant. Day typically played the role of a spunky professional woman who fends off the advances of a callow playboy—and invariably tames him. But her sunny public persona belied a difficult personal life. Married four times, Day survived physical abuse at the hands of her first husband, was walked out on by her second—who said he didn’t want to be Mr. Doris Day—and discovered that her third had embezzled her fortune. “My public image is unshakably that of America’s wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness,” Day wrote in her memoir. “An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played.”
She was born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, said The Times (U.K.), named after her homemaker mother’s heroine Doris Kenyon, “the early film star who appeared opposite Rudolph Valentino.” The young Doris showed great promise as a dancer, but had to give up those dreams at age 15 when a car she was riding in was struck by a freight train at a poorly marked crossing. “She was dragged from the wreckage with her legs shattered.” Her mother encouraged her to take up singing during her 18-month recovery, said The Guardian (U.K.). Doris spent hours singing along to jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald on the radio, trying, she later recalled, “to catch the casual yet clean way she sang the words.” At age 17, having traded her crutches for a cane, she began singing with big bands in a local club. The owner persuaded Doris to change her last name to Day, explaining that “Kappelhoff was a little too long for the marquee.”
Day’s “sinuous, molten singing voice” dazzled listeners, said TheAtlantic.com, and her first big hit, 1945’s million-selling “Sentimental Journey,” “became the anthem of returning World War II servicemen.” That success led to a contract at Warner Bros., where she starred in musicals, including 1950’s Tea for Two and 1953’s Calamity Jane—her “androgynous, buckskinned performance” in that movie made her a gay icon. But Day found her greatest success in stylish sex comedies, starting with Pillow Talk. Those movies, tame by today’s standards, “were considered daring at the time,” said The New York Times. In Pillow Talk, Day’s character shares a telephone line with the lothario next door, played by her real-life close friend, the closeted Rock Hudson. A famous split-screen scene shows the pair soaking in separate bubble-filled baths, their feet appearing to touch through the wall. Hudson and Day were both convinced the visual metaphor could end their careers.
“Yet her insistence on making mostly sunny, upbeat films earned the rancor of some feminists in the 1960s,” said the Los Angeles Times. Day’s films, they argued, “glorified an ideal woman who never really existed.” Her career faded as Hollywood pivoted to grittier, increasingly realistic fare in the late 1960s. She rejected more modern star vehicles, turning down the role of the middle-aged seductress Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate, saying “it offended my sense of values.” When her third husband, producer Martin Melcher, died in 1968, she learned that he had lost $20 million of her earnings through bad business investments and left her $500,000 in debt. “Despite hating the idea of doing TV,” she managed to recoup some of her losses by starring in The Doris Day Show, which ran for six seasons. As the years went on, Day increasingly shied away from the spotlight, devoting most of her time to animal-rights causes. “I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like,” she said. “I can’t say the same thing about people.” ■