“America’s Sweetheart” Doris Day (b. Cincinnati, OH, 3 April 1922), one of America’s most popular and prolific screen actresses of the 1950s and 1960s, appeared in 39 films, recorded more than 650 songs, and as of 2009, was still the top-ranking female box office film star of all time. Beginning as a band singer, over the course of her career she had more than 20 Top Ten hits in the US and the UK (where she was so popular she could not walk down a street). Two songs she sang in the movies, “Secret Love” (Calamity Jane, 1953) and “Que Será, Será” (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956) won Oscars® for Best Song. She has been an activist in the field of Animal Welfare for over thirty years.
Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff (in her memoir she gives the date of her birth as 1924) was named after Doris Kenyon, her mother’s favorite silent film star. Her father was William Kappelhoff, a respected Cincinnati organist, classical violin teacher, and chorus master known as “Professor,” though he wasn’t one. Her parents, both German Catholics and the offspring of immigrants, were incompatible (her gregarious mother, Alma Sophia, preferred hillbilly music), and when both were present, the atmosphere at home was suffocating. They divorced when Doris was eleven, and she did not see her father again for decades. Her older brother Paul (another brother had died at two, before she was born) became an accomplished pianist, but Doris did not have the patience to practice; besides, she was enamored with dancing.
She was a dedicated student of acrobatic and tap dancing, once winning 25 free dance lessons for standing on her hands longer than any other child in her class (her remarkable indomitability has lasted all her life). At twelve, she and her friend Jerry Doherty formed a duo, “Doris and Jerry,” and entertained at lodges and community centers all over Cincinnati. They even won $500 in a local talent contest. Their success prompted their mothers to take them to Hollywood during the summer of 1937 for lessons at an elite dancing school. They received such exciting encouragement – and the mothers both fell in love with Hollywood – that they all decided to return to Cincinnati only to pick up their things and move out west permanently.
Packed and ready to go, they had a farewell party for friends and relatives on Friday the thirteenth of October. Doris and three of her friends took a break to drive across town for a hamburger, and on the way back their car was hit by a freight train. Doris’s right leg was shattered. Not only was the trip canceled (Jerry soon gave up dancing), but it was feared that Doris might not walk again.
She was in a heavy cast for over a year and suffered several setbacks, but Doris, never to be overwhelmed or discouraged (except by boredom), simply turned her energies toward learning to sing. She found a wise and generous teacher, Grace Raine, who managed to get her singing on the local radio station, found her her first professional gigs (at sixteen) – first at a Chinese restaurant and then with a band, Barney Rapp and his New Englanders – and “taught me everything I ever learned about singing.” It was Barney Rapp who, just a few days after Doris started with his band, jettisoned her last name, Kappelhoff, in favor of “Day,” suggested by one of her favorite songs, “Day after Day;” it fit more easily onto his marquee. (Doris never liked the name, never thought it fit her. Later, she happily accepted the nicknames her friends gave her: “Clara Bixby” from Billy De Wolfe and others, “Eunice” from Rock Hudson, “Do-Do” from Gordon MacRae, and “Suzie Creamcheese.”)
Since Doris couldn’t drive, and it was an imposition on her mother to have to come across town to bring her home after work at 2 AM, Doris persuaded a sour-tempered trombonist named Al Jorden who lived in her neighborhood to drive her back and forth to Barney Rapp’s club. Ignoring many clear indications that it would be a terrible mistake, she married Jorden a year later, at age seventeen. At this time she had been headlining on tour with Les Brown and His Band of Renown for several months, but quit her job immediately: “I’m just a hausfrau at heart.”
Within two months she was pregnant, and the next year was pure hell, for Jorden was pathologically jealous and physically abusive to the point of trying to bring about a miscarriage. At one point, while he was driving, he held Doris at gunpoint; a few years after their divorce he took his own life with the same pistol.
Parking her little son Terry with her mother in Cincinnati, Doris was back with Les Brown’s band in late 1943, and a little more than a year later had her first big hit record, “Sentimental Journey” (1945). In 1946, against her better judgment (and very much to Les Brown’s dismay), she married the band’s alto sax player and gave up her job, moving with husband George Weidler to a trailer park in Los Angeles. The marriage lasted a scant eight months, and Doris, with a sense of utter failure, went into a deep depression.
Prodded by her devoted agent Al Levy, she went unwillingly to a party at Jule Styne’s house, where she was pressed into singing “Embraceable You” (notorious as a Hollywood audition piece) and talked into taking a screen test with Michael Curtiz at Warner Brothers. Quite unexpectedly she snagged a leading role as a nightclub singer (singing “It’s Magic”) in Romance on the High Seas (1948) opposite Jack Carson and Oscar Levant (he was the originator of that wisecrack claiming he had known her “before she became a virgin”). Doris Day found herself right where she belonged: “Movie acting came to me with greater ease and naturalness than anything else I had ever done.” And it didn’t hurt that nearly every movie she was in featured a song that made it to the Hit Parade.
Sometime between her first two pictures, George Weidler had resurfaced, not to rekindle their romance, but to introduce Doris to a principle that had changed his life: Christian Science. She took to it almost immediately, and it became an important support, sustenance, and refuge for the rest of her life. At about the same time, she did a couple of six-week tours and a radio series with Bob Hope – “a frightening, educational, exhausting, enjoyable, depressing experience” that resulted in a lifelong chronic fear of flying.
In 1949 she made two more films, My Dream Is Yours (1949, “I’ll String Along with You”) and It’s a Great Feeling (1949). Eight more Warner Brothers movies over the next two years, and Doris Day, with her good looks, her energy, her terrific singing style, and her effusive personality, was America’s Sweetheart.
Al Levy’s devotion had developed into something more demanding and disagreeable to Doris, so she took an associate of his, Marty Melcher, as her manager. She married Melcher in 1951 and brought her young son Terry to live with them in Hollywood. (He had been staying in Ohio with her mother; her mother came, too.) Terry was adopted by Melcher and took his last name. As an adult, Terry Melcher became a songwriter and record producer, associated with The Beach Boys, The Byrds, Paul Revere & the Raiders, Wayne Newton, Jimmy Boyd, Pat Boone, Glen Campbell, and The Mamas & the Papas.
Over the seven years (1948–1955) of her contract with Warner Brothers, Doris Day made seventeen pictures, all but two of them musicals. The best of them, and her all-time favorite, was Calamity Jane (1953, “Secret Love”) with Howard Keel, a major hit; Lucky Me (1954, “High Hopes”) with Phil Silvers followed; her last with the studio was Young at Heart (1954) with Frank Sinatra.
At this point the choice of which scripts to perform fell to her, and increasingly, to her husband. With James Cagney she starred in Love Me or Leave Me (1955, “You Made Me Love You,” “Mean to Me”), a drama about the life of singer Ruth Etting. In 1956 Alfred Hitchcock fulfilled a six-year-old promise to direct her in The Man Who Knew Too Much (“Que Será, Será”) with James Stewart. Pillow Talk (1959) with Rock Hudson and Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960) with David Niven were possibly the most successful movies Doris Day ever made (Pillow Talk brought her an Oscar® nomination for Best Actress), and in 1963 she was named the year’s top box-office star by the Motion Picture Herald.
She made two more pictures with her good friend Rock Hudson, Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). (After his death from AIDS in 1985 she claimed she had never dreamed he was homosexual.)
In spite of a 1962 Golden Globe Award as the World’s Favorite Actress, the 1960s were not to be as busy as the previous decade. Melcher had taken absolute charge of her career – and her finances – and began to sign contracts for her without her consent. Do Not Disturb (1965), The Glass Bottom Boat (1966), Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (1968), and With Six You Get Eggroll (1968) were not brilliant, but more or less guaranteed successes.
When Martin Melcher died of cancer in April 1968, Doris Day was faced with several rude awakenings. Not only was she bankrupt, she was millions of dollars in debt; Melcher had entrusted (it is still uncertain whether he was duped or whether he was party to the scheme) all her money to a lawyer who invested some of it in worthless real estate and pocketed the rest. What is more, Melcher had signed her with CBS – for several millions, now vanished – to do her own television series, quite against her inclinations. She nevertheless felt it was her duty to fulfill the contract, and in the fall of 1968 embarked on The Doris Day Show, which ran very successfully for five seasons. She never made another film.
Doris Day brought suit against the attorney, her husband’s “partner,” in February 1969 and, more than five years later, was awarded what was up until that time the largest civil judgment in the history of California, nearly 23 million dollars. That was not the end of it, however. The attorney continued to file several appeals that were not conclusively rejected by the courts until October 1985; even then he tried to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, who refused to review the lower courts’ judgments. He was finally disbarred in 1988.
Day’s next disaster, or near disaster, was the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate and her friends by Charles Manson. It took place in a house in Bel Air that was under lease to her son the record producer, Terry Melcher. Melcher had once given Manson an audition for a recording contract, but rejected him, and Day and Melcher were afraid that Manson had intended to take revenge. Although police thoroughly discounted their suspicions, it was years before their terrors diminished, and neither of them would ever speak about it.
After The Doris Day Show terminated in 1973, the star essentially left show business and became involved in the cause of animal rights. It was during the location filming in Morocco of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), when she saw how the many goats and camels in the marketplace scene were being abused and left without food, that she first had the idea to devote her life to animal welfare. Her efforts have culminated in the Doris Day Animal League in Carmel, California, as well as an estimable collection of pets of her own.
After publishing her memoirs in 1975 with the help of A.E. Hotchner (Doris Day: Her Own Story, William Morrow and Company, Inc.), Day was married for the fourth time to Barry Comden, the maitre d’ at one of her favorite restaurants. They were divorced in 1981.
Terry Melcher wrote several songs for his mother, and produced many of her recordings, some of which were not released for many years (The Love Album, recorded 1967, released 1995; My Heart, tracks recorded mostly in 1985, released 2011). Terry died in November 2004 at the age of 62, after a long bout with melanoma.
It is inevitable that certain legends and traditions – true or false – should grow up around the top-ranking female box office film star of all time. She reportedly disapproved of vulgar language and would require anyone who swore during a recording session to put a quarter in a jar. Nor would she allow swear words in her movies, and even turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate “on moral grounds.” She has said publicly, however, that she believes people should live together before they are married, and that a lot of pain and heartache could be avoided if people took the opportunity to do so.
She is a staunch Republican, was a close friend and supporter of Ronald Reagan (she dated him briefly back when he was a Democrat), and voted for George W. Bush, as she told the press. When she was to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in June 2004, she telephoned Bush personally to express her regrets that she could not attend the ceremony: she was prevented by the terror of flying she had acquired on her tours with Bob Hope in the 1940s.
Doris Day has been presented with a number of other post-career honors: in 1989 Clint Eastwood presented her with the Golden Globe’s Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement in motion pictures; in 2008 she was honored in absentia with a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in Music; and in 2012 she was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for “Que Será, Será.” Over her lifetime she has received over thirty awards. She was invited to accept the Kennedy Center Honors but turned it down because she could not fly to the ceremony. She has two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for Recording at 6278 Hollywood Boulevard, and one for Motion Pictures at 6735 Hollywood Boulevard.
Two Doris Day biographies were published in June 2008, neither one with her stamp of approval: Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door (Virgin Books) by David Kaufman, and Doris Day: Reluctant Star (JR Books).
Day now lives near Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.
To celebrate her birthday in April 2012, Sony Masterworks releases a two-disc album of Day’s favorites, Doris Day: With a Smile and a Song.
– Lucy E. Cross