News & Opinion

Doris Day: 1922-2019

Doris Day was America’s sweetheart with added steel

The Daily Beast

May 13, 2019

Doris Day, who has died at 97, was known for her frothy romantic comedies with Rock Hudson. But her onscreen easy-breezy perkiness camouflaged a supreme acting and musical talent.

It’s a raw, rainy day on the East Coast; the perfect day, if you had the time and inclination, to curl up and watch a Doris Day movie. It would also be a perfect tribute to Day, who died this morning at her home in Carmel, California, aged 97.

Announcing her death, T. Robert Bashara, CFO of the Doris Day Animal Foundation, said she had died peacefully, having been “delighted” by all the birthday messages she had received on April 3 from fans around the world.

We all know what a “Doris Day movie” means, and what it promises. It likely does not mean Love Me Or Leave Me (1955), opposite James Cagney, or The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), directed by Alfred Hitchcock, fine films as they are, both showcasing Day singing memorable songs, including the Oscar-winning “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).”

Over the years, a “Doris Day movie” has become a shorthand for the kinds of romantic comedies—Pillow Talk (1959, for which she received an Oscar nomination), Lover Come Back (1961), and Send Me No Flowers (1964)—that she made with Rock Hudson that spoke to their wonderful chemistry and comic timing. (In the last one, appositely, they play a married couple.)

“Her life’s work—her music, her films, and her animal advocacy—comprise an enduring legacy,” Bashara’s statement read. “Fans will continue to laugh at her romantic comedies, admire her dramatic grit, marvel at her pitch and interpretation of so many great songs. She redefined what it meant to be a girl singer with a Big Band, and she broke the mold for Hollywood starlets. And for so many fans, young and old, the name Doris Day will always make us smile.”

It wasn’t Hudson but Cary Grant who starred opposite her in That Touch of Mink (1962) and James Garner in Move Over, Darling (1963); two other films that smoothly customized the no-sex, complication-rich, romantic comedy of the late ’50s and early ’60s, before clothes and propriety were gleefully tossed aside.

Just reading the titles of those films summons Day’s voice up, singing the peppy standard to Pillow Talk, or the luxuriant chords of Move Over, Darling, and visions of her and Hudson verbal-jousting or pranking each other over champagne coupes filled to the brim with sparkles and misunderstanding-causing party lines.

Day’s favorite actor, she said, was “Jimmy Cagney first, and Cary Grant second.” Of the latter, she said, “He was very private, he did not have a lot of fun on the set. That was not his style. He stayed to himself. If a person does that, you don’t really get to know that person very well.”

The tributes to Day emphasize the wholesomeness that endeared her to audiences. But her skill at playing the “good girl” shouldn’t obscure the energy, wit, intelligence, and focus she bought to each of those roles.

As fashion designer Mary Quant told a 2002 BBC documentary about Day, “Doris Day was America. Doris Day was everything that was wonderful about America. She was all woman, as well as being the girl next door. She had it all.”

Day was born in Cincinnati in 1922 as Doris von Kappelhoff. Her dream of being a dancer ended after a car accident. Her singing career began under the aegis of orchestra leader Les Brown, with her film career beginning with Romance on the High Seas (1948).

Day made everything on screen look so easy, so breezy that it can obscure the work she was doing; comedy is just as hard to get right as tragedy. Those who play agonized, grand roles traditionally get plaudits, because there is no nobler acting pursuit than the visceral distillation of pain; whereas Day was made over time into a safe, prettified icon, whose very name became a byword for cutesy sweetness.

But if you watch Pillow Talk, Day inhabits a character who, unusually for the time, has a high-powered job. She wants to take charge of her own romantic life. Now, of course, Rock Hudson comes along and gooses her and plays with her; and eventually this battle of the sexes resolves itself in a traditional way, but Day’s character is not innately pliant.

None of Doris Day’s characters are. They are strong, capable, independent. They do the right thing, for sure, but according to their own moral compass; and even their occasional prissiness comes spiked with her characteristically no-nonsense zest.

Calamity Jane (1953) is a riot, with Day strutting commandingly around in chaps and tassels opposite Howard Keel, and a soundtrack that embraces both the rollicking “The Deadwood Stage (Whip-Crack-Away!)” and “Secret Love,” which remains the ultimate song of yearning.

Unsurprisingly, given both the fitted duds and the lyrics of that song (“Once I had a secret love/That lived within the heart of me/All too soon my secret love/Became impatient to be free”), Day became a lesbian (and gay) icon. Day told the BBC in 1989, “I think Calamity Jane is the real me. I do, I’ve always said that.”

She also told the BBC that she had no idea Hudson, who died of AIDS in 1985, was gay. At the time Hudson’s death caused both headlines and shock. A major Hollywood idol was both dying of a much-feared and stigmatized (and at that time untreatable) disease. He was also being outed. It was a grotesque circus, made worse by the homophobia and ignorance of the time.

The BBC interviewer had noted the number of “gay” jokes Hudson’s character makes in Pillow Talk; and how “tense” that had been for him, a closeted actor, to do.

“I don’t think so,” said Day. “I didn’t see it as such. Nothing was ever talked about as far as his private life, I must tell you. Many people would ask me, ‘Is Rock Hudson really gay?’ and I said, ‘It’s something that I will not discuss. First of all, I know nothing about his private life, and if I did I wouldn’t discuss it, so I can’t tell you one thing about him except that he is a nice man.’”

In 1989, Day said she had wanted to be a homemaker, and her husband to be “the man of the family,” but that ultimately she had become the breadwinner. Still, in very Doris Day-like fashion, she would cycle through Beverly Hills to the shops, so much so that local law enforcement said they couldn’t protect her.

Her son Terry, who died in 2004 of melanoma, said he recalled Clark Gable, Cagney, Judy Garland, Billy Wilder, and (of course) Hudson coming for dinner. Frank Sinatra said Day, who began her career as a singer and whose songs are still classics, was the only person (besides himself) who could make the listener believe in the lyrics being sung.

Day said she had been unnerved working with Alfred Hitchcock—feeling that she was doing something wrong. James Cagney sought to reassure her. But then, when she sang “Que Sera, Sera” for Hitchcock, he told her, “I didn’t know that was the song I wanted, but that’s the song I want.”

Day made her last movie in 1968. After that came The Doris Day Show for TV, which was fortunate as about that time Day discovered that her entire fortune had been lost thanks to her then-dead third husband Marty Melcher and lawyer Jerome B. Rosenthal (who she later sued).

Day was married four times, divorcing three husbands (last of all, restaurant owner Barry Comden), and being widowed once when Melchor died. She said her first husband, Al Jorden, had beaten her.

Kaye Ballard, who appeared alongside Day on her TV show, said of Day, “She chose wonderful projects and very bad relationships.”

Despite her own travails, Day aspired to live like her films too. As she told The Bark in 2006, “Silvery Moon and Moonlight Bay—I loved doing those. You know, if life could be like it was in those movies, it would be beautiful, wouldn’t it?”

“I’ve been through everything, Day told The Bark. “I always said I was like those round-bottomed circus dolls—you know, those dolls you could push down and they’d come back up? I’ve always been like that. I’ve always said, ‘No matter what happens, if I get pushed down, I’m going to come right back up.’”

In her later years, Day devoted herself to animal welfare through the Doris Day Animal Foundation, even saving animals imperiled by Hurricane Katrina.

Her love of animals also inspired her to stand up to director Hitchcock on the set of The Man Who Knew Too Much, as she did not like how animals were being treated on the movie.

“I did go to Mr. Hitchcock, whom I loved dearly, and we had a long talk about it,” she told The Bark. “I said ‘Hitch, I can’t bear it, I can’t bear to see what goes on here with animals.’ The horses were so thin, the donkeys were overburdened, and I was just horrified at the dogs running loose and starving. I told him I really couldn’t work unless we fed these animals.

“And he said, ‘We’re going to do that, I want you to just relax and know that they will be taken care of.’ But then I thought, once we leave, it will go right back to the way it was.”

Of caring for animals and advocating for them as passionately as she did, Day told The Bark, “You have to do things, you have to step out and stick up for animals because they can’t do anything for themselves. And really, I’ve been led by God to everything I’ve done in my life. I’ve been put here and put there—out of Cincinnati and into a band, then to Hollywood, and now, the foundation and animal league.”

Day had multiple pets herself. When she lived in Beverly Hills, one neighbor complained about her having 17 dogs.

Her love for her pets nevertheless endured. “I get this big greeting, and I’ve only been gone 45 minutes!” she told The Bark. “You can’t beat that. And now, as I’m speaking with you, they’re all gathered around me. I’ve always found inspiration and comfort in animals.”

Day received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for Lifetime Achievement in 1989 and released My Heart, a CD of songs in 2011 to benefit her foundation.

In announcing her death, Bashara wrote, “The world has lost a light today. Doris was not just a darling of song and screen, but a close friend, an inspiration when the world seemed bleak, and a dear, compassionate advocate for her favorite beings on Earth: the 4-leggers.

“Doris’ passionate work on behalf of dogs, cats, horses, sea lions, raptors, and other animals in need of rescue, veterinary care, and adoption will not end. The Doris Day Animal Foundation is committed to continuing its work as a grant-giving organization, funding smaller animal welfare non-profits across the country.

“While we grieve Doris’ loss, we at DDAF also honor her leadership of more than 40 years. She was truly a voice for the voiceless among us, a bright and beautiful champion for the cause of animal welfare, and a dear, dear friend to us all.”