Doris Day Exudes Confidence, Heckles an Umpire, Wants to Be a Housewife, Talks to Me on the Phone, & Can Literally Do it All.
All Heart: Doris Day & Why She Matters
April 3, 2020 Updated May 20, 2022
“I’m always looking for insights into the real Doris Day because I’m stuck with this infatuation and need to explain it to myself.”
-American writer and Doris Day mega-fan, John Updike
Any Doris Day fan can relate to the infatuation that John Updike conveys.
As Updike’s words suggest, despite the carefree, sunny exterior she often projected on screen, Doris Day was not the average girl next door.
Underneath that bright, glossy image was a complex woman of incredible character, talent, confidence, and strength.
It’s the sort of enigma that makes a superstar. And Doris Day was a superstar.
The Biggest Female Box Office Star
Doris Day is arguably the biggest female box office star of all time. For nearly half the length of her Hollywood career, Doris ranked among the top ten money making stars at the US box office. For ten years, Doris held her own on this male dominated list. And four of those years, Doris earned the number one position, beating out such box office giants as John Wayne, Paul Newman, Cary Grant, and Rock Hudson for the distinction. It’s a record no other female star has topped, and only Shirley Temple has matched.
Even more impressive, simultaneous to her top box office rankings, Doris was one of the best selling female recording artists, with 76 billboard charting singles to her name.
Doris Day: A Woman of Depth
Doris’ girl next door aura contributed in no small part to her monumental success in Hollywood. But her talent and depth of character, often overlooked, are what kept audiences enraptured with her year after year.
As producer Joe Pasternak put it:
“For all her effervescence and apparent joie de vivre, I sometimes have the feeling Doris is busting inside. Sure, Doris is a wonderful, wholesome girl, but she is complex and she does have uncertainties about herself. That’s what makes her such a great performer. Simple girls can’t act. If she were as uncomplicated as her publicity would lead you to believe, she wouldn’t be the tremendous box office draw that she is.”
But there’s another reason why Doris topped the charts for so long, and why, over 50 years since her last film, the Doris Day fan base continues to grow.
On the Brink of Stardom
As a young singer on the brink of a movie stardom she never sought, Doris Day auditioned, at the badgering of her agent, for the lead role in a prestigious Warner Bros. musical. She’d never acted on film before, had zero training, and was completely depressed over the recent break-up of her second marriage.
Doris didn’t even try to hide the tears of her personal life from director Michael Curtiz as she attempted to sing ‘Embraceable You.’ Positive that she was failing the audition miserably, Doris apologized for her acting inexperience and for using Curtiz’s valuable time as she prepared to leave.
But despite the tears and her inability to get more than halfway through the song, Michael Curtiz was mesmerized by the young woman before him.
Doris Day had something the other hundred or so actresses he’d already tested didn’t have. In his thick Hungarian accent, Curtiz all but told Doris the role was hers:
“I sometimes like a girl who is not an actress. It’s less pretend and more heart.”
“Less pretend and more heart.” The phrase describes Doris’ style perfectly.
Doris Day is all heart. Whether playing absolutely any character or genre on screen, or putting across a ballad with an intimacy unequaled by any other artist, Doris is one hundred percent invested; heart, body, and soul, in the performance at hand. Audiences are forever drawn to her because of it.
Doris Day and all her facets—the sunshine, the incredible talents, her spirituality, love of animals, and almost herculean determination to be happy no matter what life threw her way—deserve analysis and celebration. And, perhaps above all, greater appreciation.
Here are a few things about Doris Day you didn’t know.
Dance Was Her First Love
Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff was born April 3, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio. The youngest of three children, Doris never met her oldest brother, Richard, who died before she was born. But middle brother Paul became her close friend and protector, both in childhood and later during her career in Hollywood. Rounding out the Kappelhoff family was Doris’ mother Alma, a spunky, vivacious lady whose children were the center of her world; and Doris’ father William, a cold and reserved classical musician who had very little time for his young family.
From the time she was a little girl, Doris Day had to dance.
“Dance was my overriding love,”
Doris shared in her 1975 autobiography. Tap, ballet, acrobatic dancing, Doris did it all. Dance was her first passion, before singing, before acting.
And it was Doris’ salvation through the great tragedy of her childhood.
At thirteen years old, Doris discovered her father having an affair with her mother’s best friend. The revelation spelled the end of the already strained Kappelhoff marriage.
With her dad gone and mother Alma now working at a local bakery to make ends meet, Doris relied on dance more than ever. Dance, in Doris’ own words, proved her “saving grace” during this difficult time.
It was clear that Doris possessed a rare talent for the sport when, at age fifteen, she and dance partner Jerry Doherty won a local dance competition. With the $500 grand prize, Doris, Jerry, and their mothers set off for Hollywood, where the award money was spent on dance instruction at the prestigious Fanchon & Marco Studios.
Doris Day: One of the Great Dance Talents
Even after Doris Day became a Hollywood star, her dancing abilities impressed the professional dancers and choreographers she worked with on her many musicals.
Choreographer Miriam Nelson, wife of film tap dancer Gene Nelson, arranged many of the most intricate dance routines Doris ever did on film. I had the great privilege to discuss the Golden Age with Miriam Nelson at Doris’ 2017 Birthday Celebration in Carmel. According to Miriam, Doris Day was a natural:
“I don’t remember her ever not being able to do something I showed her. She was a good tapper.”
Donald Saddler was an original member of the American Ballet Theatre before his career as a top Warner Bros. choreographer. Saddler worked with Doris frequently at the studio, and echoed Miriam’s thoughts:
“Of all the stars and principals I’ve ever danced with, I think she was one of the most gifted…She could do anything. When you showed her something, she would immediately perform it…She would take it and go with it, and that’s a truly great talent…with Doris, if she couldn’t take a step I gave her and make something out if it—or make it her own—then it was the step’s fault, because she had perfect rhythm. She was one of the great talents.”
When it came to dance, Doris Day could complete with the best of them. If Doris hadn’t been a world-class talent in so many areas, she could have become one of the screen’s finest dancers.
There was also a physical setback to young Doris Day’s future dance career. One so devastating, it’s a miracle she ever danced, let alone walked, again.
A Tragic Accident
Fifteen-year-old Doris and dance partner Jerry excelled at Fanchon & Marco. The enthusiasm of their dance instructors convinced the Dohertys and Kappelhoffs to permanently relocate to Hollywood.
But when Doris went home to Cincinnati to gather her things and say goodbye to friends and family, her dreams of a dance career were destroyed: while driving home with friends after a night out, Doris’ car was struck by a train.
And then a freight car.
As Doris recalled:
“There was a flash of the locomotive’s light, a moment when I became aware of its black, looming hulk, but no sound no warning, a crossing with no lights or signs, just the giant presence hurtling at us, a split moment of our screams, then crashing into us, not once but twice as we were struck again by a freight car in back of the locomotive.”
Immediately after the crash, Doris thought she’d somehow managed to avoid injury.
But when she got out of the car to help her friend, Doris found that her right leg wouldn’t support her:
“[So] I pulled myself along the ground over to the curb. I felt no pain. I probed along my leg and discovered I was bleeding. Then my fingers came to the sharp ends of the shattered bones protruding from my leg. I began talking to myself about my leg. ‘How will I dance? How can I dance?’ I kept repeating it. Then I fainted in the gutter.”
The train accident completely shattered Doris’ right leg.
But with what turned out to be one of her defining characteristics, Doris Day found a way to turn tragedy into opportunity.
Her Singing Talent Was an Accidental Discovery
Following the train collision, Doris’ recovery prognosis was not good, at least not for her dancing career.
As Doris described in her autobiography:
“The x-rays showed that I had a double compound fracture, and there were shattered bone fragments that had to be fitted back into place. A steel pin was inserted in the bone and an extra-heavy cast encased my leg from my thigh to my toes. But despite the long and complex surgery, the doctors were optimistic about my being able to regain normal use of my leg; they were not optimistic, however, about my ability ever to dance again.”
The healing of her shattered leg was pushed back even further when Doris’ crutches slipped out from under her about four months into recovery. The fall undid all the mending accomplished thus far. Her doctor predicted another full year on crutches.
Talk about depressing news for a once incredibly active teenage girl.
Rather than brood or let depression consume her, Doris spent her lengthy convalescence developing a new interest: singing. With a broken leg, there honestly wasn’t much else she could do.
But during long hours of practice and listening to the radio, Doris discovered she loved this new talent:
“When I was dancing, singing was just incidental to the dance; but now, with all that enforced time on my hands, I began to get interested in singing for its own sake. Not with any thought of following it up, but just for my own amusement.”
Mother Alma recognized her daughter’s burgeoning talent, and worked singing lessons into their tight budget.
The Talentless Pupil
Ironically, Doris’ vocal coach, Grace Raine, the woman who, in Doris’ own words, had the greatest influence on her future singing career, didn’t think her new pupil had any talent, and almost refused to teach her.
As Grace remembered:
“I had heard her sing a few times…and she just didn’t have it. But a song plugger told me that she was so beautiful that it didn’t matter whether or not she could even carry a tune. So I took her [on] and gave her a special rate and got the surprise of my life when she showed really amazing progress after only three or four lessons…”
And as Grace soon discovered, Doris was not only talented, but a star student:
“She would come in right on the dot and start work without any fooling around. Most of the time her mother would come with her…she had boundless faith in her daughter’s ability…
What struck me most about Doris was her ability to always look on the bright side of things. [And] sometimes, in those days, there wasn’t any bright side to look on…She took lessons from me for two years and I enjoyed all of it.”
From Grace Raine, Doris learned and developed what is perhaps her greatest hallmark as a singer: the ability to convey intimacy with her voice, as if Doris were singing to each listener individually. It was a skill that later helped her make an effortless segue into acting.
But before Doris transitioned to film acting, she found herself an active participant in the Big Band Era.
She Was A Big Band Singer
Legendary bandleader Les Brown once paid Doris the ultimate compliment:
“As a singer, Doris belongs in the company of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra…I’d say that next to Sinatra, Doris is the best in the business on selling a lyric.”
And in 1946, American jazz writer and critic George Simon called Doris:
“THE band singer in the field, who is singing better than ever and displaying great pose.”
Fans of Doris Day films often don’t realize just what an accomplished singer she was outside of the movies. But as Billboard and CashBox magazines chronicle, during the course of her singing career, Doris Day claimed a remarkable 76 charting singles. Twenty-one of these singles landed in the top ten, seven of them made it to the number one position, nineteen charted in the top forty for at least twelve weeks, and seven hit gold. As Day biographer Gary McGee analyzed, these staggering statistics mean that Doris Day held the number one position on the singles charts for a total of twenty-six weeks during her career, and spent 460 weeks in the top forty.
That’s beyond impressive.
And it all started when seventeen-year-old Doris, barely off crutches and still unsure of her right leg, auditioned for the Cincinnati-based band of Barney Rapp. Over 200 girls auditioned that day, but it didn’t matter. As soon as he heard her sing, Barney Rapp knew that Doris Kappelhoff was the girl for the job.
Doris Day: Girl Singer
The earliest recordings of Doris were made with Rapp’s band on June 17, 1939. But she didn’t stay with the band long. Following her time with Rapp, Doris briefly sang with Bob Crosby and the Bob-Cats before earning the coveted position of girl singer with Les Brown and His Band of Renown.
With Brown’s band, Doris developed a unique singing style that coupled her husky voice with immaculate diction, and further honed her rare ability to connect with listeners individually. Doris’ years with Les Brown also evidence that, though Doris could sing songs as bright and bouncy as her future screen persona, it’s the ballads where she really shines. As Bob Hope put it,
“I consider Doris one of the great singers…she has that rare quality of making people feel good by just walking on [stage]—whatever she radiates lifts them. And when she sings a ballad, and you’re there, she can break your heart.”
Doris reached the apex of her big band career with the 1945 release of Les Brown’s “Sentimental Journey.” After finding success in Hollywood, Doris refused to watch her films and television shows. But when it came to beautiful songs like “Sentimental Journey,” even Doris admitted to a sense of pride and accomplishment. Looking back on her career, Doris once shared:
“I don’t see my films—I see all the wrong things I’ve done and I turn them off. But sometimes a song will come on the radio—a song I’ve done a long time ago—and I think ‘ahhh’ and I’ll listen—really listen—and I’ll feel so good inside and say: I did it.”
Doris Day Was Not Her Real Name
Doris credited her vocal training and big band days with preparing her for the emotional expression required of acting.
But that wasn’t Doris’ only carry over from the bandstand.
While singing with Barney Rapp, young Doris Kappelhoff came to terms with the fact that her given name just wouldn’t fit on a marquee. A name change was in order. Rapp suggested she shorten her last name, and become “Doris Kapps,” or take her mother’s maiden name of “Welz.”
But Doris nixed both.
Eventually, Rapp suggested she become “Doris Day,” after a song Doris sang at this time in her career, entitled “Day After Day.”
Personally, I think “Doris Day” is a beautiful name that perfectly fits Doris’ bright, optimistic attitude.
But Doris thought it sounded cheap:
“I never did like it. Still don’t. I think it’s a phony name.”
Throughout the years, Doris embraced a variety of nicknames, all of which she preferred to her star moniker.
“Suzie Creamcheese” was a common nickname for Doris in the 1970s, while Rock Hudson took to calling her “Eunice” during the filming of Pillow Talk (1959). But Doris’ personal favorite nickname was “Clara Bixby,” coined by her good friend, comedian Billy DeWolfe, during production of 1950’s Tea for Two. It was the name Doris felt most connected with, so much so that “Clara” was what her closest friends called her, and the name she chose to use on phone calls and in correspondence.
A Happy Marriage Was Her Life Ambition
Though Doris Day is arguably the biggest box office star of all time, being famous was never her goal. It’s true that Doris worked hard in the profession that just couldn’t ignore her great talent. But Doris Day didn’t need to be a star.
Case in point: in 1945, after establishing herself as a big band singer, Doris was offered a contract at Columbia Pictures.
And she turned it down.
How many young women would do that?
Doris’ dream was to have a happy marriage and home life, and she wanted this more than anything in the world. As Doris wrote in her autobiography [aff. link],
“That was my big dream as a girl…It was the only real ambition I ever had—not to be a dancer or a Hollywood movie star, but to be a housewife in a good marriage. Unfortunately, it was a dream that would elude me…”
That it did. So much so that American writer John Updike theorized that Doris was perhaps a bit more ambitious than she ever realized:
“It was not just by divine determination that peaceful obscure marriage eluded her and fame did not…She was driven to perform, and permitted life situations to keep forcing her back on the stage.”
Updike makes an interesting point, and there’s truth to his analysis. But there’s no doubt that, despite her best efforts, Doris Day was unlucky in love. Here’s a rundown of the four men Doris married and tried to make a happy home with:
Al Jorden (married 1941-1943)
Doris met her first husband, trombonist Al Jorden, while singing with Barney Rapp’s band in Cincinnati. She needed rides to and from Rapp’s nightclub for rehearsals and shows, and Jorden was the only band member who lived near her home.
So by default, Doris and Al Jorden began spending a lot of time together.
Al was a surly, uncooperative fellow with good looks Doris once likened to Gene Kelly’s. He basically treated her like garbage on their car rides together, so Doris was shocked to discover, after agreeing to a date with Al, that he was actually quite charming outside of work.
But this wasn’t a good thing. As Doris realized in hindsight:
“This Jekyll-Hyde switch from grump to charmer should have forewarned me about Al Jorden…”
But it didn’t. Doris continued seeing Al, even after the relationship became long-distance when Al took a job with Gene Krupa’s new band in New York, and Doris began singing with Les Brown. When Al proposed to the 18-year-old Doris, she “couldn’t say yes fast enough.” Despite pleadings from her mother and Les Brown, Doris decided to quit her singing career and settle down with Al:
“Nothing Les said could dissuade me. From the time I was a little girl, my only true ambition in life was to get married and tend house and have a family. Singing was just something to do until that time came, and now it was here—home and marriage was the only career I wanted. And the only career I have ever really wanted.”
Beauty Out of "Burn Out"
So, on April 17, 1941, barely nineteen-year-old Doris and Al Jorden married at New York City Hall between Al’s shows.
Almost immediately, Doris realized the marriage was a mistake.
Al Jorden was a jealous, abusive husband, both mentally and physically. If another man so much as looked at his wife, Jorden went berserk. A cycle of abuse and profuse apologies developed. For young Doris, it was unbearably draining: eventually, Al’s destructive love “burned out” Doris’ feelings for him.
Doris left Al Jorden following the birth of their son Terry in 1942. Though Jorden’s physical and mental abuse undoubtedly left Doris with emotional scars, she recognized that the union brought her the greatest joy of her life:
“One beautiful thing came out of the marriage. If I hadn’t married this bird I wouldn’t have my terrific son Terry. So out of this awful experience came something wonderful.”
George Weidler (married 1946-1949)
Doris’ second husband, saxophonist George Weidler, was the brother of child actress Virginia Weidler, best known for expertly playing Katharine Hepburn’s younger sister in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Doris met the handsome saxophonist when she joined back up with Les Brown’s band following her divorce from Al Jorden.
It seems George Weidler was a nice man, and Doris enjoyed an easy compatibility with him. But George was young, four years younger than Doris, who was only twenty-three years-old herself when the two wed on March 30, 1946.
It’s very possible that George just wasn’t mature enough for marriage at the time, and that this immaturity influenced his decision to leave Doris once it became apparent that her star as a singer was rising faster than his as a musician.
In her autobiography, Doris analyzed that Weidler probably felt he was on his way to becoming “Mr. Doris Day.” So he ‘Dear John-ed’ Doris from Los Angeles while she completed a solo singing gig in New York that Weidler himself had encouraged her to accept…
The end of the marriage hurt Doris deeply, and she was always somewhat baffled by its failure, believing things could have worked out if George had only taken the time to talk with her:
“If I hadn’t been a good wife, he should have said something about it, some indication, but as it was there had been no intimation at all that he wanted to end our marriage. The letter shattered me.”
But it was George who introduced Doris to Christian Science, the religion that greatly influenced Doris’ spirituality and legendary adherence to positive thinking.
Marty Melcher (married 1951-1968)
Marty Melcher, Doris’ third husband, was also her manager. Doris and Marty began their business partnership just before Doris became one of the biggest stars at Warner Bros. By the time they wed on Doris’ twenty-ninth birthday in 1951, Doris thought Marty was the answer to her prayers: Marty seemed smart, loyal, dedicated to her son Terry, and to have Doris’ best interests at heart. The Melchers were married for seventeen years, until Marty’s death in 1968.
But after Marty’s death, Doris discovered that he’d basically embezzled all of her earnings with their shady attorney, Jerome Rosenthal, financing Rosenthal’s investment scams with Doris’ money.
Thanks to Marty, and Rosenthal’s fancy work, all Doris had to show for 20 years of hard work was $450,000 of debt, the equivalent of about $3.4 million today. The financial security Marty repeatedly assured Doris was hers over the course of their marriage turned out to be nonexistent.
On March 4, 1974, almost six years after Marty’s death, Doris finally succeeded in bringing Jerome Rosenthal to court for his actions. Judge Lester E. Olson ruled in favor of Doris, and ordered Rosenthal to pay her damages totaling $22,835,646.
Up to the time, it was the largest amount ever awarded a civil suit in California.
Many of Doris’ friends believed Marty complicit in Rosenthal’s unethical handling of her earnings. But for all the pain, suffering, and heartache Doris endured following Marty’s death, her kind heart kept her from believing he ever meant to hurt her. Ultimately, Doris believed that Marty had been duped by Rosenthal: he’d simply trusted the wrong person, just as Doris had done with Marty.
Barry Comden (married 1976-1982)
Doris married husband number four, restaurant manager Barry Comden, in 1976, the year after her autobiography was published. There’s not a whole lot about Comden straight from Doris, but she did call their marriage
“the greatest mistake of my life.”
So that tells us something.
Comden briefly and unsuccessfully got Doris into the dog food business with Doris Day Pet Food. Doris believed that earnings from the business would be used to establish a non-profit animal foundation. But as it turned out, the men Barry hired to take care of operations morphed Doris Day Pet Food into a pyramid scheme.
Yet another husband who trusted the wrong people.
It was during her marriage to Comden that Doris retired to her forever home in Carmel, California. Shortly after the couple moved to Carmel, their marriage dissolved, with Comden complaining that Doris loved her dogs more than she loved him.
Such a comment is probably evidence enough that Barry Comden wasn’t the right guy for Doris Day.
Her Son Was the Most Consistent Man in Her Life
Despite the heartbreak of her four marriages, Doris maintained in a 1991 interview that a fulfilling marriage and home life would always be her ultimate dream:
“I’m still Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff from Cincinnati, Ohio. All I ever wanted to do was to get married, have a nice husband, have two or three children, keep house and cook—a nice clean house—and live happily ever after—and I ended up in Hollywood. And if I can do it, you can do it.”
Under-valuation of her own tremendous talents aside, there was one part of Doris’ happy home dream that did come true: Doris Day was blessed with a consistent man in her life, someone she could always count on.
But it wasn’t a husband or boyfriend.
It was her son, Terry.
Not even twenty years of age separated Doris and Terry. The relationship between mother and son was never traditional, and it wasn’t always easy. But Doris and Terry were always there for each other, through good times and bad. The bond between Doris and Terry was special.
Doris and Terry: A Special Bond
This special bond dated back to the traumatic discovery of her pregnancy, when Doris’ abusive first husband Al Jorden turned violent in his demands that she get an abortion. When Doris refused to see an abortionist, Al decided to induce an abortion himself, forcing his wife to sit in scalding water and swallow several large pills. As Doris remembered in her autobiography,
“I was so heartsick at his attitude towards the baby that I offered no resistance…They [the pills] made me deathly ill…but nothing happened.
I had become ambivalent about the baby. On the one hand, I wanted it very much; it had an importance to me that was difficult to describe but nonetheless very real. But I also realized that I should not be having this baby under the conditions into which it would be born. I was indeed terribly young and Al certainly would be a rotten father. But after that night with the pills, there formed in me a desire to somehow get through my pregnancy with Al and then leave him as soon as the baby was born.”
And somehow, she did. Not long after Terry’s birth on February 8, 1942, Doris succeeded in leaving the abusive Al Jorden. Her son gave her the strength she needed.
Always There for Each Other
The bond between Doris and Terry only grew stronger over the years: when Doris’ third husband Marty Melcher died, it was Terry who discovered the financial straits Marty and Jerome Rosenthal had put his mother in, and it was Terry who painstakingly gathered the evidence necessary to bring Rosenthal to court. Doris in turn was there for Terry throughout the horrific aftermath of the Sharon Tate murders, when it appeared Terry had been Charles Manson’s initial target; and it was Doris who helped Terry through his lengthy recovery following a near-fatal motorcycle accident a few years later.
A traditional home life eluded Doris Day. But the relationship she formed with her son was powerful, unique, and gave each of them the strength to get through life’s toughest situations. It was a bond Doris wouldn’t have traded for anything.
She Was a Homebody. And She Was CLEAN.
You might say that Doris Day was clean to a fault. Third husband Marty Melcher referred to Doris as a “neatnik,” while a childhood friend called her “positively phobic about neatness and order.”
In a 1960 interview for Photoplay, Doris herself admitted that:
“I am too fanatic about cleanliness. I know it. I’m sure no man wants his wife to be all that clean—but I can’t help it. I can’t stand dirty ash-trays, and clothes lying around on chairs all over the place. I loathe messy kitchens. I can’t bear to eat in a strange restaurant unless I can peep into the kitchen.”
Checking restaurant kitchens was a habit of Doris’ that dated back to her first trip to Hollywood. Fifteen-year-old Doris inspected the kitchen of every restaurant that she, dance partner Jerry, and their mothers ate at on the way to California. If a kitchen wasn’t up to her high standards, Doris refused to consume anything but a carton of milk.
"The More Cleaning the Better"
Doris Day’s own homes were as clean as she expected restaurant kitchens to be. She found fulfillment in both cleaning and being at home. In her 1975 autobiography, Doris shared that:
“I’m not one of those women who feel unfulfilled being around the house. I adore keeping house. The more cleaning the better.”
With the end of her television show in 1973, Doris finally had the time at home that she’d always craved. Things like going to the grocery store—which Doris absolutely loved—were exciting for the woman who’d always been too busy recording hit songs and filming box office movies to enjoy such mundane elements of everyday life.
After Doris moved to her dream home in Carmel, neighbor Clint Eastwood jokingly said:
“Doris Day is my neighbor. I see her at her office—the Safeway Supermarket.”
She Was Determined to Be Happy
John Updike once wrote about Doris that:
“She’s a symbol of female energy, trying to tell us what we can do. Don’t get downhearted. Bounce on.”
I love that.
This can-do positivity Doris radiates wasn’t limited to the screen. Off screen, Doris Day was a genuinely happy person.
But that didn’t mean her life was easy.
Doris experienced more than her fair share of trials, tragedies, and heartaches. Consider the fact that, at age nineteen, Doris became a mother, and a single mother by age twenty. Or that by the age of twenty-seven, she’d already been married and divorced twice. Or that the demands for her time were so great, she suffered a nervous breakdown at the height of her career. How about that Doris’ third husband lost all of her money, and signed her up for a television show she didn’t know about until after he died. Or that at one point following the Sharon Tate murders, the police thought Doris and her son Terry were Charles Manson’s next targets.
Not exactly the carefree life of the girl next door.
But perhaps Doris retains the girl next door stigma because of the cheerful disposition she sustained throughout her many trials.
As Louella Parsons pinpointed in a 1954 interview with Doris:
“She lives in the belief that happiness has to be made—and can be made—by the individual. In her sunny exuberance, she seems to be living proof of it.”
A.E. Hotchner, who collaborated with Doris on her autobiography, observed after spending countless hours listening to Doris’ life story that
“she’s not just a survivor, she’s a happy survivor.”
Certainly, this determination to be happy is something we can all learn from Doris Day.
She Was Fashionable
Hers may not be the first name that comes to mind when considering fashion icons of the 1950s and 1960s, but Doris Day was one fashionable and trend-setting star.
Childhood friends in Cincinnati remembered that even as a young girl, Doris set the trends they all wanted to follow. As Margie Farfsing, one of Doris’ first-grade classmates, recalled,
“We wore school uniforms and we all had to wear belts around our middles like a string around a flour sack. But not Doris…she wore her belt around her chest, real stylish. Got away with it too…She was always dressing like a grown-up. Always wearing her hair ribbon in some new way that all we girls wanted to copy.”
Doris’ trend-setting ways continued as her Hollywood star grew: with 1955’s Young at Heart, Doris popularized one of the now classic short haircuts that is so indicative of the 1950s.
Doris officially became a fashion icon with 1959’s Pillow Talk. The film sealed Doris’ reputation as a woman of high fashion whose look still seemed attainable. Doris became a symbol for how the ideal, sophisticated working woman should dress.
Edith Head, the renown costumer who worked with Doris on The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Teacher’s Pet (1958), paid her the ultimate compliment by saying that Doris had “a natural flair for style” and was the “easiest star” she had ever worked with.
Considering that Edith Head designed for every fashionable star from Marlene Dietrich to Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, that’s quite a compliment.
She Was a Great Actress
Doris Day is one of the most underrated actresses who ever made a film in Hollywood.
And it’s because she made acting look easy.
Whether magically making the ridiculous plot of a second-rate musical believable—which Doris succeeded in doing time and again, working with a fantastic romantic comedy script like Pillow Talk (1959), or starring in a straight dramatic film like Love Me Or Leave Me (1955), Doris made every role seem natural. She’s so good in fact, that we don’t appreciate it.
Perhaps another reason why Doris Day remains an underrated actress is that without fail, Doris looked beautiful in all of her film roles and television episodes. Donning a fake nose, gaining 5o pounds, wearing wigs and wrinkle-enhancing make-up for a film is impressive. But it’s equally impressive that Doris didn’t need all these props to get into character.
Co-stars on Doris Day
Her co-stars certainly appreciated Doris’ skill as an actress, and perhaps there’s no better benchmark for an actor’s skill than the admiration of his or her peers. So here’s what two of Hollywood’s top leading men had to say about working with Doris Day.
According to Jack Lemmon, Doris’ It Happened to Jane (1959) co-star,
“I think she is potentially one of the greatest actresses I’ll ever work with, because in every scene she is so open, simple and honest that I found myself in the position of having to play up to her. Which in the parlance of actors means she’s so good that I automatically reacted to her. Doris gets a line on a scene and that’s it—boom—she comes on so forcefully that she transports fellow actors right into the scene with her.”
And as two-time co-star James Garner complimented Doris:
“One other thing about acting with Doris—she was the Fred Astaire of comedy. You know the way Astaire used to change partners—Ginger Rogers, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse—but the dancing was always uniformly spectacular because Astaire just did his thing and any body who danced with him was swept up by it. Well, same thing about Doris. Whether it was Rock Hudson or Rod Taylor or me or whoever—we all looked good because we were dancing with Clara Bixby.”
She Was Confident
Doris Day was happy and bright both by nature, and by choice.
But don’t confuse Doris’ amiability with timidity. Doris Day was nice, but she was no pushover.
An associate behind the scenes of Doris’ 1960 thriller, Midnight Lace, observed that:
“Doris never says ‘no,’ but she can look at you with a smile that is as negative and final as a Supreme Court decision.”
The reason Doris could be so nice, yet firm in her beliefs, was her immense confidence. Doris Day was one confident lady.
As Doris shared in her autobiography,
“I have never had any doubts about my ability in anything I have ever undertaken. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant; what I mean to convey is a natural sense of security about what I do.”
"Instincts and Taste"
Doris Day was a world-class singer, actress, and dancer. But it’s this unerring self-confidence that really sets her apart from other performers. During filming of It Happened to Jane (1959), Jack Lemmon was a first-hand observer of this confidence that Doris exuded:
“Another thing about Doris that I discovered in making It Happened to Jane with her is her healthy self-confidence. To lose confidence or even to suffer the wobbles is just about the worst fate that can befall an actor. You must believe in yourself, in what you are doing, or else the audience won’t believe in your performance…
That’s the kind of confidence Doris has. It has to do with her instincts and her taste.”
Doris had her insecurities, just like anyone else. She thought her cheeks were too full, her teeth too big, and she wasn’t always comfortable with her freckles. But Doris knew what really mattered in life. And she was smart enough to focus on cultivating lasting inner traits and abilities that gave her that signature, Doris Day confidence we find so attractive in every one of her film performances, interviews, and recordings.
She Was Spiritual
During her 1976 appearance on The Merv Griffin Show, Doris expressed her belief that:
“Whatever you have, God gives you. You’re born with whatever you have, and it’s from God. So you can’t take credit for any of it. I don’t. Whatever I gave on the screen was inside…God really is running the show.”
Doris Day truly believed that God was “running the show.” And if you read Doris’ autobiography, it’s clear she not only had an innate spirituality, but believed it was important to constantly learn, explore, and encourage her spiritual side to grow.
Doris’ faith in God, her knowledge that life has purpose—that her life had purpose—contributed to the bright, positive confidence she radiated.
Doris was a practicing Christian Scientist for the majority of her Hollywood years. But with husband Marty Melcher’s passing in 1968, her spirituality evolved, and Doris turned away from organized religion.
Doris’ words on episode 1 of her charming television show, Doris Day’s Best Friends (1985-1986), following the tragic passing of good friend Rock Hudson in 1985, probably sum up her admirable faith and belief system best:
“I feel that without my deep faith I would be a lot sadder than I am today. I know that life is eternal and that something good is going to come from this experience.”
She Had Standards
Doris Day held high standards for herself in both her personal life, and in the image she projected as a celebrity.
For instance: Doris once turned down a $1 million offer for one day’s work to endorse a particular diet. She turned the job down because she’d never used the plan, and had never experienced “a weight problem.”
To Doris, accepting $1 million to promote a diet regimen she’d never tried, and didn’t need to try, constituted lying to her fans. And that was something Doris Day could not do.
How many of us would hold true to such standards if presented with a similar deal? It’s pretty admirable.
Doris’ standards extended to the movie roles she accepted.
When films began showing more skin and sex on screen, Doris Day refused to join the movement. As Doris saw it,
“I don’t think a girl has to wear a low cut dress or play a prostitute to be sexy on screen. I wonder if there is such an interest in raw movie screen sex among fans as some producers believe. Do the people want to see such things? Or do the producers just think they do?”
Doris is still criticized by biographers and film scholars for turning down such cutting-edge roles as Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate. They chastise her as being short-sighted, and for not moving with the times.
But really, Doris was just staying true to herself. Whether you agree with Doris’ opinion on skin and sex in the movies or not, there’s something admirable about a person who has the integrity to live by the standards she sets for herself.
Doris Day: The First Celebrity Sports Fan
Long before it was cool, Doris Day was a celebrity sports fan. She was a regular at Dodgers games in the first half of the 1960s. And the unique ways Doris enjoyed the games made her an even more noticeable face in the crowd: if she wasn’t chewing gum while intently watching a play, Doris was likely taking a sandwich or some raw veggies from the elegant picnic basket she’d packed for the game.
And if Doris wasn’t doing any of that, it was probably because she was busy calling the umpire a bum.
As columnist Sidney Skolsky wrote, observing Doris Day watch a game was usually more fun than watching the game itself:
“I often miss an important hit or basket because I’m watching Doris Day instead of the play.”
Doris’ love for baseball and the Dodgers was only rivaled by her love for basketball and the Lakers. She was such a regular at Lakers games that Los Angeles Times columnist Charles Maher referred to Doris as the “Lady of the Lakers” in his column. Johnny Green of the Baltimore Bullets actually blamed his team’s loss to the Lakers on Doris’ presence at the game:
“They start you out shooting at her end of the court. They figure you won’t get over the shock [of seeing Doris Day] too quickly. By the time you switch sides in the second half, you’re through. [It’s] tough driving at the basket with her staring at you.”
So next time you see Jack Nicholson or Drew Barrymore sitting courtside, or George Lopez or Samuel L. Jackson behind home plate, just remember that Doris Day did it first.
She Loved Animals
It’s common knowledge that Doris Day loved animals, and shared a particularly deep connection with dogs. What’s less known is just how Doris developed this love, and the admirable paths she trailblazed in her mission to give back to the animals.
Though always an animal lover, Doris’ strong bond with dogs in particular developed during the long convalescence from the train accident that broke her right leg. And it was all thanks to a beloved black and tan named Tiny, whom Doris called “the sunshine of my life.” According to Doris, her sweet relationship with Tiny:
“was the start of what was to be for me a lifelong love affair with the dog. I care about them deeply. But no matter how much I have given them in the way of love and concern for their well-being, they have given me much more. Tiny taught me how much love, and affection, and undemanding companionship a dog can give…”
Tragically, Tiny was hit by a car and killed before young Doris, still on crutches, could save him. In a way, Doris never recovered from Tiny’s death.
But fame and stardom eventually gave Doris the means and the name to make a difference in the lives animals everywhere.
Making a Difference
In 1971, Doris co-founded Actors and Others for Animals, one of the first animal rights organizations in Los Angeles. Desiring to do even more, Doris founded the Doris Day Pet Foundation in 1978, with the primary goal of finding good homes for needy animals. The Doris Day Pet Foundation is now known as the Doris Day Animal Foundation, and continues to carry out Doris’ vision today. In 1987, Doris formed the Doris Day Animal League, a national non-profit lobbying organization. One of the league’s crowning achievements before merging with the Human Society in 2007 was the founding of Spay Day USA in 1995.
Doris Day’s film and recording careers are remarkable. But for Doris, the work she did for the animals brought her the most joy and greatest sense of accomplishment. As Doris said of her activism:
“I just love that I can make it better for the animals. I know I have—so far—with my pet foundation. That is thrilling for me.”
She Was Generous with Her Fans
Doris Day was generous with her fans from the very start of her Hollywood career. She always had time for them, whether answering fan mail, thanking them for their support in interviews, or sending tape recordings with friendly greetings and updates to Doris Day fan clubs all over the world.
What’s even more remarkable is that Doris treated her fans with this great respect and appreciation right up to her passing in May 2019.
And I know first hand.
Yes, I’ve got an embarrassing fan confession to make.
I wrote Doris Day…let’s just say I wrote her a couple of times over the years. And each time, Doris wrote me back. She took the time to respond to all of us who wrote her. According to Doris’ son Terry, even in her later years, decades after Doris officially retired, she still received about 200 fan letters a week. That’s ten thousand letters a year that Doris Day personally responded to.
Through 2019, The Doris Day Animal Foundation held a yearly celebration in Doris’ beloved Carmel to honor her April 3 birthday. Fans from all over the world attended. And when possible, Doris herself dropped by.
Even after 2014, when Doris could no longer attend the festivities, she’d send one of her famous tapes with a cheerful greeting and thank you to all her fans present. I was lucky enough to attend the DDAF birthday celebrations in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and it was absolutely amazing to hear ninety-plus-year-old Doris’ sweet voice, still as crisp and distinctly Doris as it had been in the prime of her career.
Talking with Doris Day: A Dream Come True
At Doris’ 2018 Birthday Celebration, my ultimate dream came true when I had the once in a lifetime opportunity to speak with Doris on the phone. I finally had the chance to tell her, voice to voice, what a wonderfully positive influence she’s been in my life.
Doris listened to my somewhat frantic and very emotional gushing with the graciousness and charm you’d expect of her. In our brief conversation, Doris made me feel special.
And that’s what she does best. Doris Day is all heart. As fans, casual or obsessive, we feel it, through her films, music, and genuine goodness off screen.
More Doris Day!
And that’s it for my introduction to Doris Day. Be sure to join me next time as I cover my favorite musical from Doris’ early years at Warner Bros., Lullaby of Broadway (1951), and share what it was like meeting Miriam Nelson, the talented choreographer for the film who succeeded in getting Doris Day dancing again.