Doris Day seemed to live her life by the old showbiz credo: Leave ’em wanting more. The beloved singer/actress conquered radio, recordings, movies, and TV, walking away from each medium at the height of her success. Finally, she walked away from stardom altogether. With a few exceptions, she’d kept a low profile for three decades by the time she died on May 13 at age 97. Her foundation shared the news with the Associated Press.
Born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff in Cincinnati in 1922 (according to census records, though Day claimed she was born in 1924), the multi-talented Day might also have found success as a dancer if she hadn’t suffered a leg-shattering car accident at 15. While recuperating, she took up singing and soon landed gigs with such band leaders as Bob Crosby and Les Brown. She scored her first big hit with 1945’s “Sentimental Journey” (which became an anthem for returning World War II vets) and continued to be a top-selling artist for the next two decades. Her sunny, cheery vocal style, inspired by Ella Fitzgerald, continues in turn to inspire singers to this day, from Nellie McKay to Zooey Deschanel.
Hollywood beckoned, and Day made her film debut in the lead of the 1948 musical Romance on the High Seas, taking a part that had been meant for Betty Hutton until Hutton became pregnant. Over the next 20 years, she’d make another 38 films and would spend seven years as the top female box office draw and four as the top draw male or female . She was equally at home in musicals (the best of which were the Western-themed Calamity Jane and Love Me or Leave Me, a biopic of singer Ruth Etting), dramas (notably, Young Man With a Horn, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, Julie, and Midnight Lace) and comedies. She introduced on screen two songs that won Oscars, “Secret Love” (from Calamity Jane) and “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” from The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Day’s ability to appear sexy and wholesome at once took her career to new heights in the three farces she made from 1959 to 1964 with Rock Hudson, the screen partnership for which she is best remembered. Pillow Talk(which earned Day her only Oscar nomination), Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers were considered sophisticated and fairly risqué sex comedies at the time, though they soon came to appear tame and even coy, unfairly earning Day a reputation as the world’s oldest virgin. Seen today, the films seem almost campy, since Hudson’s deceptive gamesmanship looks like a diversionary tactic to hide what we now know was the actor’s closeted homosexuality. Yet Day’s characters seem almost proto-feminist; each is an independent career woman who refuses to be exploited and who ultimately says yes to sex but only on her own terms.
In 1968, the year she released her final film (family comedy, With Six You Get Eggroll), her husband/manager Marty Melcher died. Day was horrified to discover that, not only had her fortune disappeared, but that Melcher had obligated her to star in a TV sitcom. The resulting series, CBS’ The Doris Day Show, ran from 1968-73 and was a hit despite radical changes in its cast and premise throughout its run. (Day’s character started out as a rural mom and ended up as a single urban career gal.) Its theme song was “Que Sera, Sera,” by now, Day’s signature tune.
Day walked away from entertainment after the series ended, focusing on rescuing stray pets and animal-rights activism. She returned briefly to TV in the 1985-86 season with Doris Day’s Best Friends, a show on cable’s Christian Broadcasting Network that focused on her love of animals. She invited old pal Hudson to be her first guest, and it was on her show that he first revealed, to Day and to the world, his AIDS-ravaged physique. Within days, he acknowledged that he had AIDS (becoming the first celebrity to do so), and within three months, he was dead.
Day was married four times and had one child, songwriter/record producer Terry Melcher, who died of melanoma in 2004 at age 62. In 2011, Day paid him homage by releasing My Heart, an album of unreleased tracks she had recorded for use on the CBN show that Terry had produced and in some cases composed. Suddenly, at 89, Day was back on the Billboard top 200 chart for the first time in nearly 50 years.
Aside from that late-career resurrection, Day was content to spend her last decades taking care of the animals at her ranch in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. After accepting a lifetime achievement Golden Globe in 1989, she turned down all invitations to accept honors and awards in person. Perhaps her reticence stemmed from her lifelong insecurity over her public image, whether that was the perky and chaste girl next door or the glamorous blonde star. Remarked Send Me No Flowers director Norman Jewison,“Doris did not believe that she was an attractive woman. I thought she was beautiful. Millions of fans thought she was beautiful. Everybody she had ever worked with thought she was beautiful. Doris remained unconvinced.”