Doris Day: Queen of Eternal Sunshine

The trouble with Doris Day—besides the wreck of her marital life that left her at various times by various husbands abused physically, emotionally and financially—was that she never stopped sounding and looking and being, at least outwardly, so darn nice. Still is, actually, as evidenced by a nice, if characteristically formulaic, written interview she gave to “The Hollywood Reporter” on her 97th birthday three days ago.

That niceness of the midwestern, sunnyblonde film star who wore a relentless effervescent smile was a problem for Day chiefly because it tended to obscure just what a fabulous singer she was.

No one mistakes, say, Nina Simone, as anything but a kickass singing talent, all that smoldering, sometimes volcanic expulsion of words and emotion cementing her place in history as a singer of extraordinary passion and skill.

Day, however, exuded such an overt “America’s sweetheart” kind of white Protestant America vibe through a movie career that saw her share the screen with one Hollywood leading man after another that her singing often took a back or at least side seat in the public imagination to her dreamboat beauty and light comic acting. It brings to mind Oscar Levant’s famous quip (sometimes attributed to Groucho Marx), “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.”

The fact that Day achieved iconic status as one of the most bankable box office stars in film history makes it too easy to forget just how pure and fetching her voice, elocution and subtleties of phrasing were.

Like “bottled sunshine,” as one critic aptly proclaimed.

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Day, born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, Ohio, endured a lonely early life, her parents separated, an older brother who had died before she was born, another brother a few years older. She had immersed herself in dance as a young girl but an auto accident at age 14 broke both her legs and rendered her unable to walk for nearly three years, just one among other catastrophes that she came to see as a hidden blessing.

“That was the greatest thing that happened,” she later told an interviewer. “Instead of dancing, I sang. They carried me three times a week up a stairway to my music teacher.”

Asked about Melcher’s impact on her career, she responds with a well-known bromide that nevertheless sees an actual theological exchange break out in the normally vapid intellectual desert of daytime television.

Her mother had long sensed her talent and arranged for the teacher when Day went lame. Ella Fitzgerald was chief among those she listened intently to and sang along with while recuperating. That good taste would reward her the rest of her days.

Day soon started singing in a local restaurant and radio station before she came to the attention of big bands that were crisscrossing the country at the time. It was jazz band leader Barney Rapp, for whom she had sung her version of the ‘30s foxtrot “Day After Day,” who suggested “Kappelhoff” would never fit on a billboard, so “Day” she became.

One wonders about the implications were Day to have instead sung “Night After Night” for Rapp, given how much her entire persona and artistic expressiveness reflected the daylight hours, the sun high and shining, burning away the wounds one may have harbored, alone and untouched, through the long dark night.

You can hear that whole sensibility here, where Day takes her measured, confident time, slowing the pace, elongating syllables, subtly changing dynamics in the kind of characteristic understatement that let the sunshine in her voice warm to its subject with ease.

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Day was 39 when she included that song on her 1961 album, “Bright and Shiny.” Fourteen years later, she proved the adage that most mature women know and the men in their lives are glad to find out—that women are just beginning to hit their prime past the half-century mark—when she went Barbra Streisand one better with a restrained, slightly husky version of “The Way We Were” on her own television show.

She showcases not only her fully realized self here, radiant and sultry while still modest in a black dress with a none too plunging v-neck, but also with her trademark, finely honed vibrato, calling to mind another of her early life favorites, Ella Fitzgerald’s contemporary Sarah Vaughan. Vaughan later more than returned the compliment when asked in an interview, “Who’s your favorite singer?” and she replied, “I dig Doris Day.”

The fact of this—a blue-eyed blonde WASP from Cincinnati in a mutual admiration society with two African-American scat singers in Jim Crow America—probably should not go unremarked upon.

She also uses the occasion of this song to show the likenesses of multiple leading men (Stewart, Sinatra, Cagney, Douglas, Niven, Reagan, Hudson…) with whom she had dalliances on film, sometimes off-film, and for whom she seemed to hold everlasting affection and regard. In her interview the other day, she was still waxing nostalgic about her “Pillow Talk” co-star Rock Hudson. (Notably, Hudson was dying of AIDS when he consented to appear on a segment of her television show; the effect was poignant, to say the least.)

Serve up dishes of dirt on past loves and fellow stars, even husbands who turned out to be utter scoundrels? Never Doris Day’s style…

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Day’s four marriages seem almost a case study in bad choices of deeply flawed men by a naive woman. The first, to big band trombonist Al Jorden when she was 17, lasted less than two years and involved physical abuse that she endured only long enough to have her one child, son Terry (who died in 2004), before fleeing. The second, to saxophonist George Weidler, lasted just over three years, and the fourth, to hotel maitre ’d Barry Comden, just under six years.

That’s a lot of marriages squeezed into barely over a decade.

Only third husband, her agent Marty Melcher, stuck for a while, though what Day got for the trouble of those 17 years was Melcher “handling” all her financial affairs to the tune of squandering her $20+ million fortune. Then, unbeknownst to her, he signed her just before he died to a legally binding contract to head up a TV variety show (and multiple specials) in a desperate attempt to avoid bankruptcy.

Deeply in debt and grieving both the loss of her husband and his betrayal, she soldiered on through five seasons of a poorly conceived show that kept changing its premise from one season to the next, all while fighting a long-running court battle against her former attorney who had colluded with Melcher in the looting of her assets. The case finally reached the Supreme Court and was settled in her favor, though it took 11 years and didn’t come close to fully restoring her losses.

Through it all, Day at least publicly retained a steadfast optimism and characteristically bright disposition that likely reflected not only a thoroughly midwestern hesitation to make too much fuss about oneself, but also the deeply held views of her Christian Science faith, which she leaned on mightily during the rough times and retains still today.

Like many of the faithful, she offers no profoundly considered, philosophically complex rationale for the burdens of suffering and betrayal that descend no less upon the beautiful and talented than they do upon the great unwashed masses.

An interview she granted to old Hollywood friend Mike Douglas upon the release of her 1975 autobiography was notable for her curiously matter-of-fact, even airy responses to questions about her dismal marriages and financial woes. All of it conveyed without breaking from her ever-bright smile and figurative shrug of her shoulders.

Asked about Melcher’s impact on her career, she responds with a well-known bromide that nevertheless sees an actual theological exchange break out in the normally vapid intellectual desert of daytime television. She is joined in it by fellow guest Steve Allen, a sharp, multi-talented comic who had not only originated “The Tonight Show” in 1954 but also made an academic study of humor, among his many other estimable accomplishments. But humor was not the point of this exchange:

Day: “I don’t think people have much to do with your career. I think it’s sort of pre-destined. I feel that everything is part of a plan, and I know it may sound corny, but I really feel that God is in charge and that we should just relax and let God do it. And let him take over.” 

Allen: “Does that present any problems such as wondering whether God was in charge of World War II? I’m serious. What you’re saying is a time-honored philosophical position, but…”

Day: You’re right, and I don’t have an answer to that. I’m just going by my own life, and I’ve always done that. I feel that I’ve had a lot of, you know, dreadful things happen to me. As we all have, everyone sitting here. We have a story. (Points to Allen, Douglas, the audience.) It would make a good book. But I feel that everything that has happened to me resulted in something good. (Smiles.) And I’ve always had just a very optimistic attitude.”

Like many spiritually oriented people, she mistakes the fact that she and others managed to make some lemonade from the lemons of life with the notion that the lemons were all planted and distributed by some cosmic film director who had the whole script already written and just needed some actors without any say in the matter to follow along and recite their lines.

Later, she compares herself to the round inflated dolls designed to always return to a standing position: “That’s the way I am. I’ve been knocked down and I get right back up, and that’s the way I go through life, I think.”

Later still, Allen pointedly proclaims:

“Doris Day was one of the best comic actresses of all time. She can also do serious drama when the occasion requires.” (She reaches for his hand here, all aglow; they keep holding hands as he continues): “Doris has had enormous success but has very often not gotten the critical appreciation to which she is entitled.”

Day, beaming: “Well, I’m getting it now.”

At interview’s end, Douglas goads Day into joining him on one of her classic hits, “Sentimental Journey,” Douglas backing off at strategic points to get her into solo mode, whereupon she hands it back over to him, no slouch himself as a singer. It’s an affecting scene, and Day, ever composed and gracious, carries it with her usual aplomb.

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The serious drama that Allen refers to above was nicely realized in a typically taut Alfred Hitchcock thriller, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956). Day and Jimmy Stewart are parents of a boy kidnapped and in mortal danger in a Moroccan embassy, at which Day, a popular singer, has to sing loudly enough at a small social gathering for the boy to hear and respond upstairs, but not so loudly (nor desperately), as to arouse suspicion and lead his kidnappers to murder him before Stewart can determine where they are.

The song, “Que Será, Será,” was one she had sung to the boy throughout his life. It won the Academy Award for Best Original Song that year and became closely associated with Day, whose dramatic rendering of composure under the most profound imaginable parental terror showed that her reign as queen of the era’s romantic comedies did not encompass the whole of her artistic range. Her acting richly informs her singing here—or perhaps it’s vice versa.

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Day left most all of it behind when she announced her retirement from singing and acting in 1975. Aside from a few brief appearances for a special person or cause, she has held true to that decision, devoting her energies ever since to founding and financing multiple animal rights organizations that have done much to help slowly change public attitudes toward animal welfare.

Most every year on her birthday, she has gotten herself out to the balcony of her apartment in the northern California hamlet of Carmel, waving to the hordes of devoted fans who have made a ritual pilgrimage there to show their heart-felt affection. (Check the Comment stream of pretty much all her You Tube songs for verification.)

Having starred in 39 films between 1948 to 1968 and recorded more than 650 songs, Doris Day deserved however much backing off from the entertainment industry that she wanted. The culture had changed, after all, and Doris Day hadn’t, very much.

Unsurprisingly, she turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” considering it vulgar. Which it was, from a certain standpoint. Too much of the night and its dark passions in that role for the Queen of Eternal Sunshine.

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7 comments to Doris Day: Queen of Eternal Sunshine

  • Angela  says:

    As a child of the 1960s I was bemused by Doris Day; her image of the clean cut, straight haired and straight laced girl next door was popular to roll your eyes over, and her music was drowned out for me by oh-so-much-hipper and riotous rock.

    So how lucky am I to have lived long enough to get to enjoy this story and her music. I have been a fan for several years now, and what riches…. It seems there is some sort of moral embedded here, that if we are intelligent or brave enough, or maybe just have the great good fortune to live long enough, we can recover the joys we pushed away in our youth. :-)

    I am not sure I totally align with her life philosophy, but happy enough that she seems not to have a bitter bone in her body; that’s an inspiration. As is this post; thanks for letting Doris shine again, along with her beautiful music.

  • kirkthill  says:

    I remember in the 60’s Peggy Lee had a big hit, “Fever”. In fact she was touring in Japan and was strolling through the audience and sat on my Dad’s lap while singing it. Mom was not thrilled, and I remember an argument ensuing, ending with her saying, “Well, she’s no Doris Day I can tell you that.”

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Angela, I suspect most people who grew up in the R&R era probably shared your take on Doris being hopelessly square; it seems the culture changed in a hurry there and she was just not surfing along with it. Then we come to appreciate that as a matter of integrity on her part —that trying to become someone she wasn’t just would not work for her, in any way. So she went on for a while, and then she simply quit and found something else equally if not more important, in her estimation, to do. Doesn’t happen every day in the entertainment world!

    Hilarious story, Kirk; made me laugh. I’m sure it would make Doris chuckle, too, and I also bet she’d join me in saying, “Yeah, but that Peggy Lee was no slouch of a singer herself!”

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    “Que Sera Sera” was perhaps the most effective use of song in a dramatic film…ever. Often music can detract or just seem artificially inserted into a movie scene because it sounds “pretty.”

    By the way, when I tutored algebra for a number of Beverly Hills HS students, I had the fortune to meet Sarah Vaughan & Julie Andrews at a birthday party for Henry Mancini at the home of Jack Elliott, who composed the themes for music for TV shows (Barney Miller, Night Court & Charlie’s Angels and for a number of years was Vaughan’s arranger. Also, he was a musical director for the short-lived but brilliant Judy Garland show. Unfortunately, Sarah didn’t sing that evening…what a great sultry songstress. Her version of “Tenderly” is riveting.

    Love Kirk’s story as well.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      So strange the paths our lives can take that put us at a birthday party for Henry Mancini with Sarah Vaughan and Julie Andrews (and Robert Spencer!) in attendance! This would’ve been maybe early-to- mid-1970s? Sarah had still been going great guns back then. I remember becoming besotted with her sometime late or just after college; she seemed incredibly exotic, like from another world. That’s why it was so cool for her to reveal herself as a Doris Day fan. Doris must’ve been humbled and just all tickled to death by that!

      Wish I’d have seen Sarah live; never did…

  • Jay Helman  says:

    I have ignored this post long enough. Taking note that you were writing about Doris Day, I was simply not curious enough to to jump in as I too thought of her as “square” an imminently uninteresting. I was, in fact, surprised that you would take the time to write about her. But now here I am, and I realize how much I missed in not fully appreciating her wonderful voice and disposition. Nearing a 50 year HS reunion in a few weeks, her rendition of The Way We Were unexpectedly brought tears to my eyes as I reflected upon how we all were back in the day. I also realized that if I had known then what I know now, I would have deeply appreciated her. Thanks for the post. Consider me now a Doris Day admirer.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Put a smile on my face reading this, Jay. Doris DESERVES you listening to her, and you deserve the delight of doing so. I know it’s been done to death, but check out her “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when you get a chance. Right up there among the best…

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