Profile Doris Day: The cutest blonde of them all

The girl-next-door, gay icon and victim of brutish husbands will be 75 this week.

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think of Doris Day as the icon nobody really knew, and I'm thinking of her these days because, just down the Californian coast from me, in Carmel, that eternal, perpetual, cute tomboy blonde next door, she of the undying smile and unequalled decency, who could sing so well you spent hours listening to her, is going to be 75 on Saturday.

Somewhere down there, tucked away, she lives with a quantity of four- legged animals, the objects of her affection. She doesn't do interviews; she isn't interested in her own legend. So this can be no more than a fond card to someone a generation adored but never really cornered - that's the mystery I find intriguing to this day.

She's been away so long, you may have wondered if she was still here. Her last movie - With Six You Get Egg Roll - was made in 1968 (when she was a mere 44). The television series that ran from l968 to 1973, The Doris Day Show, isn't syndicated, and I don't think it ever played in England. But 44 isn't so drastic, is it? Meryl Streep is 48; Jessica Lange is 50 in a few weeks. Maybe Doris had heard those jokes about the soft focus of her last films, took the hint, and elected to rest up on her small fortune. Because, only a few years before, from 1961 to 1965 (with pictures like That Touch of Mink, Move Over Darling, Send Me No Flowers and Do Not Disturb), she had been the top box-office attraction in the world. So, she must have been rich, right? Well, yes, as it happens, but it is a complicated story. There is something strange about her life. Oscar Levant once remarked that he had known her "before she became a professional virgin".

She was born Doris Kappelhoff in 1924, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father was German and Catholic, a musician and a conductor, who left the family for another woman when Doris was 12. Doris showed nothing. Instead, with a boy named Jerry, she formed a prize-winning dance team. They were about to take up a Hollywood offer when a locomotive hit the car she was riding in. Her right leg was wrecked - she never danced again. She was 14. But she didn't back off. As she convalesced, she taught herself to sing by listening to Ella Fitzgerald records. At the age of 16, she got a job as singer with Bob Crosby's Bobcats. A year later, she was singing for Les Brown's Blue Devils, a Hollywood band. That was 1941.

She was pretty, with a warm, brave voice full of feeling (it was as good as Judy Garland's, yet without that self-pitying vibrato), and she had breasts that guys told stories about. I know this is not a prominent part of the Doris legend. But speak with anyone who knew her and they remember the breasts. Men were crazy about her.

When she was 17, she married a trombone-player, Al Jorden. He beat her, and demanded that she abort their pregnancy. Doris stood up to it all. She left Jorden and kept the baby - her only child, a son, Terry. But she married again, to a saxophonist named George Weidler. She had a hit record, "Sentimental Journey", with Les Brown, and a movie contract with Warners. And she was Doris Day now. Weidler resented her fame, and quit, leaving her nothing but his Christian Science faith.

Warner Brothers reckoned they had a sweet, true songbird, and in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they paired her with bland guys in movies with soothing titles - My Dream Is Yours, It's a Great Feeling, Tea for Two, On Moonlight Bay, I'll See You in My Dreams, By the Light of the Silvery Moon, Lucky Me.

These were uncomplicated musicals in which a tomboy friendship blossomed into "Gee! I must be in love". She sang the songs, and kidded with the guys - Gordon McCrae, Dennis Morgan, Jack Carson. There was a real romance with Carson, and some said another of her co-stars, Ronald Reagan, was soft on her. There were two tougher pictures: Young Man With a Horn, where she was the suffering girl-friend to jazz trumpeter Kirk Douglas; and Storm Warning, a drama, in which her husband in the film, Steve Cochran, proved to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. She was pretty good at being a sweetheart with a vicious jerk for a husband.

She was very popular, but her material was old-fashioned to the point of silliness. Then, as she reached 30, three pictures raised her to a new level. Calamity Jane (1953) was a musical about Wild Bill Hickock and his tomboy sidekick. It proved a box-office smash, and it gave Doris the song "Secret Love", a hit record and the later basis of her status as gay icon. Young at Heart (1954) is a noir musical in which she marries a creepy, failed songwriter, played by Frank Sinatra. Doris responded to his nasty manner and foreboding: they made a maudlin chemistry. Then, in Love Me Or Leave Me (1955), she played torch singer Ruth Etting, whose husband-manager treated her like a punching bag. That role went to Jimmy Cagney. He and Day took one look at each other on set, and clicked. It's still a very good picture, with Doris, in low neckline, singing "Ten Cents a Dance" and "I'll Never Stop Loving You", and swapping cracks and slaps with Cagney.

By now, Doris was an authentic star on screen and in the hit parade. She had a third husband, Marty Melcher, who managed her and was famous in that everybody loathed him - except for the nicest blonde anyone knew. Through sheer conviction, she carried off some bizarre films - not least, Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), where she sang "Que Sera, Sera"; Julie (1956), in which she had to land an aircraft without training; and The Pajama Game (1957), the Stanley Donen musical where she was a union leader in a garment factory.

It was an age of blondes: Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak - but Grace went legit, Monroe cracked and Novak made great flops, like Vertigo. Doris just got bigger, and on the eve of feminism, she played career women who acted like coy ingenues in what were supposed to be sophisticated comedies. This is the "professional virgin" period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, with films like Teacher's Pet, Pillow Talk, Please Don't Eat the Daisies and That Touch of Mink. Her co-stars were Clark Gable, Cary Grant and Rock Hudson, and the films were hugely successful, no matter that in the next few years their prissiness would be ridiculed. She actually got a nomination for Pillow Talk (Simone Signoret won that year for Room at the Top - like absinthe after Coca-Cola).

The success overlapped with Jane Fonda and real bedroom scenes. At which point, in 1968, Marty Melcher died. Everyone except Doris said "I told you so" when it was discovered that he had either wasted or embezzled a cool $20m of her money. Doris didn't waver. She did the TV series that Melcher had committed her to - without her knowledge. And then she set about suing Melcher's lawyer for $22m. Don't mess with Doris, people said. Then she was gone. Once retired, Doris Day became a "gay icon". "Secret Love" was an anthem in gay bars, and it was noted that in some of her last films she had played with Cary Grant and Rock Hudson. She spoke out for Rock when he fell ill with Aids. Was she gay? Is she? I don't know, or care. She surely had enough grief from men to look elsewhere. Maybe she settled for dumb animals - there was a brief, fourth marriage to a restaurateur. Maybe she made mistakes with men, and had strangers for her best admirers.

John Updike wrote a review of her autobiography Doris Day, Her Own Story (1976) in which he admitted affection - without ever having met her. Molly Haskell, a critic and a fan, got an interview in which Doris didn't want to discuss or see her old films. They were all awful. Maybe that was Christian Science talking, or German sense. It's still a mystery, if you listen to Doris in her great songs or her good movies, plunging into the romance, to wonder what left her cool, or impenetrable later.

Our loss. Happy birthday, Doris. There's lots of us who make no secret about what we feel for you.

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