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.

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Shine Night Walk 2014 - 'On the night' volunteer roles

Unpaid Voluntary Work : Cancer Research UK: We need motivational volunteers to...

Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable & Accounts Receivable)

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Accounts Assistant (Accounts Payable...

Senior IT Trainer - Buckinghamshire - £250 - £350 p/d

£200 - £300 per day: Ashdown Group: IT Trainer - Marlow, Buckinghamshire - £25...

Education Recruitment Consultant- Learning Support

£18000 - £30000 per annum + Generous commission scheme: AER Teachers: Thames T...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Why black cats make amazing pets, and take good selfies too

Felicity Morse
Children of a bygone era  

Kids these days aren't what they used to be — they're a lot better. So why the fuss?

Archie Bland
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star