Doris Day obituary: Film star who charmed America and the world

Day combined a twin appeal – the girl next door and the country’s wholesome virgin

Doris Day
April 3rd, 1922
Died: May 13th, 1919

Doris Day, the freckle-faced movie actress whose irrepressible personality and golden voice made her America’s top box-office star in the early 1960s, died Monday at her home in Carmel Valley, California. She was 97.

The Doris Day Animal Foundation announced her death.

Day began her career as a big-band vocalist and was successful almost from the start. One of her first records, Sentimental Journey, released in 1945, sold more than a million copies and she went on to have numerous other hits. Bandleader Les Brown, with whom she sang for several years, once said, “as a singer Doris belongs in the company of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra”.


But it was the movies that made her a star.

Between Romance on the High Seas in 1948 and With Six You Get Eggroll in 1968, she starred in nearly 40 movies. On the screen she turned from the perky girl next door in the 1950s to the woman next door in a series of 1960s sex comedies that brought her four first-place rankings in the yearly popularity poll of theater owners, an accomplishment equaled by no other actress except Shirley Temple.

In the 1950s she starred, and most often sang, in comedies (Teacher’s Pet, The Tunnel of Love), musicals (Calamity Jane, April in Paris, The Pajama Game) and melodramas (Young Man With a Horn, the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, Love Me or Leave Me).

Widely hailed as one of the greatest performances ever given by an American actor

James Cagney, her co-star in Love Me or Leave Me, said Day had “the ability to project the simple, direct statement of a simple, direct idea without cluttering it”. He compared her performance to Laurette Taylor’s in The Glass Menagerie on Broadway in 1945, widely hailed as one of the greatest performances ever given by an American actor.

She went on to appear in Pillow Talk (1959), Lover Come Back (1961) and That Touch of Mink (1962), fast-paced comedies in which she fended off the advances of Rock Hudson (in the first two films) and Cary Grant (in the third). Those movies, often derided today as examples of the repressed sexuality of the ’50s, were considered daring at the time.

“I suppose she was so clean-cut, with perfect uncapped teeth, freckles and turned-up nose, that people just thought she fitted the concept of a virgin,” Hudson once said of Day. “But when we began Pillow Talk we thought we’d ruin our careers because the script was pretty daring stuff.” The movie’s plot, he said, “involved nothing more than me trying to seduce Doris for eight reels”.

Following Pillow Talk, which won Day her sole academy award nomination, she was called on to defend her virtue for the rest of her career in similar but lesser movies, while Hollywood turned to more honest and graphic screen sex to keep up with the revolution sweeping the world after the introduction of the birth control pill.

Day turned down the part of Mrs Robinson, the middle-aged temptress who seduces Dustin Hoffman, in the groundbreaking 1967 film The Graduate, because, she said, the notion of an older woman seducing a young man “offended my sense of values”. The part went to Anne Bancroft, who was nominated for an academy award.

“My public image is unshakably that of America’s wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness,” she said in Doris Day: Her Own Story, a 1976 book by A.E. Hotchner based on a series of interviews he conducted with Day. “An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played. But I am Miss Chastity Belt and that’s all there is to it.”

Day was born Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff in Cincinnati on April 3rd, 1922. (For years most sources gave her birth year as 1924 and so did she. But shortly before her birthday in 2017, The Associated Press obtained a copy of her birth certificate from the Ohio Office of Vital Statistics and established that she had been born two years earlier. After Day was shown the evidence, she said in a statement, “I’ve always said that age is just a number and I have never paid much attention to birthdays, but it’s great to finally know how old I really am.”) She was the second child of Frederick William von Kappelhoff, a choral master and piano teacher who later managed restaurants and taverns in Cincinnati, and Alma Sophia (Welz) Kappelhoff. Her parents separated when she was a child.

Day never wanted to be a movie star. At 15 she was a good enough dancer to win the $500 first prize in an amateur contest. Her mother and the parents of her 12-year-old partner used the money to take them both to Los Angeles for professional dancing lessons. The families intended to move west permanently, but Doris’s right leg was shattered when the automobile in which she was riding was hit by a train.

To distract Doris during the year it took the leg to mend, her mother – who had named her after a movie star, Doris Kenyon – paid for singing lessons. She was a natural.

Day told Hotchner that another important thing happened during her year of recuperation: She was given a small dog.

“It was the start of what was, for me, a lifelong love affair with the dog,” she said.

She sang in a local club where the owner changed her name because Kappelhoff would not fit on the marquee

That first dog, Tiny, was killed by a car when Day, still on crutches, took him for a walk without a leash. Nearly 40 years later she spoke of how she had betrayed him. During the last decades of her life, through her foundation, Day spent much of her time rescuing and finding homes for stray dogs, even personally checking out the backyards and fencing of people who wanted to adopt, and she worked to end the use of animals in cosmetic and household-products research.

After the accident, Day never went back to school. At 17, having traded her crutches for a cane, she sang in a local club where the owner changed her name because Kappelhoff would not fit on the marquee. After a few months as a singer with Bob Crosby and His Bobcats in Chicago, she joined Les Brown and His Blue Devils.

Singing was just something to do until she married.

“From the time I was a little girl,” she told Hotchner, “my only true ambition in life was to get married and tend house and have a family”.

But while Day was instantly successful as a singer and a movie actress, she was fated always to marry the wrong men. By the time she made her first movie she had been married and divorced twice.

Her first husband, Al Jorden, a trombone player, was violently jealous and had an uncontrollable temper. He hit her on the second day of their marriage and continued to beat her when she became pregnant and refused to have an abortion. She was married at 19, divorced and a mother at 20.

But she was undaunted.

“All my life,” she told Hotchner, “I have known that I could work at whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.”

Her second husband, George Weidler, a saxophonist, was a gentle man. She was happily living with him in a trailer park in Los Angeles when he left, after telling her that he thought she was going to become a big star and that he did not want to be Mr Doris Day.

She was approached at a Hollywood party by songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, who had written the score for “Romance on the High Seas,” a movie planned for Judy Garland. But Garland had turned the role down and Betty Hutton, her replacement, was withdrawing because she was pregnant. Warner Bros was desperate and the songwriters insisted that Day audition for the part.

“Acting in films had never so much as crossed my mind,” she later said.

As candid in real life as her perky screen characters, Day admitted to the movie’s director, Michael Curtiz, that she had never acted before. But “from the first take onward, I never had any trepidation about what I was called on to do”, she said. “Movie acting came to me with greater ease and naturalness than anything else I had ever done.”

Reviewing Romance on the High Seas in The New York Herald Tribune, Howard Barnes wrote: “She has much to learn about acting, but she has personality enough to take her time about it.”

Day married for a third time in 1951. Although that marriage, to Martin Melcher, her manager, seemed happy, she discovered after Melcher’s death in 1968 that he and his lawyer had embezzled or frittered away the $20 million she had earned and had left her $500,000 in debt. She agreed to star in a situation comedy to earn the money to pay off her debts.

Marty was a hustler . . . who always ripped off $50,000 on every one of Doris' films as the price for making the deal

That proved to be a wise move financially. The Doris Day Show had an extremely successful five-year run. (It underwent a number of changes in that time. Day’s character, a widow who lived on a ranch with her two children, got a job at a magazine in San Francisco in the show’s second season and by the fourth season her children had been written out of the show.)

James Garner, who co-starred with Day in two 1963 films, The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling, told Hotchner, “Marty was a hustler, a shallow, insecure hustler who always ripped off $50,000 on every one of Doris’ films as the price for making the deal.”

Day sued the lawyer, Jerome Rosenthal, and eventually won a judgment for more than $22 million in 1974. In a 1986 interview, Terry Melcher, her son by Al Jorden, said that she eventually got some of the money from an insurance company but “nothing like that amount.”

In 1976 Day married Barry Comden, a sometime restaurant manager 11 years her junior. They were divorced in 1981. During her marriage to Comden, she moved from Los Angeles to Carmel Valley, and she and her son became part owners of the pet-friendly Cypress Inn in the nearby beach town Carmel-by-the-Sea. For the rest of her life she lived on a seven-acre estate with many more dogs than the zoning laws allowed. In the 1985-86 television season she was the host of Doris Day’s Best Friends on the Christian Broadcasting Network, which focused on animal welfare.