[13 August 2008]
Steve Carell doesn’t have a copyright on playing the 40-year-old virgin. That’s a role Doris Day, at age 40, was still playing on-screen when she made That Touch of Mink with Cary Grant in 1962. In that sex farce, Day was the unsullied working-class Cinderella wooed by the suave Grant, whose eyes were always pointed toward the nearest bedroom. Day was having none of it until the fadeout, by which time she had a wedding ring neatly placed on her left hand.
Perhaps because of such feathery confections that played up Day’s pure-as-Ivory-soap screen persona, she was rarely taken seriously as an actress and, to a lesser extent, as a vocalist. Day finally gets her due on both counts in Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, David Kaufman’s compelling new biography from, ironically, Virgin Books.
The title is something of a misnomer, since Day already bared her soul and mussed up her goody-two-shoes image in a candid 1975 autobiography, Doris Day: My Own Story, done with A.E. Hotchner. Kaufman naturally covers much of the same material: The distant father whose love she craved but never received; the near-fatal car crash at age 14 that shattered her dreams of being a dancer; her recovery and ultimate path toward singing; the disastrous marriages, including her first to musician Al Jorden, who physically abused her, and her third to manager Marty Melcher, a control freak who squandered $22.8 million on bad business investments; her legal battle—and eventual victory—to regain her income after Melcher’s death. Que sera, sera.
But this isn’t just a retread of Day’s unsentimental journey. Kaufman, a theater critic and author of The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam, worked on Day’s bio for eight years and has tracked down sources who knew her from childhood as well as recent acquaintances such as Sydney Wood, a fan who eventually worked in Day’s household. Kaufman does a comprehensive job of covering Day’s recording career, including her arduous life on the road with big bands such as Les Brown’s and her evolution into a stylish songstress despite a lifelong fear of performing before live audiences.
Even more exhaustive is Kaufman’s research on Day’s film career, starting with her arrival at Warner Bros. in 1947, where she was put under contract—some might call it indentured servitude—to producer-director Michael Curtiz. (She was paid $750 a week, and Curtiz received 50 percent of her salary for any “legitimate stage and radio activity” she also worked on.)
Movie buffs will find plenty of juicy tidbits to chew on, especially when Kaufman delves into the parallels between Day’s screen life and her real one. Her second film, My Dream Is Yours (1949), concerns a struggling singer who heads to Hollywood and leaves her young son behind with her uncle. The scenario mirrored Day’s relationship with son Terry, who was raised by his grandmother while Day was off touring with bands and later establishing herself in Hollywood.
Love Me or Leave Me (1955), in which Day gave an uncharacteristically gritty performance as torch singer Ruth Etting, who was managed by her mobster husband Marty Snyder, bears more than a passing resemblance to Day’s businesslike marriage to Melcher.
Day rose to become Hollywood’s top female star of the ‘50s and early ‘60s, yet Kaufman points out that she would have been far more content as a wife and mother. But with Melcher signing her name to projects and investments without her consent, she worked almost nonstop and suffered both physical and emotional breakdowns.
After Melcher’s death and the fight to win back her fortune, Day threw herself into animal rights and rescue, a passion from childhood that continues to this day. (Day’s fourth husband, Barry Comden, a restaurant maitre’d, claimed she cared more for her animals than for him when they were divorced in 1981 after five years of marriage.) Kaufman also recounts her close friendship with co-star Rock Hudson, until his death from AIDS in 1985, and her unusual relationship with son Terry, who, like most of the men in her life, took on a fatherly role by managing her business affairs.
Unfortunately, if not surprisingly, the reclusive Day would not grant Kaufman an interview, though she wished him well on the project. A fear of flying, a dislike of public appearances and Terry’s 2004 death from melanoma have led her to shun the limelight in recent years. On several occasions she was set to be honored by the Kennedy Center, but when she wouldn’t attend the ceremony, the offers were rescinded. And in June 2004, President George W. Bush wanted to present her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Again, she politely declined. Even after all these years, Day, just like her virginal screen characters, still has a hard time saying yes.
Seize the Day
Doris Day reigned as queen of the record charts and the box office from the 1940s through the ‘60s. Some of the crown jewels of her career:
“Sentimental Journey” (1945)—The haunting ballad Day recorded with Les Brown’s orchestra was her first hit and struck a chord with returning GIs and their girls.
“It’s Magic” (1948)—Day cast a spell and became a bona fide star crooning this charmer to Jack Carson in her first film, Romance on the High Seas.
“Que Sera, Sera” (1956)—Day initially dismissed this tune as “childlike” when she recorded it for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. It went on to win an Oscar and became her signature song.
Calamity Jane (1953)—As the Wild West cowgirl, Day was at her most raucous sparring with Howard Keel’s Wild Bill Hickock and at her most tender warbling the Oscar-winning “Secret Love”.
Love Me or Leave Me (1955)—Day played against type in this gritty bio of singer Ruth Etting and delivered an Oscar-caliber dramatic performance.
The Thrill of It All (1963)—In Norman Jewison’s comic gem, Day was at her bubbliest as a housewife who becomes a TV sensation in soap commercials.