She embodied an image she hated, and for much of her life, sought a familial ideal never achieved, becoming, in the process, the biggest box-office draw in the movie business at one time before simply fading away. Doris Day became a phenomenon of sight and sound, a hit song machine in the first part of her career and, in the second, Hollywood's No. 1 female box-office star and the epitome of the girl next door. Her resume composed an American archetype - the pristine, bright-eyed sweetheart of America's neo-Victorian 1950s, even if she was far from her on-screen type. Though often successfully paired with leading man Rock Hudson in a series of iconic romantic comedies, off-screen she longed for what her characters always seemed to get in the end: the simple, stable existence of a housewife tending her corner of the American Dream.
She was born Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922, in the Cincinnati, OH, suburb of Evanston, to Alma and Frederick von Kappelhoff and was the youngest of three children in a troubled household. In spite of the family's Catholicism, her parents divorced when Doris was only 12, due to Frederick's philandering. A tomboy in her earlier years, by adolescence she had developed a penchant for dance, but those aspirations were shelved when a car accident left her with a compound fracture of one leg and a tough 14-month rehabilitation. She began singing instead and, while still just a teenager, scored a job with the local dance band of Barney Rapp, who redubbed her Doris Day, after her number "Day After Day." She also met Al Jorden, a trombonist in Rapp's band and a temperamental character whom she disliked initially, but whom she eventually agreed to date.
Around this same time, she landed a much bigger gig with the touring Les Brown and His Band of Renown. Both Brown, who took on a paternal role, and her mother discouraged her relationship with Jorden, especially when he proposed, but the 17-year-old Day insisted she only wanted to become a housewife. They married in New York in early 1941 while she was on tour, but it got off to an ominous start when, according to biographer David Bret, Jorden dragged his new wife to their hotel room and beat her up after seeing her kiss a fellow musician on the cheek. By Bret's account, violence was not infrequent during the marriage. When Day discovered she was pregnant, Jorden subjected her to a series of violent histrionics, including threatening to shoot her at one point, and leaving her ostensibly "for good." In February 1942, Day gave birth to a son, Terry. A repentant Jorden gave Day a brief reprieve, but he soon returned to his psychotic ways, so she began divorce proceedings. Jorden would kill himself a few years later.
In 1944, she scored her first hit with Brown, "Sentimental Journey," which would strike a chord over the next year with many soldiers journeying home from war. She also developed a diva complex and became notoriously difficult to work with, throwing tantrums and cursing liberally when she did not get her way. Thus, it may have been a relief to some in the band when she and saxophonist George Weidler announced their engagement and her intentions, again, to leave show business for a simple family life. While quitting the touring circuit, Day agreed to a guest shot on the radio show "The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show." It led to recurring appearances, and Hope began referring to her on air and off as "J.B." - short for "jut-butt," in reference to her posterior. It also got the attention of Al Levy, an agent with the firm Century Artists, who soon began representing her. The buzz around her proved too much for the insecure Weidler, leading Day to divorce him after only eight months of marriage.
Levy netted her a contract with Warner Bros. with a curious indenture to director Michael Curtiz, who, in addition to putting her in a series of films - starting with the musical comedy "Romance on the High Seas" (1948) - took in 50 percent of all non-movie showbiz revenue she earned. The dailies for "Romance" horrified Day, who insisted she take acting lessons, to which Curtiz responded, "You're a natural just as you are - if you learn how to act, you'll ruin everything." A song she sang for the soundtrack - "It's Magic" - reached No. 2 on the pop chart and earned her an Oscar nomination. Day also began an affair with co-star Jack Carson, which complicated amorous relationships with both Levy and Weidler. Jealous, Levy began stalking her and at one point tried to rape her, but she fended him off. Century Artists convinced her to not press charges as long as they agreed to shuffle him out to the firm's New York office. Partner Marty Melcher took over her business, and she soon began an affair with him, even though he was married to singer Patty Andrews of the famed Andrews Sisters. She reteamed with both Curtiz and Carson, getting top female billing in "My Dream Is Yours" (1949), and remained under the director's stewardship in "Young Man with a Horn" (1950), co-starring Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall, and "I'll See You In My Dreams" (1952).
Much of her early film work would prove fluffy treacle - "Tea For Two" (1950), "On Moonlight Bay" (1951), "The West Point Story" (1951), "Lullaby of Broadway" (1951), "April In Paris" (1952), "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" (1953), "Lucky Me" (1954), all imprinting her public image as the Pollyannaish "Girl Next Door." Her music career buoyed her film career and vice versa, with nearly every film issuing some kind of hit tune, resulting in seven of her 10 albums released between 1949 and 1955 charting in the top five. One rare non-crooning dramatic role, the anti-Klan noir film "Storm Warning" (1951), saw her wind up involved with two of her co-stars in that film, Ronald Reagan and Steve Cochran. But Day and Melcher married in 1951, with Melcher also adopting Terry. Many of her show business friends thought Melcher was just in it for the star's money. In fact, while making "Young at Heart" (1954), Frank Sinatra came to dislike Melcher so much he had him banned from the set.
Day, who came to hate her virginal image, did manage to play out of type as she eased into her career. Her breakthrough role, in fact, tapped her tomboy youth for what would become her personal favorite of her films, "Calamity Jane" (1953). She played the butch Western heroine through a light-hearted romantic musical frame, with another song "Secret Love," becoming a chart-topper along with the entire movie soundtrack. She showed dramatic range again in "Love Me or Leave Me" (1955), playing 1920s singing star Ruth Etting, whose career was marred by a relationship with a gangster, played by James Cagney. She did her turn in Alfred Hitchcock's famous stable of blondes in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), with even Hitchcock slipping in a song for her, "Que Sera, Sera," which went on to win the Oscar for Best Song. She went much darker with "Julie" (1956), a thriller in which Day's character discovers her second husband to be abusive, violent and the murderer of her first spouse. Day loathed it, as it smacked too much of personal experience, but she did the film because Melcher served as producer.
She made another splash in musical comedy with the movie adaptation of the Broadway hit "The Pajama Game" (1957), but the fanciful genre was on the wane. She would return to suspense in 1960's "Midnight Lace," but with the further reminders of her own violent past, she swore off darker films. She veered almost exclusively to straight, mild-mannered comedy roles as a savvy housewife or intrepid, romantically stand-offish career "gal" typically paired with lead males such as Clark Gable in "Teacher's Pet" (1958), David Niven in "Please Don't Eat the Daisies" (1960), Cary Grant again in "That Touch of Mink" (1962), James Garner in "The Thrill of It All" (1963) and "Move Over Darling" (1963), and Rod Taylor in " Do Not Disturb" (1965) and "Glass Bottom Boat" (1967). For all her pairings, it would be her trio of romantic comedies with Rock Hudson (and an ever-supporting Tony Randall) that would have the most resonance. It started with "Pillow Talk" (1959), a for-the-time steamy "sex" comedy with Day as a New York professional with no time for men, constantly exasperated by the charming playboy in her apartment building who shares her party phone line. The movie became one of the top-grossers of 1959 and Day's turn earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. They reunited in "Lover Come Back" (1961), as rival ad executives who, sight unseen, grow to hate each until they hook up, while "Send Me No Flowers" (1964) had them married off and Hudson, mistakenly thinking he's dying, trying to set Day up with a new husband. The irony of the dynamic on-screen relationship and the friendship that developed off-screen, was that Hudson was a closeted homosexual, which Day claimed not to know until his later death from AIDS.
With the American New Wave beginning to churn out less glossy, more realistic films, Day's formulaic and tepid movies began to seem dated. She famously turned down a role that might have reinvented her, the randy Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" (1967). Just after the production ended on her last movie, "With Six You Get Egg Roll" (1968), Melcher began feeling ill and one day did not wake up. A review of her business showed that he had managed it poorly and squandered much of her fortune. He had also signed off on a new project unbeknownst to her; an eponymous CBS sitcom, which now became a necessity. "The Doris Day Show" (1968-1973) began with her as a widowed big city woman moving back to her rural roots with her sons. Though it did well in the ratings, the show was retooled every season, adding bland premises such as moving to San Francisco, working as a secretary, writing for a magazine and sending the kids off to boarding school.When her network contract was up in 1973, she effectively retired to Carmel, CA where she became an animal benefactor with her Doris Day Pet Foundation, which found homes for stray animals, and the Doris Day Animal League, an animal rights group that in 2006 merged with The Humane Society.
She mostly retired her showbiz name, becoming known to locals as Clara Kappelhoff - with Clara a pet name given her during the making of "Tea For Two" in 1950. In 1976, she married again to Barry Comden, a maitre d' at a favorite restaurant of hers, but it would last only five years. She returned to TV briefly in 1985 in the Christian Broadcasting Network's "Doris Day's Best Friends" (1985-86), a show about pets. When Rock Hudson appeared as a guest on one episode, viewers were shocked at how his illness had emaciated him. He died only months later. In 2008, she was awarded a lifetime achievement Grammy Award, but did not show up at the ceremony to accept it, effectively proving herself to be one of the more dedicated recluses Hollywood had yet produced.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Short)
Film acting debut in "Romance on the High Seas"; instantly became a star of light musicals under contract to Warner Bros.
Played first dramatic role in a film in which she did no singing, "Storm Warning"
Made a first appearance on the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten boxoffice stars; placed 9th; repeated again the following year, placing 7th
Left Warner Bros. after starring in "Lucky Me"; made only three movie musicals thereafter
First teaming with Rock Hudson, "Pillow Talk"; also marked her one Oscar nomination for Best Actress
Made the annual exhibitors' poll of top ten boxoffice stars eight years in a row, more than any other female star since the start of the poll in 1932 except for Betty Grable (who made it ten years in a row from 1942-1951)
Last full-fledged movie musical, "Billy Rose's Jumbo"
Last film, "With Six You Get Eggroll"
Subject of TV biographical documentary, "Doris Day: A Sentimental Journey"
Sued supermarket tabloid, The Globe, for publishing that she was living like a "bag lady" who rummaged through trash cans to feed her dogs