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A Biography of Doris Day

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A Biography of Doris Day Metronome/Getty Images

Introduction:

Doris Day was a phenomenon both as an actress and as a singer. She was the all-American girl next door who behind the scenes had a rather dark private life. Often paired on screen with Cary Grant and close friend Rock Hudson, Day turned in one winning performance after another and earned an Academy Award nomination for one of the most successful romantic comedies of all time. Here is the life and career of the great Doris Day.

In the Beginning:

She was born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff on April 3, 1924, in Evanston, OH. Her father, Frederick, was a music teacher and her mother, Alma, was a homemaker. They divorced when she was 12 years old due to Frederick’s infidelity.

Day became interested in dance as an adolescent and started performing in a duo in Cincinnati, but a car accident in 1937 left her with compound fractures in her legs and ended her hopes of going professional.

So she turned to singing instead and began taking lessons after displaying great potential. While performing in a local radio program, Day attracted the attention of orchestra leader, Barney Rapp, who was looking for a female vocalist and had auditioned numerous singers for the job before hiring Day. It was with Rapp that she began using Day instead of Happelhoff, due in part to singing “Day After Day” as one of her first numbers.

Early Career:

While with Rapp, Day met trombonist Al Jorden whom she initially disliked, but ultimately dated and married in 1941. Meanwhile, the 17-year-old singer landed a gig with Les Brown and His Band of Renown and went on to greater success, even though at home Jorden routinely and often savagely beat her. She gave birth to her one and only child, Terry, in 1942 – the same year she filed for divorce from his father. Jorden committed suicide in 1967 with a self-inflicted gunshot.

In 1945, Day recorded her first hit with Brown, “Sentimental Journey,” a popular song for soldiers coming home from the war, and had another success with “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.” Despite her all-American appeal, Day was becoming difficult to work and would throw serious tantrums if she didn’t get her way. She left Brown once her contract was up in 1947.

Just before she left Brown, Day married saxophonist George Weidler and appeared as a guest on the radio show, The Bob Hope Pepsodent Show. She became a hit, of course, and appeared in recurring fashion on the show while attracting the attention of Hollywood. Not wanting to be known as Mr. Doris Day, the insecure Weilder informed her of his intentions to divorce via letter.

Hollywood Beckons:

Day signed a contract with Warner Bros. and went to work with the workman-like director, Michael Curtiz, who replaced a pregnant Betty Hutton with the unknown actress and guided her through her first film, Romance on the High Seas (1948). Though she was horrified by her performance, Day did received an Oscar nomination for her hit song, “It’s Magic.”

Day continued working with Curtiz, receiving top billing in My Dream Is Yours (1949), and starring opposite Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall in Young Man with a Horn (1950). Many of her early films like Tea For Two (1950), On Moonlight Bay (1951), April In Paris (1952), By the Light of the Silvery Moon (1953), Lucky Me (1954), were overly sentimental, but also fine entertainment.

Of course, her film career boosted her music career, as with each film she more often than not released a new album, many of which charted in the top ten. Meanwhile, she married producer and manager, Marty Melcher, in 1951. Though he adopted Terry, many of her show business friends thought that he was trying to take her money. In the end, they turned out to be right.

A New Image:

Day wanted to change her good girl image and started to play against type. She delivered a tomboyish performance as the titular Calamity Jane (1953) and showed surprising range as 1920s singer, Ruth Etting, in Love Me or Leave Me (1955), co-starring James Cagney.

In another surprising turn, she was one of Alfred Hitchcock's famed icy blondes in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), which starred James Stewart and featured her Oscar-winning song, "Que Será, Será.” Day went in further into thriller territory and shattered her nice girl image with Julie (1956), in which she played the abused wife of a murderer – a role she felt was much too close to home.

She returned to musical comedy with the adaptation of the Broadway hit, The Pajama Game, only to return to thrillers with Midnight Lace (1960). Once again, she though the material was too personal and decided to stay away from the genre.

Back to playing straight-laced comedies, she starred opposite Clark Gable in Teacher's Pet (1958), David Niven Please Don't Eat the Daisies (1960) and Cary Grant in That Touch of Mink (1962).

Also Starring Rock Hudson:

Later in her career, Day embarked on one of her most fruitful and valuable collaborations, starring opposite dear friend Rock Hudson in the first of three classic romantic comedies, Pillow Talk (1959). The film was a giant hit and received five Academy Award nominations, including the one and only such honor for Day in her career.

The pair reunited for the less-successful, but no less enjoyable Lover Come Back (1961), where Day and Hudson play rival advertising executives who think they hate each other until they meet and fall in love.

Three years later, they starred together one last time for Send Me No Flowers (1964), a lighthearted marital comedy with Hudson playing a hypochondriac who thinks he’s dying and tries setting up his wife, played by Day, with a new husband.

Nearing the End:

As the old studio system gave way to the counterculture New Hollywood of the late 1960s, Day’s happy-go-lucky fare began to feel trite and dated. She turned down the Mrs. Robinson role in The Graduate (1967) and as she was filming With Six You Get Egg Roll (1968), husband and manager Marty Melcher died in 1968.

As if losing her third husband wasn’t bad enough, Day learned that Melcher had squandered most of her vast fortune and left her deeply in debt. Unbeknownst to her, Melcher had signed her on to the CBS sitcom, The Doris Day Show (1968-1973), which she felt obligated to do despite never granting her okay or even knowing about it.

The show starred Day as a widow from the big city who moves back to the rural San Francisco ranch of her youth with her two sons. Though a popular series, it was never a big ratings hit, but it did well enough to last five seasons. By the time The Doris Day Show was off the air, Day was ready for retirement.

On Into Retirement:

In 1973, Day retired to Carmel-by-the Sea, CA, where she became a committed animal activist, and founded both the Doris Day Pet Foundation and the Doris Day Animal League. She even gave up her showbiz name and became known to the locals as Clara Kappelhoff.

She married for a fourth and final time in 1976 to Barry Comden, the maitre d' at a her favorite restaurant. They divorced in 1981. Meanwhile, Day made on last stab at television as the host of Doris Day’s Best Friends, a series about pets on the Christian Broadcasting Network. An emaciated Rock Hudson appeared on an episode just months before his death from complications due to the AIDS virus, shocking fans by his appearance.

Her later years were spent in relative seclusion in Carmel. Day received a number of honors during her retirement, but often turned down receiving them due to a gripping fear of flying, including a Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2004. Also that year, she tragically lost her son, Terry Melcher, to a long battle with melanoma. It was a devastating blow, since mother and son were incredibly close.

In 2008, Day received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement, but did not attend the ceremony to accept the award. To date, her last public appearance at an award ceremony was in 1989 when she showed up in Hollywood to collect an honorary Golden Globe.

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