Clark Gable, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Howard Keel, Jack Lemmon, Marilyn Monroe, Move Over Darling, Pillow Talk, Rock Hudson, Something's Got To Give, The Graduate, The Prince And The Showgirl, Thelma Ritter
“You take the grey skies out of my way
You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day…”
– Wham!, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go’ (1984)
Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1922. Her grandparents were German immigrants, and her father worked as a music teacher. As a teenager she loved to dance, and performed locally in a duo until an injury to her right leg in a car accident ended her hopes of turning professional. While recuperating, she listened to songs on the radio, and realised she could sing – her greatest influence at this time was Ella Fitzgerald. Doris began singing for radio and in the big bands of the era, taking her name from a popular track, ‘Day After Day.’ Her breakthrough hit came in 1945 with ‘Sentimental Journey.’ Over the next year she scored a string of Top 10 hits on the Billboard chart.
In 1948, Doris Day was signed by Warner Brothers and made her movie debut in Romance On the High Seas. Most of her early roles were in nostalgic musicals such as On Moonlight Bay and I’ll See You In My Dreams; but she proved her acting chops opposite Kirk Douglas in 1949’s Young Man With a Horn, and in 1950 she was voted the most popular star by US servicemen in Korea. Offscreen, she was already twice-divorced, and a single mother of one. She married her third husband, music manager Marty Melcher, in 1951 and they formed a film production company. (Melcher also adopted her son Terry.)
In 1953, while Marilyn Monroe made a splash in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Doris starred in another of the decade’s great musicals, Calamity Jane. Although an inexperienced singer, Marilyn studied hard, using Ella Fitzgerald as her model like Doris before her. As Lorelei Lee, Monroe subverted the gold-digger stereotype; and Day also challenged gender tropes, playing her Wild West heroine as a tomboy with a ‘secret love’. Both women were gifted comediennes, but Marilyn was considered a sexpot, while Doris was perceived as the girl-next-door. Incidentally, Howard Keel – who shot to fame as Wild Bill Hickock in Calamity – had briefly dated the young Norma Jeane just a few years before.
The two blondes finally met at a party celebrating the completion of The Seven Year Itch – probably the star-studded bash in Monroe’s honour at Romanoff’s in 1954. Day ended her Warners contract that year in Young at Heart, with Frank Sinatra. While Marilyn headed to New York to study at the Actors Studio and formed her own company, Doris focused on a series of dramatic roles, including Love Me Or Leave Me (1955.) Day’s acclaimed performance did not gain an Oscar nomination, and Monroe would also be disappointed when her comeback role in Bus Stop was snubbed by the Academy.
In 1956, Marilyn filmed The Prince and the Showgirl with Sir Laurence Olivier – a project that Doris had also pursued. Instead, she starred opposite James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, which also featured ‘Que Sera, Sera’, arguably her most beloved song. Some of Day’s other roles from this period include the 1956 thriller, Julie; and Midnight Lace (1960), a remake of Gaslight. After her return to the musical in The Pajama Game (1957), and the 1958 romantic comedy, Teacher’s Pet – starring Clark Gable, the ‘King of Hollywood’ who would play his final role opposite Monroe in The Misfits (1961) – Doris forged one of the screen’s great partnerships with Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk (1959.)
The role of feisty interior designer Jan Morrow had been considered by Marilyn before she decided on Some Like It Hot, and both stars enjoyed their greatest successes that year. Doris Day earned her only Oscar nomination for Pillow Talk, while Marilyn won a Golden Globe for Some Like It Hot. Day was named World Film Favourite at the same 1960 ceremony; a title Monroe would take in 1962. After Some Like It Hot, Marilyn’s co-star Jack Lemmon was paired with Day in It Happened to Jane; and Tony Randall, Hudson’s sidekick in Pillow Talk, went on to work with Monroe in Let’s Make Love (1960.) In the same year, That Touch Of Mink, starring Doris and Cary Grant, became the first movie to gross $1 million in one theatre (New York’s Radio City Music Hall.)
After Marilyn’s death in 1962, her unfinished marital comedy, Something’s Got to Give, was remade with Doris Day and James Garner (another of her frequent screen partners) as Move Over Darling. Thelma Ritter, who had also starred in The Misfits, played Day’s mother-in-law, and with a languid theme song from Doris countering all the froth and slapstick, Move Over Darling was another crowd-pleaser. But as the rebellious spirit of the Sixties took hold, Day’s wholesome image began to look dated. Far from the virginal stereotype, however, she played a range of characters, including wives, mothers and career women. Her 1967 comedy Western, The Ballad of Josie, also tackled feminist themes.
A difficult period in her life began when her husband Marty died in 1968, she discovered that his business partner had been defrauding them for years – leaving her close to bankruptcy. Doris also learned that just before his death, Marty had signed a television contract on her behalf. She had no prior knowledge of this and was in poor health at the time, but with mounting financial and legal troubles, she had no choice but to proceed with The Doris Day Show; and in 1975 she published her autobiography, which became a bestseller.
By the early 1980s, with a fourth and final marriage behind her, Day was financially secure. Now semi-retired, she would devote the rest of her life to animal welfare, establishing a national foundation from her ranch in Carmel, California. She was a vegetarian, and denounced the wearing of fur. Kim Novak and Brigitte Bardot are among the other stars who left the spotlight behind to care for animals.
As a child, Doris had taken her dog Tiny for a walk off the leash, and was guilt-ridden when Tiny was run over and killed by a car. A similarly traumatic incident had occurred to the young Norma Jeane when her dog Tippy was allegedly killed by a neighbour. Day’s much-quoted remark that “I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like, and I can’t say the same thing about people” recalls Marilyn’s comment to Truman Capote, “Dogs don’t bite me. Only humans.”
Day’s son Terry, a musician and producer who helped to manage her later career, died in 2004. That year, Doris also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush. In 2011, My Heart – her first album in decades, featuring unreleased recordings with all profits donated to her animal charity, made her the oldest artist to chart in the UK Top 10 with an album of new material.
Although deeply private, Doris was far from a recluse and would show up for annual birthday celebrations in her hometown of Carmel. In 2015, her neighbour (and former mayor) Clint Eastwood offered Doris a part in what would have been her first movie in almost fifty years. She considered it seriously before ultimately declining. On her 97th birthday she reminisced about her long friendship with Rock Hudson, whom she had supported during his battle with AIDS, in a final interview for the Hollywood Reporter. Soon afterwards, she contracted pneumonia and passed away on May 13, 2019.
In many ways, Doris Day and Marilyn Monroe were polar opposites: Doris, for example, was a lifelong Republican, and Marilyn a registered Democrat. In 1967, Day turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, considering the character of a bored, middle-class housewife who seduces her daughter’s fiance “vulgar and offensive.” It’s a part that Monroe might have played well if she had lived longer (Anne Bancroft, who had made her screen debut opposite Marilyn in 1952’s Don’t Bother to Knock, was iconic as Mrs. Robinson.)
Nonetheless, there are some striking parallels between Monroe and Doris Day. Norma Jeane was raised as a Christian Scientist, while Doris converted in later years. Both represented a sunny image of post-war American womanhood that belied the struggles in their own lives. And now as the world mourns Doris Day, she will be remembered among the most popular female entertainers of the last century.