Many of us grew up with Doris Day as a cheerful fixture in our early years—she was emblematic of old-school show-biz: a singing, dancing and acting dynamo who personified the cute-as-a-button blonde of the 1950s and 60s, swirling across stage in strapless, chiffon-skirted gowns that evoke a bygone glamour.
Her death this week at age 97 from pneumonia has us reminiscing about her lush delivery of tunes like Sentimental Journey, Que Sera Sera and Dream a Little Dream of Me. We’re also remembering her starring roles in blockbuster films like 1959’s Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back (1961), and That Touch of Mink (1962), often playing the good girl to Rock Hudson’s or Cary Grant’s portrayal of a playboy. She was the quintessential demure but feisty gal, trying to make her way in the world, perfectly coiffed and clothed for the launch of the working woman era.
Her Struggles Off Screen
While her image was sweet and sunny, behind the scenes, she endured plenty of struggles. “My public image is unshakably that of America’s wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness. An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played,” Day has said in her memoir, Doris Day: Her Own Story. Of her four marriages, one husband was physically abusive, one let her know by a letter that he was leaving her, another mismanaged her fortune and left her in debt, and the last whined in the press about her. Her life was hardly the sweetness and light we saw on screen, and the loss of her son, Terry Melcher, to cancer in 2004 was, she had said, her darkest moment.
Her life was hardly the sweetness and light we saw on screen.
But she persevered and channeled her relentless energy: Beyond her soaring professional success (she earned Golden Globe, Grammy and Presidential Medal of Freedom awards), she started a foundation that bears her name and advocates for animal welfare and pet adoption—a cause very close to her heart. Some of us will also remember how, in the early days of the AIDS epidemic when fear and misinformation swirled, she welcomed an obviously ill Rock Hudson onto her variety show in 1985 with open arms and an open heart. A class act all the way, she will be missed.