Doris Day Dies at 97: Her Gifts Were Underestimated, But Her Artistic Legacy Is Vast

Doris Day has died at age 97, her foundation said early on May 13. The actress, singer, and activist was one of the last legends of classic Hollywood, and her intense privacy for the last 30 years of her life only enhanced her mystique.

Day was 22 when she recorded her first number-one hit with “Sentimental Journey;” her final acting credit was the TV series “The Doris Day Show,” which ended its run in 1973. But what she packed into those 30 years is extraordinary: nearly 40 movies and five Billboard #1 hits. Although she started to withdraw from Hollywood in the ’70s, followed by the brief run of a Christian Broadcasting Network talk show in 1985-86, it always felt like there was more to discover in her body of work.

That talk show, “Doris Day’s Best Friends,” was legendary in its own right. In 1985, Rock Hudson, Day’s co-star in frothy comedies such as “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back,” appeared with her in a pre-taped segment for a press conference announcing the show in July 1985. It was the first time he had appeared publicly since he’d begun his battle with AIDS, and he already looked gravely ill. Day’s embrace of him did much to destigmatize the illness at a time when the disease was still barely discussed in the U.S. media, let alone on a Christian TV network. Hudson died three months later.

Day was also known for her animal-rights activism — the “best friends” of the “Doris Day’s Best Friends” talk show title were referring to her animal friends. She lived in Carmel and would be filmed by her fans on her birthday every April 3 when she’d come out on the balcony of her home and wave to the crowd of admirers who’d gather and sing some of her songs.

Doris Day was born Doris Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922 in Cincinnati. She originally wanted to be a dancer, but after a car crash ended those aspirations in her mid teens she started to sing along to the radio while she was recovering. She discovered she had a silken voice like almost no other white female singer of her time. By the age of 17 she was performing in nightclubs, and her 1945 hit “Sentimental Journey” was a bluesy, wistful lament. Recorded with Les Brown’s orchestra, it clearly resonated with soldiers fighting in World War II who were headed home and faced the prospect of what they would find upon their return.

Her voice was soft and supple. She was capable of hitting high notes and belting when she needed to, but Day preferred to hold back, leave a little mystery, and tease out the meaning of the words rather than steamroll with her lung power. She was a master of interpretation, of making it feel like she was singing just to you — and Day was one of the earliest female equivalents of the “crooner,” the vocal style popularized by Bing Crosby in which a male singer’s voice was calibrated for the microphone rather than for the last seats in a packed concert hall. Her style was personal, heartfelt, interpretative, always serving the lyrics first and foremost. It meant she’d make a great actress, and she certainly became that.

Signed to Warner Bros., Day’s first film was Michael Curtiz’s “Romance on the High Seas” (1948), and nearly 40 more would follow. She could do light musical comedies such as “On Moonlight Bay” and “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” introspective character studies like “Young at Heart” with Frank Sinatra and “Love Me or Leave Me” with James Cagney, a potboiler about racism and the Ku Klux Klan in “Storm Warning” (the only film she ever made in which one of her characters died), and a location-heavy thriller in “Julie” in which she’s menaced by evil husband Louis Jourdan.

Of course, Day would forever be best known for her fizzy comedies of manners with Rock Hudson. “Pillow Talk” won Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards in 1960. It would often be called a “sex comedy” for its clever and highly euphemistic, but nevertheless aggressively suggestive, exploration of sexual mores. Its follow up, “Lover Come Back,” is a blistering satire of the ad world that plays like “Mad Men” as a screwball comedy. Tony Randall was always on hand in these as a fastidious supporting player, a kind of proto-Niles Crane supplying wry commentary.

Sometimes her movies were dismissed as lightweight; James Baldwin famously dismissed her entire body of work. (She, along with Gary Cooper, were “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen.”) But take a look at the level of commitment she gives to the emotional breakdowns of her characters in “The Man Who Knew Too Much” or the (shockingly underrated) “Midnight Lace.” She almost goes too far, gets too real in portraying their mental unraveling. In the case of “Midnight Lace,” it may not have been acting; the plot about a woman being menaced by her husband brought back feelings she’d tried to forget about her abusive first marriage.

That marriage did produce her one and only child, Terry Melcher, who became a legendary music producer, a pioneer of the surf-rock genre, and, infamously, the owner of the house he’d rented to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, where Tate lost her life to the Manson family in 1969. Day and Melcher were extremely close, particularly in their later years. He died in 2004 of melanoma, and Day dedicated her final album, 2011’s “My Heart,” to his memory.

Financial difficulties followed in the late 1960s after her third husband, Martin Melcher, left her in impecunious circumstances after his death. That’s partly why she embarked upon the five-season “Doris Day Show” starting in 1968. She never acted again after that, though she suggested that she might every now and then, possibly in a film by her dear friend and Carmel neighbor Clint Eastwood. But it never happened. In recent years she’d appear on radio shows hosted by her friends like Michael Feinstein and Michael Ball, but she’d never agree to be put on camera. Her attitude always seemed to be to let her fans remember her as she was.

In one interview, for The Advocate in 2011, she addressed that one of her songs, “Secret Love,” from the film “Calamity Jane,” had become embraced by some as a gay anthem. “I think that’s wonderful,” she responded.

So was she.

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