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Doris Day 1922-2019

The iconic film star began her show-business career as a big-band singer

Doris Day
Doris Day backstage at the Aquarium, New York, 1946 (photo: William P. Gottlieb Collection/Library of Congress)

Doris Day, a singer and actress who began her career as a vocalist with World War II-era big bands before becoming a pop star and cinematic icon, died May 13 at her home in Carmel Valley, Calif. She was 97.

Her death was announced in a statement by her animal-welfare charity, the Doris Day Animal Foundation. The cause of death was pneumonia, which the Foundation said she had contracted very recently. (A Christian Scientist, Day rejected medical treatment.)

With her blond hair, blue eyes, and freckles, Day in the 1950s and early ’60s was an archetype of wholesome American womanhood. So wholesome was her image, in fact, that even her roles in such suggestive titles as Midnight Lace were ultimately squeaky-clean. She was nicknamed “The Virgin Queen” for this image; however, she was also for several years the country’s top female box office draw.

She enjoyed a prior, and then parallel, career as a popular vocalist. The Cincinnati native was employed in 1939 by Barney Rapp, an orchestra leader in that city, before moving on to the bands of Bob Crosby, Jimmy James, and Les Brown. She then moved on to a successful solo career, which became the vehicle by which she entered the movies.

Day was also a longtime advocate for animal welfare. In addition to the Doris Day Animal Foundation, she founded the Doris Day Animal League (which merged with the United States Human Society) and Actors and Others for Animals. She was a highly visible anti-fur activist.

“I’ve never met an animal I didn’t like,” Day said, “and I can’t say the same thing about people.”

Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff was born April 3, 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio. Though she was the daughter of a piano teacher and choirmaster, young Doris grew up harboring no desire to perform until her teens, when she began working as a dancer with partner Jerry Doherty. A car accident when she was 15 ended her dancing; while she was recovering, however, she sang along to songs on the radio (especially those by Ella Fitzgerald, her lifelong idol), showing talent that impressed her mother enough to enroll her in singing lessons.

Kappelhoff got a job singing on Cincinnati radio station WLW; bandleader Rapp heard her on air in 1939 and asked her to audition for the open vocalist seat in his band. She passed the audition. On hiring her, Rapp told Kappelhoff that her last name was too long for marquee billing, suggesting “Day” as a stage name.

In 1940, 18-year-old Day left Rapp’s band, to perform briefly with another midwestern big band, that of Jimmy James, before being hired by nationally renowned bandleader Bob Crosby. This too proved a brief tenure—three months—before she was hired away by another national star, saxophonist Les Brown and his Band of Renown. She would remain with him for six years.

“She was every bandleader’s dream,” Brown would later remark, “a vocalist who had natural talent, a keen regard for the lyrics and an attractive appearance.” Day was equally satisfied with their musical relationship, recalling that “the happiest times in my life were the days when I was traveling with Les Brown and his band.”

It was with Brown that Day had her show-business breakthrough. Though much of her time with him was obscured by the American Federation of Musicians’ 1942-44 recording ban, in 1945 she led Brown’s band in a recording of his tune “Sentimental Journey.” The record hit No. 1, sold over a million copies, and made Day a star. By the end of 1946, Day and Brown had reached the Top 10 another six times, and had become the house band for Bob Hope’s radio show.

In 1948, songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn recommended Day for a film to which they were writing music, Romance on the High Seas. The movie gave Day a solo hit with “It’s Magic” and established her in Hollywood—she became a contract player with Warner Brothers, appearing in 17 of the studio’s films before leaving it in 1954. She was not yet a full-fledged movie star; from 1952 to 1953, she also hosted her own Doris Day Show radio program (with Brown as the bandleader).

Movie stardom arrived with the back-to-back hits Love Me or Leave Me (1955) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), the latter an Alfred Hitchcock production that yielded her biggest hit and lifelong signature tune, the Academy Award-winning “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be).” She continued to sing but was increasingly known for her film roles, especially a string of romantic comedies opposite Rock Hudson (a lifelong friend), and she remained a top box-office draw through 1966’s hit The Glass Bottom Boat. Her next four movies, released when the late-1960s sexual revolution had bypassed her all-American wholesomeness (Day turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in the seminal 1967 film The Graduate, feeling it was too vulgar for her audiences), were less than successful, and Day retired from film after 1968’s With Six You Get Eggroll.

For Day, the 1970s were dominated by her CBS sitcom The Doris Day Show, which ran from 1968-73, and by a protracted malpractice lawsuit against her personal attorney (from whom she won a settlement in 1979). She then largely retired from show business, making a few appearances and briefly returning to television with a cable talk show in the mid-1980s.

In 2011, at age 89, Day returned to the limelight with the studio album My Heart, which reached the Top 10 in the U.K. (making her the oldest artist to achieve such a feat). Otherwise, she devoted her energies to her animal-welfare efforts, making media appearances only to raise awareness and funding for her charities.

Day was married four times. Three of her marriages—her first two, to musicians Al Jorden and George Wiedler, and her fourth, to restaurant maître d’ Barry Comden—ended in divorce, while her third, to film producer Martin Melcher, ended in his death in 1968. She was predeceased by her son from her first marriage (later adopted by her third husband), musician and songwriter Terry Melcher, who died in 2004. She is survived by her grandson, Ryan Melcher.

According to the Doris Day Animal Foundation, there will be no funeral or memorial service.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.