When Doris Day passed away last week at the age of 97 in her Carmel, Ca. home, it was announced that there would be no funeral, no memorial service and interment would take place in an unmarked grave.
That’s not surprising to anyone paying attention to her career — this superstar never followed a conventional path in life, why should she plan a mainstream final disposition?
Remember, this is the same Doris Day, named by the Hollywood Reporter as the “top female box office draw of the 20th century,” who essentially walked away from her career when she was in her 50’s.
And continued ignoring most employment proposals thereafter: television networks and film producers made repeated entreaties, only to be met with a firm “no, thanks.” Las Vegas casinos came calling with short-term deals that were in seven figures, same response.
One of the more flabbergasting turn-downs was handed to a dietary product company which offered her a million dollars for filming a commercial — at best an eight hour process — in her home. Day said that she had never been on a diet in her life, it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do.
Only once in her professional career did she make a blatant commercial decision: in 1968, following the death of her third husband, Marty Melcher, she discovered that, due to his mismanagement of her twenty-plus million dollar earnings, she was broke and owed over $400,000. Melcher, unbeknownst to Day, had signed her on for a five year television hitch on “The Doris Day Show.”
She slogged through the successful CBS series, as well as two specials, because as she later said, “I had to do it — I needed the money to survive.”
Once that forced excursion in front of the camera was over, Day spent the rest of her life at her animal foundation, rescuing those she loved as much as her family or close friends.
When she retreated from Hollywood to helm the foundation in Carmel (often personally visiting potential pet adoptees in their homes), she left behind a sterling performance record. Thirty eight of her thirty nine films made money (adjusting her box office gross into today’s dollars puts her earnings well into the billions); her six hundred plus recordings yielded millions in record sales; her five years in television, in a less than compelling series, was also very successful (it has been reported, erroneously, that CBS cancelled the series — not so, the network wanted another season, Doris demurred).
Criticisms about her goody-two shoes image and the trite subject matter of some of her films and songs, once the coin of the realm among pundits, have been revised.
Feminist author and film critic Molly Haskell has said, “I think that Doris Day is the most underrated, underappreciated actress that has ever come out of Hollywood.” Haskell makes the case that Day’s working woman’s roles challenged “the limited destiny of women to marry, live happily ever after and never be heard from again.”
It was a different time, a different place and yet Doris, against formidable odds, conquered it.
On a personal level, Day’s passing reminds me of a magical evening just over 30 years ago when I met and kissed her — I’ve stayed kissed since that night.
First, rewind to the 1950’s when I was growing up in the Midwest and Day was one of the dominant entertainment figures of the era: both movie bonanza gold (in the 60’s, she was the number one box office attraction for four years; she was in the top ten for ten years) and recording megastar wattage (she was rated number one female vocalist nine times).
It was impossible not to be familiar with her work. As a boy, I was exposed to her primarily as a singer – eventually, because of her films, my friends and I realized how attractive she was. Doris was funny, charming and hot. I later discovered that the distinguished author, John Updike, had a major crush on her too.
Flash forward the late 1980’s, Thanksgiving week, Quail Lodge, Carmel, Ca. where my wife and I were on vacation. Doris lived on the grounds of the Lodge’s golf course and frequently dined at the club’s restaurant.
On a foggy, intimate evening, I tipped the bartender at that restaurant to call me in my room if Doris were to show for dinner. As we were settling down in our room, sure enough, I received a call that Doris had arrived.
Immediately, my wife and I returned to the bar where I asked a waiter to pass along the message to Doris that we would like to say hello when she had finished her meal.
A few minutes later, a very prominent American businessman, who along with his wife were with Doris that evening, came to the bar to screen us. I explained that we weren’t looking for an autograph, simply a short opportunity to tell her how much her entertainment career meant to us.
We passed the test: fifteen or so minutes passed, Doris appeared, and despite her sixty six years of age, was a charismatic presence who soaked the oxygen out of the air.
After being introduced, I told her we had two things in common — we both lived in Cincinnati and that Barney Rapp (her first real manager, the man who gave her the last name of Day) played a role in both of our lives.
Doris replied: “You knew Barney Rapp? He gave me my start.”
With that, she sat down for what ended up in a more than two hour conversation (the businessman and his wife left about half way through).
Doris was without a trace of arrogance, not at all impressed with herself — engaging, whip-smart, direct and curious about other opinions. We covered a lot of ground, sometimes in an unexpectedly frank manner.
Our first topic was Cincinnati and the deep feelings Doris harbored about her hometown: candidly, she said, “You know, I could have been just as happy raising a family in Price Hill (a suburb of Cincinnati) as I was in Hollywood.” This statement, which reflected her down-to-earth quality, personified the reason for her widespread appeal.
Among other topics were:
- Acting came easily to her, she never had stage fright — when she was singing, she was “on another plane,” well above an acting performance.
- She asked about my favorite songs of hers. I told her that “Sentimental Journey” — her first big hit — was easily my number one choice. “Fools Rush In” and “I’ll Never Stop Loving You” were two incomparably arresting songs that I mentioned as well. Among her albums, “Duet” with Andre Previn, was my first pick, but there were many others which were seamlessly done — “Day by Day,” “Day by Night,” “I Have Dreamed,” and “What Every Girl Should Know.”
- When asked, she said her favorite was, “The More I See You.” She notably stayed away from mentioning some of her most well-known hits like “Que Sera, Sera,” “Everybody Loves a Lover,” and “Secret Love.” I asked her about this — she did think “Secret Love” was a “beautiful” song, but she was not fond of “Que Sera, Sera,” and was taken off guard by its popularity.
- We talked about her movie career, and again she asked my favorites. I told her I thought her best performances were in “Love Me or Leave Me,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The Pajama Game,” “Midnight Lace,” and “Please Don’t Eat the Daises,” the latter a film written by the superb screenwriter, Isobel Lennart. It was based on the lives of author Jean Kerr and her highly respected husband, theater critic Walter Kerr. She seemed pleased with my choices and commented that “The Man Who Knew Too Much” was difficult to do because of the travel and the horrible treatment of animals in Morocco. She also noted that “Pajama Game” was a physically arduous film.
- During a lengthy discussion of animals, we discovered we both named pets after real people. One of her dogs was named Elsie Schissler, who in human reality, married Frank Schucart, so the dog’s name finally became Elsie Schissler- Schucart. Elsie had a sister, a dark brown doxie named Emma Lou,” but she is a maiden lady, so her name is Emma Lou Schissler.”
- We talked about her recording some contemporary songs and she was particularly interested in what I thought might work for her. I told her about a Stephen Sondheim composition that could have been written with her in mind, “No One is Alone” from “Into the Woods.” She did not know the material, so later, I mailed her the show’s CD, and here’s what she said in a return letter: “I just want you to know that I adore that song, “No One is Alone.” You are absolutely right — I would be thrilled to sing such a beautiful, beautiful song. Sondheim has always been one of my favorites anyway, and I’ve always admired his work greatly. I’m glad you brought it to my attention, and who knows, maybe I’ll do it.” Sadly that apparently did not happen — unless some unknown recordings surface.
She confessed that, Barney Rapp aside, she never really liked the name Doris Day; her friends always called her Clara Bixby or Suzie Creamcheese. The last name rang a bell: reviewing Day’s autobiography for the “New Yorker” magazine, John Updike, who as mentioned had been in love with her from afar since his youth, titled the article “Suzy Creamcheese Speaks.” I later sent her a copy of it — Doris particularly liked the line where Updike writes, “Unaware of my feelings, she married a band man, George Weidler.”
At the end of the evening, we took the picture, included above, and then I asked her for a very special favor: would she mind if I gave her a hug and a kiss, something I had on my mind for thirty years. Her response was, “easiest thing in the world.” My wife sent the photo to Doris, who signed it and returned it as a special birthday gift for me.
In a follow up letter, she wrote, “I am delighted that you got the signed picture, and that you liked it. I thought it was very good considering it was taken in a dark room at Quail. We certainly look like we were having a good time, and we were.”
I corresponded with her for awhile, but then life happened and we diverged. Doris Day gave us truly memorable evening: as my wife said, “it sounds like an exaggeration, but she was spellbinding.” No exaggeration at all.
Doris Day, RIP.