Any girl can look glamorous ... just stand there and look stupid.
— Doris Day
Doris Day died Monday at age 97, at her home in Carmel Valley, California. For my generation and the ones that came just before and just after, she was and always will be America’s sweetheart.
Born Doris Mary Kappelhoff in Cincinnati, her last name was changed to Day in the 1940s when she worked as a young singer with dance bands, supposedly because it fit better on dance hall and night club marquees. Among the better bands she sang with was “Les Brown and His Band of Renown.”
I grew up in that era, and remember dancing, clumsily, to music sung by a variety of singers accompanied by a number of touring bands. They made regular stops at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania. I never saw Doris Day as a lead singer, though.
She got her big break in Hollywood when given fourth billing with Jack Carson, Janis Paige and Don DeFore in the 1948 musical “Romance on the High Seas.” Jule Styne wrote the music and Sammy Cahn the lyrics for the two great love songs she introduced in the film: “It’s Magic” and “It’s You or No One.” I still get shivers when I hear these recordings.
It’s said she developed her singing style as a child of 12 while recovering from a broken leg suffered in an automobile accident. She began listening to and singing with Ella Fitzgerald on the radio. Young Doris Kappelhoff did her best to copy the great Ella’s phrasing and subtle interpretation of the songs she sang.
The thing I particularly enjoyed about popular music in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s was the fact that both male and female singers (the good ones) had the ability to project and give meaning to the lyrics of the songs they sang. I don’t think you can say that about most vocalists today. To me, much of what is popular now is just a melange of shouting, screaming and wriggling that defies interpretation other than, well, unsubtle invitations to join in activities that are better enjoyed in private than in public.
The songs Doris Day made popular had a quality that spilled over and enhanced her skill delivering dialogue as an actress in the many films that came after her debut in musicals. She appeared on film with Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Jack Lemmon, James Garner and many other Hollywood luminaries in her time.
Her romantic roles in a series of films with Rock Hudson were particularly noteworthy. His “outing” as a gay man when it became known that he had contracted AIDS made him a virtual outcast among many of his one-time Hollywood friends and admirers. Doris Day was not one of those who abandoned her former co-star. They remained friends to the last, which says a lot about her character and decency.
For all her stage-managed image as an example of wholesome American womanhood, however, her personal life was not as unsullied and pure as many believed. “I have the unfortunate reputation of being Miss Goody Two-Shoes, America’s virgin, and all that,” she wrote in the 1976 autobiography she co-authored. “So it’s going to shock some people for me to say this, but I staunchly believe no two people should get married until they have lived together.”
She married four times, the first as a 17-year-old girl pregnant with a son who would be her only child. Her longtime friends Groucho Marx and Oscar Levant both claimed to have known her “before she was a virgin.”
She remains one of the great sirens of the magical silver screen, a long time ago.
“You sigh, a song begins. You speak and I hear violins. It’s magic.
The stars desert the skies and rush to nestle in your eyes. It’s magic.”
Yes, it was that. Magic.
R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.