HER LIFE on screen played like an American fairy tale.
Blond, bouncy and beautiful, Doris Day captivated mid-20th century moviegoers in a series of rollicking romantic comedies with her favorite leading man, Rock Hudson, including “Pillow Talk” and “Lover Come Back,” as well as the western musical “Calamity Jane,” Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” the musical drama “Love Me or Leave Me” and many more.
A former singer with Les Brown’s band in the 1940s, Day also was a bestselling recording artist whose trademark songs -- “Sentimental Journey” and the Oscar-winning “Que Sera, Sera” -- seemed to epitomize her upbeat spirit. During her years in the spotlight, Day was always portrayed as happily married -- to third husband and manager Martin Melcher -- and loving mother to son Terry.
But the real story couldn’t be further from the truth, according to David Kaufman’s expansive new biography, “Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door.” Instead it’s a sad story -- partially told in the actress’ 1975 autobiography -- of a talented woman who was unloved by her father, pushed by an ambitious stage mother, with four failed -- and mostly loveless -- marriages, who never got what she wanted: simply to have a happy home life.
“What is even sadder to me and what I have learned in the course of researching this book, interviewing people and from quotes from her own autobiography is how insecure she is about her looks and about her talents,” said Kaufman, a theater critic and author.
“This woman has lived so much of her life unhappy with herself, I think, and yet she brought so much happiness to so many people all around the world,” he added.
Now 86, Day has lived in Carmel for nearly 30 years and spends her time rescuing abandoned and wounded animals and overseeing the Doris Day Foundation for Animals. She doesn’t do interviews and wouldn’t talk with Kaufman.
“I did try to talk to her,” he says. “I went into this project expecting that even if I would get to talk to her, she would not talk to me about her past because it is my understanding that she will not talk about the past. I think one of the reasons is the only way she could put some adversity behind her was by leaving the past and walking away from it and devoting all of her energies to pets. That is the only thing she wants to talk about.”
Kaufman believes the reason the actress won’t talk about her life is, “and this was the biggest surprise to me, is because she feels so completely disassociated from who ‘Doris Day’ was.”
That’s why her friends call her “Clara” -- a nickname bestowed upon her by one of her costars, Billy DeWolfe, years ago. “She signs her notes as Clara,” Kaufman says. “She answers the phone as Clara.”
A fan of her talent
When Kaufman began the book about eight years ago, he didn’t know that much about the career or life of Doris Day, who was born Doris Kappelhoff in Cincinnati in 1922.
“There were 12 or 15 of her 30 films I never saw before I started researching the book,” he says. “But I was an enormous fan and admirer of her talent. I always felt that her acting in particular was underestimated by the world at large. One of my primary motivations for doing this book was to hopefully remedy that, to have her talent become more recognized.”
Unlike the brassy blonds of the 1930s and ‘40s, like Jean Harlow, Mae West and Betty Grable, Day was more the girl next door, both tomboyish and sexy. She fit perfectly into the zeitgeist of the 1950s -- a decade of prosperity, hope and wholesomeness. “She hoped to suggest that the world was OK,” wrote David Thomson in “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.” “She was the home fire that refused to admit the Cold War. Above all, she was optimistic.”
She turned in terrific dramatic performances in such films as “Love Me or Leave Me,” in which she played singer Ruth Etting, and “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” in which she played the mother of a kidnapped boy. And Day was also a deft romantic comedy star opposite Clark Gable in “Teacher’s Pet,” in her sex comedies with Hudson, as well as with James Garner.
“She is easy to deride,” Thomson noted. “But her fans were devoted and her energy was authentic.”
Kaufman interviewed several of Day’s closest friends, including actress Kaye Ballard and choreographer Donald Saddler. He was aided in his efforts when columnist Liz Smith devoted a column to the book three years ago. “She basically declared this is the definitive book and that led to people . . . and they led to other people and it was like the house that Jack built.”
Kaufman admits that Day’s reputation as a movie star suffered in the mid- to late 1960s because Melcher kept producing romantic comedies in which the fortysomething actress was playing the same type of bouncy -- and often virginal -- heroine she did early in her career.
“The last handful of movies were schlock,” says Kaufman. “They were atrocious. If Melcher had let her make ‘The Graduate’ -- it was a year before his death -- it could have taken her career and certainly a reputation to a certain other level.”
Trying to understand
Though he tried to avoid armchair psychology in the book, Kaufman admits Day’s choice of husbands, including her abusive first spouse -- musician Al Jorden -- and the bombastic Melcher, who was more a business partner than soul mate, are all connected to her horrible relationship with her father, William, who abandoned the family when Day was young.
“In essence what she was doing was constantly looking for people who reminded her of her father because she was hoping she would work out what she had not worked out with him. But in the process she just repeated the lousy relationship.”
Kaufman believes that Day and Hudson, who was gay, became fast friends because “they realized they were the opposite of who they really were and they could really relate to each other,” says Kaufman, adding “I don’t think she’s ever had a truly confidential, candid conversation with anybody on this earth. I don’t think she is capable of being intimate.”
Her passion for animals, Kaufman believes, is due to the fact that she unconsciously identifies with them. “Most people don’t realize all the animals she has had, she got them because they were abandoned, left by her gate or sick or wounded in some way and she basically nursed them back to health. She identifies with these animals because she feels like a wounded animal. And she was a wounded and abandoned human being.”