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Sunday 16 June 2019

Doris Day: The tantalising ambiguity of America's sweetheart and biggest box-office star

Singer, actress, radio host, role model... Mick Brown celebrates the enigmatic Doris Day who died last week aged 97

Wholesome: Doris Day in the film ‘Pillow Talk’ (1959)
Wholesome: Doris Day in the film ‘Pillow Talk’ (1959)

Mick Brown

I must have been six or seven when I first heard Doris Day singing Que Sera, Sera. And just like Doris in the song, I asked my mother... well, what does it mean exactly? Whatever will be, will be, the future's not ours to see...

Was there ever a song more sweet and beguiling, soft and melancholic.

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At the time she recorded it in 1956, Doris Day was 34, well known as an actor in musical comedy, the star of her own radio programme and already into her third marriage. She could little have imaged that Que Sera, Sera would become the song with which she would be indelibly associated for the rest of her life, that she would become the biggest female box-office star of all time, that her third husband would rob her blind, that her son, Terry Melcher, would be threatened by Charles Manson, and that her later life would be devoted to animal rights.

No actress of her generation better epitomises the role of American sweetheart. Day came to prominence during the Eisenhower years, a time of post-War affluence and suburban comforts - the manicured lawn behind the white picket fence. The United States of America was a country bent on cheerful optimism in the face of nuclear uncertainty, where actresses were obliged to perform to stereotype. Day's romantic comedies, as American as mom and apple pie, fit the bill perfectly.

On the one hand there was Marilyn Monroe, with her hourglass figure and skittish, sexy persona; on the other there was Doris, pretty rather than beautiful, the wholesome girl next door, with a big grin and a cheerful disposition.

If Marilyn was a dangerously seductive presence, a potential home-wrecker, Doris was forever cast as home-maker, the girl any man would be proud to bring home to mom. She was a role model through whom a generation of women could function vicariously, and whom a generation of men found powerfully tantalising for reasons they might not have been able to articulate.

"I'm always looking for insights into the real Doris Day," the author John Updike once confessed, "because I'm stuck with this infatuation and need to explain it to myself." So infatuated was Updike that he wrote a poem to her (after Andrew Marvell), Her Coy Lover Sings Out. "Doris, ever since 1945/when I was all of 13 and you a mere 21/and Sentimental Journey came winging/out of the juke box at the sweet shop/your voice piercing me like a silver arrow/I knew you were sexy."

Of course, the stereotype of Day as "Polyanna" (as she put it), the happy home-maker, was some way from the truth. Day was riddled with insecurities stemming from an unhappy childhood. She described her first husband, the trombonist Al Jorden as "a psychopathic sadist"; her second marriage, to saxophonist George Weidler, foundered on his infidelity, although Day admitted in court that "it might have been because of my work". Her third husband, Martin Melcher, was an agent and producer - "a shallow, insecure hustler" as James Garner described him, who took over as her manager.

Melcher quickly put the marriage on a professional footing, with a post-nuptial agreement which referred to Day as "the Artist" and Melcher as "the Manager", giving him total control over career and finances. Then when he died suddenly, in 1968, Day discovered that he and his business partner, Jerome Rosenthal, had lost or misappropriated all of her $23m fortune, leaving her in debt.

Day's marriage to Al Jorden had produced one son, Terry. Day was planning to divorce Jorden, who, on learning of his wife's pregnancy, had demanded that she get an abortion. Shortly after giving birth, Day filed for divorce, leaving the infant to be raised by her mother in Ohio, as she continued with her career.

Melcher subsequently adopted Terry, giving the child his surname. A successful record producer, Terry was rumoured to have been the intended victim of the killing spree, ordered by Manson, that resulted in the death of Sharon Tate in 1969.

Tate was murdered in the house where Melcher had been living with the actress Candice Bergen, and which he had vacated following an argument with Manson, who had wanted Melcher to help develop his career as a singer.

Following Martin Melcher's death, Day stopped making films. She disapproved of the "permissiveness" of the 1960s, refused to appear in films in which actresses were obliged to take off their clothes, and turned down the role of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, considering it "exploitative". Instead, she concentrated on television, where wholesomeness still had traction, and worked off her debts.

Perhaps not surprisingly given her largely unsatisfactory relationships with humans, Day developed a passion for animals and their welfare. It was said that if you wanted to attract her attention, it was best never to dwell on how much you'd loved her singing and acting, but to say how much you loved your cat or dog.

In 1976 she married for the fourth time, and the following year she founded the Doris Day Pet Foundation (now the Doris Day Animal Foundation). Ten years later came the Doris Day Animal League, which focuses on lobbying Washington for pro-animal legislation. Her marriage to Barry Comden, a restaurateur, ended after six years, Comden complaining that she cared more for her "animal friends" than for him.

Day always resented the image of herself as "America's virgin", as she put it. Her life was far richer, and far racier, than that.

Wholesomeness was the word that defined her, but as Updike knew it was the ambivalence, and the possibilities that wholesomeness conveys, that made her America's sweetheart.

Que Sera, Sera might have been her trademark song but it is Move Over Darling that defines her. Listen to her singing - breathing in your ear: "And though it's not right, I'm too weak to fight it somehow - 'cos I want you right now." The only word is gorgeous.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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