Doris Day, a singer and actress who personified wholesome American womanhood in the 1950s and 1960s — memorably as the chaste but chased after love interest in sex farces with Rock Hudson and Cary Grant, died May 13 at her home in Carmel Valley, Calif. She was 97.
The Doris Day Animal Foundation announced her death, saying she had recently contracted pneumonia.
Despite Day’s perpetually sunny image, her life was marked by periods of physical, emotional and financial abuse. Her first husband beat her, her second couldn’t stomach her success and her third cheated her out of her hard-won fortune. By the time of her death, she had long retreated from show business and had gained renown for her work in animal welfare. In 2004, when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, the award cited her influence as a performer and an activist.
A comely platinum blonde with a dramatic and slightly husky voice, Day had catapulted to fame as the armed forces’ sweetheart with her million-selling recording of “Sentimental Journey.” The song, released in 1945 and backed by Les Brown’s band, helped set the musical tone of homefront America during World War II.
“She was every bandleader’s dream, a vocalist who had natural talent, a keen regard for the lyrics and an attractive appearance,” Brown once said. “As a singer, Doris belongs in the company of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra. And I’d say that next to Sinatra, Doris is the best in the business on selling a lyric.”
Her good looks and unwaveringly warm personality helped her transition to movies, even as she remained a top-ranked pop singer with hit ballads such as “It’s Magic,”“Secret Love” and “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” the last of which became her theme song.
Beyond her pop credentials, she possessed an unerring sense of delicate swing. She made excellent and far-more intimate recordings with pianist André Previn on the 1962 album “Duet” and continued to thrive several more years without compromising her style, despite changing musical tastes.
Her movie career, which included nearly 40 films over two decades, was far more checkered. While she showed promise in dramatic roles — she worked memorably with director Alfred Hitchcock — she was far more drawn to bland comedies and mediocre musicals that were within her comfort zone.
She initially became an audience favorite as a peppy and beautiful star of musicals such as “Romance on the High Seas” (1948), “Calamity Jane” (1953) and “The Pajama Game” (1957). She remained for several years one of the country’s top box-office draws.
In films such as “Teacher’s Pet” (1958), “Pillow Talk” (1959) and “That Touch of Mink” (1962), she cemented her persona onscreen: the modern working woman guarding her chastity against smooth-talking wolves — Clark Gable, Rock Hudson and Cary Grant, respectively.
Her film choices gave Day her enduring reputation as a perpetual virgin — “the all-American middle-aged girl,” movie critic Pauline Kael wrote witheringly in 1963. The actress’s screen persona took on comic dimensions. Entertainers including Groucho Marx and Oscar Levant were variously credited with the much-repeated quip: “I’ve been around so long, I can remember Doris Day before she was a virgin.”
Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff was born in Cincinnati on April 3, 1922. Her mother named her after silent-screen actress Doris Kenyon and encouraged her daughter’s interest in music and dance. Her parents’ marriage unraveled, she later said, because her father, a respected piano and choral teacher, was having an affair with her best friend’s mother.
Her first marriage, in 1941, was to Al Jorden, a talented trombonist but a jealous and “psychopathic sadist” who often beat her up, she later recalled. He once tried to force pills on her that would cause her to miscarry. She gave birth to their son, Terry, and they divorced soon after.
In 1946, she married saxophonist George Weidler, who converted her to Christian Science. She tried to live as a Los Angeles housewife before their amicable parting. Weidler had reservations about becoming “Mr. Doris Day,” and he was certain of her future stardom.
In 1968, as she was winding down her career, her third husband, producer Martin Melcher, died unexpectedly at 52. She discovered that Melcher and her lawyer, Jerome Rosenthal, had squandered her entire fortune and left her $500,000 in debt.
Day won a $26 million civil suit against Rosenthal, but the two sides negotiated for 17 years to reach a $6 million settlement. Rosenthal was disbarred.
After Melcher’s death, Day spent five years in a CBS series, “The Doris Day Show,” to which Melcher had committed her without her knowledge; she and the critics hated it. She also married and divorced for the last time, to a restaurant greeter, Barry Comden.
Her son, Terry, a record producer who sang on the Beach Boys album “Pet Sounds,” died in 2004. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Day settled in Carmel Valley, caring for many pets and starting animal welfare lobbying organizations, including the Doris Day Animal League and the Doris Day Animal Foundation. She successfully advocated a California law for mandatory counseling for people convicted of animal abuse.
“The more I study human beings,” she once said, “the more I love animals.”