The Truth About Doris Day, America’s Quintessential Girl Next Door

Doris Day, one of the most popular actresses during Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age,” stood out even among other stars of her time. She was known for her natural elegance and wholesome, vivacious personality. Her charm and femininity made her the embodiment of the perfect woman throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

However, Day’s on-screen persona belied her personal life, one that was filled with tragedy and heartbreak. Nevertheless, Day – who famously performed the song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” in the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much – kept her chin up and pressed on, living her life to the fullest until her death in 2019 at the age of 97. Read on as we uncover some truths about Doris Day, America’s quintessential “girl next door.”

Doris Day’s Family

Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff was born on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father, Frederic Wilhelm Von Kappelhoff, was a music teacher, choirmaster, and church organist who had a deep appreciation for classical music. Her paternal grandfather, Franz Joseph Wilhelm Kappelhoff, moved to the United States from Germany in 1875.

Day’s mother, Alma Sophia Welz, was an outgoing woman who loved listening to country music. Welz named her daughter after Doris Kenyon, an actress who she greatly admired. Day was the youngest of three children.

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Doris Day’s Innocent Image

Day’s acting career began during the Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the 1910s up until the 1960s. At the time, she was seen as a more innocent alternative to the vampish Marilyn Monroe. In the media, Day was constantly painted as a woman many men would be delighted to marry.

Monroe, on the other hand, was largely viewed as the type of woman that men just wanted to seduce. Day seemed to relish the opportunity to live up to her wholesome image, at least on camera.

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Doris Day’s Duality

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Day delighted audiences around the world with movie roles that allowed her to display her innate singing ability and sense of humor. Some of her more notable films include Calamity Jane (1953), The Pajama Game (1957), and Pillow Talk (1959), for which she received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

However, away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, the quintessential girl next door was a completely different person. Day lived a life that was far more tragic than anyone could have ever imagined.

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A Tragic Childhood

Day experienced many setbacks throughout her life, some of which happened when she was young. As a child, Day witnessed her parents struggle to cope with the loss of their first child, Richard, who died before Day was even born. Her father also had numerous affairs, which put a strain on her parents’ marriage.

Day’s parents ultimately separated when the future Hollywood star was a teenager. In 1937, Day broke her right leg in a car accident, forcing her to abandon her dream of becoming a professional dancer.

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New Talent Discovered

However, this traumatic incident would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. As Day was recovering from the accident, she discovered her love for singing. During this time, Day would spend countless hours listening to the radio, sometimes singing along with the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

After receiving voice lessons, Day successfully landed a gig on the radio show Carlin’s Carnival, which aired on the radio network WLW. Things were finally looking up for her!

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Her Big Break

Fortunately for Day, one of the show’s avid listeners was a bandleader named Barney Rapp. Rapp, impressed with what he had heard, reached out to Day – who was then known as Doris Kappelhoff – and asked her to be in his band.

This opportunity set the budding performer well on her way to becoming a household name. After changing her last name to something more recognizable, the future star would go on to collaborate with the likes of Bob Crosby, Jimmy James, and Les Brown.

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Doris Day’s Success as a Singer

Day found great success as a singer. “Sentimental Journey,” a song that she recorded in 1945, became her first hit. However, it was Day’s rendition of the popular jazz song “Embraceable You” that helped propel her career to the next level.

During this time, Day also recorded a slew of family-friendly songs that made it to the Billboard Top Ten, including “Till the End of Time,” “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’,” and “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.”

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Her Acting Debut

Songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne were so captivated by Day’s voice that they suggested that she be considered for a role in Michael Curtiz’s 1948 musical romantic comedy Romance on the High Seas. Day was cast as Georgia Garrett despite having no previous acting experience.

Day’s decision to take the plunge turned out to be a good one. Both the movie and its key song, “It’s Magic,” became huge hits, paving the way for a successful career on the big screen.

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The Quintessential Girl Next Door

At this point, Day was well on her way to establishing herself as the quintessential girl next door. She perfected her sugar-sweet image by starring in sentimental musicals such as Tea for Two (1950), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and I’ll See You In My Dreams (1951).

I’ll See You In My Dreams, a biography of famed American lyricist Gus Kahn, was a record-breaking box-office hit. Then, in 1953, Day landed what would perhaps be the most important role of her career.

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Calamity Jane

The western-themed musical Calamity Jane was one of Day’s most successful projects. She cemented her position in Hollywood history with her whip-cracking performance as the titular character. The movie is loosely based on the life of Wild West heroine Martha Jane Cannary.

“Secret Love,” one of the most famous songs from the movie, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Day’s lucky streak continued after that, too, with successful movie musicals such as Lucky Me (1954) and Young at Heart (1955), in which she starred alongside Frank Sinatra.

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More Than Just a Musical-Comedy Actress

However, Day was eager to prove that she was more than just a musical-comedy actress. In 1955, she took on a more dramatic role as singer Ruth Etting in the 1955 musical drama Love Me or Leave Me, which became a critical and commercial success.

A year later, Day worked with famed director Alfred Hitchcock and actor James Stewart in the suspense thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. That same year, Day starred in the film noir Julie alongside Louis Jourdan and Barry Sullivan.

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Her First Oscar Nomination

In 1959, Day co-starred with Rock Hudson in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk. Day received her first – and, quite shockingly, her last – Academy Award nomination for her role as the successful interior decorator Jan Morrow in the movie.

Day and Hudson had amazing on-screen chemistry, and audiences couldn’t get enough of them. The pair would go on to co-star in other romantic comedies like Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). They also maintained a decades-long friendship that lasted until Hudson’s death in 1985.

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Top Female Star of Her Time

By the early 1960s, Day seemed unstoppable. Her performances in comedies and romantic comedies such as Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), That Touch of Mink (1962), and Move Over, Darling (1963) solidified her position as the era’s top female star.

The latter movie’s theme song, “Move Over Darling,” co-written by Day’s son, went on to become one of her signature songs. However, Day’s success wouldn’t last. In just a few years, her reign as a box office queen would come to a screeching halt.

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Her Career Started to Fall

As the baby boomer generation’s counter-culture movement gained popularity, people’s attitudes about sex began to change. Consequently, audiences began to grow tired of Day’s innocent and nostalgic movies. Times were changing, but Day’s movies failed to adapt.

Furthermore, Day’s portrayal of clean-cut, chaste characters led to some critics labeling her as “The World’s Oldest Virgin.” After the release of the romantic comedy The Glass Bottom Boat in 1966, Day’s fortunes began to change, and she would never again achieve the same level of success that she had previously had.

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Maintaining Her Image

In the late 1960s, Day was offered several prominent roles that would have helped change how audiences perceived her, but she turned them all down. The most notable of these roles was as Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 romantic comedy-drama The Graduate.

In one of her published memoirs, Day wrote that she rejected the role on moral grounds, adding that she found the movie’s script vulgar and offensive. The role would eventually be played by Anne Bancroft. Day, it seemed, wanted to maintain her innocent image.

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The Doris Day Show

After appearing in the 1968 romantic comedy With Six You Get Eggroll, Day decided to quit acting in movies. However, she did not completely abandon the entertainment industry altogether, as she would go on to star in her own sitcom, The Doris Day Show, on CBS. 

Day also hosted several small-screen specials on the small screen throughout her show’s five-year run. When The Doris Day Show ended in 1973, however, Day decided she has had enough and shied away from the public eye.

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Doris Day’s Return

The actress ultimately returned to the limelight in 1985 to host her own talk show Doris Day’s Best Friends, which aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network. However, the show was canceled after just 26 episodes. Nevertheless, Day wasn’t entirely forgotten in subsequent years.

In 1989, she was awarded the highly-coveted Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.  In the 1990s, a greatest hits compilation and a feature on the soundtrack to the Australian movie Strictly Ballroom helped introduce Day and her music to an entirely new audience.

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An Animal Welfare Activist

Beyond the entertainment industry, Day was an animal welfare activist. She founded Actors and Others for Animals in 1971, and the Doris Day Animal Foundation seven years later. In 2011, she co-founded the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center in Murchison, Texas.

Day also played a key role in the establishment of the annual Spay Day USA. In 2004, Day was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush for her contributions to the entertainment industry and for her work in promoting animal rights.

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More Awards

Day continued to maintain her prominence in the aughts. In 2008, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for her contributions to music, followed by a third Grammy Hall of Fame Award four years later.

The retired actress seemed to have little interest in getting an honorary Oscar, however. In fact, she had reportedly turned down offers from the Academy on multiple occasions, perhaps indicating that she preferred her movie career to remain in the past.

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An Unexpected Hit

In 2011, at 89 years old, Day scored an unexpected top ten hit in the United Kingdom. The release of a collection of previously unreleased tunes, titled My Heart, saw the star become the oldest-ever artist to accomplish such a feat.

Four years later, Day was approached by her neighbor Clint Eastwood about making a comeback by appearing in one of his movies.  However, the actress – who by that point had no interest in reviving her movie career graciously declined this offer.

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Her Favorite Movie Role

In an unexpected turn of events, the Hollywood legend, who preferred to live a more reclusive lifestyle in her later years, agreed to be interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter in April of 2019, not long after her 97th birthday. 

When asked about her favorite movie role, Day revealed that it had been the lead role in Calamity Jane. Day shared that she was a tomboy growing up, which made Jane a fun character to play. She also praised the music from the movie, describing “Secret Love” as “a beautiful song.”

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Her Passing

Sadly, Day passed away in her home in Carmel Valley, California just a few weeks after the interview due to complications from pneumonia. According to representatives from the Doris Day Animal Foundation, Day was surrounded by her family and friends when she died.

The charity’s representatives added that Day was in excellent physical health for her age until she contracted pneumonia. Shortly after her death was announced, tributes from several Hollywood movie and TV stars – both past and present – started pouring in.

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The World’s Sweetheart

Actor William Shatner took to Twitter to pay tribute to Day, calling her the “World’s Sweetheart” who was “beloved by all.” Actress Goldie Hawn followed suit, saying that Day brightened everyone’s lives and praised her for living her life out with dignity.

Fellow Hollywood veteran Carl Reiner, who had co-written the 1963 romantic comedy The Thrill of It All which starred Day, expressed his shock over the actress’ passing, saying that he had contacted her just a week earlier to welcome her to the 97 Year Actor’s Club.

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A Far-From-Perfect Life

As one might expect, news reports about Day’s passing were largely centered around her time as Hollywood’s quintessential girl next door. However, while the star’s life may have appeared to be picture-perfect on screen, things were different in reality.

To the public, Day was a woman who seemed to have it all. She was a highly successful singer and actress with many fans supporting her. Away from the spotlight, however, Day lived a life that was far from perfect.

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An Unhappy Marriage

In March of 1941, when Day was in her late teens, she married Al Jorden a trombonist whom she had met while performing with Barney Rapp and his band. Unfortunately, their marriage would turn out to be less than ideal.

Jorden was a violently abusive schizophrenic who at one point came dangerously close to killing the couple’s unborn child. When Jorden discovered that Day was pregnant, he ordered her to get an abortion. When she refused, he attacked her.

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Her First Divorce

Fortunately, Day’s unborn child was not harmed during the incident. Day later claimed that Jorden would repeatedly attack her during her pregnancy to force a miscarriage. In February of 1941, the couple’s son, Terrence “Terry” Paul Jorden, was born.

Day and Jorden divorced just a year after Terry was born. Jordan, who had dealt with mental health issues for years, would take his own life in 1967. Day, however, reportedly didn’t grieve much upon hearing the news of his death.

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A Second Chance At Love

Three years after Day’s divorce from Jorden, she married another musician. This time, she said “I do” to George William Weidler, a saxophone player who was the older brother of actress Virginia Weidler.

Unfortunately, Day’s second marriage didn’t last much longer than her previous one. By 1949, the actress had become a single mother yet again. After her divorce from Weidler, Day reportedly expressed her interest to return to her mother’s home in Cincinnati, where she lived after her parents had separated.

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Day Finally Found The One

Day appeared to have finally found “the one” in 1951 when she married movie producer Martin Melcher. Melcher, who also became Day’s manager, adopted Day’s son Terry and gave him his last name. Terry would go on to become a successful musician and record producer.

Day and Melcher appeared to enjoy a happy marriage until Melcher’s untimely passing in April of 1968. However, it wasn’t until Melcher’s death that Day realized that he had been keeping a shocking secret from her.

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Melcher’s Secret

Unbeknownst to Day, Melcher had been squandering her hard-earned money behind her back during their marriage. In her memoir, Day wrote that it was her son Terry who told her what her late husband had been up to. However, the terrible news didn’t stop there.

To her horror, Day learned that not only had her late husband wasted $20 million, but he’d also left her deeply in debt as a result. Furthermore, it appears that both Frank Sinatra and James Garner had long-held suspicions about Day’s spouse and his spending habits.

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Getting Her Fortune Back

Understandably, Day decided to try and recover some of the money that Melcher had frittered away. She did so by suing Jerome “Jerry” B. Rosenthal, a lawyer who had been her late husband’s business associate. Rosenthal had also been Day’s attorney during her second divorce proceedings.

The court ultimately ruled in favor of the actress and was awarded nearly $23 million after a 99-day trial, though she would not receive a single penny until 1979. Terry would later claim that his mother wasn’t even paid the full amount.

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Day’s Disappointment

Moreover, Day was dismayed to discover that Melcher had signed her name to a contract to star in a sitcom The Doris Day Show without her consent. Melcher had also received a large advance to cover production costs, but the money had already been spent before filming could even begin.

In a 1996 interview with OK! magazine, Day shared that she had been in a terrible state of health following Melcher’s death. She also found the idea of going into television before she could fully recover too “overpowering.”

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Her Mental Health Struggles

Day not only suffered financially and professionally as a result of Melcher’s actions but she also suffered mentally and emotionally. As it turned out, her third spouse was a highly demanding person who would drive her to keep working to the point of exhaustion.

Day began experiencing mental health issues during their marriage as a result, and her condition only seemed to get worse as time wore on. While filming the movie Calamity Jane, for instance, the actress would regularly battle against panic attacks.

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Involvement in a Murder Investigation

A year after Melcher’s death, Day found herself unwittingly involved in one of the most high-profile murder investigations of the decade. In 1968, cult leader Charles Manson, an aspiring musician, auditioned for Day’s son, Terry, at his house at 10050 Cielo Drive. Terry refused to sign Manson and later cut ties with him, a move that angered Manson.

In 1969, five people were found murdered at 10050 Cielo Drive. Manson had allegedly sent members of his cult to murder Terry. By that point, however, Terry and his girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, had already moved out of that house.

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Day’s Fourth Marriage

Day’s tumultuous love life continued after her marriage to Barry Comden in April of 1976. Comden, who worked as a head waiter at one of Day’s favorite restaurants, wooed the actress by giving her meat scraps and bones for her dogs as she walked out the door.

Unfortunately, the marriage did not last. By April of 1982, Day would become a four-time divorcee. Comden would later claim that his ex-wife had expressed a greater interest in animals than she did with him.

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A Devastating Loss

After her fourth and final marriage ended, Day decided to devote much of her time and energy to supporting various animal causes. She was assisted by her son, Terry, who worked as an executive of the Doris Day Animal Foundation. Day and Terry also co-owned a small hotel, the Cypress Inn, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

In November of 2004, Terry passed away at his home at the age of 62 following a long battle with melanoma. Day, who had a close relationship with her son, was left devastated.

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A Loss of a Friend

Terry’s death wasn’t the only significant death that Day had to endure in her later years. 19 years earlier, her former on-screen partner and longtime friend Rock Hudson became the first major celebrity to die from AIDS.

Hudson died in his sleep at his home in Beverly Hills, California in October of 1985, just a few weeks before his 60th birthday. The former matinée idol also kept his sexuality a secret throughout his career, and it was only after his death that his sexual orientation was revealed to the public.

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A True Friend

A few months before his death, a visibly ill Hudson joined Day in a press conference announcing the launch of her CBN talk show, Doris Day’s Best Friends. In Mark Griffin’s biography of the actor, Day is quoted as saying that Hudson indeed looked “very sick” at the time, but she just brushed this off.

The actress was praised by the gay community for staying by her friend’s side during a period when fear of AIDS was at an all-time high, and when people who had AIDS were shunned by society.

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Day Had An Active Social Life

Day had undoubtedly experienced many tragedies and heartbreaking losses throughout her life. However, despite her absence from the entertainment world for many years, the actress was far from being the emotionally traumatized recluse that she was often painted as.

On the contrary, Doris Day led a highly active social life right up until her passing. She had also been actively involved in various animal welfare activities and charities and would regularly make appearances at charity events.

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Doris’ Thoughts on Her Image

Many of Day’s closest friends have said that they found the “recluse” label ridiculous, given how frequently the actress was seen out on the town. The actress herself has stated on numerous occasions that the media’s portrayal of her has been inaccurate and unfair.

Day once remarked in an interview that her image was more make-believe than any role she’s ever played. Like most other celebrities, Day had to deal with all sorts of rumors about her personal life. Yet, Day seemed unbothered by it all, choosing instead to focus on matters that interested her, like animal welfare.

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The Truth About Your Favorite Celebrities

As Day’s story shows, finding out the truth about your favorite celebrities was considerably more difficult back in the day. Perhaps this is mainly because social media didn’t even exist!  Nevertheless, this did not prevent rumors from circulating. 

 

These days, people are bombarded with all sorts of news articles and social media posts. In a time when bad actors are actively working to deceive people or cause chaos and confusion, knowing how to separate truth from lies is key.

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