A couple of years ago when I existed in the real world of teaching social psychology I was doing a lecture on gender roles, and, seeking an example of the prototypical American woman, I used Doris Day as my example. A couple of students giggled, and a male in the back asked, “Who is Doris Day?” I was taken aback, but I was even more surprised when I tossed the question back to the class and found that none of the 70 students present had an answer. This was particularly puzzling since Doris Day is a native Cincinnatian. I was very familiar with her, of course, from her many hit songs and movies in my adolescence and young adulthood. Plus, as a teenager, I and my friends were addicted to Your Hit Parade, the weekly radio show hosted by Day and Frank Sinatra. I can still repeat verbatim the lyrics to her “Que Sera, Sera”, “A Guy is a Guy”, or “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.”
Doris Mary Anne von Kappelhoff was born in Cincinnati on April 3, 1922, to Alma Sophia Welz, a housewife, and Wilhelm von Kappelhoff, a music teacher. Her grandparents were German emigrants, and the family lived in Evanston. She was named after Doris Kenyon, a silent movie actress. Though the family was Roman Catholic, her parents divorced in her childhood because of her father’s infidelity.
Doris had a strong interest in dance in her youth and formed a dance duo that performed locally in Cincinnati. In 1937 she won an amateur contest, and her mother decided to take her to Hollywood. However, they had a car accident on the way west, and Doris’ right leg was severely injured. She returned home to recuperate. The family lived above a tavern owned by her uncle, and she got interested in singing by listening to the jukebox. She took lessons and won an amateur contest on radio station WLW, singing Day by Day. Soon after she began performing at a local club with bandleader Barney Rapp, who suggested she change her name to “Day” (after the song) because “Kappelhoff” was too long to fit on a marquee. She didn’t like the name, thinking it sounded like a burlesque performer, but she accepted the advice. She then worked with a number of bandleaders, including Bob Crosby and Les Brown. Doris had her first hit recording, Sentimental Journey, working with Brown in 1945. It became the anthem of the U.S. troops’ desire to return home to the states at the war’s end, and Doris’ career was launched.
Day toured the country with Les Brown, and her growing popularity led to her career in films. She attended a party at the home of composer Jule Styne, where she sang Embraceable You. She so impressed Styne and his partner Sammy Cahn that they recommended her for the main role in Romance on the High Seas from which Betty Hutton had withdrawn because of pregnancy. In 1950 U.S. servicemen in Korea voted Doris Day their favorite movie star. She went on to become one of America’s biggest box office stars, making a total of 39 movies, even though she retired from films in 1968. These included a succession of romantic comedies with Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, and other male leads, e.g., Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, Love Me or Leave Me, Teacher’s Pet, Midnight Lace, Send Me No Flowers, The Thrill of It All. Her screen roles promoted her image as the All-American girl, wholesome, vivacious, and innocent. Doris didn’t care for the image, but her husband and manager Martin Melcher actively promoted it. According to Quigley Publishing’s poll of All-Time Number One Stars, Doris Day is currently the top ranking female box-office star of all time, the only other female in the top ten movie star list being Shirley Temple. She received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement in motion pictures in 1989.
Contrary to her image as the girl next door, Doris Day had a succession of bad marriages. Al Jorden, her first husband and father to her only child, was a trombonist in the Barney Rapp Band, was a physically abusive alcoholic, and committed suicide in 1967. Her marriage to saxophonist George Weidler lasted only three years, though he later helped her to convert to Christian Science. Martin Melcher, who Day married in 1951, produced many of Day’s movies, but reportedly abused her son, and created severe financial problems by squandering huge amounts of Day’s earnings, leaving her deeply in debt. Melcher died in 1968, and Day successfully sued his business partner and won the largest civil suit ($20 million) ever awarded to that time in California. Day’s fourth husband, Barry Comden, was a restaurant maitre d’ who won her over by giving her a bag of meat scraps and bones for her dogs, but their marriage collapsed when he complained that Doris cared more for her animal friends than she did for him.
Now age 87, Doris Day lives on an 11-acre ranch near Carmel, CA. She owns and operates the pet-friendly Cypress Hotel in Carmel where she can frequently be seen. She often uses the name Clara Kappelhoff, Clara being a nickname given to her by co-star Billy De Wolfe. She continues her long-time activism for animal rights, funding and running the Doris Day Animal League which merged three years ago with the Humane Society of the U.S. President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, though she didn’t attend because of fear of flying. Doris Day stated, “I am deeply grateful to the President and to my country…to come from Cincinnati, Ohio, for God’s sake, then to go to Hollywood, and to get this kind of tribute from my country…I love this country so much..” (We love you too, Doris – except for my students).