Saying goodbye to Doris Day

On the first day of eighth grade in 2002, I was a changed girl.

I was sporting contact lenses after wearing glasses for years, and I had a new favorite actress that changed my life over the summer: Doris Day.

I excitedly asked my friends as we walked through the halls if they had seen “Pillow Talk” (1959). Only one friend, Chelsey, had but most hadn’t. I think this is when I started to realize I was different from the other middle school kids … but I didn’t care.

Doris continued to affect my day-to-day life. I sought out her movies, and I saw the majority of them when she was the Turner Classic Movies Star of the Month in January 2003. “Romance on the High Seas,” “It Happened to Jane” and “On Moonlight Bay” became some of my favorite films. I listened to her music and tried to sing like her, and checked her autobiography out from the library. I even tried to mimic her behavior in films, such as wanting to learn how to play the ukulele like she does in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” (1960).

In eighth grade keyboarding class, we had an assignment to write to a celebrity for an autograph. I wrote to Doris Day, and I was the only person to receive a response. I walked on air for the rest of the day and couldn’t wait to show my mom when she picked me up from school. The autograph still sits on my chest-of-drawers. Later in high school, I auditioned for a school play by singing her song, “It’s Magic.”

I was a weird kid and wasn’t winning any popularity contests, but with Doris Day as your focus, how could you be unhappy? I wasn’t. My oldest sister was concerned I would be a social pariah at school.

When I was a young teenager, I was inspired by Doris Day’s sunny persona and bright smile. I wanted to emulate that spirit.

And as I got older, I was inspired by Doris Day even more because of her strength. She was a survivor.

Though I knew about her life after reading her autobiography in middle school, the way she pressed on through life’s hardships resonated with me more as I got older. A few examples are:
• Doris’s father cheated on her mother with the mother of Doris’s best friend. He left his family, and Doris wrote in her autobiography that she always missed him.
• Her two brothers both died young: one at childbirth and the other in 1957 at age 37 following meningitis due to a cerebral hemorrhage.
• In 1937, her career dreams were shattered at an early age. Doris had a dancing act with a friend named Jerry. Shortly before the two were supposed to head to Hollywood, a vehicle they were riding in was struck by a train. Doris’s leg was badly broken, and it kept her off the leg for a year. She had to reinvent herself as a singer.
• Her first husband and father of her son, Al Jorden, abused her while she was pregnant and nearly killed her.
• Though Doris Day wrote that she was “happy” with her third husband, Marty Melcher, he used Day for her money. Melcher produced most of Day’s films, and controlled her finances. He squandered her money on investments like building hotels and also cut corners on her films. For example, she wanted a quality film composer like Henry Mancini, but Melcher said Mancini was too expensive, she wrote in her autobiography.
• Charles Manson’s gang was after her son Terry when they killed Sharon Tate. The gang wanted a record deal with Terry, who produced performers like The Byrds.
• Her only child preceded her in death. Terry Melcher died in 2004.
But despite all that, Day survived and carried on.

As for Day’s career, some have reduced her film roles to wholesome or virginal fluff. But I’m convinced these people haven’t seen Day’s films.

In several films, Day played successful and single career women. In “Pillow Talk,” a sexy romantic comedy, Doris Day plays Jan Morrow, an interior decorator who is happy being single (until she meets Rock Hudson). In “Lover Come Back” (1961), she’s an advertising executive.

And all of her movies weren’t comedies or light family films.

In “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955), Day plays singer Ruth Etting, whose life and career was controlled by her mobster husband (not unlike her real-life husband, Marty Melcher). She wears more sensual costumes for the first time in her career and the film even involves marital rape. If Doris Day received an Academy Award, it should have been for this role.

Doris Day as Ruth Etting in “Love Me or Leave Me” (1955).

Alfred Hitchcock specifically sought her out for the remake of his film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (1956), because he respected her work. When she was concerned that she wasn’t receiving much direction from him, Hitchcock told Day that she was playing the role just as he wanted her too.

Day was self-aware about her career. She wrote in her autobiography that once you reached No. 1 in Hollywood that the only way to go was down.

After her last film in 1968, Miss Day retired to Carmel, California where she has dedicated her life to animals.

One wonders what would have happened to Ms. Day if she had not been in that fateful car accident that broke her leg. Would her career have gone the same way?

While my interests were much different than my classmates, I truthfully couldn’t have picked a better role model. All smiles, well-liked by her co-stars, lover of animals and someone who persevered through challenging times in life.

On Monday, May 13, during a meeting at work, my manager texted me from across the room to say that Doris Day had died. The news felt like a gut punch. (I was surprised that people in my life still knew how much she meant to me. Another coworker knew I was sad and suggested a Waffle House lunch).

I’ve been very sad about Doris Day’s death, sort of like losing a distant relative. She’s been part of my life for so many years — even if she didn’t know it. She shaped more of my interests, persona and fashion than people may know. This was a difficult post to write, because how do you find the words to accurately describe what someone means to you without coming across as phony?

The world won’t be the same without Doris Day in it. She was one of the last great classic Hollywood actors and will be greatly missed.

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9 thoughts on “Saying goodbye to Doris Day

  1. This was so sweet Jessica. I was totally that kid in middle school, though there was a guy who was even more of an old movie weirdo, so that kept the heat off me a bit! Anyway, just lovely.

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  2. Oh, Jessica. Very well said. I don’t know that I could ever express so well my feeling for our dear Doris. I’m so glad to know there are others out there who feel the same. ❤

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    • I too am sad she is gone , such a talented , gracious lady . Not many like her in Hollywood if any. I have admired her since I was a little girl , now Iam 57 . I too ,think she should have won an Oscar for love me or leave me . She will be missed, take care .

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  3. I read your article with tears in my eyes. I have felt profoundly sad since hearing the news of Doris Day’s passing. Everything now just seems so much sadder to me. I have loved her as long as I can remember. My favorite actress and female singer. I never saw her in a movie I didn’t love. One that has special meaning for me is Young at Heart. I feel so heartbroken. She could always cheer me up. But I am too sad to watch her movies now. Maybe when some time has gone by. Thank you for writing your wonderful story about her.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your love & respect for this beautiful women. I have admired her & loved her movies for years! I admire her love of animals & am glad her work will continue after her passing. Truly we have lost a Hollywood star.

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  5. Great post and tribute to the wonderful Doris Day! Also, glad to hear I wasn’t the only 8th grader with a passion for old Hollywood that didn’t extend to most of my peers (my 8th grade idol was Katharine Hepburn).

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