Doris Day: A Few Things You Didn't Know!
April 3, 2020 | by Shannon
Doris Breaks her Leg, Sings with Big Bands, Becomes the Most Beloved Star Ever, Gets her Money Back, and is Basically Magic!
You may already know that I absolutely LOVE Doris Day. I’m one of those die-hard fans who attends Doris’ Birthday Celebration in Carmel each year. (For a Doris Day fan, attending Doris’ Birthday Bash is like going to Disneyland. Pure magic!)
To celebrate Doris this week, I developed my Doris Day White Chocolate Blondies, but I also want to pay tribute to this lovely lady by sharing some of my favorite Doris facts, interwoven with a few of my amazing experiences at her birthday celebrations over the years. Such as the time I talked with Doris on the phone!
Yes, it actually happened, and I still can’t believe it. Talk about a dream come true!
So here we go! Today it’s all about Doris!
(And if you want to learn even more about Doris, the best book to read by far is her autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story [aff. link].
Dance Was Her First Love
Even though most of us think of Doris as a film star and singer, as a young girl growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Doris’ first love was dancing.
“My overriding love was dancing,”
Doris says in her autobiography [aff. link]. But just before Doris and her dance partner were to try their hands at a dancing career in Hollywood, fifteen-year-old Doris was in a terrible accident: her car was hit by a train. AND THEN A FREIGHT CAR. The accident shattered Doris’ right leg:
“The X-rays showed that I had a double compound fracture, and there were shattered bone fragments that had to be fitted back into place. A steel pin was inserted in the bone and an extra-heavy cast encased my leg from my thigh to my toes. But despite the long and complex surgery, the doctors were optimistic about my being able to regain normal use of my leg; they were not optimistic, however, about my ability ever to dance again.”
The mending of her shattered leg was pushed back even further when Doris slipped during her recovery, and broke her right leg a second time!
Back to Dancing
Doris would dance again, but it was not until 1951’s Lullaby of Broadway that she really started doing intricate dance moves that tested her leg strength. (And if you’ve seen Lullaby of Broadway or any one of Doris’ films that is heavy on dancing, even the untrained eye can tell Doris Day was an incredibly gifted dancer!)
It was thanks to the meticulous care, choreography, and guidance of Gene and Miriam Nelson, who choreographed the intricate dance numbers in Lullaby of Broadway, that Doris put her dancing shoes back on. (Gene co-starred with Doris in the film as well.)
I was lucky enough to meet Miriam Nelson at Doris’ 2017 Birthday Celebration in Carmel. And let me tell you, after monopolizing this gracious woman’s time one evening, asking her question after question about her experiences choreographing for Doris and all of Classic Hollywood’s biggest stars, I can see why it was Miriam’s encouraging hand that got Doris dancing again!
Miriam was one classy gal, and it was my great privilege to share conversation and a blanket with this talented choreographer to the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. (You can read more about Miriam in her fabulous book, My Life Dancing with the Stars [aff. link]. Such an excellent read!)
She Was A Big Band Singer
Most of us know Doris was a beautiful singer, but few know that before her Hollywood career, Doris was a sought after big band singer. She got her start with Barney Rapp’s Band in Cincinnati before singing with Bob Crosby & His Bobcats (yes, Bob was Bing’s brother!). Doris even sang with Les Brown and His Band of Renown!
Doris’ recording of “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown became her signature song. Future co-star Rock Hudson even recalled listening to Doris sing this song when he was a young man in the service, never dreaming that just over a decade later, he’d be co-starring with Doris in Pillow Talk (1959)!
Doris never liked the transient life of big band singing, and once she became a star at Warner Bros. with 1948’s Romance on the High Seas, one of the things she appreciated most about her new career was becoming, in Doris’ words, “a lunch-bucket lady,” with a regular, predictable schedule.
Doris Day Was Not Her Real Name
Doris’ given name was Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff.
As you can imagine, this was not the easiest name to fit on a marquee! So when Doris got her start in the big band world with Barney Rapp, a name change was in order. Rapp suggested “Doris Kapps” or “Doris Welz,” her mother’s maiden name, but Doris nixed both. They eventually settled on “Doris Day,” a nod to a song Doris sang at this time in her career, “Day After Day.”
Personally, I think “Doris Day” is an adorable name that perfectly fits the sunshine-y Doris, but Doris herself never liked it:
“I never did like it. Still don’t. I think it’s a phony name.”
Doris’ good friends over the years came up with nicknames that Doris found much more fitting. Rock Hudson preferred to call her “Eunice,” but the name that really stuck was “Clara Bixby,” coined by Doris’ dear friend and comedian Billy de Wolfe.
Wouldn’t you love to have been a fly on the wall when Doris got these fabulous nicknames??!!
A Happy Marriage Was Her Life’s Ambition
Doris says repeatedly in her autobiography that although she wasn’t one to miss an opportunity when it came her way, she was never ambitious about her film and singing career. Her life’s ambition? A good marriage and a happy home:
“That was my big dream as a girl…It was the only real ambition I even had—not to be a dancer or a Hollywood movie star, but to be a housewife in a good marriage. Unfortunately, it was a dream that would elude me…”
And boy did it. Poor Doris went through quite a lot with her four husbands. Though Doris, the eternal optimist, insisted on focusing on the high points of each relationship, it’s clear she deserved a more satisfying partner than the men she tried to make a life with:
Al Jorden (married 1941-1943)
Doris’ abusive first husband played the trombone in Barney Rapp’s band while Doris was the band’s singer. In 1941, at nineteen years old, Doris married Jorden and soon became pregnant. After Doris refused to abort the baby, Al’s frequent jealous beatings only got worse. Doris left Al shortly after her son Terry was born.
Though Jorden’s physical and mental abuse undoubtedly left Doris with emotional scars—she would draw on them for future dramatic roles in such films as Love Me or Leave Me (1955), Julie (1956), and Midnight Lace (1960), Doris also recognized that the marriage brought her the greatest joy of her life, her son Terry.
George Weidler (married 1946-1949)
Brother of child actress Virginia Weidler, George played the saxophone in Les Brown’s band while Doris was the band’s singer. The two married in 1946, and Doris felt blindsided when George asked her for a divorce just before she became a big Hollywood star.
It seems Weidler’s fear of becoming “Mr. Doris Day” was the reason for his abrupt wish to call it quits.
The end of the marriage deeply hurt Doris, but she chose to focus on the fact that George introduced her to Christian Science. This was not the faith Doris would follow her whole life, but she does credit Christian Science—and George Weilder for introducing her to it—with making her a stronger woman and better decision maker.
Marty Melcher (married 1951-1968)
Doris’ third husband was also her manager. When they wed in 1951, Doris thought Marty was the answer to her prayers: he seemed smart, loyal, and to have her best interests at heart. They were married for seventeen years. But just after Marty’s death in 1968, Doris discovered that he’d basically embezzled all of her earnings with their shady attorney, Jerry Rosenthal.
Thanks to Marty’s fancy work, Doris had absolutely no money to show for 20 years of hard work.
While many of Doris’ friends believed Marty was complicit in Rosenthal’s unethical handling of Doris’ earnings—frequently referring to him as “Farty Belcher” for his general disagreeableness—in her autobiography [aff. link], Doris leans towards believing that Marty was duped by Rosenthal, and just trusted him too much.
Bless Doris’ kind heart for giving Marty the benefit of the doubt!
Barry Comden (married 1976-1982)
Since Doris married Comden in 1976, the year after her autobiography was published [aff. link], it’s harder to find in depth information straight from Doris about their marriage. Comden did briefly and unsuccessfully get Doris into the dog food business: her intent was the use the proceeds to establish a nonprofit animal foundation (which she eventually did, the Doris Day Animal Foundation.)
It was during her marriage to Comden that Doris retired to Carmel, California. Shortly after the couple moved to Carmel, the marriage dissolved, with Comden complaining that Doris loved her dogs more than him. Such a comment is evidence enough that Barry was not the right guy for our girl, who simply said they were “just incompatable.”
Classy to the end, that Doris!
Doris may have never found the husband she dreamed of, but she sure always had a lot of friends and fans who loved her dearly, as well as a very close relationship with her son and mother. And of course, all her four-leggers!
She Was CLEAN!
It’s no mystery that Doris Day had a clean-cut screen image. Doris was adamant about keeping vulgarity out of her films: even in the second half of her career when Doris’ image changed to stylish, sophisticated, career women and/or wives with 1959’s Pillow Talk, Doris would insist on keeping the situational comedy in her films up to her moral standards.
But Doris was also fond of keeping it clean off screen. Literally! As she says in her autobiography [aff. link],
“I adore keeping house. The more cleaning the better.”
In her book, Doris refers to herself as “one organized lady,” and shares that on her very rare days off from her busy film and recording schedule, Doris and her husband Marty loved spending time at their beach house, where Doris said
“Marty loved to putter around with his tools, and I liked nothing better than to scrub, clean, polish, and shine.”
A girl after my own heart! Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that Doris liked it clean!
She Was Confident
Doris Day was a kind, sweet, sunshine-y presence both on and off screen. And she was also extremely confident, making her the perfect example of how beautifully all these traits can work together. It’s refreshing to hear Doris talk about her innate self-confidence:
“I have never had any doubts about my ability in anything I have ever undertaken. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant; what I mean to convey is a natural sense of security about what I do.”
It’s true Doris Day was a fabulous singer, actress, and dancer. But I think Doris’ confidence in her abilities is what further sets her apart from other performers. Her confidence really shines through in every one of her films: the fact the Doris believes in herself makes us in turn believe in what she’s doing on screen. Jack Lemmon probably said it best when he commented on Doris’ confidence, which he experienced firsthand when the two made It Happened To Jane (1959) together:
“Another thing about Doris that I discovered in making It Happened to Jane with her is her healthy self-confidence. To lose confidence or even to suffer the wobbles is just about the worst fate that can befall an actor. You must believe in yourself, in what you are doing, or else the audience won’t believe in your performance…
That’s the kind of confidence Doris has. It has to do with her instincts and her taste.”
What a compliment from the great Jack Lemmon! Doris’ confidence in herself is pretty inspiring. We could all probably take a few notes from Doris in the confidence department!
Her Husband Embezzled Her Fortune
As I mentioned earlier, with the death of Doris’ third husband, Marty Melcher, in 1968, Doris discovered that Marty and attorney Jerry Rosenthal had embezzled nearly all her earnings over the span of her twenty-year career, and put her $450,000 in debt. (That’s the equivalent of $3.4 million today!)
With son Terry’s invaluable help, after five long years, Doris brought Rosenthal to court for his actions on March 4, 1974.
Judge Lester E. Olson ruled in favor of Doris, and Rosenthal was ordered to pay Doris damages totaling $22,835,646.
Up to that time, it was the largest amount ever awarded a civil suit in California! Though Doris ended up settling with Rosenthal’s insurers for a fraction of the amount—$6 million—bringing Rosenthal to court was, more than anything else, a moral victory in Doris’ eyes. (Rosenthal was officially disbarred in 1987.)
In case you were wondering, the success of Doris’ TV show, The Doris Day Show (1968-1973) [aff. link] was such that Doris was able to find financial security again.
(Incidentally, Marty Melcher had used his POA to commit Doris to the television show without her knowledge, despite her repeated protestations over the years that she did not want to do television. It wasn’t until after Marty’s death that Doris discovered Marty had signed her to the show. Can you imagine?!!!! Doris being Doris, she followed through with the commitment, and gave the show her all!)
She Had Impeccable Comedic Timing
Doris’ gift for comedy is apparent from her very first film, Romance on the High Seas (1948), and throughout the musicals she made during her years under contract at Warner Bros. But it wasn’t until the second half of her film career, when Doris went freelance and had more control over the roles she accepted, that her impeccable comedic timing really had a chance to shine.
Her three romantic comedies with Rock Hudson are the most obvious examples of Doris’ comedy genius, but I also marvel at Doris’ comedic skills in such films as It Happened to Jane (1959), Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), andThe Thrill Of It All (1963). The situational comedy in each of these films is gold, and in Doris’ capable hands, there’s not a single line or comical situation wasted. The films are hilarious as a result!
I love how Rock Hudson explained Doris’ comedic gifts:
“Doris though, was an Actor’s Studio all by herself. When she cried, she cried funny, which is something I couldn’t even try to explain; and when she laughed her laughter came boiling up from her kneecaps.”
How perfectly said! Any Doris Day fan knows exactly what Rock is talking about here!
Another thing about Doris Day and comedy: she made whoever played opposite her funnier. As Jack Lemmon said, Doris “elevated” her co-stars to her level. James Garner paid Doris the ultimate compliment by calling her the “Fred Astaire of comedy.” I can’t think of a better comparison for Doris’ comedic gifts! I’ll let James take it from here:
“You know the way Astaire used to change partners…but the dancing was uniformly spectacular because Astaire just did his thing and anybody who danced with him was swept up by it. Well, same thing about Doris. Whether it was Rock Hudson or Rod Taylor or me or whoever—we all looked good because we were dancing with Clara Bixby.”
So so sweet, and so true!
My Phone Call with Doris
Doris Day was well known for her care and appreciation of her fans. From the beginning of her career, Doris treated her fans and fan mail with the utmost respect.
Every time I wrote her over the years (yes, I’ve written Doris more than once, I admit it!), she responded with a kind note or a personalized and signed photograph. Every Doris fan I’ve spoken to who’s written Doris will tell you a similar story! How amazing is that?!!
At Doris’ 2018 Birthday Celebration, my ultimate dream came true when I spoke with Doris on the phone!
I finally had the chance to tell Doris just what she means to me, the inspiration she was to me growing up, the namesake she is for my daughter, and how she continues to brighten our home today through her music and films.
Doris listened to my somewhat frantic and very emotional gushing with the graciousness and charm you’d expect of her. In our brief conversation, she made me feel special.
I don’t know how she does it! Somehow, with her bright, smiling presence, Doris makes us all feel special, like we’ve each got a personal connection with her. It’s magic, plain and simple.
And that’s why the world loves Doris Day.
Happy Birthday Doris!
And with that, I wrap up my birthday tribute to Doris!
Be sure to catch The Thrill of It All (1963) and Move Over, Darling (1963) this Sunday on TCM! These are the two films that paired Doris with James Garner, and they are two of my favorites you don’t want to miss!
Are you a Doris Day fan? ❣️🌻❣️