The Truth About Doris Day’s Off-Screen Life – And Why She Wasn’t As Wholesome As You First Thought

Best known for her memorable performance in Calamity Jane, Doris Day was once considered Tinseltown’s ultimate girl next door. And, famously, the actress lit up the screen in a series of charming romantic comedies alongside Rock Hudson. But in the same way as Day’s long-time co-star, it seems that the actress’ private life wasn’t quite as wholesome as her public persona. So, what exactly was Day hiding from her fans?

Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, Day was widely regarded as an innocent alternative to the vampish Marilyn Monroe. The press presented her as someone who men dreamed of making their wife; Monroe, by contrast, was painted as a woman with whom men dreamed of getting into bed. And Day seemed more than happy to live up to this reputation – on screen, at least.

Indeed, Day charmed audiences everywhere throughout the 1950s and early 1960s with a string of roles that showcased her natural singing talent and sense of humor. Away from the cameras, though, the Hollywood everywoman lived a life that saw a lot more tragedy than comedy.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yes, sadly, Day had to deal with several setbacks during her early life. Her parents, William and Alma – who had tragically lost their first son, Richard, before Day was born – ultimately separated when the future star was only in her teens. Her ambition of becoming a professional dancer was also derailed when one of her legs was seriously maimed in an automobile accident.

Yet this traumatic event proved to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise. You see, while Day recuperated from her ordeal, she discovered a previously untapped talent. Inspired by Ella Fitzgerald – an artist whom she regularly heard on the radio – she began singing. And after receiving voice tuition, Day managed to land a gig on Carlin’s Carnival – a show on the radio network WLW.

ADVERTISEMENT

In fact, one of the show’s listeners, bandleader Barney Rapp, was impressed with what he heard, and so he subsequently offered Day – who was then known as Doris Kappelhoff – a job with his ensemble. Then, after adopting her more familiar stage name, the future actress went on to work with Bob Crosby, Jimmy James and Les Brown.

ADVERTISEMENT

Day had great success as a singer, too. In 1945, for example, she scored her first hit with World War II anthem “Sentimental Journey.” She also graced the Billboard Top Ten with songs such as “Till the End of Time,” “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’” and “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.” But it was the star’s version of “Embraceable You” that helped take her career to another level.

ADVERTISEMENT

Songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne were so enamored with Day’s performance on the song, in fact, that they put her name forward for a part in Michael Curtiz’s 1948 movie Romance on the High Seas. What’s more, despite having no prior acting experience, Day was given the role. And as a result, she became a star of the big screen as well as the charts when both the film and its key song, “It’s Magic,” became hits.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, after Day scored her first number-one single in 1948 with “Love Somebody,” she appeared in sentimental musicals such as Tea for Two, On Moonlight Bay and I’ll See You In My Dreams. Based on the life story of songwriter Gus Kahn, the latter of these pictures became a record-breaking box-office smash. In 1953, though, the star landed perhaps the defining role of her career.

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, Day arguably cemented her place in Hollywood history with her charming lead performance in the musical Calamity Jane. One of its most famous numbers, “Secret Love,” also topped the charts and even picked up a Best Original Song Oscar. The star’s golden streak continued after that, too, with Lucky Me and the Frank Sinatra vehicle Young at Heart.

ADVERTISEMENT

However, Day was keen to prove that she could do more than play the girl next door. In 1955, then, she appeared on screen as vocalist Ruth Etting in the drama Love Me or Leave Me – a role for which she would receive critical acclaim. She also worked with the legendary Alfred Hitchcock and James Stewart in the mystery The Man Who Knew Too Much and starred in the noir thriller Julie.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 1957, though, Day returned to more comedic and musical fare with The Pajama Game. She also went on to share the screen with Clark Gable in Teacher’s Pet, Richard Widmark in The Tunnel of Love and Jack Lemmon in It Happened to Jane. And in 1959 she forged a creative partnership with Rock Hudson that ultimately hit box-office paydirt.

ADVERTISEMENT

Hudson and Day, who would become lifelong pals, first charmed the cinemagoing public in Pillow Talk. Memorably, Day also picked up her first – and perhaps surprisingly her last – Academy Award nomination for her performance as Jan Morrow in the movie. And the popular duo would reunite for similarly endearing romantic comedies Send Me No Flowers and Lover Come Back.

ADVERTISEMENT

Day then cemented her status as the era’s number one female star with roles in Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, That Touch of Mink and Move Over Darling. Penned in part by Day’s son, the latter’s theme song also became one of the actress’ signature hits. As it happens, though, her reign as a box office queen was about to come to an abrupt end.

ADVERTISEMENT

You see, as the baby boomer generation’s counter-culture movement began to grow, Day’s innocent and nostalgic pictures fell out of fashion. It didn’t help, either, that she was cruelly labeled “The World’s Oldest Virgin” by the media. And after 1966’s The Glass Bottom Boat, Day’s fortunes changed, as she never again experienced her previous level of success.

ADVERTISEMENT

The actress also refused several notable roles that would have helped audiences see her in a new light, with arguably the most famous of these being Mrs. Robinson in the 1967 classic The Graduate. Yet Day was displeased by the apparent crudeness of the movie script, and so she passed on the part that would eventually go to Anne Bancroft.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, after showing up in 1968’s With Six You Get Eggroll, Day decided to put a stop to her film career. That said, this fateful decision didn’t see her swear off stardom altogether, as she would go on to front her own eponymous TV show on CBS. During the series’ successful five-year run, Day also hosted her own small-screen specials. But when The Doris Day Show came to an end in 1973, she decided that enough was enough and largely retired from public view.

ADVERTISEMENT

The star did eventually return to the spotlight in 1985 for chat show Doris Day’s Best Friends, although the Christian Broadcasting Network series was taken off air after just 26 episodes. Nevertheless, she wasn’t completely forgotten in the years that followed. In 1989, for instance, she was honored with the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes. And in the 1990s a greatest hits compilation – as well as an appearance on the soundtrack to Australian movie Strictly Ballroom – helped introduce Day’s music to a whole new generation.

ADVERTISEMENT

Outside of the entertainment world, meanwhile, Day helped establish Actors and Others for Animals in 1971 before setting up the Doris Day Animal Foundation seven years later. She also co-funded a Horse Rescue and Adoption Center that was named in her honor and was instrumental in the launch of the yearly Spay Day USA. In 2004, then, George W. Bush presented Day with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for services to both showbiz and wildlife.

ADVERTISEMENT

And Day continued to make her mark in the aughts. In 2008, for instance, she was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, followed up four years later by a third Grammy Hall of Fame Award. However, the all-but-retired actress was seemingly less interested in receiving an honorary Oscar. She reportedly turned down offers from the Academy on several occasions, in fact – suggesting, perhaps, that she wanted her movie career to stay in the past.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, in 2011 – and at the age of 89 – Day went on to score a surprise U.K. top ten hit. A collection of previously unreleased tracks, entitled My Heart, saw the star become the oldest ever artist to achieve such a feat with new material. And four years later, Day was invited by neighbor Clint Eastwood to stage a comeback proper by appearing in his latest film; ultimately, though, the actress politely refused.

ADVERTISEMENT

Yet that wouldn’t be the last that everyone heard of Day. In a surprising turn of events, the screen icon agreed to be interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter in April 2019 – shortly after she had turned 97. And when asked what her favorite movie role was, she replied that it had been the lead in Calamity Jane. Day added, “I was such a tomboy growing up, and [Jane] was such a fun character to play. Of course, the music was wonderful, too. ‘Secret Love,’ especially, is such a beautiful song.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Sadly, just a few weeks after this rare interview, Day passed away following a bout of pneumonia. Representatives from her eponymous animal charity confirmed the news and that she’d died surrounded by loved ones at her Carmel Valley, California, home. And, unsurprisingly, a whole host of tributes from Hollywood stars past and present then flooded in.

ADVERTISEMENT

William Shatner described Day, for instance, as “the world’s sweetheart and beloved by all.” Goldie Hawn remarked, meanwhile, “The great Doris Day left us and took a piece of the sun with her. She brightened our lives and lived out her life with dignity.” And fellow Hollywood veteran Carl Reiner recalled of the late star, “Just a week ago, I contacted her and welcomed her to the 97-Year-[Old] Actor’s Club.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Naturally, the majority of press reports about Day’s death focused on her golden period as Hollywood’s ultimate girl next door. But while the actress’ life may have seemed picture-perfect on screen, it was a very different story in real life. In fact, Day experienced numerous hardships throughout her glittering career.

ADVERTISEMENT

During Day’s late teens, for example, she married Al Jorden – a trombonist whom she had first gotten to know while performing with Barney Rapp and his band. Sadly, though, their union was far from a happy one, as Jorden was a physically abusive schizophrenic who very nearly killed the couple’s unborn son. After learning that his wife was both pregnant and unwilling to have an abortion, the musician had viciously attacked her.

ADVERTISEMENT

Thankfully, Day’s unborn child survived the assault. And just a year after Terrence Jorden was born, his parents went their separate ways. The child’s father would subsequently go on to take his own life in 1967, and allegedly Day didn’t mourn much upon hearing the news.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, in 1946 – three years after Day’s split from Jorden – she once again said “I do” to another musician. This time around, it was actress Virginia Weidler’s saxophonist brother, George. Yet this second marriage didn’t last much longer than her first. By the end of the decade, then, the star was once again a single mother.

ADVERTISEMENT

Fortunately, Day seemed to have found “the one” in 1951 when she wed Martin Melcher – a movie producer who also became her manager. Melcher officially adopted Day’s son, too, and the pair seemed to enjoy a happy marriage until Melcher’s untimely death in 1968. But following that loss, Day discovered that her third husband had been hiding quite the secret.

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, unbeknown to Day, Melcher had been spending her hard-earned fortune behind her back throughout their marriage. And the bad news didn’t end there. Not only had Melcher frittered away $20 million during those 17 years together, but he’d also plunged the actress into severe debt as a result. And it seems that both Frank Sinatra and James Garner had long been suspicious about Day’s husband and his habits.

ADVERTISEMENT

Naturally, Day decided to try and claw back some of the money that Melcher had squandered, and she did so by suing Jerry Rosenthal. Rosenthal had been a business partner of the actress’ late husband and had also previously served as her own attorney during her second divorce proceedings. And the court ultimately decided in favor of the Hollywood star – although she didn’t see a cent of the compensation that she had been awarded until 1979.

ADVERTISEMENT

Day was also upset to learn that Melcher had signed her up to front her own chat show without her knowledge. In a 1996 interview with OK! magazine, she revealed, “It was awful. I was really, really not very well when [Melcher] passed away, and the thought of going into TV was overpowering… I had also been signed up for a bunch of TV specials – all without anyone ever asking me.”

ADVERTISEMENT

And Day didn’t just suffer financially and professionally at Melcher’s hands. You see, her third husband was also a controlling man who pushed her to constantly work. As a result, then, Day began experiencing problems with her mental health; while shooting Calamity Jane, for example, she battled against panic attacks.

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, a year after Melcher’s passing, Day found herself inadvertently caught up in one of the decade’s most high-profile murder cases. Before ruthlessly killing five people in Los Angeles, Charles Manson’s followers had initially planned to slaughter the actress’ son, Terry. Manson had wanted to get revenge on the music producer following his refusal to work on the cult leader’s album.

ADVERTISEMENT

And Day’s turbulent love life continued when she wed her fourth husband, Barry Comden, in April 1976. The head waiter had wooed the actress by handing out food for her various pets as she left the restaurant at which he worked. But yet again, the marriage didn’t last, and, in 1982, the star became a four-time divorcee. Comden later claimed that his ex-wife had been more interested in looking after animals than him.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, following the breakdown of that fourth and final marriage, Day dedicated herself to her various animal charity work. She was assisted in those endeavors, too, by Terry. But in 2004 the screen icon was left devastated when the record producer tragically passed away from cancer, aged just 62.

ADVERTISEMENT

This wasn’t the only major loss that Day suffered in her later years, as in 1985 her regular co-star and lifelong friend Hudson had become the first hugely famous face to die from AIDS. The one-time matinee idol had been closeted throughout his career, and his sexuality was only confirmed following his passing.

ADVERTISEMENT

Just a year before his death, a visibly ill Hudson had also appeared on Day’s short-lived CBN show. And in Mark Griffin’s biography of the former idol, Day is quoted as saying of that time, “[Rock] was very sick. But I just brushed that off, and I came out and put my arms around him and said, ‘Am I glad to see you.’” The actress was applauded by the gay community, too, for remaining loyal to her friend during an era when fear about AIDS was at an all-time high.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, Day’s personal life definitely had its fair share of tragedy and heartbreak. But despite her absence from the entertainment world since the turn of the century, the former actress was far from the emotionally scarred hermit that she has often been painted as. In fact, she very much led an active social life right up until her death.

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, several of Day’s longtime friends have admitted that they used to find the “recluse” label hilarious, considering how often the star went out. And the actress herself once made it very clear that the media’s portrayal of her was wide of the mark. She’s quoted as saying, “My image, I can assure you, [is] more make-believe than any film part I ever played.”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT