The name Doris Day will likely conjure an image of a wholesome, All-American girl, smiling her way through Hollywood film musicals and singing big band tunes. However, to some her name may also bring up the image of a recluse, hiding from an entertainment world that had rejected her. Recently, a close friend of the star revealed the real truth about how Day spent her final years.
In the early 1960s Day was America’s number one box-office star. In fact, the Laurel Awards ranked her as the Top Female Star in the country for seven years on the spin between 1958 and 1964. But almost as quickly as she rose to prominence, Day’s star waned when her persona became out of step with the culture, which had embraced a sexual revolution.
In her later years, Day developed a reputation as a hermit who mostly avoided being seen publicly. In 2013 TV show Inside Edition’s online version noted, “She was the blonde, blue-eyed girl next door who lit up the screen during the ’50s and ’60s.” They then added, “But today, 89-year-old Doris Day is a virtual recluse.”
“The last known photo of her was taken in 2008 hiding behind sunglasses and a big straw hat,” the website continued. “She rarely leaves her ranch in Carmel, California.” The outlet then claimed that, “Doris Day is known in Carmel as the eccentric old lady who serves food on paper plates and lives with dozens of stray animals.”
Long before she lived in Carmel, Day had been born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on April 3, 1922. Her birth name was Doris von Kappelhoff, and she was a keen tap and ballet dancer as a child. In her early teens, she won a dance contest run locally, alongside her partner Jerry Doherty. She dreamed of dancing as a profession, but these hopes were dashed in 1937.
Day was traveling in a car with her friends when a train slammed into the vehicle. Her right leg was severely injured, and it wound up putting an end to her ambitions as a dancer. However, it was while she was recovering in hospital that Day found something else to pour her devotion and hard work into. She began to sing.
In 1975 Day would tell her biographer A.E. Hotchner, “During this long, boring period, I used to while away a lot of the time listening to the radio, sometimes singing along with the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller. But the one radio voice I listened to above others belonged to Ella Fitzgerald.”
Day was completely enamored with Fitzgerald’s singing. She told Hotchner, “There was a quality to her voice that fascinated me, and I’d sing along with her, trying to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang the words.” Seeing her daughter discover this talent encouraged Day’s mother Alma to take her to singing lessons.
According to Day’s official website biography, “Alma took Doris to see vocal coach Grace Raine, who was so impressed with Doris’ natural talent that she offered her three lessons for the price of one. Doris credits Raine with impressing upon her the importance of delivering a lyric, and today Doris says that Raine had the greatest impact on her singing career.”
After several years of performing with bandleaders such as Barney Rapp, Bob Crosby and Les Brown, Day had her first significant hit song in 1945’s “Sentimental Journey.” It became an iconic song for the troops of World War II who were returning home to America. Day went on to experience six other Top Ten hit songs on the Billboard chart in 1945-46.
In 1948 Day made the transition to Hollywood when she starred in Romance On The High Seas. She auditioned in front of director Michael Curtiz and was reportedly shocked when he cast her. In fact, she was so taken aback that she told him she was actually a singer with no real acting experience to speak of.
Curtiz, who was only a few years removed from winning the Best Director Academy Award for Casablanca, appreciated that Day was up front with him. He was looking for a freckle-faced All-American girl for the role and felt that she was ideal. Curtiz would allegedly boast about being the man who discovered Doris Day in his later years.
In 1951 I’ll See You In My Dreams was released, and it would go on to become Day’s most commercially successful film. Two years later she starred in Calamity Jane, another comedic musical that would become iconic. During this period, she would also record albums for the musicals she starred in, and of those, three hit number one on the charts.
Day would reach the pinnacle of her box-office drawing power in the late 1950s/early 1960s. In 1959 she starred in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk with Rock Hudson and received her only Academy Award nomination for her performance. She and Hudson would form a beloved cinematic double act and make two more films together.
By the middle of the 1960s, though, Day’s squeaky clean image had caused audiences to move away from her. Her personal beliefs also didn’t align with Hollywood at this time. For example, she famously turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in 1967 hit The Graduate, which was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Actress for Anne Bancroft. Day would reveal in her memoirs that she had found the script to be vulgar and offensive.
Day would be forced to move into television against her will when she found out that her third husband Martin Melcher, who had died in 1968, had lost most of her money through bad investments. She wound up bankrupt and even suffered a nervous breakdown. On top of that, she found out that Melcher had signed her up to a starring role in a TV series without her knowledge.
Day told OK! magazine in 1996 that, “It was awful. I was really, really not very well when Marty passed away, and the thought of going into TV was overpowering.” Her son Terry explained to her that the situation was even worse than she thought. “I had also been signed up for a bunch of TV specials,” Day said, “all without anyone ever asking me.”
The Doris Day Show lasted five seasons and was a relative success, but by the time it ended in 1973, Day’s screen persona was even more passé than it had been in the late 1960s. She retired from acting in 1975 and chose to focus her life on something that had long been a passion for her. She dedicated herself to helping animals.
Day’s desire to do all she could for animals was born out of tragedy and guilt. When she was recovering from her leg injury at 15-years-old, her mother bought her a dog that she named Tiny. However, when Day was still using crutches, she took Tiny for a walk with no leash. The animal was struck by a car and killed.
Hotchner was told by Day that she felt she had betrayed Tiny with her carelessness. She therefore wanted to atone for her mistake by rescuing animals in need and campaigning to end animal testing. She told Hotchner, “During the painful and bleak periods, my animal family has been a source of joy and strength to me.”
Day co-founded Actors and Others for Animals in 1971 and later founded the Doris Day Pet Foundation in 1978. She then started the Doris Day Animal League in 1987. All three were non-profit rescue organizations. The Pet Foundation is now called the Doris Day Animal Foundation, and it gives out grants to other organizations that share its goals.
Day’s reputation as a recluse grew during this period. However, a year after her death in 2019, a close friend of 40 years disagreed with how she had been presented in the media. Speaking to Fox News Lea Price, who served on the Board of Directors for the Doris Day Animal Foundation, said, “There were some articles published in the tabloids that said, ‘She’s a recluse. She doesn’t go out,’ which was totally untrue.”
Price was adamant that Day was far from a recluse. He said, “She loved going out and going shopping. She loved her grocery shopping and she would go out to eat every once in a while.” Price also said that Day didn’t shirk her responsibilities. “And she still kept busy with her two animal charities, which are both thriving and continuing today. She was actively involved until she passed away.”
Price believed that Day’s bond with her fans was incredibly strong, right until the end. “Oh my gosh, I don’t think any other celebrity stayed as connected with her fans as she did,” said Price. “She loved her fans. She called them her friends and she made everyone feel as though they were her friends.”
According to Price, Day would endeavor to personally write back to as many of her fans as she possibly could. There was a common message that ran through much of the fan correspondence she received, however, that perplexed Day slightly. “The recurring theme was, ‘You saved me,’” said Price. “She never quite understood that.”
The ever-modest Day couldn’t quite wrap her head around the fact she had been so vitally important to people’s lives. “She always felt, ‘I didn’t do anything,’” revealed Price. “She appreciated the sentiment, but she was always amazed at all the love that she would receive from all over the world.”
Throughout her interview, Price repeatedly pointed out how content Day was in her later years. “Really, what you saw was what you got with Doris,” she said. “She was just a happy, positive person.” Regarding her day-to-day life, Price said, “She loved her home. She loved her pets. She loved answering all her fan mail.”
Day would be courted by Hollywood long into her later years. “She continued to get offers,” claimed Price. “She never said that she was retiring or leaving Hollywood. I think it was something that just sort of evolved. She just moved on to other things. She always said, probably more so in the ’80s and ’90s, ‘I might work again. You never know.’”
However, nothing offered by Tinseltown was tempting enough to tear her away from the life that she was happy leading. “But I think she was just content doing what she was doing,” admitted Price. “She said at one point she felt like today’s movies were for the young people and no longer relevant to what she had been doing.”
Price believed that Day knew that her sensibilities weren’t suited to the movies that Hollywood was making as she got older, but that was no bad thing as she was in a different place in her life. “She appreciated them,” said Price, “but she just thought, ‘Okay, I’ve moved on. I’m doing something else now.’ And she was happy.”
Day’s friendship with co-star Rock Hudson was something that she looked back very fondly upon, according to Price. “She always said that they loved to laugh. They had a great time together. They bonded when they did Pillow Talk together. She said that the director would get mad at them because they would just start laughing.”
Day and Hudson’s giggly relationship may have frustrated the director, but it led to amazing chemistry and a hugely successful film. Day went on to star with Hudson in two further romantic comedies: Lover Come Back and Send Me No Flowers. Regarding Hudson, Price said, “She just loved him so much, and apparently he felt exactly the same way.”
In a 2019 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Day spoke lovingly about Hudson when asked about her memories of Pillow Talk. “I had such fun working with my pal, Rock,” she beamed. “We laughed our way through three films we made together and remained great friends. I miss him.”
At her core, Price felt that her friend Doris Day was someone who would never let life get her down, no matter what trials she faced. “Doris was very down to earth and had a great sense of humor, but she was also a survivor,” stated Price. “She went through so much in her life, and yet she always had a positive attitude.”
Regarding the animals that Day loved so much, Price believed that she had wanted to inform the public about the terrible mistreatment that they could face in society. Price said, “She and a group of actors started Actors and Others for Animals here in Hollywood, and it was because they could use their celebrity to bring awareness to the animal welfare issues that weren’t really being addressed back in the ’70s.”
Price revealed, “So many animals were being euthanized in shelters. And so, she brought awareness to spaying and neutering and the whole homeless pet population, and really just devoted the latter part of [her life] to it.” In 1971 Day also campaigned against animal furs being made into clothing items.
Price believed that Day wanted to be memorialized as someone who fought for animals’ welfare, rather than as a singer or movie star. “What she wanted to be remembered for was making this world a better one for animals,” claimed Price. “Hopefully, that legacy will continue on through the Doris Day Animal Foundation.”
Indeed, in a 2019 Hollywood Reporter interview, Day spoke about her work with animals. She said, “I started my animal foundation in 1978, when more than 17 million homeless pets were being euthanized every year, and spaying and neutering was practically unheard of.” She believed that awareness had improved by leaps and bounds over the years.
Day stated, “Animal-welfare awareness has improved tremendously over the last four decades, and euthanasia rates are down to approximately 2.5 million, but there is still much work to be done. DDAF’s grants support non-profit organizations and programs across the country that directly help animals and the people who love them.”
Overall, Price was optimistic that her friend’s impact on the world would be felt for a long time. “Hopefully, her legacy will be able to live on for generations to come,” she said. “I’m grateful that we have all of her recordings and films so younger people can get acquainted with her and hopefully see all the good she did in the world.”