In the early hours of this morning, Doris Day died at her home in Carmel, California. Only a week or so back, my old boss Conrad Black and I were affectionately contemplating her hundredth birthday, but she fell, alas, a little short: Ninety-seven. It was a splendid run, notwithstanding that she chose to spend the last half-century taking care of her dogs rather than her fans. The song below is from half a lifetime ago, but was one of her last public performances:
Below, from my book The [Un]documented Mark Steyn, is my reflections on a long life if too short career divided between pictures and pooches:
Doris Day’s first public performance was in kindergarten, in the olio to a minstrel show. The olio was a sort of warm-up to the main bill, and, in the late Twenties in Cincinnati, little Doris was supposed to do a recitation which began:
I’se goin’ down to the Cushville hop
And there ain’t no niggie goin’ to make me stop!
“I was in a red tutu,” she told me, “and they kept us backstage so long that I wet my pants. And, when I went on, you could see it – the red satin had turned black. I burst into tears after the second line and ran off stage. Some debut. Maybe that’s where it started.”
“It” is her famous aversion to public appearances. In the Forties, in the half-hour before her nightclub act or live radio shows, she would spend most of her time in the toilet with, as she puts it, “one end or the other erupting”. If it’s hard for her fans to imagine Doris Day having bodily functions, it’s been even harder these last decades to imagine they’ll ever see her live on stage ever again.
From time to time, an appearance is scheduled, but somehow the fickle finger of fate conspires to keep her with her beloved dogs in Carmel, California. Oscars producer Allan Carr thought he’d snared her for the 1988 Awards: “We got a sitter for the dogs and she said yes!!!!” he roared in triumph. But, come the big day, she tripped over a water sprinkler and had to cancel. Que sera, sera.
She dislikes cameras and microphones but one day back in the Nineties she was happy to talk to me on the telephone at a safe distance of three time-zones and 12 state lines. To be honest, it was a bit of a relief for me, too, since I didn’t have to cozy up to all those damn pooches, with whom she’s shared her life since her third husband died in 1968. Nothing against dogs, I hasten to add, but a few years earlier an old acquaintance of mine from the BBC days, the eminent cultural critic Sir Christopher Frayling, had wanted to do a big telly re-evaluation of Doris Day as proto-feminist, and my memory of the resulting show, after much negotiation between the parties, is that an inordinate amount of time was shots of him walking various of her canines.
Oddly, back in the Fifties, when she had most of her hit records, she was just about the only pop star not to have a terrible dog song inflicted on her: Patti Page spent four decades trying to crawl out from under “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?”; Sinatra would punch you in the kisser if you so much as mentioned “Mama Will Bark”, his canine love-duet with the big-breasted but small-voiced “personality”, Dagmar; the Singing Dogs, who barked their way through “Oh, Susannah”, are more relaxed about it, but then, of course, they’re dogs. Meanwhile, Doris was having hits with songs about telephones (“Shanghai” – “I’m right around the corner in a phone booth”), trains (“Sentimental Journey” – “Counting ev’ry mile of railroad track” ), stalkers (“A Guy Is A Guy” – “He followed me down the street like I knew he would”) and whips (“The Deadwood Stage” – “Whip crack away! Whip crack away! Whip crack awaaay!!!”).
With Sinatra, we assume the songs tell us something about the man. So I was interested to know whether “Move Over, Darling” and “It’s Magic” really sum up Doris Day. “Well, I think they’re part of who I am,” she began, and a cacophony that sounded like the Singing Dogs reunion tour rent the air. “Uh-oh,” she explained, “that’s Buster Brown. He’s a cross between a German short-haired pointer and an English sheepdog . . .”
“About your work with André Previn..,” I said, struggling over the barks to stay on track.
“He looks like a wire-haired pointer,” said Doris. Which, to be honest, I couldn’t quite see, until I realized she was still talking about Buster Brown. “And I have a beautiful shitsu called Wesley Winfield.” Most of her dozens of dogs, it seems, are mongrel strays, and she can’t understand the fuss about purebreds – although as it happens, Doris Day, neé Doris Kappelhoff, is purebred Aryan (all four of her grandparents were German).
Buster Brown, Wesley Winfield… Doris Day likes any alliterative appellation apart from her own. She was renamed after “Day After Day”, an old ballad from the Twenties that the Princeton Triangle Club Jazz Band recorded with freshman vocalist Jimmy Stewart:
Just as evening follows afternoon
I follow you round
Just as age can’t change the sun or moon
Our love stays sublime
Regardless of time…
Doris Kappelhoff sang it at her first club booking in Cincinnati, and it went over so well that the bandleader proposed she become “Doris Day”. She never cared for it: it was no “Buster Brown”. “Doris Day sounds phony,” she told me. “I’ve always thought that.” Many friends call her “Clara”, because (she says) she looks more like a Clara; Rock Hudson called her “Eunice”; and Bob Hope favored “JB”, short for “Jut Butt”: As he once said to me, very appreciatively, “You could play bridge on her ass,” although I don’t believe he ever did.
JB was in her early seventies when we spoke, and looked pretty much the same as ever, eager and perky, like a short-haired pointer. Singing contemporaries like Rosemary Clooney and Margaret Whiting were still out there on the road day after day, night after night, but Doris had no desire to join them. “Maybe they need the money,” she said. “Maybe they’re not okay in that department.”
Doris is famously okay in that department. The standard music-industry line on her is that she’s the most unappreciated female singer in the business. The second standard music-industry line on her is: if she’s that unappreciated, how come she’s so rich? After her husband Marty Melcher’s sudden death in 1968, she discovered he’d blown through all the money. Half-a-decade later, a California judge awarded her damages of $22,835,646 from her business manager, and that buys a lot of dog chow.
“Yes, but,” I said, “Sinatra’s okay in the money department. But he’s still touring…”
“Men have a need to go out and work,” she said firmly. “Women are content to be at home. We’ve got our friends to talk to, and go to the supermarket with.” Notwithstanding Chris Frayling and the other eminent scholars who hail Doris Day as a pioneer feminist icon (mainly for her refusal to surrender to Rock Hudson in those sex comedies}, the star herself has a casual way of wreaking havoc with their theses. And, while I like Pillow Talk and Lover Come Back, if you’re looking for strong-woman stuff try the earlier movies: as Ruth Etting doing “Ten Cents As Dance” in Love Me Or Leave Me, or the small-town girl who’s tougher than the feckless musician (played by Sinatra) she takes up with in Young At Heart.
You can see why Mike Nichols wanted to cast her as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, but you can also understand why Doris figured there was nothing for her in agreeing to it. I brought up the old Groucho Marx line: “I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.” She insisted it wasn’t Groucho, preferring to attribute it to Oscar Levant. “That was such a stupid Levant joke,” she said, “though it’s very possible he didn’t say it, either.” Whether or not it’s a fair assessment of her screen persona, there is a truth to the line: Before she was a Hollywood virgin, there was another Doris Day, the Doris Day who wed at seveenteen and was brutally beaten on the second day of her married life by a psychotic husband whose reaction to her subsequent pregnancy was to shovel some illegal pills down her throat to force her to miscarry. He failed, and her only son Terry grew up to become, eventually, her record producer.
That first husband was the Young At Heart feckless-musician routine without the Hollywood gloss and Sinatra in the role: He was the trombonist in the band she was singing with. Her second spouse was a saxophonist, who offered a more stable home life, but in a rundown trailer park, not the picture-perfect picket-fence small-town idyll in which she passed her early movies. They split up, although they reunited for occasional bouts of wild sex. Her first husband blew his brains out in a car; her second she failed to recognize when she bumped into him on the street a few years back; and the third bilked her out of all her dough. (There was, briefly, a fourth, a head waiter who always gave Doris a complimentary doggie bag on her way out of the restaurant.) Surely, I suggested that would dent your faith in all these boy-meets-girl movie plots and moon-June love songs?
“Well, as I always say,” she chirped, “que sera, sera. Even before they ever wrote the song, that was my philosophy.” She admitted that she regretted “most of my marriages”, and you sense that it was not until very late that she enjoyed the domestic placidity that came so easily in her films. She told me she needs the dogs, but can do without a man. “A lot of women do,” she said. “I’m doing just fine, thank you. I love being able to go to the supermarket. It’s my favorite activity. But you should never go to the supermarket when you’re hungry, Mark, because, if you do, you’ll wind up filling three carts – or trolleys, as they say in Britain.”
And so we talked about supermarkets for a while. At home in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Doris Day has finally become the girl next door.
Her son Terry was mostly raised by her mother, while Doris was on the road with the Les Brown band. But they were always close, especially after she packed in the hubby business for good, and he became her closest confidant – and the man behind her later and mostly unreleased recordings. A widely admired producer for the Byrds, the Mamas and Papas, and the Beach Boys (for whom he wrote “Kokomo”), Terry Melcher died of melanoma ten years ago, and in 2011 Doris picked out a few of the tracks he’d recorded with her in the Eighties and Nineties and put out a CD, My Heart. At eighty-seven, she became the oldest ever singer to have a UK Top Ten album of previously unreleased material.
Strange to hear Doris Day sing the Beach Boys song “Disney Girls”, and Billy Preston’s “You Are So Beautiful”. I wonder what else she’s keeping in the vaults. When we spoke by telephone, I told her that her version of “I Had The Craziest Dream” was one of my favorite recordings, and it made me sad that she preferred walking shitsus and pushing supermarket carts, which anyone can do. “Oh, I might do some singing again,” she said. “I sang at a Best Friends fundraiser we held at the house not long ago, and I was pretty pleased.” And then came, as for Allan Carr at the Oscars, the inevitable letdown. “But I’ve been hoarse for months now. I have hundreds of trees and they’re all live oaks, and, because of the pollen, it affects the voice.”
“Really?” I responded, unable to suspend disbelief. “The trees have damaged your singing voice?”
“My doctors wouldn’t dare blame it on my animals,” she said, firmly, “so I’ve decided to blame it on the poor trees.”
And over the telephone line, from far in the distance, Wesley, or possibly Buster, barked – up a wronged tree.
For what it’s worth, Miss Day inclined somewhat rightward – see Ronald Reagan among those flickering images of former leading men at top. She would have made a fine first female president, although her enthusiasm for mandatory spaying would have made me nervous.
But I loved her voice. Say nighty-night …and tell her you’ll miss her: