Lives Behind the Legends: Doris Day – Looking For Love
When you think of the iconic Doris Day, you probably think of a picture-perfect blonde who had it all — the all-American girl, the perfect housewife, the happy-go-lucky sweetheart. Doris almost seemed to personify the ideals of the 1950’s: her image was virtuous, sweet, joyous, and proper. Men wanted to marry her, and women wanted her to be the neighbor who gave them cooking advice. In reality, Doris’ life was far from a white picket fence dream. Though Doris always wanted a loving husband to make a happy home with, this dream eluded her time and time again. Eventually, she found that happiness can be achieved in many different ways and that love comes in many forms.
Doris had a complicated relationship with the first man in her life. Her father was a strict and old-fashioned man, who rarely showed affection. Still, for the first few years of her life, Doris seemed to have an idyllic home life. Her father’s job as a music teacher made sure that the family was surrounded by music and instruments, her mother was a loving housewife and Doris got along well with her big brother. They lived in a tight-knit community in Cincinnati, where the children were free to play to their heart’s delight. But this community would soon be rattled by a scandal, which was preceded by a traumatic night for ten-year-old Doris. As she tried to fall asleep while her parents were having a party downstairs, she heard her father and a close family friend come up the stairs. ‘My father and this woman came in and tiptoed to the bedroom beyond. I heard everything. God help me. I pulled the pillow over my head but there was no way to shut it out. I cried myself to sleep,’ Doris later admitted in her autobiography. Little Doris kept this information to herself in hopes of keeping the family together. It was no use; her mother found out about the affair soon after. Her parents divorced, and Doris’ father married his mistress. She would see him for dinners once a week as an early teen, but contact ceased after a while, and she did not have a relationship with him as an adult. Although this upset her, she was never angry with her father. ‘It is my nature to forgive’, she later lamented. Her friend Mike DeVita said that her parent’s divorce and the lack of a relationship with her father had a profound effect on Doris, even suggesting that she went on to look for the father she never had in her future husbands.
The idyllic home life that had been her early childhood, was something Doris desperately wanted as an adult. There were multiple twists and turns in Doris’ life that eventually led to fame and fortune, but becoming a movie star was never her dream. As Doris herself said: ‘I could have happily lived my entire life in Cincinnati, married to a proper Cincinnatian, living in a big old Victorian house [and] raising a brood of offspring’. Although she was already a singer in a popular band at age sixteen, she saw this as something to do until she could start a family.
So when she fell for 23-year-old trombone player Al Jorden, she did not waste any time. Despite objections from both her mother and her bandleader, the 17-year-old Doris married the unpredictable Al. The pair moved into a dingy apartment in New York, where Al had a job in a new band. Soon enough, Al turned out to be pathologically jealous and abusive. It was only the day after their marriage that this side of him surfaced; when Doris kissed his bandmate on the cheek after he gave her a wedding gift, Al dragged her to their apartment, blind with rage. His physical abuse became a pattern in their relationship and Doris lived in constant fear of him. As he became more brutal, she realized she had to leave their marriage. Then she found out that she was pregnant. Doris hoped that this would soften Al and she decided to stay. Unfortunately, her pregnancy brought out an even darker side to him. He did everything he could to get her to terminate the pregnancy, culminating in him trying to shoot her. She was able to talk him out of it and secretly started making plans to leave him. As soon as her baby boy Terry was born, Doris left Al and moved back in with her relieved mother. She would never see Al again: he was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and committed suicide.
At this point, Doris was a 19-year-old single mother and divorcee. Although she was thankful to have escaped her traumatic first marriage, this was not how Doris had imagined her life to go. But there were more pressing matters: she had to put food on the table. So Doris re-joined her old band and went out on the road, leaving Terry in the care of her mother. After two years, the band released the song Sentimental Journey and it became a huge hit. More chart-topping songs followed, but that did not matter much to Doris. She had fallen in love with a fellow band member once again: saxophonist George Weidler.
Their bandleader reportedly was not fond of his band members sharing a hotel room, so the loved-up pair quit the band. They subsequently decided to get married and moved to Hollywood, where there would be more job opportunities. Their marriage was a rocky one from the start. Despite the passionate nature of their relationship, George had a wandering eye. More worryingly, was that George was anything but excited about the prospect of being a stepfather when Doris suggested that her mother and son should move in. Still, their marriage was going strong until Doris found an agent and was getting more job opportunities as a singer. After only eight months of marriage, George let Doris know that he was filing for divorce because he did not want to be known as ‘Mr. Doris Day’. Doris was blindsided by the failure of her second marriage. She visited her mother and son in Cincinnati to recover. She quickly found that what she really needed was a distraction. So Doris went back to Hollywood and threw herself into her work. She was right on time.
The creators of the film Romance on the High Seas were struggling to find their leading lady. They needed a wholesome, all-American girl who could sing. Newly returned from Cincinnati, Doris was dragged to an industry party by her agent Al Levy. One of the creators of the film was there as well, and after meeting Doris, he knew he had found the one. Warner Bros., the studio making the film, saw the potential in Doris as well and signed her to a seven-year contract. Doris never expected to become a star, but things happened fast. Only two years after her screen debut she found herself starring opposite her idol Ginger Rogers in Storm Warning and dating future president Ronald Reagan. Doris had made it. She thoroughly enjoyed this rollercoaster ride to stardom, and being a career woman unexpectedly suited her. She had a strong work ethic, and receiving accolades, such as being named ‘favorite star’ by servicemen in Korea, touched her deeply. Her romance with Reagan didn’t last, but Doris had no time to wallow; she was making films back to back. Her agent Al put a lot of effort into her career, but not just out of professional interest. He was developing an obsession with his client, and things got so out of hand that Doris had no choice but to contact his agency. Al was swiftly sent to New York, and Martin Melcher took over for him. Doris and Marty took an immediate liking to each other and they were married on Doris’ 29th birthday. The newlyweds moved into a big, beautiful home, and Marty adopted her son Terry. Finally, Doris had the family she always wanted.
At this point, Terry was nine years old and had always lived with his grandmother. Although he was now a part of Doris’ new family life, he would later state that it was his grandmother who raised him. Doris also admitted that they were more like brother and sister, since she had him when she was only 18. Still, they had a strong bond that would last their entire lives. The same cannot be said for Terry and Marty. Marty was an incredibly strict disciplinarian, who sent the boy to military school to ‘make a man out of him’. As Doris’ agent, Marty was the opposite of her second husband. He wanted her to work and was involved in every aspect of her career, including handling her finances. Some people in the industry called him her Svengali, but Doris would not hear of it. She was incredibly happy and said that she seemed to have found ‘the solid, serene life’ she had been seeking. Her career was still soaring as well; it was during this time that she starred in one of her most popular films: Calamity Jane.
Despite entering her third marriage before her thirties, her image was as prim and proper as ever, making Oscar Levant quip: ‘I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin’. Doris was never a fan of her image. She would later say, ‘My public image is unshakably that of America’s wholesome virgin, the girl next door, carefree and brimming with happiness. An image, I can assure you, more make-believe than any film part I ever played. But I am Miss Chastity Belt, and that’s all there is to it.’ Nonetheless, Doris loved her work. She founded her own film and music company with Marty, she had her own radio show and still managed to make popular movies and chart-topping songs. At one point, she had a complete burn-out, exacerbated by a hysterectomy for a benign tumor that left her unable to have any more children. By now, her marriage to Marty was all about business, and she came to resent his dominance. The final straw was Doris witnessing Marty hitting her son. She found out that this had been happening for years and she decided to separate from Marty. They never officially divorced and he would stay on as her agent. Doris was unsure if she should continue acting at this point. The swinging sixties had not embraced her and the press jokingly referred to her as ‘The World’s Oldest Virgin’. Besides, she had worked tirelessly for decades and was ready to slow down. In 1968, Marty fell ill, and Doris insisted on nursing the man she had loved for so long. He passed away a few months later and Doris mourned her third husband, who had still been a big part of her life. But she was in for a nasty surprise. Instead of millions of dollars in her bank account, she was actually hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. Marty and his business partner, Jerome Rosenthal, had squandered her earnings. Despite Doris wanting to quit acting, she found out that Marty had committed her to a television series, The Doris Day Show, and it turned out that she was going to need the money made from that show. Her court case against Rosenthal would take years and require a lot of money in legal fees. She later said about Marty that she was ‘mystified by this man who had slept with me, adopted my son, managed my career and business life.’ Still, she felt that Marty had never intended to betray her and that he had simply trusted the wrong person. The court case against Rosenthal dragged on until 1985, when she was finally awarded only a fraction of her once large fortune.
After The Doris Day Show, Doris mostly retracted from the limelight. She focused on the two loves of her life: her son and animals. She founded The Doris Day Animal Foundation and started a pet-friendly hotel with Terry. She gave love a shot one more time when she married maître d’ Barry Comden in the seventies. The marriage was over after three years, and Barry said that Doris had preferred the company of her dogs. He may have been right, since she admitted to a friend that she had originally thought marriage was the way to live, but felt it was ‘so confined’. In her old age, Doris could live life on her own terms. She lived happily in her beautiful home in Carmel, spoke to her son daily and took in every stray dog she wanted to take in.
About her love life, she would joke, ‘Boy, I know how to pick ‘em, don’t I?’ She suffered one more tragedy when her beloved son Terry passed away in 2004. She subsequently released the album My Heart, with songs produced by Terry, who was a successful music producer in his own right. The proceeds went to her animal foundation. In 2011, at age 92, she told People Magazine, ‘I love life. I have my pets around me and good friends. I’m young at heart and I love to laugh. There’s nothing better.’ She stayed committed to her animal foundation until her death in 2019 and loved reading and answering her fan mail. Every year on her birthday, a growing fan base would gather in Carmel to celebrate their icon’s life. In her final years, she admitted that her status as a national treasure was ‘so delightful’ it made her cry. In the end, the love Doris felt from her son, her animals and her fans brought her the happiness and warmth she had always longed for.
— Arancha van der Veen for Classic Movie Hub
Arancha has been fascinated with Classic Hollywood and its stars for years. Her main area of expertise is the behind-the-scenes stories, though she’s pretty sure she could beat you at movie trivia night too. Her website, Classic Hollywood Central, is about everything Classic Hollywood, from actors’ life stories and movie facts to Classic Hollywood myths. You can follow her on Twitter at @ClassicHC.