Media Rare: Adoring Doris Day

- June 11, 2012

"Que sera, sera..."

Last week, some radio station played three Doris Day songs in a row, and immediately I thought, "Uh-oh. She died."

I webbed immediately. And?...No, the Cincinnati songbird is still here, at age 88, relishing those late, late life accolades exemplified by Betty White. But only from afar.

What this post is really about is how I got 90 seconds alone with her 25 years ago, and what we said to each other, but first, some wiki:

Known, in reverse life order, as an animal-rights activist, a movie star, and a big band girl singer, the lady née Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff first sang in soundies with Bob Crosby's and Les Brown's bands, the latter providing her with her signature tune, "Sentimental Journey," in 1945.

Three years later Warner Bros. signed her to headline "Romance on the High Seas," introducing "It's Magic," and her enthronement as a Hollywood icon began.

With a big bell of a voice audiologically ideal for Warner's deep bass-boom Vitaphone, she was the major singing queen of her own kingdom.

(An aside: And how badly she ached to play Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific", but that was over at Fox and Warner wouldn't lend her out. They consoled her with "Pajama Game".)

D. Day morphed into her lasting image as a professional virgin in 1958's coy, Oscar-winning" Pillow Talk" (once eyed by Alfred Hitchcock!), with follow-up sitcom clones installing her as America's  #1 female box-office attraction for the first half of the 60s.

Alas, her screen star fell dramatically in the second half, with a string of bombs that led to her retirement from films in 1968.

(Yes, another aside: Rather famously, and probably foolishly, she declined the part of Mrs. Robinson in that same year's "The Graduate." Anne Bancroft really was not the first choice.) 

Her husband died, and she found out he had robbed her blind; she sued his lawyer and was awarded an unprecedented $26 million; wrote an autobio with no less than A.E. Hotchner, who had worked with Hemingway; did a terrible TV show for a couple of years; and, most importantly, established Actors and Others for Animals, for which she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

It was her love of all creatures that brought her to be honored at the 1987 Monterey Film Festival. She wouldn't have attended on the estimable merits of her film and music career alone, but used her fame as a springboard to launch herself into fundraising, with the fest as another forum for her animal charities.

At that time, I was deeply into the Santa Fe Film Festival. It interested me that  Monterey's was unusual because it was underwritten in advance by California's public and private sectors, thus completely in the black long before opening night. That certainly wasn't true in our zip code, with every edition since 1980 coming out a star-studded, well-intentioned loser.

As a writer for the Santa Fe Reporter, I scored press passes, and flew off to see how the big boys managed it on the coast. It didn't hurt that alongside Day, Clint Eastwood, Jane Russell, and Cliff Robertson were also scheduled to be feted.

(Another aside: Russell had to cancel because her father died; Robertson was in the suite right across from us at the Spindrift Inn, but we never saw him; and Eastwood growled at me with his laser-sight eyes while I was taking his picture.)

Anyway, there I was at the black-tie gala the first night, and, according to my subsequent article for the Reporter, there she was, across the room, in a powder blue gown with silver brocade, sitting on a dais next to "Papa" John Phillips. Her German Catholic hair was the whitest that blond can be, with no sign of her famous freckles.

I looked up to John Phillips on the raised platform, "Excuse me, I think you're great"--(note: I don't any more, since daughter Mackenzie's revelations)--"and I even saw your show on Broadway"--(note: and indeed I had, "Man on the Moon," produced by Andy Warhol)--"but you're sitting next to Doris Day!"

"Don't I know it," he replied, smiling. Then I said hello to her, in the only way I knew how:

"You look beautiful," I said.

"Well, thank you, but I can't see. I forgot my glasses at home."

"You may not see beautiful," I countered, "but you look beautiful."

"Well, thank you," she said again, and photoned me her two-million candlepower smile.

And that was that. Come to think of it, it probably wasn't even 90 seconds.

Decades later, I'm still a fan--even though I know a Santa Fean who was Day's personal assistant for a number of years, and who's shared some unpleasant realities of what it means to be a celebrity's gofer. "What can I say?" she shrugged. "Doris was a movie star."

Another local recently came into Video Library and donated a boxed set of Day's Warner films, among them" Love Me or Leave Me," the Ruth Etting biopic that is her best work. "Do you want these? We don't. Doris Day" she said. "Eck. "

Eck? Really? Eck? Hmph, I say there's a difference between sugar and saccharine, but some people can't tell.

She absolutely will not appear in public any more. She claims it's her fear of flying. I say it's vanity, her fear of facing fans eager to see what Doris Day looks like at nearly 90.

Accordingly, she turned down a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. AMPAS would like to present her with a special Academy Award, but they know she'll never show up to accept it. She just wants to live out the rest of her life in Carmel, where she's known as Clara Kappelhoff. 

Mickey Rooney, 92 come September, would revel in the kudos she's refusing. Probably so would Shirley Temple, 84; Esther Williams, 89; Joan Fontaine, 94; or Olivia de Havilland, 96. So what's the big deal?

We may never know. Just wait and hope and see what's next for her.

After all, que será, será.