For a “professional virgin,” Doris Day really got around. A recording sensation, a record-setting movie star and an animal rights activist, she enjoyed as many lives as one of her feline friends. But Doris Mary Ann Kapelhoff, born in Cincinnati, OH, on April 3, 1922, only made it look easy.
Her first love was dance, a career ambition thwarted by injuries to her legs sustained in a car accident when she was 15. A lengthy convalescence was brightened by the radio, where big band music and Ella Fitzgerald captivated her. Singing lessons soon led to a local radio career. Orchestra leader Barney Rapp saw potential in everything but her last name, and “Doris Day” entered the national stage in 1939.
Six years later, while on the road with bandleader Les Brown, she scored her first hit, “Sentimental Journey,” a touchstone for a generation returning from war. In 1945 and 1946, Doris Day and the Les Brown Band sent six more songs to Billboard’s Top Ten charts. Hollywood beckoned, but she balked, only coming around when songwriters Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn heard her perform “Embraceable You” at a party. They thought Day was a good fit for Romance on the High Seas (1948), a musical they were working on at Warner Bros., and they thought right — replacing a pregnant Betty Hutton, she earned their song “It’s Magic” an Oscar nomination, and had her first No. 1 as a soloist.
In 1949’s It’s a Great Feeling, Day played a starstruck ingénue mingling with Warner stars like Joan Crawford and Gary Cooper. Becoming the studio’s go-to performer for nostalgic, period musicals, like Tea for Two (1950) and I’ll See You in My Dreams (1951), she quickly eclipsed most of them. A tomboyish turn in Calamity Jane (1953) won its signature song, “Secret Love,” an Academy Award. Her not-so-secret desire, as the soundtrack albums to the films racked up more hit songs, was to be taken more seriously as an actress. “I'm tired of being thought of as Miss Goody Two-Shoes...the girl next door, Miss Happy-Go-Lucky,” she said. After teaming with Frank Sinatra in Young at Heart (1954), she left the studio.
The biopic Love Me or Leave Me (1955) cast her as Ruth Etting, a singer in thrall to her husband and manager, a gangster played by James Cagney. Alfred Hitchcock put her and James Stewart in jeopardy in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), which introduced another Oscar-winning song, “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be),” that became her signature standout.
With Rock Hudson, she redefined the rom-com with the hugely successful Pillow Talk (1959), for which she received an Oscar nomination. Nearing age 40, and on her third husband, Day established a bankable comic persona, that of a slightly starchy career woman, rescued from spinsterhood by a charming roué: Hudson in that film (an Oscar winner for best screenplay) and Lover Come Back (1961) and Cary Grant in That Touch of Mink (1962). In The Thrill of It All (1963), she played a suburban housewife who, after becoming a successful commercial actress, returned to domesticity to preserve the marriage. Feminist critics groaned at the perpetuation of stereotypes, though more recently Day’s most popular films have been reclaimed for her plucky, independent-minded characterizations.
The death of her third husband, producer Martin Melcher, exposed deep debts and a previously unknown long-term contract with CBS that locked her into a series and several specials. Aided by their son, record producer Terry Melcher, she trouped through The Doris Day Show, a program mostly noted for its curious format and cast changes, from 1968 to 1973. She recounted the sadness of her widowhood, the loss of her $20 million fortune (which touched off a series of lawsuits), and her debilitating TV experience in her bestselling 1975 autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story.
There was more to her story, however. In 1978 she started what is today known as the Doris Day Animal Foundation, a non-profit stemming from a life-long interest in animal rights, and in 1987 the related Doris Day Animal League. Day originated a prominent pet-related event, World Spay Day. “I've never met an animal I didn't like, and I can't say the same thing about people,” she said, something her fourth husband might have agreed with (he blamed their breakup on her devotion to the cause). Her animal welfare work was cited when she received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.
Day was awarded a Grammy for lifetime achievement in 2008. Other than a bittersweet reunion with Hudson announcing her animal-centered cable TV show Doris Day’s Best Friends, three months before he died from AIDS in 1985, her showbiz career was a distant memory. That is, until 2010, when she surprised WNYC radio host Jonathan Schwartz by suggesting a one-hour interview that delighted fans. In 2011, the album My Heart, a compilation of unreleased recordings produced by Terry Melcher (who died in 2004), made the Billboard 200, her first album to chart since 1963. Through ups and downs in her professional and personal lives, “gratitude is riches, complaint is poverty,” she always maintained.