Doris Day could not have chosen a more perfect name for herself.
She was born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff just up the river in Cincinnati, the descendant of German immigrants. Since Kappelhoff was quite a mouthful to say, like many performers of the time she chose a simpler surname. She chose “Day,” which seems appropriate to me since she so brightened up pop culture.
Day dominated both Billboard charts and the silver screen throughout the 50s and 60s. Her velvety vocals and rich phrasing stood in contrast to the sunny demeanor that cast her permanently as “America’s Sweetheart” in movie after movie. She starred opposite fellow luminaries James Cagney, Cary Grant, Jack Lemmon and Rock Hudson.
She was perhaps best known for the frothy romances she crafted with Hudson. Their string of hits defined romantic comedies in the 1960s. She landed on top earning-performer lists at least four times.
Her films were both sophisticated and wholesome, notable more for quick-witted verbal sparring than down and dirty sexiness. It takes moxie to carve out, so distinct a persona and career, and Day had it. Here’s how:
Moxie discovers new talents.
It was clear even from a very young age that Day had a talent for dancing. As a teen, she was just weeks away from departing to take a chance on a career in Hollywood when a car versus train accident derailed her career. Her injuries were so significant that she took months to recuperate.
However, while recuperating, Day discovered a new talent: singing. Once again, her mother recognized something special in her daughter’s voice and invested in lessons for her. The teacher was so impressed by her abilities that they gave her extra lessons for free.
Day landed a spot singing with Les Brown and his Band of Renown, one of the premier big bands of the day. It was as a vocalist with Brown’s group that she recorded “Sentimental Journey,” which has become an enduring cultural touchstone that captures the spirit of World War II troops longing for home.
Day’s performances as a vocalist got the attention of Hollywood, and by the late 40s she was signing on for her first films. There was no grand plan; Day had the moxie to make the most of every opportunity that came her way.
Moxie gets back on its feet.
Day’s off-screen life stood in stark contrast to her life on the screen. She was married four times, divorced three times, and was widowed once. None of the relationships seemed healthy or happy.
“She chose wonderful projects and very bad relationships,” observed fellow actress Kaye Ballard in an interview.
Day took a double blow when her third husband died. After his passing, she found out that he and her attorney had squandered the wealth she had amassed over her years as a performer. What’s more, they signed her on to do a television show and specials, something she never agreed to and never wanted to do.
But between the financial hole she found herself in and the contractual obligation, Day felt she had little choice but to follow through. She launched herself into her television career with the same upbeat gusto that made her “America’s Sweetheart.”
“I’ve always said I was like those round-bottomed circus dolls—you know, those dolls you could push down and they’d come back up?'” Day once said in an interview. “I’ve always been like that. I’ve always said, ‘No matter what happens, if I get pushed down, I’m going to come right back up.’”
It takes moxie to persevere, and Day had it.
Moxie is loyal.
Day might not have been lucky in love with creatures of the two-legged variety, but she was awash in love for – and from – creatures of the four-legged variety.
Day is known as much for her work championing animals as she is for her work as a performer. Her life, particularly since she retired in the 70s, has been devoted almost solely to raising money and awareness for abused, abandoned and neglected pets. She was well known for picking up strays around her adopted hometown of Carmel, California.
Day’s loyalty didn’t end with her furry four-legged friends. She was loyal and devoted to her human friends, too. She interviewed her longtime costar Rock Hudson on her television show just weeks before his death from complications caused by AIDS. It was early in the epidemic, and AIDS was heavily stigmatized. Hudson’s appearance was shocking. He was gaunt and visibly unwell. Though difficult to watch, the interview raised awareness and put a well-loved human face on the disease.
Day had the moxie to use her voice to advocate for those who could not always speak up for themselves.
The sun finally set on Day this week. She passed away this week at the age of 97 after a brief illness.
Thanks for all the light and warmth you brought to us, Day. The world is a little darker without you.