Miss Lachrymose

Liz Brown

  • Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door by David Kaufman
    Virgin, 628 pp, £29.95, June 2008, ISBN 978 1 905264 30 8

In her very first stage appearance Doris Day wet herself. It was in her hometown of Cincinnati in 1927. She was five years old and not yet Doris Day. She was still Doris Kappelhoff and the red satin pants that her mother, Alma, had sewn for the kindergarten pageant were quick to betray her. It’s tempting to see this as a primal scene for Doris Day, the moment from which her longheld stage fright sprang.

‘This shy goddess,’ John Updike once wrote, ‘who avoids parties and live audiences, fascinates us with the amount of space we imagine between her face and her mask.’ The images of Doris Day (that blonde hair, those white teeth) and her personas as the spunky girl next door, the tightly wound career woman and the gung-ho housewife have been fixed for years now, but the person who played Doris Day is less clear. It’s difficult even to know what to call her.

The band leader Barney Rapp came up with the name Day, after Doris’s rendition of ‘Day after Day’. It was 1939 and she was 17, just starting out, in her first spot as the singer for a band, before going on to work with Bob Crosby (Bing’s brother) and then with Les Brown and His Band of Renown. She accepted the name but never warmed to it and even now, it’s said, rarely answers to it in her private life. ‘It sounds,’ she once said, ‘like I’m starring at the Gaiety Theater.’

Her brother, Paul, called her Doke. Childhood friends called her Dodo or Didi or Priscilla Preoccupied. Michael Curtiz called her Miss Lachrymose (she could weep on cue). Jack Carson called her Zelda. Fans called her Miss Huckleberry Finn. Film crews called her Nora Neat and Dorothy Detail. A staff assistant called her Janie O. Gene Kelly called her Brunhilda. Bob Hope called her J.B. – for Jut Butt. Jerry Lewis called her Sylvia, but James Garner called her Sylvia-honey. Rock Hudson called her Eunice and sometimes Maude; she called him Ernie. Her son called her Sis. The character actor Billy de Wolfe called her Clara Bixby, and this is still what her friends call her. Marty Melcher, her third husband and manager, appears to be the only person close to her who actually referred to her as Doris Day; he insisted on using both names. The transition from birth name to celebrity persona is common enough: Frances Gumm became Judy Garland; Lucille LeSueur became Joan Crawford; Norma Jeane Mortenson became Marilyn Monroe. Doris Kappelhoff became Doris Day, who then became Clara Bixby, a third self. You can look at the icon of Doris Day and at the woman known as Clara Bixby, but not at the same time.

There are some sunny elements to her childhood: a beloved older brother, an extended family in a tight-knit German-American neighbourhood, an Uncle Charlie with a thriving bakery where all the kids worked. But the deep unhappiness of her parents’ marriage seems to have dominated. Alma, a starstruck and vivacious woman who dressed as Santa Claus at Christmas, had named her daughter after the silent screen star Doris Kenyon. She was quick to encourage Doris’s dancing and singing talents, and the red satin pants she had sewn were probably the least of her efforts. Doris’s father, William, held himself apart from all that. He seems to have been a silent, cold man – barely present to his children and wife. He taught music and gave voice lessons, conducted a choir and played the organ at the local Catholic church, although he was forced to give this up when he left his family for Alma’s best friend. Devoted to classical music, he had nothing but scorn for popular songs; when he still lived at home, he and Alma fought over the radio. He particularly hated ‘Life Is Just a Bowl of Cherries’, and Alma, in especially perverse moods, would get her daughter to perform it for him. It’s a grim picture.

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