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.

I came to Doris Day backwards, or maybe it was sideways, but it was always a few steps removed from the actual icon. In the 1970s, there was Grease, in which Stockard Channing as Rizzo mocked Olivia Newton-John’s good-girl Sandy, donning a blonde wig and squealing about holding fast to her virginity while name-checking Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Skip ahead to the 1990s when we – that gay ‘we’ – pored over film history for evidence that we’d been there all along. Most notably there was Vito Russo’s The Celluloid Closet, with its clip of Doris belting out her ‘Secret Love’, but also Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies. By then Hudson had been dead for ten years; his last appearance – the one that made known the fact he had Aids – was on Doris Day’s Best Friends, a cable-only show about pet care. These glimpses led the way from subtext back to text, to Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back and Calamity Jane, and to her voice.

All I do is talk to my pillow,
Talk to my pillow, talk to my pillow,
Talk about the boy I’m gonna marry,
Somehow, some way, sometime!

The jaunty near-squawk was an earworm I couldn’t dislodge. Nor did I want to. From the novelty numbers I went back further, to the earlier ballads, to the torch songs, to ‘Ten Cents a Dance’. After all that sugar, all that bounce and pep, it was a shock to hear a slow-burning anguish.

Seven to midnight I hear drums.
Loudly the saxophone blows.
Trumpets are tearing my eardrums.
Customers crush my toes.

The howl she unleashes next is clear and deep, full of need, the aural distillation of a raw deal:

All that you need is a ticket.
Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.

‘She sings right in the middle of the notes,’ according to the cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran. The sound is crystalline but warm, clean but shaded with huskiness. There is a privacy and a directness in her ballad-singing. Sometimes she holds on to a lyric, extends it, burnishes it before finally giving it away. She was the coloratura soprano Anna Moffo’s favourite singer.

‘Ten Cents a Dance’, a working girl’s anthem, is from Love Me or Leave Me (1955), a biopic about the jazz singer Ruth Etting which in uncanny ways also tells Doris’s own story, down to the manager-turned-husband called Marty who nearly destroys her career. Doris plays against type as Ruth, a hard-edged chorus girl who strikes a bitter bargain with James Cagney’s Marty Snyder, a Chicago mobster. Determined to make it as a singer, Ruth agrees to let the brutish, jealous Marty manage her career. He takes it on as a lark, to ensure her obligation to him and to make her put out. Sexual pursuit propels the plot of many Doris Day movies, but nowhere else is the prospect of conquest so bleak. Success comes – for her and for him – but so does something else. Bound to a man she pities and despises, Ruth is fully conscious of the part she has played in her own misery. It’s chilling to see Doris Day become a shell.

Cagney’s Marty Snyder is not an exact match for Marty Melcher. By most accounts, Doris’s third husband wasn’t an abusive man: it was her first husband, the trombonist Al Jorden, who was given to violent outbursts and paranoid rages. She married Jorden when she was 19 and fled soon after she gave birth to a son, Terry. Husband Two was the saxophonist George Weidler, a gentle cipher who seems to melt out of her life, but not before introducing her to Christian Science. And then came Marty Melcher. At the time he met Doris, who was represented by his partner, Melcher was married to Patty Andrews of the Andrews Sisters. Exactly how Melcher edged in on her and when the romance began is unclear, but the industry insider Sam Weiss encapsulates the general view: Marty ‘loved Patty’s money until Doris’s money came along and then, because there was more of it, he loved Doris’s money more’.

What if you sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me? David Kaufman doesn’t quote Patty Andrews on the matter, but he does say that she showed up one night at Doris Day’s front door swinging a baseball bat. After an hour no one had answered and she went away again, but the image lingers. A tall, pushy man, Melcher seems to have been robustly disliked by practically everyone who did business with him. James Garner called him a ‘shallow, insecure hustler’. Norman Jewison remembered him as slick: ‘Even his hair was combed straight back from his forehead, slicked down flat over his scalp.’ James Harbert, a music arranger at Columbia Records, was more charitable, declaring himself ‘one of the people who, despite all, liked Marty. His I-have-to-own-everything tactics – that’s just the way predatory capitalism works in this country.’

On location to shoot Julie (1956), one of the two movies in which Doris plays a woman stalked by her husband (the other is Midnight Lace, 1960), Melcher refused to let her go to a doctor when she started haemorrhaging from what turned out to be an intestinal tumour. He handed her earnings over to his attorney, who embezzled everything. He signed her on to a five-year contract for a television series, The Doris Day Show, without her knowledge. She learned of the TV show and the squandered millions as well as her considerable debts after his sudden death in 1968. ‘Don’t forget,’ Melcher once told a reporter, ‘she is always the victim.’

Doris’s husband may have engineered every aspect of her celebrity, keeping her on a production treadmill, churning out movies at a startling rate, but he was also her protector, keeping her separate from the business of crafting her persona. ‘I wasn’t too sure about being in love with him,’ she said some years after his death, ‘but he was really a father image.’ Unlike her real father he not only enjoyed pop pabulum but insisted on it. ‘I’ve never been fixed on a career,’ Doris once claimed. What she really wanted was to be a wife with a family, the kind with the white picket fence and the roast in the oven and the husband coming home from work; it’s the kind of scene she played so often in her movies, the ones that made all that money for the family she did have.

What she had was a husband who became a father and a son who became a brother, while she remained the talented child. After Melcher’s death, Terry became the father, shepherding Doris through her legal and financial troubles. By then his mother’s popularity was waning and Terry had established himself as a producer in the burgeoning California music scene, working with the Byrds, the Mamas and the Papas, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Beach Boys. When he was approached by a hopeful singer called Charles Manson, Terry was briefly intrigued but soon dropped the idea of bringing Manson into the studio. Manson, though, didn’t drop the idea, and although he knew that Terry and Candice Bergen had moved out of their house on Cielo Drive and that Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate had moved in, some believe that the murders he committed there were in part a warning to Doris Day’s son. Terry descended into what we might call a ‘dark place’. Shotgun by the door, pistol next to the bed, lots of drugs. In a motorcycle accident he shattered both legs and it was only during his recovery that the woman he called Sis finally became his mother.

Looking back, Terry once said that ‘“Mother” was just a word, without meaning. My grandmother was my total parent.’ Alma, who had overseen her daughter’s early rise, first as a dancer and then a singer, cared for Terry when Doris was on the road singing with bands and later when she moved to Hollywood. In Kaufman’s account, Alma seems to have been affable if overpresent, more servant than master to her daughter; when travelling she always let Doris inspect the kitchens wherever they ate. Years later, when Doris lived on the same street in Beverly Hills as her namesake, Doris Kenyon, Alma got a house nearby. In one of the strange inversions characteristic of Doris’s family, the mother took the name her daughter hated and called herself Alma Day. In 1976, having made her last TV special, Doris Day retired. Alma died soon afterwards. These transfers of power between mother and daughter, manager and performer, husband and wife aren’t easy to track.

Doris Day had no film experience before her Hollywood debut, Romance on the High Seas (1948), which made her an instant star, but she quickly developed an uncanny instinct for the camera and could memorise a script after reading it only once. She preferred, too, the predictable studio schedule to the erratic life on the road she’d had with the bands, and she is said to have loved the camaraderie on set, where she felt protected, often staying after her scenes were done to watch the other actors work. Her co-stars marvelled at her directness. ‘Unshrewd,’ was James Cagney’s description of her. ‘That lack of guile photographs.’ ‘During lunch,’ Kaye Ballard said of working on the television series, ‘we’d ask her: “Are you doing the lines, or are we just talking?”’

In the 39 movies she made in 20 years, Doris Day often played a singer: she had not simply to perform, but to perform performance. She hated lip-syncing and when she could sang live on the set. More than the numbers staged for an audience, it’s the scenes in her movies of recording sessions and rehearsals that compel me. The space between performer and cinema audience is doubled – these are recordings of a woman performing a recording – and yet I imagine these moments offer a glimpse of the space between the mask and the face. Watching her rehearse ‘I’ll Never Stop Loving You’ in Love Me or Leave Me is like watching someone who thinks no one can see her. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Doris is Jo McKenna, formerly the singer Jo Conway, who has given up her career to be a doctor’s wife in Indianapolis, and is travelling with her husband (Jimmy Stewart) in Morocco when their son is kidnapped. It is by returning to her profession, singing ‘Que Sera, Sera’, that she saves her child. (In a quintessential Hitchcock scene, the husband uses his medical expertise to drug her before telling her that their son has gone.) In the end, she sits down at the piano and her voice rises through the foreign embassy to seek the son held captive by another, older woman.

It has been more than thirty years since Doris Day retired from Hollywood. She lives in Carmel and has no interest in her past. Molly Haskell once described her as having an ‘almost pathological aversion to discussing her films’. In 2004, her son died of melanoma; she didn’t go to his funeral. She has spent more of her life promoting her foundations for animal welfare than she has making films. There have been stories about neighbours calling the police to complain about all her dogs. The Globe ran a headline in 1991, claiming she ‘Lives Like a Bag Lady!’ and had to issue a retraction after she sued. She has been spotted holding up the queue in the drugstore while picking through her piles of coupons, but that could be anybody’s grandma. It’s hardly Norma Desmond – how much easier it would be to find her if she were.

Kaufman’s strategy is to assemble masses of data. He quotes frequently and at length from the memoir she wrote with A.E. Hotchner in 1976, occasionally correcting or updating her, and as a result manages to flatten out even the most traumatic events. The night before she was to leave Cincinnati for Hollywood, Doris was in a car that was struck full-force by a train, shattering her right leg. During her convalescence she started singing along to the radio, trying to echo Ella Fitzgerald’s phrasing. In recounting the episode, Kaufman is most concerned to get the facts straight: Doris remembers the accident as happening on a Friday, but according to the local paper it was on a Wednesday.

Press kits, production logs, studio memoranda, radio transcriptions, taped messages to fan clubs are all here in the book. We learn how many days under or over schedule every production ran; we learn the breakdown by gender of the responses on the 297 viewer cards completed after a preview of That Touch of Mink (1962). Kaufman serves up the data undiscriminatingly: it’s unclear which details are included because they have meaning and which are included simply because they happened. Is there anything to learn from the fact that while making Send Me No Flowers (1964) Doris Day had a sinus infection and went home one day with a fever?

Other details have unintended effects. Barbara Flicker, Doris’s former personal assistant, remembered that Doris wouldn’t give her time off to go to the dentist. ‘I had broken a front tooth opening a package of baloney,’ Flicker explained, and it’s clear she is trying to show that Doris Day could be demanding and self-centred, but all I can think about is the absurd shock of finding yourself in the kitchen with a broken tooth and a package of baloney.

When Kaufman does take a break from the minutiae to venture analysis it is oddly off-key. In his account of Rock Hudson’s final public appearance with Doris Day, he refers to the celebrity Aids activism of the 1980s as ‘the ongoing hoopla’. I take his point to be that Doris’s visible, unswerving affection for her co-star in his final months was significant and moving even if she hadn’t been at the barricades chanting ‘silence = death’. I agree – but ‘hoopla’?

Kaufman has produced not a biography but a dossier. In her house in Carmel, Doris’s bed sits on ‘a two-step, 14-inch platform of light coffee-coloured stone’. This is evidence, but of what? That she was there? If we can prove the train hit her on a Wednesday and not a Friday, will that lead us closer to her? And who would we find? Doris Day? Clara Bixby? ‘I have been told by several of her intimates,’ Kaufman writes in his preface, ‘that in all likelihood she will never read this book.’ It’s a remark that says more about the biographer than his subject, laying bare the wish to give something to Doris Day, to show her how much ground has been covered in trying to locate her. See? I found you. You were here and here and here. And yet she’s not here at all. The details pile up, but they offer no vantage point from which to view her. They form another buffer between the audience and the woman, a wall, and that’s just the way she would like it.