Obituary: Doris Day, beloved singer and actress who gave up Hollywood to become animal activist

American actor Doris Day poses on a red Schwinn bicycle, late 1950s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
American actor Doris Day poses on a red Schwinn bicycle, late 1950s. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Doris Day, singer, actress and animal rights advocate. Born: 3 April 1922 in Cincinnati, Ohio, US. Died: 13 May 2019 in Carmel Valley, California, US, aged 97

Doris Day, the 
honey-voiced singer and actress whose film dramas, musicals and innocent “sex comedies” made her a top star in the 1950s and ’60s, has died at 97.

In recent years, Day had been an animal rights advocate and her Doris Day Animal Foundation confirmed her death early on Monday at her Carmel Valley, California, home. The foundation said she was surrounded by close friends.

With her lilting contralto, wholesome blonde beauty and glowing smile, Day was a top box office draw and recording artist known for such films as Pillow Talk and That Touch of Mink and for such songs as Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera) from Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much.

Over time, she became more than a name above the title: Right down to her cheerful stage name, she stood for a time of innocent love. The running joke, attributed to both Groucho Marx and actor-composer Oscar Levant, was that they had known Day before she was a virgin.

Day herself was no “Doris Day”, by choice and by bad luck. In her Oscar-nominated role in 1959’s Pillow Talk, the first of her three films with Rock Hudson, she proudly caught up with what she called “the contemporary in me”. Her 1976 book, Doris Day: Her Own Story, chronicled her money troubles and three failed marriages, contrasting with the happy publicity of her Hollywood career.

“I have the unfortunate reputation of being Miss Goody Two-Shoes, America’s Virgin, and all that, so I’m afraid it’s going to shock some people for me to say this, but I staunchly believe no two people should get married until they have lived together”, she wrote.

Day was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, as George W Bush declared it a good day for America when Doris Marianne von Kappelhoff of Evanston, Ohio, decided to become an entertainer.

Although mostly retired from showbusiness since the 1980s, she still had enough of a following that a 2011 collection of unreleased songs, My Heart, hit the UK top 10.

Born to a music teacher and a housewife, Day had dreamed of a dance career, but at age 12 suffered a crippling accident: A car she was in was hit by a train and her leg was badly broken. Listening to the radio while recuperating, she began singing along with Ella Fitzgerald, trying to catch the subtle ways she shaded her voice, the casual yet clean way she sang the words.

Day began singing at a Cincinnati radio station, then a local nightclub, then in New York. A bandleader changed her name to Day after the song Day after Day to fit it on a marquee. A marriage at 17 to trombonist Al Jorden ended when, she said, he beat her when she was eight months pregnant. She gave birth to their son, Terry, in early 1942. She returned to Les Brown’s band after the first marriage broke up. Her second marriage, to saxophonist George William Weidler, was also short-lived, lasting from 1946-1949.

Her Hollywood career began after she sang at a party in 1947. After early stardom as a band singer and a stint at Warner Bros, Day won the best notices of her career with 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me, the story of songstress Ruth Etting and her gangster husband-manager.

She followed with Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much – she and James Stewart played an ordinary couple ensnared in an assassination plot. She sang Que Sera, Sera just as the story reached its climax. The 1958 comedy Teacher’s Pet paired her with an aging Clark Gable.

But Day found her greatest success in slick, stylish sex comedies, beginning with Pillow Talk. She and Hudson played two New Yorkers who shared a telephone party line. She followed with The Thrill of It All, playing a housewife who gains fame as a TV pitchwoman to the chagrin of obstetrician husband James Garner.

US cinema owners voted her the top moneymaking star in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964.

Her first musical hit was 1945’s Sentimental Journey, when she was barely in her twenties. Among the other songs she made famous were Everybody Loves a Lover, Secret Love and It’s Magic, from her first film, Romance on the High Seas. Critic Gary Giddins called her the coolest and sexiest female singer of slow-ballads in movie history.

Romance on the High Seas had been designed for Judy Garland, then Betty Hutton. Both bowed out, and Day, recommended by songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, won the role. Warner Bros. cashed in on its new star with a series of musicals, including My Dream Is Yours, Tea for Two and Lullaby of Broadway. Her dramas included Young Man with a Horn, with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall, and Storm Warning, with 
Ronald Reagan and Ginger Rogers. Her last film was With Six You Get Eggroll, a 1968 comedy about a widow and a widower who blend families.

In the 1960s, Day discovered that failed investments by her third husband, Martin Melcher, left her deeply in debt. She eventually won a multimillion-dollar judgment against their lawyer. With movies trending towards explicit sex, she turned to TV to recoup her finances. The Doris Day Show was a moderate success in its 1966-1973 run on CBS.

Day had married Melcher, who worked in her agent’s office, in 1951. He became her manager, and her son took his name. Melcher died in 1969.

In her autobiography, Day recalled her son, Terry Melcher, telling her the $20 million she had earned had vanished and she owed around $450,000, mostly for taxes.

Terry, who died in 2004, became a songwriter and record producer, working with such stars as the Beach Boys. He turned down aspiring musician Charles Manson. When Manson and his followers embarked on their murderous rampage in 1969 they headed for a house once owned by Melcher, and instead came upon actress Sharon Tate and some visitors, all of whom were killed.

In 1976, aged 52, Day got married for a fourth time, to businessman Barry Comden. The union ended in 1982.

The Humane Society of the United States, of which The Doris Day Animal League is an affiliate, praised Day as a pioneer in animal protection.

In 1987, Day “founded one of the first national animal protection organisations dedicated to legislative remedies for the worst animal abuse,” said executive director Sara Amundson. Her foresight “led to dozens of bills, final rules and policies on the federal level,” which helped end abusive videos, protect chimpanzees from invasive research and regulate the online sale of puppies. She is an icon in the animal protection world and will be sorely missed for her singular advocacy.”

Paul McCartney, a friend, called Day “a true star in more ways than one.” He said in a statement: “Visiting her in her Californian home was like going to an animal sanctuary, where her many dogs were taken care of in splendid style. She had a heart of gold and was a very funny lady who I shared many laughs with.”