Rising Above: The Life And Times Of Doris Day

Actress and singer Doris Day was one of the biggest stars that the entertainment industry had ever seen. Her popularity in the ’40s and ’50s led to a successful career in both music and acting. But America’s most wholesome star has more to her than most people realize. Back-stabbing husbands and scandalous affairs played out in her personal life while Doris worked hard to keep her career moving forward.

Here’s what you didn’t know about the incredible life and times of Doris Day.

She Was Named After a Song

Doris Day was actually born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, the daughter of second generation German immigrants. Her stage name came after orchestra leader and jazz musician Barney Rapp saw her performing a version of “Day After Day”. Although it’s often confused with Doris’ hit single “Day By Day”, the two were entirely different songs.

The former was never recorded by the singer, despite becoming her namesake. The tune was so frequently requested by audiences that it simply made sense to dub her Doris Day – it’s certainly more stage-worthy than Doris Kappelhoff.

A Car Accident Changed Her Life’s Direction

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

While it’s almost impossible to imagine a world in which Doris Day isn’t a singer, it almost didn’t turn out that way. Doris loved to dance, developing a keen interest from an early age. She formed a dance duo with friend Jerry Doherty and the pair were frequently booked around her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.

While the youngster dreamed of becoming a professional performer, a car accident in 1937 badly injured her leg, ruining her chances of pursuing a career in dance. Her hopes and dreams were destroyed at the tender age of 15.

The Road To Recovery Is Paved With Gold

During the long, lengthy recovery process following the car accident, Doris stumbled across the talent that would see her become a household name. To keep herself entertained, Doris would listen to the radio and often sang along with the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Tommy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller.

er mother instantly recognized her daughter’s talent and arranged for her to have singing lessons with Grace Raine. Grace was so impressed with Doris’ voice that she gave her three lessons a week for the price of one, telling her mother that she had “tremendous potential”.

From Restaurants and Radios To Big Bands and Billboards

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Photo: Metronome/Getty Images
Photo: Metronome/Getty Images

When it started to happen for Doris, it really started to happen. Within the first eight months of singing lessons, the young beauty landed her first professional roles, working as a vocalist on the WLW radio program Carlin’s Carnival and singing in a local restaurant. It was there that she first caught the attention of Barney Rapp.

Rapp offered her a position in his band which then propelled her to work with other legendary band leaders, including Les Brown. Working with Brown while in her early 20’s, Doris made the move that catapulted her to stardom. Things would never be the same for the girl from Cincinnati.

A Toxic Relationship When She Was Seventeen

While working as a vocalist for Rapp, Doris met surly trombonist Al Jorden. Despite warnings from her bandmates and her own mother, the teenager fell head over heels in love and quickly married 23-year-old Jorden in 1941. The choice would be a devastating move and the union was toxic from the get-go. Her young husband would fly into fits of jealous rage, beating her brutally on regular occasions.

When Doris fell pregnant with their son Terry, Al implored her to get an abortion. Eventually, after a slew of awful and dangerous situations, the young mother divorced her tyrant of a husband just before her 18th birthday. Jorden would later commit suicide in 1967 with the same gun he had once threatened Doris with.

A Sentimental Journey

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It wasn’t long before Doris returned to work. In early 1945, Doris recorded “Sentimental Journey”. The song soon became a smash hit, with the lyrics “Gonna take a sentimental journey / Gonna set my heart at ease / Gonna make a sentimental journey / To renew old memories”. The track became the unofficial anthem of soldiers returning home. The phenomenal success of the record climbed to number one on the charts and Doris became a breakout star.

The song continued to be associated with Day throughout her life, and she recorded different versions of it on numerous occasions. Over the course of the next two years, Doris and the Les Brown Band had six other top ten hits. A star was born.

Another Man Distracted Her From Show Business

Although her first marriage had been enough to put anyone off of men for life, Doris was a young woman in her prime with a son to raise. Not long after her divorce from Jorden, she began dating another fellow band member, George Weidler. The pair began sharing a hotel room – something still considered scandalous for unmarried couples at the time – and leader Les Brown was gravely concerned.

According to him, Weidler was just as obnoxious as Jorden had been. He ordered the pair to split, but they defied him and married in 1946. For the second time in a few short years, Doris declared she was going to quit showbiz to concentrate on being a mother and wife. Her pledge didn’t last long.

Doris Makes Her Hollywood Debut

Photo: Pressefoto Kindermann
Photo: Pressefoto Kindermann

When Bob Hope and Hollywood came knocking, Doris couldn’t resist grabbing the opportunity with both hands. She became a regular on Hope’s extremely popular show and her career continued to grow, while her desire to be a homemaker waned. In 1948 Doris was cast to star in the musical romantic comedy Romance on the High Seas. When she auditioned for the role, Doris admitted to director Michael Curtiz that she didn’t have any acting experience.

It was this confession that garnered her first acting role, as Curtiz loved her honesty and thought she embodied his vision for the all-American girl. Her song, “It’s Magic” was featured in the movie and gave Doris her first hit as a solo artist.

Doris Ran Away From Her Marriage Problems

Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

With her interest in Hollywood piqued, Doris and Weidler moved to Los Angeles so she could focus on movies. The best location the couple could find was in a less than desirable trailer on a road full of drug dealers. The marriage soon began to deteriorate as Weidler wasn’t fond of his stepson, Terry and resented his wife’s success.

When Doris insisted that her mother Alma move in with them to help, things went from bad to worse and Doris secured work in New York – as far away from her husband as possible. After Doris moved with her mother and child, Weidler demanded a divorce.

Doris Breaks Records

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Getty Images
Getty Images

Her first film role landed her a slew of other opportunities in Hollywood and Doris starred in several nostalgic period films for Warner Brothers over the next few years. On Moonlight Bay, By the Light of the Silvery Moon and Tea For Two were all relatively minor movies – but 1951’s I’ll See You in My Dreams was a box office smash, breaking records held for 20 years.

Not only was her acting career reaching unprecedented heights, but the song “Secret Love” from 1953’s Calamity Jane scored the Academy Award for Best Original Song, becoming her fourth number one hit in the U.S.

A Not So Sunny Disposition

Doris had worked hard to become successful, but the grueling work schedules often left her in a foul mood. She was away from her young son for long stretches of time and it took its toll on the star, who had divided feelings about fame. Although Doris would be known for her glowing smile and her bright and sunny on-screen attitude, in reality, she had quite the tempter.

Her tantrums were legendary, often discussed among those who worked with her. When things didn’t go to plan, the songstress would stomp her feet, swear like a sailor and barge through the place, slamming doors and threatening to go back to her hometown and leave it all behind her once and for all.

Doris Wasn’t Loyal, And Things Got Complicated

Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Photo: Warner Brothers/Getty Images

Despite having two failed marriages under her belt by the time she was 27, Day hadn’t given up on finding love – in fact, she was more romantically active than ever. At one point in the early ’50s, she was seeing her ex-husband George Weidler, leading actor Jack Carson and her manager Al Levy, all at the same time. Levy became obsessed with her and like most of the men in her life exhibited extreme jealousy.

When he found out Doris was sleeping with other men, he attacked her. Worried by his behavior, she approached his business partner Marty Melcher for help. Before long, Melcher was on her list of lovers too. The pair married in 1951.

Que Sera, Sera Almost Didn’t Happen

Up until the mid-50’s, Doris had mainly played comedic characters. Her dramatic breakthrough came in Love Me or Leave Me, alongside renowned actor James Cagney. The role earned her widespread respect as a “serious” actress and Doris was soon cast in Alfred Hitchcock’s suspense film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. The song “Que Sera, Sera” would become synonymous with Day and win an Academy Award.

It’s funny to think that at first, she refused to sing it, labeling it a “children’s song.” Doris recorded the song in one take under pressure from the studio, supposedly claiming “That’s the last time you’ll ever hear that song.”

Doris Turned Down Roles To Keep Her Wholesome Image

With her agent now her husband, Doris had more work in the early ’60s than ever, but the world was changing. At the end of the decade, society was ready for more risque content thanks to the sexual revolution. However, Day’s movies didn’t evolve and neither did her wholesome image. For a woman who set the still unbeaten record for receiving seven consecutive awards as the top female box-office star, it was devastating when she slid out of the top ten completely in 1966.

Doris was given the chance to play Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate, a role that would’ve undoubtedly revived her popularity but she turned it down, calling the script “vulgar and offensive.”

Her Late Husband Had Stolen Her Fortune

Although Doris had stayed married to Marty Melcher until his death in 1969, the union was not always a happy one. He was manipulative and many thought he was exploiting Doris for his own gain. When he died, the 47-year-old actress discovered that her late husband and her attorney, Jerome Rosenthal, had squandered away her fortune, leaving her with nothing but debt.

Not only had he ruined her financially, but Melcher had committed Doris to a series of contracts without her knowledge, one of which being The Doris Day Show. The widow detested the idea of going into TV, but had no choice.

The Doris Day Show And Retirement

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With nothing in the bank, a desperate Doris fast approaching her 50’s had no other option but to go ahead with the television show her husband had signed her up for. Doris’ one stipulation was that CBS relinquished full creative control to her and her son, Terry. Although her movie popularity had waned, The Doris Day Show ran for five successful seasons.

Every season had dramatic changes to its premise that baffled audiences, but it somehow worked. By 1973, Doris had come to realize she was largely considered ‘passe’ and a thing of the past. With roles drying up, the star mostly retired from acting, except two further TV specials.

Actress Turned Animal Activist

In the early 70’s Doris decided to use her influence for the greater good, founding Actors and Others for Animals. Her interest in animal welfare stemmed from an incident during her teenage years when her dog was killed by a passing car. Doris is also an avid anti-fur campaigner and founded the non-profit charity Doris Day Pet Foundation in 1978.

The charity supports causes throughout the U.S that share the DDAF’s mission statement of helping animals – and the people that love them. These days, the Pillow Talk star has many pets and frequently adopts stray animals that she feels are in need of help.

What Happened To Terry Mulcher?

Doris was largely absent for the majority of her son’s early years. Her mother Alma mainly raised Terry as Doris was often on tour or filming. However, the two remained close throughout Terry’s life. Terry went on to find success in his own right, producing bands such as the Byrds and having a top 10 hit of his own with the duo Bruce & Terry.

Doris and her beloved son worked together frequently, as he was the executive producer of her television shows. He also helped his mom through her financial struggles following the death of his stepfather. Sadly, Terry died in 2004 aged 62.

Doris Didn’t Know Her Birth Year Until 2017

Throughout her life Doris believed she was born in 1924. It wasn’t until her birthday in 2017- when she thought she was turning 93 – that the Associated Press presented the aging star with a copy of her birth certificate that Doris had never seen. Despite her previous notions, the document showed that Doris Day was born in 1922.

“I’ve always said that age is just a number and I have never paid much attention to birthdays,” she said in a statement. “It’s great to finally know how old I really am!” Doris and her friend Betty White had often joked about White being two years older, but the joke was on Doris.

A Career Over, A Legacy Left

There’s no doubt that while the actress bowed out of the biz years ago, she made a tremendous impact on the entertainment industry. Her influence goes well beyond a few hit singles. Modern day artists still look to Doris’ music for inspiration – some of which have mentioned her by name in their songs.

The Beatles mentioned her in “Dig It”, George Michael sang about her brightness in Wham’s hit “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” and Elton John lists her in “Wrap Her Up” alongside fellow silver-screen legend Brigitte Bardot. The list is endless – just like Day’s timeless legacy.

Doris Day Lived To Be 97 Years Old

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On May 13, 2019, The Doris Day Animal Foundation announced that the beloved star had died at her Carmel Valley, California, home. The official statement said that Day was surrounded by close friends when she passed away, and that she “had been in excellent physical health for her age, until recently contracting a serious case of pneumonia.”

Stars immediately took to social media to pay tribute to the singer. “For those of us in my generation, Doris Day was synonymous with Hollywood icon,” tweeted actor George Takei. “She would no doubt remind us, upon this day of her passing, ‘Que sera sera,’ but we will miss her dearly anyway. Rest now in our hearts forever, Ms. Day.”