Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee, lousy with virginity.” When Dee heard those words sung by Rizzo (Stockard Channing) in the 1978 film Grease, she laughed. “She thought it was fun,” says former manager Arthur Friedman. It also wasn’t far from the truth. Though not always chaste onscreen (she played a pregnant teen in A Summer Place), Dee perfected a nubile, wholesome persona in frothy comedies like Gidget and Tammy Tell Me True that made her a teen icon.
Despite her perky image, Dee, who was 60 when she died Feb. 20 of complications from kidney disease, faced personal traumas from an early age. Born Alexandria Zuck in Bayonne, N.J., she began a modeling career at 8 and auditioned for movie producer Ross Hunter at 12. She later said she was sexually abused by her stepfather, whom she also blamed for making her anorexic. Her one bright light may have been Bobby Darin, the crooner she wed when he was 24 and she was 16. Their union, which produced her only child, Dodd, now 43 and a real estate developer, was volatile and lasted just seven years, but she remained devoted to Darin throughout her life.
With her career fading by the mid-’60s, Dee began a long slide into alcoholism, which Dodd helped her kick three decades later. But the drinking had taken its toll. She went on dialysis “four or five years ago,” says friend and former agent Steve Blauner. “She had so many brushes with death and always came back. She put up a good fight.”