Learning to Live Again


She wasn’t sultry or even particularly sexy; Madonna would have had her for lunch. But when it came to budding femininity and doe-eyed vulnerability—the kind of pom-pom cuteness a boy would ask to the prom—no actress, past or present, could ever compete with Sandra Dee. During the late 1950s and early ’60s, Dee was the teen ideal, Hollywood-style—saucy yet virginal, vivacious yet demure, Doris Day writ 20 years younger. A successful model from the time she was 10 years old, she parlayed her nubile poutiness and the sweetest smile on the beach into instant stardom. As the perky headliner of such romantic comedies as Gidget and Tammy Tell Mc True, as well as the guilt-ridden good-girl-in-trouble of churning melodramas like Imitation of Life and A Summer Place, Dee was a guaranteed box office draw. In 1960 she eloped at 18 with crooner Bobby Darin, 24, whose own career was soaring thanks to hits such as “Mack the Knife” and “Splish Splash.” Her storybook life seemed complete.

The reality was nothing that the America of that time could imagine, or that Hollywood would have wanted to know. Here, for the first time, Dee candidly discusses the daunting, dark side of her private life, which led to a decades-long plunge into anorexia, drug-and-alcohol addiction—and her eventual disappearance from the public eye. As a child, she was sexually abused by her domineering stepfather; her overbearing, self-protective mother, Mary, never acknowledged the abuse—and even added to Dee’s self-loathing by encouraging her daughter to bind her prematurely developed breasts to keep her looking childlike. At age 9, in a desperate attempt to gain a measure of control over her life, Dee became defiantly anorexic, a condition that more than once nearly killed her.

Although her marriage was basically a happy one, she says, “It ended with a suddenness I still can’t explain. ” She drank heavily following her I967 divorce and more heavily still after Darin’s death, at 37, in 1973. But it wasn’t until 1988, when her mother died, that Dee hit bottom and was eventually hospitalized.

With the help of a psychotherapist and the love and support of her son, Dodd Darin, 29, Dee is making a personal comeback. Although still physically frail, she has never felt more free—or more courageous. In her light-filled, two-bedroom condo in Beverly Hills, she spoke with correspondent Todd Gold about the pain and shame her once-flawless image had hidden. “I don’t know how people are going to feel about me talking about all this,” she says. “I hope they aren’t disappointed. At least they’ll know the truth.”

Although I’ve been out of the limelight for more than 20 years, I still get dozens of autograph requests every month. About six months ago, though. I received a letter that read, “If only I could live your life….” That’s when I decided enough was enough. The Sandra Dee I was promoting was a creation of Hollywood. It was a lie I no longer wanted to support.

I was born Alexandra Zuck in Bayonne. N.J., in 1942. My real father was a drunk. My mother, who was only 18 years old when she had me, divorced him before I turned 5. I never saw him again. My mother worked as a secretary, and everything was great until the third grade, when something freaky happened to me. I developed a bust. Within a couple of years I was a size 34D, and I was mortified. My mother suggested taping myself up. I realize now that she never wanted me to grow up. So she dressed me in little velvet dresses with my chest taped underneath.

In 1950 my mother married Eugene Douvan. He owned buildings around New York City and was 40 years older than she was. He used to say, “I’m not marrying your mother. I’m marrying both of you.” I loved that man, but he was like two people. While my mother was dating him, he began fondling me. After they got married, it got worse. I went with them on their honeymoon to Atlantic City. After a movie we went back to our hotel, and we all got in bed together. He had me sleep in the middle. That became the routine. My dad got me to have sex with him. I didn’t understand what was going on. I was a child. By the time I was 11, I knew it wasn’t right. But what could I do, tell my mother? I figured she knew.

The shame I felt was awful. I used to tell myself, “That’s a stranger who’s doing this to me.” That’s how I rationalized it. I said it didn’t matter, that I didn’t care. But it does matter. And I do care. It just took me 30 years to feel the full impact and confront the truth.

One day not long after they were married, my mother and dad and I went out for breakfast. Afterward my dad patted my stomach and said, “Whoops, too many pancakes.” I was horrified. My dad’s remark was said in jest, but it bothered me. I was already sensitive about the way I looked, and I suddenly thought I wasn’t perfect in his and my mother’s eyes. From that day on, I did everything I could to destroy my body. I ate almost nothing but lettuce one entire year. The next year I had nothing but broiled shrimp. My mother tried to get me to eat. We had screaming, tortured fights. But I was adamant. If I couldn’t control my body or my brassiere size, I could control what I put in my mouth.

When I was 10, we moved from Long Island to Manhattan. Because we traveled a lot, I was enrolled in the Professional Children’s School, made up mostly of kids who were performers, which let me have a flexible schedule. After school the kids used to go out on auditions, and they urged me to tag along. The first time I went out, a woman asked me to appear each month in the Girl Scouts magazine. Soon after, I signed with a modeling agency. I worked all the time. One year, when I was 14, I made over $70,000.

In 1956 my stepfather died during surgery to correct a heart condition. I was devastated. A few days later, in the middle of his wake, I got a call from my agent that producer Ross Hunter wanted to meet me. I traipsed over to the interview in jeans and a sweatshirt, all black. I didn’t care. I didn’t know who he was. I read a few lines of a script and thought I would never hear from him again. But six weeks later, he had me flown out to Hollywood to test for The Restless Years, and my movie career was launched. Universal Studios signed me to a seven-year contract, and my mother and I moved to California. I was immediately loaned out to MGM for Until They Sail. I got to work with stars like Paul Newman and Jean Simmons. It turned out to be one of the best films I ever made.

I was already anorexic when I arrived in Hollywood. I was 5’5″ and weighed about 90 lbs. The studio worried about me. They’d always ask, “Did you eat?” But I wanted to be thin. Then someone told me that I could eat and not get fat if I went to this woman, an exercise teacher, in the Valley. She told me about Epsom salts. Eat food, drink a little Epsom salts and throw up. I started with two ounces of salts. When that stopped working after a few months. I increased the amount. Finally one day I took eight ounces. My mother found me unconscious on the bathroom floor. I was rushed to UCLA Medical Center in cardiac distress. It turned out that the Epsom salts had depleted my body of potassium.

My anorexia caught up with me again before I finished at MGM. During rehearsal one day, I was sitting on a chair and suddenly my pants were splitting. I couldn’t bend my knee. Within hours I went from 90 lbs. to 105 lbs. It was severe edema caused by a lack of protein. My mother and a doctor fed me red meat around the clock. After I was married I suffered six miscarriages. A doctor later told me that they were due to the horrible way I treated my body.

My first year and a half in Hollywood I did three films. Then in 1959 I was in Gidget, Imitation of Life and A Summer Place. After that I was a star. It was fun. But it was my mother who really loved all my acclaim. She was in her glory—until I met the dreaded Bobby Darin.

It happened in 1960 in Portofino, Italy, on the set of Come September, which paired Bobby and me with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida. Right after we were introduced, Bobby made an announcement. He said, “I’m going to marry you someday.” I wanted to die. I truly didn’t like this person. The director worried about my being able to work with him and spoke to my mother. She forced me to go out with Bobby. On our first date he rented a horse-drawn carriage, and we rode around and talked. I got home at 9:30. My mother was livid. She didn’t figure on my having a good time without her.

It turned out Bobby was bright and a whole lot of fun. By the end of the picture, eight weeks later, I knew the relationship was serious. We were an odd couple. I was mature but naive, and I’d never dated before. He was almost six years older than I was, a swinging bachelor. He liked my looks and the idea of protecting me. But we were in love.

When I returned to New York City at the end of October, Bobby gave me a ring, a flawless seven-carat diamond. When my mother found out we were planning to get married, she was furious. She scooped up my two dogs, my only friends, and zoomed away. I didn’t hear from her for two months. She went back to her family in Bayonne. She wasn’t at our wedding, which took place around 3 in the morning on Dec. 1, 1960, in the home of a Camden, N.J., night judge. I wore a purple velvet dress and an otter coat, and the judge’s family threw bagels.

During our courtship, being close with Bobby was easy. I thought I had blocked out the abuse, but on my wedding night it all came back. I was scared. I sat on the couch for 12 hours in my coat. Bobby finally went to bed. I didn’t tell him about my stepfather until after we were divorced. I didn’t want him to look at me as if I were dirty. He didn’t. When I told him, he cried.

Before we were married, Bobby sent me 18 yellow roses every day. He even wrote a song called 18 Yellow Roses. As soon as we were married, the roses stopped. There was no lover anymore, just a husband. We honeymooned in Palm Springs in a home Bobby bought so he could be near his buddy Jackie Cooper. After three days I had to go to work. I’d fly back on weekends, wanting to see my husband, and he’d be playing poker with the guys. The third time that happened, I threw my ring at him. Then he begged forgiveness, and all was fine until the next time.

My life had changed so abruptly. I had to learn about marriage, career and managing a house that seemed always to be filled with Bobby’s band and entourage. I had no friends of my own. I was completely isolated. Then, to complicate matters, I became pregnant. I lost the baby, but the experience brought my mother and me together again. She moved back to California. A month later I became pregnant again, and on Dec. 16, 1961, our son, Dodd, was born. I had no intention of going back to work. I wanted to be a mother. But my mother, Bobby and Universal had other ideas. They all knew that if they put Bobby and me in the same movie, he’d convince me to do it, which is exactly what happened. We were both cast in If a Man Answers.

On the set, I looked like hell. I felt worse. I was depressed about returning to work. I called my doctor and said, “I don’t have the energy to move. Give me a happy pill.” The pills, dexa-somethings, made me feel so good I zipped through the day. When I got home I didn’t want to take care of the baby, I wanted to go out. The only thing that would bring me down was a drink. That cycle went on for 2½ years. It never interfered with my career, but to Bobby I was different. Finally, he got so mad he took the pills to a pharmacy, found out they were speed and threw them out. I continued drinking to get off the speed and then as a way to deal with the dissatisfaction of our marriage. I’ve always had a problem saying what I feel for fear of having someone dislike me. So I took a drink and got the guts.

In 1963 Bobby quit show business. He idolized John F. Kennedy, and after his death. Bobby didn’t see the meaning of performing anymore. Instead, he ran his music publishing company. He started Wayne Newton off, and he continued to write songs. I had a clause in my contract that got me home by 7 o’clock. His entourage was gone. I grew up a little more. It was a good life. But Bobby had a cold streak in him. He could turn you off like a light switch. After nearly seven years of marriage, he did that to me.

I remember it clearly. It was April 23, 1966, my 24th birthday. We were at a party, and I was talking to Warren Beatty about our doing a film together. It was all very nothing. But it was the first time Bobby observed me with a handsome man who had a reputation in Hollywood. Bobby saw me as a woman capable of making decisions on my own, and I think he got scared. When I got home from work the next day, his clothes were gone. I didn’t know what happened. A few days later a friend called to say Bobby wasn’t returning.

The divorce became final in December 1967, but Bobby kept coming back. And always with an illness. They were never serious—just an excuse to stay over, I thought. That’s why I didn’t believe him a few years later when he got so sick. He’d had an irregular heartbeat that developed because of childhood bouts of rheumatic fever. Finally, in early 1971, he had heart surgery to replace two valves.

His condition began deteriorating again in October 1973. and in December he was operated on for congestive heart failure. He never recovered. He died on Dec. 20. I hadn’t been interested in working for years, but Bobby’s death took the wind right out of me. Afterward I didn’t even want to be seen.

Dodd looked to me for support, but I was weak myself. I wanted to be a child, and my mother was only too willing to take care of me. We lived in separate homes, but she spent virtually the whole day with me. She’d get jealous when her friends wanted to spend time with me. After a while I got to the point where I was suffocating. I loved my mother, but it was just hell to be her child.

To combat my misery, I drank. Wine and scotch. By myself. I had panic attacks. I couldn’t eat. I should have gotten help, but my mother wouldn’t let me. She lived in fear of people discovering the truth. No one ever did. In public I never drank more than a glass of wine. But when I was alone, it was a different story. Only my mother and my son ever saw me drunk.

One night I couldn’t control the pressure any longer. My mother and I were at home with a few of her close friends, and she started eulogizing my stepfather. I was slowly getting more and more irate. Finally I said, “Mom, shut up. A saint he wasn’t.” My mother started defending him, and I said, “Well, guess what your saint did to me? He had sex with me.”

My mother was shocked, then angry. I knew I hurt her. I wanted to. I had so much anger toward her for not doing something to help me. But she ignored me, and the subject never came up again. I realize now that my mother erased the abuse from her own mind. It didn’t exist, so she didn’t have to feel guilty.

In December 1988 my mother died of lung cancer. I died too. I couldn’t function. I didn’t know how to write a check. I didn’t know where the phone company was. I’d been sheltered beyond belief. All the people I loved were now gone. I was mad, angry and, most of all, sad. I missed her. So I drank. I could put away a quart and a half a day easy.

My mother had asked to be cremated. During her service, I was at home, drinking. I didn’t go outside for nearly four months and lived off my savings. I subsisted on soup, crackers and scotch. My weight dropped to 80 lbs. I couldn’t walk. I was afraid to get out of bed. My mind was completely fragmented. Dodd pleaded with me to get help. When I started throwing up blood, he got a doctor who forced me to go to the hospital. I stayed a week. The only reason they let me out was that I promised to see a psychiatrist. I’ve been going ever since.

I haven’t had a drink in a year now. I’ve wanted to, but the urge gets less and less. My kid calls me every morning. He lives in L.A. and owns an educational book publishing company. He’s a nice boy. I couldn’t have made it without him. I’m feeling better. My therapist has been the key. When I faced him, it was the first time in my life I’d said anything to a stranger about the abuse. I was sober. Goddamn, if I didn’t feel relief.

These days I live like a nun. I work out. I still weigh only 88 lbs.; I’m trying to put on 12 more. I’m also learning how to get along on my own. For three years I barely left my house. Now I have a checklist of things I want to do. I haven’t been out to dinner for three years. I’d love to do that. But I’m still scared of what will happen if drinks are offered.

I also want to do a television series. Why? Because I want a family. I can have that if I’m part of a show. In real life I have my mother’s sister, Aunt Olga, and my uncle Peter, that’s it. I’d never told them my story, but I knew I would have to before I went public. So a couple of weeks ago I called them. After I told them what I was going to say, Aunt Olga said, “Sandy, you haven’t done anything wrong. You have nothing to be ashamed of. Hold your head up high.” For the first time, I’m realizing she’s right. I’m no longer living for the studio, my mother, Bobby. Not even for Dodd. I respect myself now. And I no longer have to be frightened of what other people are going to think of me.

Related Articles