Over the 20 years that movie star Doris Day was a box-office favorite, she made a happy ending her trademark. If she didn’t always leave them laughing, at least they were smiling, secure in the knowledge that freckle-faced innocence was inviolate. Those slick and lavishly produced films of the ’50s and early ’60s earned Doris Day somewhere near $20 million.
But in real life that same innocence proved a financial trap. Much like the dutiful wife she projected on the screen, Doris Day concentrated on her work, leaving the handling of the family finances to her third husband and manager, Martin Melcher. He, in turn, entrusted their blooming empire to longtime business associate and legal adviser, Jerome B. Rosenthal—whose clients included such other Hollywood notables as Ross Hunter, Van Johnson, Gordon MacRae and Ava Gardner.
After Melcher died suddenly in 1968, Miss Day’s son by her first marriage, Terry, now 32 and a recording executive, met with Rosenthal to review the estate—and concluded that his mother had been defrauded over two decades. “I trusted my husband,” Doris explains. “Most wives do. But you’d be surprised how many men don’t know how to handle finances either.”
With her son’s urging, she went to court. After 13 suits that dragged on six years, an ecstatic Doris Day, whose theme song has been Que Será, Será, found another happy ending, this time scripted by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Lester E. Olson. Last month the judge, after briefly admonishing her for her naïveté awarded Miss Day the staggering sum of $22.8 million. The judge had some pretty good lines himself. He thundered that Rosenthal’s handling of her estate “stinks to high heaven,” that his conduct as an attorney was “outrageous, fraudulent and malicious,” and his demands for payment were often “tantamount to extortion.”
Sitting by the backyard swimming pool of her modest Beverly Hills ranch-style house, a trim and still freckle-faced Doris Day, now 50, was enjoying her victory: “It’s been my own little Watergate and I’m glad it’s over.” She considered the litigation a moral issue. “I really don’t know how much I will actually realize from this,” she concedes. “People think you walk out of the courtroom with a check in hand, but that isn’t what happens at all.” (According to her new lawyer, Robert Winslow, she can expect to collect at least $4 million—the amount covered by Rosenthal’s malpractice insurance. Rosenthal is appealing the decision.)
In semiretirement since the Doris Day Show went off the air last year, she is now planning to go back to work. She will record an album for her son’s company, Equinox Records, do two TV specials for CBS and make a film early next year. Her legal battles have not daunted Pollyanna’s spirits either. “I never lose faith. Sometimes, when things are really blackest, nice things happen. That’s where you get your strength. Que será, será.”