Beautiful and talented, America's sweetheart led a sometimes sad life, yet loved to laugh

By Stephen M. Silverman
May 13, 2019 08:16 AM

Doris Day, the beautiful blonde whose sunny screen presence and silken singing voice guaranteed box-office and record-chart hits in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, has died, her rep confirms to PEOPLE. She was 97.

Day died at 1:00 A.M. on Monday at her home in California, the rep says.

The Associated Press was first to report the news, which comes nearly two months after the actress celebrated her birthday and shared a recent photo with PEOPLE.

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Although in 2012 she released a CD of songs she recorded years ago, since the early ’80s, the world’s favorite “girl next door” kept a low profile and lived on 11 acres in Carmel, California, where she devoted most of her time to her charitable organization.

Some speculated that she turned her attention to furry friends because of all the people who had disappointed her in her lifetime, though Day herself never publicly addressed the subject. Three of her four marriages ended in divorce, and her third husband (and manager) Martin Melcher died and left her broke until she sued to reclaim more than $20 million from his business partner.

RELATED: Doris Day Dies at 97: See Rare, Unearthed Photos of Hollywood Star in the Prime of Her Career

Courtesy Doris Day

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Despite her immense popularity — by the early ’60s, she was the No. 1 box-office star on the planet — Day was often greatly underrated, and, blaming her fear of flying, turned down several awards and accolades, including (it was discussed) an honorary Oscar and the Kennedy Center Honor. One prize she never lost: the unbridled love of an adoring public.

Music and movies

Born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, the daughter of a Cincinnati music teacher and a homemaker, the crystal-voiced pop soprano changed her name to Day when, as a teen, she began singing on the radio. After appearances with the Big Bands of Barney Rapp and Bob Crosby, she joined Les Brown’s Band and had her first hit with “Sentimental Journey.”

Going solo in 1947, she successfully auditioned for Warner Bros. the following year and was cast in the studio’s attempts to rival the romantic musicals that were the specialty of MGM.

Martin Mills/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

By the mid-’50s came better roles at other studios. This included what even she considered her best film, 1954’s Love Me or Leave Me, a dramatic, though highly fictionalized, biopic of ’20s singer Ruth Etting, who lived under the thumb of her short-tempered, controlling husband. (Day played down parallels between the movie’s plot and her own life.) In 1956, for Alfred Hitchcock, she co-starred with James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much, in which she introduced the Oscar-winning song that became her signature, “Que Sera Sera.”

In 1959 she was paired for the first time with Rock Hudson, in the racy romantic comedy Pillow Talk, which resulted in her one and only Best Actress Oscar nomination, and also her greatest box-office success.

Two more vehicles with Hudson (and sidekick Tony Randall) followed, as did similar comedies in which Day — sometimes as a career woman, but always squeaky clean — costarred with Cary Grant, James Garner, and Rod Taylor.

Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Loved to laugh

As the ’60s wound down, Day turned to TV, having been forced there by a contract signed by late husband Melcher without her knowledge. CBS’s 1968-73 The Doris Day Show never rose above the level of being a poor man’s Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Day herself was highly critical of it.

For Day, as she told PEOPLE in 2011, her greatest loss in life was the 2004 death (from melanoma) of her son, music producer Terry Melcher.

“I had him when I was [18], so we were like sister and brother,” said Day, who found his passing “really hard. But I keep him with me.”

The profile also pointed out that humor had always been Day’s secret weapon. “I love to laugh,” said the star who made so many others laugh and sing. “It’s the only way to live. Enjoy each day — it’s not coming back again!”

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