As It Happens

Doris Day turned to animal rights activism to find 'unconditional love,' says biographer

Doris Day biographer Tom Santopietro remembers the star as a "very genuine, loving person" who stayed optimistic through years of heartbreak.

The all-American movie star with the golden voice has died at age 97

American actor Doris Day poses on a red Schwinn bicycle, late 1950s. Day died on Monday at the age of 97. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images) (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)


She was America's girl next door, in what's often referred to as a "simpler time." Except, of course, that it wasn't simple at all — as Doris Day herself later said. 

American actress and singer Doris Day died Monday at her home in Carmel, Calif., at the age of 97

Day is widely considered one of the top box-office stars in Hollywood history — even though she had been out of the limelight for decades.     

Tom Santopietro, who wrote a 2007 biography called Considering Doris Day, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the star's enduring legacy and how she stayed optimistic in the face of so many heartbreaks.

Here is part of their conversation.

What do you think it was about Doris Day that appealed to the movie-going public so much?

She had that one-in-a-million singing voice. It was such an intimate singing voice. And then it turned out she was so at ease in front of the camera. Audiences felt comfortable with Doris Day. And then they realized that she had this range, where she could do silly musicals or serious dramas.

And I think what topped it off is the fact that she was really well liked by both men and women. And that's what makes a huge movie star.

The image of her that we all know is of this very wholesome all-American, girl next door — though she eventually made clear that this was a complete piece of mythology, wasn't it?

It was a piece of mythology. What was genuine was that she had a wholesome personality and [was] very optimistic — a really positive person.

Where it was a mythology was people mistaking that image on screen with her personal life. Because Doris Day had a very difficult personal life. And what fascinated me is that after all of the bad marriages and the difficulties, she still always saw life with the glass half full. 

She was married four times, I believe, and three of those marriages ended in divorce. Even the marriage that did survive was troubled financially, wasn't it?

Yes, this is where she had such difficulty. Her first husband beat her while she was pregnant. And the second husband said, "I don't want to be Mr. Doris Day." And it was her third husband to whom you're referring. And it was very sad because they were married for 20 years. And after he died she discovered that, in cahoots with a crooked lawyer, he had stolen her money.

I think [it] was part of the reason she became this enormously influential animal rights activist. Because she said, from the animals there's nothing but unconditional love.

There was one relationship that's quite famous and quite lovely, and that was her friendship with her co-star Rock Hudson, a man who came out as being gay and then died of AIDS. She stayed with him the whole time, didn't she?

She did, the whole time. And this of course is who Doris Day was — this very genuine, loving person. And so when Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS, Doris had a cable TV show at the time and she wanted him on this show, and he really wanted to appear for her sake. And it was a shocking appearance, because he was so sick.

This is back in the '80s; he was the first celebrity where we learned he had AIDS. And people were — it was like they were scared of saying the word, let alone touching anybody with AIDS. And there's Doris Day on camera hugging her friend, because that's all that mattered to her.

And probably an even larger loss for Doris Day was the death of her son Terry Melcher. What effect did that have on her?

Oh, it was really difficult for her. Even more than being mother and son, their relationship was really that of friends. And so when all of the financial impropriety came to light, her son put his own successful record producing career on hold and literally devoted years to helping his mother straighten out her financial mess.

And so it was just this enormously loving relationship, which was more difficult when she was at the height of her Hollywood career because she wasn't there all the time. And it grew in depth as they both got older.

Is [her rendition of Que Sera, Sera] your best memory of Doris Day?

Que Sera, Sera is a great choice, because it became her theme song. At first she thought, "Oh this sounds like a nursery rhyme. I don't know if I want to sing this." And then she came to embrace the philosophy in the song.

It really helped her deal with all the ups and downs of her career and life, and how she remained optimistic.

Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Account Holder

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?