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The Truth About Doris Day, America’s Quintessential Girl Next Door

By: Calla Conway | Last updated: Sep 19, 2022

Doris Day, one of the most popular actresses during Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age,” stood out even among other stars of her time. She was known for her natural elegance and wholesome, vivacious personality. Her charm and femininity made her the embodiment of the perfect woman throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

However, Day’s on-screen persona belied her personal life, one that was filled with tragedy and heartbreak. Nevertheless, Day – who famously performed the song “Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be)” in the 1956 Alfred Hitchcock movie The Man Who Knew Too Much – kept her chin up and pressed on, living her life to the fullest until her death in 2019 at the age of 97. Read on as we uncover some truths about Doris Day, America’s quintessential “girl next door.”

She Was Named After A Song

How fitting that a pop idol with 21 Billboard Top 10 hits would be named for a song. 

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Born Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff, the young singer earned her shorter, sunnier stage name from band leader Barney Rapp, who dug her take on “Day After Day.”

Day’s Birth Year Was 2 Years Off

In recent years Day got what would be the shock of her life. When celebrating what she thought was her 93 birthday she actually discovered it was her 95 birthday.

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The Associated Press managed to unearth Day’s original birth certificate from the Ohio’s Office of Vital Statistics. The discovered the person named Doris Mary Ann Kappelhoff (Day’s given birth-name) was born on April 3, 1922. For her whole life Day thought she was born in 1924.

Doris Day’s Family

Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff was born on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father, Frederic Wilhelm Von Kappelhoff, was a music teacher, choirmaster, and church organist who had a deep appreciation for classical music. 

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Day’s mother, Alma Sophia Welz, was an outgoing woman who loved listening to country music. Welz named her daughter after Doris Kenyon, an actress who she greatly admired. Day was the youngest of three children.

Doris Day’s Grandparents Were Immigrants

All four of Day’s grandparents immigrated from Germany to America in the late 1870’s. On Day’s mother’s side, both her grandfather, Wilhelm Welz, and her grandmother, Anna Christina Mann immigrated from Baden- southern Germany.

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Day’s paternal grandfather Franz Josef Wilhelm Kappelhoff was born in Warendorf, a small town near Münster in Westphalia. Her paternal grandmother Juliana Agnes Kreimer was born in Glandorf (formally the Kingdom of Hanover). Franz Kappelhoff arrived in Cincinnati in 1875 with Juliana. Juliana had recently come into some money which made the move to America possible.

A Tragic Childhood

Day experienced many setbacks throughout her life, some of which happened when she was young. As a child, Day witnessed her parents struggle to cope with the loss of their first child, Richard, who died before Day was even born. Her father also had numerous affairs, which put a strain on her parents’ marriage.

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Day’s parents ultimately separated when the future Hollywood star was a teenager. In 1937, Day broke her right leg in a car accident, forcing her to abandon her dream of becoming a professional dancer.

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New Talent Discovered

However, this traumatic incident would turn out to be a blessing in disguise. As Day was recovering from the accident, she discovered her love for singing. During this time, Day would spend countless hours listening to the radio, sometimes singing along with the likes of Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald.

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After receiving voice lessons, Day successfully landed a gig on the radio show Carlin’s Carnival, which aired on the radio network WLW. Things were finally looking up for her!

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Doris Day’s Innocent Image

Day’s acting career began during the Golden Age of Hollywood, which lasted from the 1910s up until the 1960s. At the time, she was seen as a more innocent alternative to the vampish Marilyn Monroe. In the media, Day was constantly painted as a woman many men would be delighted to marry.

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Monroe, on the other hand, was largely viewed as the type of woman that men just wanted to seduce. Day seemed to relish the opportunity to live up to her wholesome image, at least on camera.

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Doris Day’s Duality

During the 1950s and early 1960s, Day delighted audiences around the world with movie roles that allowed her to display her innate singing ability and sense of humor. Some of her more notable films include Calamity Jane (1953), The Pajama Game (1957), and Pillow Talk (1959), for which she received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

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However, away from the glitz and glamor of Hollywood, the quintessential girl next door was a completely different person. Day lived a life that was far more tragic than anyone could have ever imagined.

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Her Big Break

Fortunately for Day, one of the show’s avid listeners was a bandleader named Barney Rapp. Rapp, impressed with what he had heard, reached out to Day – who was then known as Doris Kappelhoff – and asked her to be in his band.

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This opportunity set the budding performer well on her way to becoming a household name. After changing her last name to something more recognizable, the future star would go on to collaborate with the likes of Bob Crosby, Jimmy James, and Les Brown.

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An Unhappy Marriage

In March of 1941, when Day was in her late teens, she married Al Jorden a trombonist whom she had met while performing with Barney Rapp and his band. Unfortunately, their marriage would turn out to be less than ideal.

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Jorden was a violently abusive schizophrenic who at one point came dangerously close to killing the couple’s unborn child. When Jorden discovered that Day was pregnant, he ordered her to get an abortion. When she refused, he attacked her.

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Her First Divorce

Fortunately, Day’s unborn child was not harmed during the incident. Day later claimed that Jorden would repeatedly attack her during her pregnancy to force a miscarriage. In February of 1941, the couple’s son, Terrence “Terry” Paul Jorden, was born.

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Day and Jorden divorced just a year after Terry was born. Jordan, who had dealt with mental health issues for years, would take his own life in 1967. Day, however, reportedly didn’t grieve much upon hearing the news of his death.

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The Love Of Her Life

After divorcing her first husband, Day found a new love of her life in the previously married couples son, Terry. Day was only 19 years old when she had her first and only son, so the two reportedly shared a very close bond.

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Day would often bring her son on set while she was working and made sure her first priority always remained her son.

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Doris' Son Became A Music Producer

Day’s only child, Terry followed in his mother’s musical footsteps. With his mother’s encouragement, Terry recorded his first demo in 1961, which earned him a spot in Columbia Records producer-trainee program. Although his two solo-albums were unsuccessful, Terry made a name for himself by producing music.

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Terry is credited with helping “shape Los Angeles pop into the California sound.” As a producer, he helped shape groups like the folk-rock band the Byrds (originally, The Jet Set) and Revere & the Raiders.

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Doris Day’s Success as a Singer

Day found great success as a singer. “Sentimental Journey,” a song that she recorded in 1945, became her first hit. However, it was Day’s rendition of the popular jazz song “Embraceable You” that helped propel her career to the next level.

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During this time, Day also recorded a slew of family-friendly songs that made it to the Billboard Top Ten, including “Till the End of Time,” “I Got the Sun in the Mornin’,” and “My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time.”

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Her Acting Debut

Songwriters Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne were so captivated by Day’s voice that they suggested that she be considered for a role in Michael Curtiz’s 1948 musical romantic comedy Romance on the High Seas. Day was cast as Georgia Garrett despite having no previous acting experience.

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Day’s decision to take the plunge turned out to be a good one. Both the movie and its key song, “It’s Magic,” became huge hits, paving the way for a successful career on the big screen.

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A Second Chance At Love

Three years after Day’s divorce from Jorden, she married another musician. This time, she said “I do” to George William Weidler, a saxophone player who was the older brother of actress Virginia Weidler.

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Unfortunately, Day’s second marriage didn’t last much longer than her previous one. By 1949, the actress had become a single mother yet again. After her divorce from Weidler, Day reportedly expressed her interest to return to her mother’s home in Cincinnati, where she lived after her parents had separated.

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The Quintessential Girl Next Door

At this point, Day was well on her way to establishing herself as the quintessential girl next door. She perfected her sugar-sweet image by starring in sentimental musicals such as Tea for Two (1950), On Moonlight Bay (1951), and I’ll See You In My Dreams (1951).

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I’ll See You In My Dreams, a biography of famed American lyricist Gus Kahn, was a record-breaking box-office hit. Then, in 1953, Day landed what would perhaps be the most important role of her career.

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Day Finally Found The One

Day appeared to have finally found “the one” in 1951 when she married movie producer Martin Melcher. Melcher, became Day’s manager, and adopted Day’s son Terry. He even gave Terry his last name, Melcher. 

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Over the course of their 17 year relationship, from the outside looking in Day and Melcher seemed to have a happy marriage. It wouldn’t be until years later day would figure out the shocking truth. 

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Calamity Jane

The western-themed musical Calamity Jane was one of Day’s most successful projects. She cemented her position in Hollywood history with her whip-cracking performance as the titular character. The movie is loosely based on the life of Wild West heroine Martha Jane Cannary.

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“Secret Love,” one of the most famous songs from the movie, won an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Day’s lucky streak continued after that, too, with successful movie musicals such as Lucky Me (1954) and Young at Heart (1955), in which she starred alongside Frank Sinatra.

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More Than Just a Musical-Comedy Actress

However, Day was eager to prove that she was more than just a musical-comedy actress. In 1955, she took on a more dramatic role as singer Ruth Etting in the 1955 musical drama Love Me or Leave Me, which became a critical and commercial success.

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A year later, Day worked with famed director Alfred Hitchcock and actor James Stewart in the suspense thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much. That same year, Day starred in the film noir Julie alongside Louis Jourdan and Barry Sullivan.

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She At First Refused To Sing "Que Sera, Sera"

The immortal song was written for the director’s 1956 thriller The Man Who Knew Too Much, which cast Day opposite Jimmy Stewart. Day initially refused to sing the number, deeming it a “children’s song.”

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 Under studio pressure, she reportedly did it in one take and remarked, “That’s the last time you’ll ever hear that song.” The rest is history — and “Que Sera, Sera” became the theme song to her television series.

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Her First Oscar Nomination

In 1959, Day co-starred with Rock Hudson in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk. Day received her first – and, quite shockingly, her last – Academy Award nomination for her role as the successful interior decorator Jan Morrow in the movie.

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Day and Hudson had amazing on-screen chemistry, and audiences couldn’t get enough of them. The pair would go on to co-star in other romantic comedies like Lover Come Back (1961) and Send Me No Flowers (1964). They also maintained a decades-long friendship that lasted until Hudson’s death in 1985.

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Rock Hudson Used A Sling To Help Carry Day

The famous scene in which Rock Hudson carries Doris Day in her pajamas down the street was taxing on the leading man. Multiple takes carrying a person around would tire out anyone.

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The crew devised a hidden harness that hung from Hudson’s shoulders to distribute the load. Some claim you can spot the rigging in fleeting moments of the scene.

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Top Female Star of Her Time

By the early 1960s, Day seemed unstoppable. Her performances in comedies and romantic comedies such as Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (1960), That Touch of Mink (1962), and Move Over, Darling (1963) solidified her position as the era’s top female star.

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The latter movie’s theme song, “Move Over Darling,” co-written by Day’s son, went on to become one of her signature songs. However, Day’s success wouldn’t last. In just a few years, her reign as a box office queen would come to a screeching halt.

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Maintaining Her Image

In the late 1960s, Day was offered several prominent roles that would have helped change how audiences perceived her, but she turned them all down. 

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In one of her published memoirs, Day wrote that she rejected the role on moral grounds, adding that she found the movie’s script vulgar and offensive. The role would eventually be played by Anne Bancroft. Day, it seemed, wanted to maintain her innocent image.

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Mrs. Robinson?

In 1967, Day turned down the chance to play Mrs. Roberson in the Oscar-winning movie The Graduate starring Dustin Hoffman.

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Day’s chaste image might have been very different had she taken the role of Hoffman’s temptress in the classic film.

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Her Career Started to Fall

As the baby boomer generation’s counter-culture movement gained popularity, people’s attitudes about sex began to change. Consequently, audiences began to grow tired of Day’s innocent and nostalgic movies. Times were changing, but Day’s movies failed to adapt.

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Furthermore, Day’s portrayal of clean-cut, chaste characters led to some critics labeling her as “The World’s Oldest Virgin.” After the release of the romantic comedy The Glass Bottom Boat in 1966, Day’s fortunes began to change, and she would never again achieve the same level of success that she had previously had.

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A Tragic Death

Unfortunately, and very unexpectedly, Martin Melcher passed away on April 20, 1968, at the age of 52. According to Day’s 1975 autobiography, Melcher’s physician informed her that he had suffered from an enlarged heart resulting in his sudden passing.

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It wasn’t until the unexpected death of her husband that Day realized just how many shocking secrets her late husband had been keeping from her.

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Melcher’s Secret

Unbeknownst to Day, Melcher had been squandering her hard-earned money behind her back during their marriage. In her memoir, Day wrote that it was her son Terry who told her what her late husband had been up to. However, the terrible news didn’t stop there.

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To her horror, Day learned that not only had her late husband wasted $20 million, but he’d also left her deeply in debt as a result. Furthermore, it appears that both Frank Sinatra and James Garner had long-held suspicions about Day’s spouse and his spending habits.

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Getting Her Fortune Back

Understandably, Day decided to try and recover some of the money that Melcher had frittered away. She did so by suing Jerome “Jerry” B. Rosenthal, a lawyer who had been her late husband’s business associate. Rosenthal had also been Day’s attorney during her second divorce proceedings.

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The court ultimately ruled in favor of the actress and was awarded nearly $23 million after a 99-day trial, though she would not receive a single penny until 1979. Terry would later claim that his mother wasn’t even paid the full amount.

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Day’s Disappointment

Moreover, Day was dismayed to discover that Melcher had signed her name to a contract to star in a sitcom The Doris Day Show without her consent. Melcher had also received a large advance to cover production costs, but the money had already been spent before filming could even begin.

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In a 1996 interview with OK! magazine, Day shared that she had been in a terrible state of health following Melcher’s death. She also found the idea of going into television before she could fully recover too “overpowering.”

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Her Mental Health Struggles

Day not only suffered financially and professionally as a result of Melcher’s actions but she also suffered mentally and emotionally. As it turned out, her third spouse was a highly demanding person who would drive her to keep working to the point of exhaustion.

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Day began experiencing mental health issues during their marriage as a result, and her condition only seemed to get worse as time wore on. While filming the movie Calamity Jane, for instance, the actress would regularly battle against panic attacks.

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The Dorris Day Show

After appearing in the 1968 romantic comedy With Six You Get Eggroll, Day decided to quit acting in movies. However, she did not completely abandon the entertainment industry altogether, as she would go on to star in her own sitcom, The Doris Day Show, on CBS. 

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Day also hosted several small-screen specials on television throughout The Dorris Day Show’s run.  The show was originally broadcast on CBS from September 1968 until March 1973. The show remained on air for five seasons and 128 episodes.

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Denver Pyle Played Her Dad

Actor and director Denver Pyle played the role of Buck Webb, on the The Doris Day ShowPyle who portrayed Day’s father was only a couple years older than the star.

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THE DORIS DAY SHOW cast members Doris Day (as Doris Martin) and Denver Pyle (as Buck Webb) for episode: 'The Prizefighter and The Lady'. Neg dated October 8, 1969. Image code: 36758, r2, fr12a. Copyright CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. Credit: CBS Photo Archive.

Pyle is perhaps best known as Jesse on The Dukes of Hazzard. The actor was born on Christmas Day in 1920, only two years before Day was born. 

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Involvement in a Murder Investigation

A year after Melcher’s death, Day found herself unwittingly involved in one of the most high-profile murder investigations of the decade. In 1968, cult leader Charles Manson, an aspiring musician, auditioned for Day’s son, Terry, at his house at 10050 Cielo Drive. Terry refused to sign Manson and later cut ties with him, a move that angered Manson.

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In 1969, five people were found murdered at 10050 Cielo Drive. Manson had allegedly sent members of his cult to murder Terry. By that point, however, Terry and his girlfriend, actress Candice Bergen, had already moved out of that house.

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Doris Day: Her Own Story

In January of 1975 Day released a book. Dorris Day: Her Own Story was an autobiography in collaboration with author A.E. Hotchner. For the first time, Day told the story behind all the headlines.

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Day was able to open up and discuss many things she never told anyone before and the book was well received because of her transparency and honesty.

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Day’s Fourth Marriage

Day’s tumultuous love life continued after her marriage to Barry Comden in April of 1976. Comden, who worked as a head waiter at one of Day’s favorite restaurants, wooed the actress by giving her meat scraps and bones for her dogs as she walked out the door.

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Unfortunately, the marriage did not last. By April of 1982, Day would become a four-time divorcee. Comden would later claim that his ex-wife had expressed a greater interest in animals than she did with him.

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A Far-From-Perfect Life

As one might expect Day’s time in the spotlight  led most to believe she was Hollywood’s quintessential “girl next door”. However, while the star’s life may have appeared to be picture-perfect on screen, things were different in reality.

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To the public, Day was a woman who seemed to have it all. She was a highly successful singer and actress with many fans supporting her. Away from the spotlight, however, Day lived a life that was far from perfect.

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Doris Day’s Return

The actress ultimately returned to the limelight in 1985 to host her own talk show Doris Day’s Best Friends, which aired on the Christian Broadcasting Network. However, the show was canceled after just 26 episodes. Nevertheless, Day wasn’t entirely forgotten in subsequent years.

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In 1989, she was awarded the highly-coveted Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes.  In the 1990s, a greatest hits compilation and a feature on the soundtrack to the Australian movie Strictly Ballroom helped introduce Day and her music to an entirely new audience.

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More Awards

Day continued to maintain her prominence in the aughts. In 2008, she was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for her contributions to music, followed by a third Grammy Hall of Fame Award four years later.

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The retired actress seemed to have little interest in getting an honorary Oscar, however. In fact, she had reportedly turned down offers from the Academy on multiple occasions, perhaps indicating that she preferred her movie career to remain in the past.

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An Unexpected Hit

In 2011, at 89 years old, Day scored an unexpected top ten hit in the United Kingdom. The release of a collection of previously unreleased tunes, titled My Heart, saw the star become the oldest-ever artist to accomplish such a feat.

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Four years later, Day was approached by her neighbor Clint Eastwood about making a comeback by appearing in one of his movies.  However, the actress – who by that point had no interest in reviving her movie career graciously declined this offer.

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Day's Personal Life

Day planted her roots in Carmel, California. She wanted to be far away from the industry that made her a household name and live the rest of her time doing what she loved.

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After her fourth and final marriage ended, Day decided to devote much of her time and energy to supporting various animal charities and foundations. 

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An Animal Welfare Activist

Beyond the entertainment industry, Day was an animal welfare activist. She founded Actors and Others for Animals in 1971, and the Doris Day Animal Foundation seven years later. In 2011, she co-founded the Doris Day Horse Rescue and Adoption Center in Murchison, Texas.

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Day also played a key role in the establishment of the annual Spay Day USA. In 2004, Day was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President George W. Bush for her contributions to the entertainment industry and for her work in promoting animal rights.

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A Devastating Loss

She was assisted by her son, Terry, who worked as an executive of the Doris Day Animal Foundation. Day and Terry also co-owned a small hotel, the Cypress Inn, in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

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In November of 2004, Terry passed away at his home at the age of 62 following a long battle with melanoma. Day, who had a close relationship with her son, was left devastated.

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Her Favorite Movie Role

In an unexpected turn of events, the Hollywood legend, who preferred to live a more reclusive lifestyle in her later years, agreed to be interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter in April of 2019, not long after her 97th birthday. 

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When asked about her favorite movie role, Day revealed that it had been the lead role in Calamity Jane. Day shared that she was a tomboy growing up, which made Jane a fun character to play. She also praised the music from the movie, describing “Secret Love” as “a beautiful song.”

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A True Friend Until The End

Terry’s death wasn’t the only significant death that Day had to endure in her later years. 19 years earlier, her former on-screen partner and longtime friend Rock Hudson became the first major celebrity to die from AIDS. Hudson died in his sleep at his home in Beverly Hills, California in October of 1985, just a few weeks before his 60th birthday.

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The former matinée idol also kept his sexuality a secret throughout his career, and it was only after his death that his sexual orientation was revealed to the public. The actress was praised by the gay community for staying by her friend’s side during a period when fear of AIDS was at an all-time high, and when people who had AIDS were shunned by society.

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Day Had An Active Social Life

Day had undoubtedly experienced many tragedies and heartbreaking losses throughout her life. However, despite her absence from the entertainment world for many years, the actress was far from being the emotionally traumatized recluse that she was often painted as.

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On the contrary, Doris Day led a highly active social life right up until her passing. She had also been actively involved in various animal welfare activities and charities and would regularly make appearances at charity events.

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Day Briefly Dated Ronald Reagan

In her autobiography, Day dishes that she briefly dated Ronald Regan before he became the president. The two starred together in the 1952 movie “The Winning Team.”

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Ronald Reagan and Doris Day in "The Winning Team" 1952 Warner Bros. ** B.D.M.

Day relayed that Reagan was a skilled dancer and told a biographer he had a “political personality” because he was engaging and strong, Day dated Reagan prior to becoming involved with her agent, Marty Melcher (her third marriage.)

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A Fear Of Flying

Despite playing a flight attendant in Julie, Day dreaded airplanes. The phobia even caused her to turn down some award ceremonies.

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Day developed her fear of flying back in the 1940s when she accompanied Bob Hope on tours, often in severe weather.

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Clint Eastwood Offered Up A Role

Clint Eastwood offered Day a role in a film he was planning to direct in 2015. Day was reportedly in talks with Eastwood, her neighbor in Carmel, about a possible role in the film.

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Day apparently ended up declining the role and a chance to be on the big screen again. Day was reportedly very happy with her half a century of retirement.

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Day Was Very Loved

Day is mentioned in songs by Wham!, Billy Joel, the Beatles and Elton John. Day’s influence in pop music runs well beyond her own impressive discography. The Beatles sang of “the BBC, B.B. King and Doris Day” in “Dig It.” George Michael proclaimed, “You make the sun shine brighter than Doris Day,” in the Wham! smash “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”

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Billly Joel kicked off his litany of cultural references in “We Didn’t Start the Fire” with, “Harry Truman, Doris Day, Red China, Johnnie Ray.” Elton John also rattles off a list of celebrities in “Wrap Her Up,” toasting, “Brigitte Bardot, Doris Day, Billie Jean…” The actress is also mentioned in songs by Ringo Starr, dance giant Underworld and Dutch ska band Doe Maar, to name a few.

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Doris’ Thoughts on Her Image

Many of Day’s closest friends have said that they found the “recluse” label ridiculous, given how frequently the actress was seen out on the town. The actress herself has stated on numerous occasions that the media’s portrayal of her has been inaccurate and unfair.

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Day once remarked in an interview that her image was more make-believe than any role she’s ever played. Like most other celebrities, Day had to deal with all sorts of rumors about her personal life. Yet, Day seemed unbothered by it all, choosing instead to focus on matters that interested her, like animal welfare.

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Rising Above

As Day’s story shows, finding out the truth about your favorite celebrities was considerably more difficult back in the day. Perhaps this is mainly because social media didn’t exist!  Nevertheless, this did not prevent rumors from circulating even back then.

 

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Day held her head high through her time in the spotlight and carried herself with grace and dignity until the very end.

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The Passing Of A Star

Surrounded by close friends and relatives Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff (Dorris Day) passed away on May 13, 2019, at the age of 97 due to complications from pneumonia. Day’s. The announcement of her passing was made by her charity, the Doris Day Animal Foundation. 

 

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Per Day’s requests, the Foundation also announced that there would be no funeral services, grave marker, or other public memorials. Instead friends, family and fan’s of Day’s were encouraged to donate to her foundation which she believed in and loved whole-heartedly.

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Remembering Doris Day

The charity’s representatives added that Day was in excellent physical health for her age but upon contracting pneumonia she was unable to fight off the illness.

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Shortly after Day’s passing was announced, tributes from dozens of Hollywood movie and TV stars- both past and present, started pouring in.

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Day's Twinkling Smile And Infectious Laugh

Paul McCartney and Day has a very special friendship and McCartney took to social media following her death to pay tribute to the star.

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McCartney stated “I will miss her but will always remember her twinkling smile and infectious laugh as well as the many great songs and movies she gave us,” he added. “God bless Doris.”

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The World’s Sweetheart

Actor William Shatner took to Twitter to pay tribute to Day, calling her the “World’s Sweetheart” who was “beloved by all.” Actress Goldie Hawn followed suit, saying that Day brightened everyone’s lives and praised her for living her life out with dignity.

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Fellow Hollywood veteran Carl Reiner, who had co-written the 1963 romantic comedy The Thrill of It All which starred Day, expressed his shock over the actress’ passing, saying that he had contacted her just a week earlier to welcome her to the 97 Year Actor’s Club.

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