The long and celebrated life of screen star Doris Day has been well documented in numerous biographies and in the extensive obituaries that followed her death in 2019 at the age of 97.
From the start of her long career to the end, she conveyed an image of the happy girl next door, perpetually smiling and effervescent. But still, her early work at Warner Bros. was often dismissed as fluffy, while the later films with Rock Hudson and others were criticized as reflections of a sexually repressed era.
Feminists, however, have revisited her career and now acknowledge that many of her roles put her out in front, portraying women with careers when that was an unusual occurrence.
Of course, that, too, was a mirage. She didn’t write those screenplays and left major decisions about her career to men, most notably her third husband, Marty Melcher.
Behind that sunny, virginal exterior was a woman who — like so many before her — likely paid her dues on the casting couch.
“Discovered” singing at a Hollywood party, she signed a personal management contract with famed director, Michael Curtiz, a notorious womanizer. He helped get her the standard seven-year contract at Warner Bros., a studio run by another compulsive philanderer, Jack Warner.
Warner is the one most responsible for shaping her wholesome image — no subtle irony there.
A woman’s career path teeming with predation was not unique in those times. Judy Garland was under the thumb (at least) of MGM’s tyrannical boss, Louis B. Mayer, throughout most of her career.
Quid pro quos abounded at MGM. It would seem the two women had much in common.
Neither of them had much formal education. Judy was educated largely on the set or hit-and-miss on the road. Doris left school at 15 when she was severely injured in a car collision with a train. Doris was cast in her first film, Romance on the High Seas, a score said to be originally intended for Judy.
Both women were admired for their screen work, and their unique, emotionally charged vocal skills. Each had to withstand the advances of the men at omnipotent studios, and each did her best work after those contracts ended (Judy with A Star is Born, Doris in Love Me or Leave Me).
One could argue that each career peaked after they married strong men, neither known for his attractiveness or charm.
Judy’s marriage to Sid Luft brought her back for a time from the edge of the trash heap of chemical dependency.
Doris married Melcher in the middle of her seven-year servitude at Warners. He refused to renew her contract and moved her into roles that allowed her to play mature women.
Did the two women ever meet? One of the ten short stories in Fading Fame: Women of a Certain Age in Hollywood (Adelaide, 2021) speculates a spontaneous encounter that might have taken place on a train. Would they have compared notes? Ridiculed their studio masters? Admitted to each other the toll taken by their climb to fame? It could have happened.
In real life, Doris refused to travel by air and, at the point in her life when the story takes place, Judy might not have been able to afford much more than a coach seat on the Super Chief.
There is no evidence that either seemed to have a trusted woman friend in whom they could confide their thoughts and feelings. Both relied on men to guide them in and out of show business, not unusual for that generation and that profession.
Judy was barely into her fifth marriage when she died of what the coroner declared to be an accidental overdose in London. Doris had come to rely on the male CEO of the Doris Day Animal Foundation where she poured her money and energies in the final decades of her life. They had nine husbands between them.
Judy died at 47 doing what she loved, performing, even in her severely diminished state. Doris has been quoted as saying all she ever wanted was a husband, family and a white picket fence.
We’ll remember them for their extraordinary talent and ability to reach across media to touch us at a deep level. We can only hope that the existential costs they paid were worth it to them.