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Guideposts Remembers: Doris Day—Singer, Actress and Advocate for Animals

The legendary singer and actress, who later turned her attention to animal rights activism, passed away on May 13, 2019. 


Doris Day, one of America’s most popular performers since the 1940s, passed away on May 13, 2019, just weeks after her 97th birthday. After nearly four decades in show business, Day devoted the final three decades of her life to her favorite cause: advocating for the care and proper treatment of animals.

Born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff on April 3, 1922, in Cincinnati, Ohio, she experienced success in virtually every arena of show business. She excelled as a band singer, recording artist, on the radio and television and in motion pictures. Her earliest dream was to become a dancer, but when her right leg was severely injured in an automobile accident when she was 13, that door was closed to her.

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Instead, she began to focus on singing, taking lessons three times a week from a local vocal instructor in her hometown of Cincinnati and listening intently to singers she admired on the radio; Ella Fitzgerald was a particular favorite.

In 1939, at the tender age of 15, Day began to perform on local radio programs, where she was heard by bandleader Barney Rapp, who hired her to sing with his big band. 

Before long, Day was performing with nationally known orchestras, first with Bob Crosby and His Bobcats in Chicago, and then with Les Brown’s outfit. “She was every bandleader’s dream,” Brown later said, “a vocalist who had natural talent, a keen regard for the lyrics and an attractive appearance.”

During her first stint with Brown, Day had a pair of #1 hits in Sentimental Journey and My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time, as well six other that reached Billboard’s Top Ten. In 1947, she signed with Columbia Records as a solo artist, and over the next 20 years, she would make more than 650 recordings for the label.

Songwriter Sammy Cahn heard Day perform the song Embraceable You at a party in Hollywood and arranged for her to be given a screen test. She passed with flying colors and was cast in Romance on the High Seas (1948), helmed by legendary director Michael Curtiz. It is said that Day was the discovery Curtiz was most proud of in his long and storied career.

Day starred in a string of musicals for Warner Brothers, the most popular of which was I’ll See You in My Dreams, a biopic of songwriter Gus Kahn, and in 1950, she was selected by U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen serving in Korea as their favorite star.

In the 1950s, Day had a string of very popular hits, many of which were introduced in the equally popular movies she was appearing in. Secret Love was first heard in Calamity Jane (1953), Que Sera, Sera (Whatever Will Be, Will Be) was written for Alfred Hitchcock‘s 1955 remake of his earlier film, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Pillow Talk debuted in the 1959 film of that name, the first of three very popular romantic comedies Day made with Rock Hudson.

Day was ranked the biggest box-office star in the country four different times (1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964) and ranked in the top 10 ten times (1951–52 and 1959–66), but despite the very sunny persona Day presented to the public, not everything was rosy in her life. Her first husband, a trombonist named Al Jorden, was abusive and eventually committed suicide; her second marriage, to saxophonist George William Weidler, lasted just three years and when her third husband of 17 years, Martin Melcher, died in 1968, she discovered that he and his business partner had mismanaged her substantial earnings from the previous two decades, leaving her millions of dollars in debt.

But even this major setback served to demonstrate Day’s positivity and perseverance. When she learned after Melcher’s death that he had committed her to doing both a television series and a string of TV specials, despite the fact that had no interest in appearing on TV, she made the best of it. The series, a sitcom called The Doris Day Show, enjoyed a five-year run and ratings solid enough that CBS tried to renew it for a sixth season, though Day declined. 

Actress Rose Marie was in the cast of the show, and when we spoke to her late in 2017, she spoke glowingly of Day. “The way you see her and know her is the way she is, really,” Rose Marie said of Day. “She’s the sweetest thing in the world. It was a pleasure working with her. We had a lot of fun.”

“I’ve been through everything,” Day told The Bark magazine in 2006. “I always said I was like those round-bottomed circus dolls—you know, those dolls you could push down and they’d come back up? I’ve always been like that. I’ve always said, ‘No matter what happens, if I get pushed down, I’m going to come right back up.'”

After stepping away (though not officially retiring) from show business in the 1980s, Day expressed her deep love and affection for animals by becoming a passionate advocate on their behalf. She founded the Doris Day Animal League, an animal rights lobbying group that is now a part of the Humane Society of the United States. She also founded and oversaw The Doris Day Animal Foundation, a charity that is focused on animal welfare. And in 2009, Day provided the funding for the Doris Day Animal Horse Rescue facility at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Horse Ranch in Texas, where more than 250 rescued horses that had been abused or neglected were given a safe, secure place to live out their lives.

Day lived in Carmel, California, where she was the co-owner of an historic, pet-friendly (natch) hostelry called the Cypress Inn. She remained active and vital until the end and continued to communicate with her many fans. In fact, over a three-day span in late March of 2018, she hosted a three-day birthday event featuring celebrity guests and movie screenings that benefited the Doris Day Animal Foundation. 

“There were times when I wasn’t always up,” Day once said. “Everything could be calm and peaceful, then the next day the bottom dropped out. What can you do? Moan and groan and feel sorry for yourself? No, you pull yourself up by your bootstraps and you get on with life.”

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