Monday was warm and sunny and gorgeous here in our wholesome hometown of Wichita, so it was sadly ironic to hear about the death of Doris Day. Despite a hard life she made it to the ripe old age of 97, and we took some solace in that, but we couldn’t shake a melancholy feeling that a more warm and sunny and gorgeous and wholesome era of American popular culture had passed away with her.
The youngsters won’t recall, and probably can’t comprehend, but back in the late ’50s and early ’60s of the previous century Day was pretty much the epitome of perfect American womanhood. She was a sweet-faced blond with a fit physique, and a pretty good actress who always played the chaste young heroine being pursued by the lecherous leading man, oftentimes played by the excessively handsome and hunky Rock Hudson. She was an even better singer, scoring huge pop hits with such romantic fare as “Que, Sera, Sera,” “Secret Love,” and “It’s Magic.” In all her public appearances on the talk shows and awards ceremonies she always came across as the all-American girl that every red-blooded American boy fantasized was living next door.
It was all Hollywood hokum, of course. After growing up in less than all-American circumstances Day was married to a wife-beater, then another husband who resented her success and wound up leaving her, and then a third husband who wound up cheating her out of a big chunk of her hard-earned fortune. The excessively handsome and hunky co-star who was her most famous on-screen romance turned out to be homosexual as all get out, and he died of AIDS back in the ’80s as a result, and by that time the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romantic comedies and her even more romantic pop hits were considered quaint and far out of date. As far back as the early ’60s, the late and great comedian Groucho Marx used to get a laugh by saying “I knew Doris Day before she was a a virgin.”
Even so, we miss the lies Hollywood used to tell back in Day’s day. Better to aspire to the pure chaste love of a Doris Day movie, we figure, than the equally unattainable and far less tempting carnal delights with excessively physically-fit starlets that Hollywood mostly peddles these days.
Day seems to have made peace with the modern world in her later days, even if it had left her far behind, and we’re glad of that. When her dear friend Rock Hudson was dying of AIDS she was outspokenly eloquent about his stellar character, and she did much to encourage a tolerant and sympathetic attitude about the epidemic that was controversial at the time but we still consider very all-American. She was an animal lover who understandably preferred her cats and dogs and horses to any of her husbands or most of the show biz people and fickle fans she had to deal with in her career, and she devoted much of her post-show biz life to the worthy cause of animal rights. When she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004, Day was cited for her activism as much as her by then long-forgotten career as America’s sweetheart.
Given everything, Day seems to have made the most of her 97 years. Her corny movies and mushy pop hits will probably continue to pop up on late night television and the oldies radio stations for years to come, and we hope they’ll inspire some unattainable aspirations of pure chaste love and perfect American womanhood in yet another generation.
— Bud Norman