As a kid in the late 1950s and early 1960s, I was all in on Doris Day.
So I was sad to hear she died Monday, at the age of 97, and not just because it closed one of the last doors on an era that, to kids today, feels about as contemporary as King John signing the Magna Carta.
No, Doris Day wasn’t just a pop culture bookmark, like “The Chipmunk Song” or American Idol. She turned your head, or perhaps to be more specific, she turned my 10-year-old head.
Sometime in probably late October 1959, my best friend Charles and I walked to the Central Theater in West Hartford center, put down 50 cents or so, and saw Pillow Talk, with Doris Day, Rock Hudson and Tony Randall.
We had in truth been a little worried whether we could see it at all, because before we attended any movie, Charles’s mother Ann had to consult the Legion of Decency ratings in the Catholic parish newsletter. If a movie was rated “Class B, morally objectionable,” Charles couldn’t go.
With a title like Pillow Talk, wildly alluring for 1959, we had our doubts. But the Catholics cleared it, and we were spellbound. I’d be equally impressed years later when I heard the young Doris’s recording of “Sentimental Journey” with Les Brown, but in the fall of 1959, coming up on my 11th birthday, I had no idea she’d been a lady who sang with the band. Watching her romantic drama on the Central’s big screen was plenty.
We were too young to know Marilyn Monroe as anything other than a famous name, someone whose movies the Catholic Church would almost certainly not let Charles see. Doris Day was our blond, and we were not complaining.
We were also lucky in other ways, Charles and I. We grew up in a 1950s suburb, one of the best-remembered niches in modern American history.
Ask veterans of the 1950s American suburbs about their memories and prepare for a rhapsody. Everything was good then. We never locked our doors. We rode our bikes everywhere, all day, wherever we wanted, and rolled back home for dinner. There were parades and there was Little League and everyone helped mow the grass and the clerks at the local market would sometimes slip you a piece of candy.
When people pine today for the days when America was great, this is the America that’s scrolling through the thought balloon over their heads.
Only trouble is that while the good parts really were sweet for those of us lucky enough to be born into them, the fuller picture was less rosy. Less perfect. Less blond, if you will.
Doris Day knew that, because she lived some of her real life on the darker side.
She married her first husband, trombonist Al Jorden, when she was 18. Day was a band vocalist. Not a star, but headed in that direction. She and Jorden had a son, Terry.
Nice story except that Jorden liked to beat Doris up. Domestic abuse then, while not condoned, was also rarely spoken of. It was something some men did, often written off as her fault for provoking him. Day divorced Jorden when she was 20.
Her next husband, George Weidler, was a sax player who, according to Day, decided he didn’t like his wife being more famous than he was. So he starting seeing other, less famous women. They divorced.
Her marriage to Marty Melcher lasted 17 years, until he died. After his death she discovered Marty and their lawyer had cleaned out all her money and left her deep in debt — because in those days, even the women who earned the money turned it over to their husbands and didn’t ask questions.
One of Day’s favorite movie partners was Rock Hudson, who played her handsome love interest in Pillow Talk. Hudson had a dilemma of his own. He was gay and could never let it be known, because it would have ruined his career. He died of AIDS.
Charles and I, of course, never dreamed he could have been gay. That subject rarely came up in the Good Old Days except in derogatory epithets.
It also never occurred to us, while watching Pillow Talk, that the world in Doris Day movies didn’t seem to include many people of color. Or, say, poor people.
If colored people and poor people weren’t in the movies, and they weren’t in our suburb, hey, they either didn’t exist or they must be doing fine.
No wonder 1950s suburbs felt idyllic.
In Doris Day’s most famous 1950s song, “Que Sera, Sera,” a little girl asks her mother two questions: “Will I be pretty? Will I be rich?”
Maybe, replies Mom. Maybe not. Either way, just go with it and you’ll be fine.
It’s hardly Doris Day’s doing that things weren’t quite that smooth and pastoral in much of the world. Or in her own world, for that matter. Entertainment has a legitimate, valuable role as an escape, and we don’t fault entertainers for keeping on the sunny side.
Doris Day on a movie screen or a record was delightful.
We just shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that at any point ever, most of the world was anything like what Charles and I were watching on the Central Theater screen.