Doris Day is an interesting figure in classic cinema. Appointed as the personification of the 1950s cult of domesticity, Day’s career and work as an actress has her labeled as chaste and wholesome, her movies indicative of an oppressive standard for women. In watching her films, and as deconstructed in David Kaufman’s biography, these suppositions are proved false. Day’s sexiness slipped under the radar, and Kaufman’s tome does go behind the curtain on the girl next door, showing Day as a highly ambitious figure with prowling sexuality and a closely guarded persona hindered by a controlling husband and a rabid fanbase resistant to change.
David Kaufman crafts the most complete biography of Doris Day’s life, and that’s taking into account Day’s own memoirs she penned with A.E. Hotchner, an autobiography that saw Day being candid in spurts. After interviewing over 150 people, Kaufman charts the transition from Doris Mary Anne von Kapplehoff to Doris Day.
Growing up with a single mother, Day’s early life had her starting her life as a dancer, but an unfortunate car accident left Day self-conscious about her legs, putting the lock on her dance career. (Day eventually felt good enough to dance in cinema, but it never became her claim to fame.) It’s surprising to hear how insecure Day was about her talents, since acting is all about being showy enough to pretend. Day’s flair for pretending is both a double-edged sword according to Kaufman, as Day wanted to separate herself from cinema so completely that it was recommended to fans not to bring up her past films, and Day herself shunned retrospectives and tributes to her work as being “in the past.”
Kaufman is respectful to Day, but isn’t afraid to point out the actress’ failings as a person, mother and wife, but always with an eye towards showing us the true Day. There’s nothing smutty or exploitative in Kaufman’s book. He portrays Day as a human being, not an idol and the reader can still love her, just with an enhanced knowledge that “yes, Doris Day wasn’t flawless.” This manifest mainly through her relationships. Married to abusive men twice – one physically and the other mentally – Day had her fair share of affairs, lied about her age, and treated her son more like a father figure than a child. Her relationship with Martin Melcher is the most well-known element of Day’s life, and it’s evident there were as many pluses to their relationship as minuses. The book attempts to blend in son Terry Melcher’s fractious relationship with Candice Bergen and the Manson murders, but it detracts from Day’s life. Though Terry was a part of Day, the issues inherent in his life are so incongruous as to be distracting.
Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door gives readers the most complete look at the wholesome songbird you’d expect to find. At times distracted, Kaufman contemporaneously investigates Day’s career and films, giving a fresh look at an actress criticized for refusing to change with the times.
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