Tales of a Working Girl Doris Day’s American Century.

Shutterstock

Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door

By David Kaufman (2008, New York: Virgin Books) 626 pages with index notes, bibliography, and photos

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the March/May 2009 issue of Belles Lettres: A Literary Review, published by the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. 

 

 

 

Part 1: Don’t Touch the White Woman!

 

The only very real talent Miss Day possesses is that of being absolutely sanitary: her personality untouched by human emotions, her brow unclouded by human thought, her form unsmudged by the slightest evidence of femininity.

—Movie critic John Simon, 1963

 

Nothing seems to daunt the persistent image of me as the unsullied sunshine girl. … So there must be something about me, about whatever it is that I give off, that accounts for this disparity between who I am and who I appear to be.

—Doris Day, 1976

 

I dig Doris Day.

—Jazz singer Sarah Vaughn

 

 

 

“Doris Day became nothing short of a mass-media symbol of twentieth-century America,” writes Tom Santopietro in his Considering Doris Day (2007), “the flesh-and-blood personification of what came to be known as ‘the American Century.’” According to biographer David Kaufman in Doris Day: The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door, in 1961, just when Universal Studios announced the filming of That Touch of Mink, starring Day and Cary Grant, Day went to the Moscow Film Festival and was the face and spirit of America insofar as Hollywood and the State Department were concerned: “Indeed, what Edith Piaf was to France, Day had become to America. More than just a singer or even a superstar, she was now a national emblem.” If these recent books and the spate of DVD-box sets of her movies currently being released are any indication, there seems to be something of a Doris Day revival occurring. It goes back to 1997 when movie critic Molly Haskell wrote a fierce defense of Day that appeared in Holding My Own in No Man’s Land. A few years ago, James Wolcott of Vanity Fair wrote a glowing piece about the on-screen partnership of Ruck Hudson and Doris Day (they co-starred in three hugely successful films in the early 1960s): “Rock Hudson and Doris Day were shucking the Eisenhower blahs and ushering in the New Frontier. They were the First Couple of American Pop.” Jazz critic and Bing Crosby biographer Gary Giddens acknowledged Day’s greatness as a singer in his Natural Selection (2006). Novelist John Updike had long been a fan, praising Day generously in a New Yorker review when her autobiography, written by A.E. Hotchner, appeared in 1976 and publicly after that whenever he had a chance. In 1980, the British Film Institute did a retrospective of Day’s career, proclaiming her a feminist heroine, an assertion in the end that may have been beside the point.

As a boy, I remember the young college students—most of whom attended historically black colleges—who were part of the civil rights movement and who seemed always to be drifting in and out of my mother’s Southern Philadelphia home (my sisters were very active in the civil rights movement) dismissing Doris Day as a figure of white oppression, a white sexual fantasy, a Barbie doll, the all-American bourgeois mother. Her films were considered white bread, white suburban nonsense. They derisively tossed off Day as they did Gidget, Tammy, Bing Crosby, Jayne Mansfield, American Bandstand, Troy Donahue, Rock Hudson, Steve Reeves, Charlton Heston, and Elvis Presley. These young black critics were partly and justifiably motivated by race, and a new consciousness about how to read the world and its objects but they were also feeling some anxiety about lowbrow taste, expressing a yearning to be middlebrow or highbrow, sophisticated, in a way that made political sense for them. They were going around carrying copies of Albert Camus’s The Rebel, Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, Lorraine Hansberry’s The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, LeRoi Jones’s The Dutchman and The System of Dante’s Hell, Ralph Ellison’s Shadow and Act, and listening to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Thelonius Monk and going to classical music concerts: sure signs that you were a bona fide aspirant to the black intellectuals’ club. Lots of tasteless, lowbrow white folk liked Doris Day’s mass-marketed films, which was a good reason for a budding, black Marxist to hate them.

I did not dismiss Day because of the whiteness of her films. In those days, nearly all films were supremely white, and as a minority viewer you adjusted your imagination accordingly, either by pretending that the people you were watching were secretly black or that you, the viewer, were secretly white or that all people, viewer and actors included, were actually raceless. If the film was good, you admired the whites who were in it, and if it was bad, you made fun of them. I think this is how pop culture assimilated minorities in those days, by making you self-consciously neurotic. I had little interest in Day in my childhood mostly because she appeared in either musicals or romantic comedies, two film genres I utterly detested. (I preferred adventure, spy, detective, and gangster films, plus sword-and-sandal epics and, of course, westerns.) If I had had a choice between paying $3.00—an exorbitant admission for a neighborhood movie house in the early 1960s—to see The Guns of Navarone and seeing any Day film for free, I would have paid the three bucks to see Navarone.

I was about ten or twelve years old when I watched the 1958 Day film, Teacher’s Pet, on late-night television with my mothers and sisters. I watched only because Day’s co-star was Clark Gable, an actor I liked after seeing him with Burt Lancaster (a big personal favorite) in Run Silent, Run Deep (1958). I liked Teacher’s Pet very much, much more than I expected, and Day was appealing in her role as a journalist teacher. My family liked it too. I remember my mother saying after the film ended, “Doris Day has a nice figure but she sure has a big behind for a white woman.” My sisters and I giggled at that. I remember how she swayed her hips in front of Gable as she parodied Mamie Van Doren, who also appeared in the film, singing “I’m the girl who invented rock and roll.” I almost thought of her as a sexy black woman when she did that because she moved with the grace of a dancer. (I did not know at the time she had been a dancer.) What I learned from Teacher’s Pet was that Day made films before she hooked up with Rock Hudson. I had no idea that was so since she came into my consciousness as a filmgoer right at the time she and Hudson were making their films. When I was about seventeen, I saw Storm Warning (1951), a film about the Ku Klux Klan in which Day played a terrified housewife of a brutal Klan member. It was not much of a film about the Klan (the only people the Klan killed in the movie were whites and not for any discernable political reason) but I thought Day was effective in the tragic role, in this instance, of a young mother and obedient wife. Her character was the kid sister of Ginger Rogers’s character—the only time the two women appeared in a film together. I was shocked, moved, when her admittedly vacuous character was killed. It is the only film in which she plays a character who dies. I now learned that Day had ability as a dramatic actress. It was Storm Warning that led Alfred Hitchcock to cast Day five years later in The Man Who Knew Too Much.

After having seen most of Day’s films, I must agree with her supporters that she is an underrated and underappreciated talent. She was one of the best pop singers of the 20th century, ranking with or just a shade below Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald.

I think it was around this time that rumors began appearing in the black press that Day, then married, was stepping out with black Los Angeles Dodger shortstop Maury Wills. Day denied any romance with Wills in her autobiography, Doris Day: Her Own Story. Wills claimed to have had an affair with her in his autobiography, On the Run: The Never Dull and Often Shocking Life of Maury Wills, published in 1992. There is enough ambiguity about the whole business to make either of them credible. She might have been lying—especially in the 1960s and 1970s—in order not to lose her standing with her legions of fans. He might have been lying to help sell his book, taking advantage of the fact that Day was a big Dodger fan who attended many games and sometimes hung out with the players.

Sammy Davis, Jr., and Chubby Checker had both married interracially around this time, and this made the entire subject popular at the local barbershop, I patronized. “You know Maury had better watch out messin’ with Doris Day,” one wag shouted out one Saturday afternoon as I waited to get my hair cut. “That brother ought to know that you don’t touch the white woman, especially that white woman. Doris Day done made her whole career on being the white woman who don’t get touched.” I giggled at this and wondered if the whitest white woman in America was going with a black guy. Day’s father had married a black woman in 1961, another item that was made much of in the black press. “It must run in the family,” the wag continued. Day, who never had much of a relationship with her father, did not send a note of congratulations or a gift. She was later rumored to have had an affair with Sly Stone of Sly and the Family Stone, when she announced in 1973 that she—through the machinations of her son, Terry Melcher, a noted record producer of the period—was going to do an album with the black rock star. Stone did go on to record an odd version of “Que Sera, Sera,” Day’s most famous song. Day denied she was going with Stone. Maybe she did go with Stone. She was fifty-one at the time—Stone was twenty-nine—and, as she had issues with aging—getting breast enhancement surgery and a face-lift around this time—perhaps it was a sort of midlife crisis. She had endured three bad marriages to white guys, all of whom were nothing to write home about, so maybe cutting loose with a stoned-out, overly theatrical black guy who made music with occasional lefty or universalist overtones—she became something of a universalist, attracted to what she called “metaphysics”—was a way for her to keep her sanity.

After having seen most of Day’s films, I must agree with her supporters that she is an underrated and underappreciated talent. She was one of the best pop singers of the 20th century, ranking with or just a shade below Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. She was a fine actress with great range and energy. She could cover a greater variety of roles than many of her contemporaries like Elizabeth Tayler, Grace Kelly, and Kim Novack. She was a first-rate comedienne, better by far than most of her glamour girl peers. Films like The Man Who Knew Too Much, Calamity Jane, It Happened to Jane, Love Me or Leave Me (her excellent portrayal of singer Ruth Etting), The Pajama Game, and Lover Come Back are all really first-rate and would be enough by themselves to assure any actress considerable stature in the history of American cinema. They stand up well to any six films made by any of Day’s female competitors. But Day is known for being the perpetual virgin, the girl next door, the eternal ingénue, the good anxious mother of the Cold War, and for this reason the intelligentsia condemns her as low-brow, antifeminist, and the like. Such critics see the United States as repressive and hypocritical, which is certainly true of aspects of it, but this view simplifies something far deeper and more complex, aside from the fact that holders of this view seem to think that the United States is the only country and culture that is repressive and hypocritical. (Everyone else would be liberal, liberated, and wholly sincere if the United States would stop being such a hegemon!) But making Day a stealth feminist is not the answer to this complaint about her. I feel it is a simplistic reaction to rescue every “objectionable” pop culture icon from an “oppressed” demographic by arguing that he or she was or is secretly a rebel. Sometimes, a cigar is just and only a cigar and needs to be understood as such because making a cigar, a good cigar, is a demanding art.

Day is known for being the perpetual virgin, the girl next door, the eternal ingénue, the good anxious mother of the Cold War, and for this reason the intelligentsia condemns her as low-brow, antifeminist, and the like. Such critics see the United States as repressive and hypocritical, which is certainly true of aspects of it, but this view simplifies something far deeper and more complex, aside from the fact that holders of this view seem to think that the United States is the only country and culture that is repressive and hypocritical.

Day represented something else important about America for most Americans: a sense of energy, commitment to family, a desire to succeed, sexiness combined with self-respect and virtue. What is wrong with a woman who does not want to be taken advantage of sexually by men? Day frequently played working women who stood up for themselves and who desired the companionship of a man. What is wrong with that? In her off-screen life, Day always wanted to be married. Clearly, the large number of fans she had, especially among women, meant that many women identified with this idealized balance between independence and dependence. Day’s characters seemed to give her fans not only a coping fantasy but a sense of inspiration. One of the problems with the intelligentsia is that it will not respect or take seriously any fantasy that is not built on some idea or resistance to hegemony, which Day’s fantasy clearly was not. But fantasies that inspire and are compelling for many people are not about resistance at all but rather about accommodation and adjustment that validate not conformity but rather the individual’s need to express herself and find fulfillment in the world. Most people, even the oppressed, like the world as it is, and like people who succeed by accepting the world for what it is as something genuine despite being fallen. We might generate a fresh view of the 1950s if we intellectuals saw Doris Day’s representation of the Great American Songbook good girl as heroic instead of seeing Elvis Presley’s representation of the Rock and Roll bad boy as the only white heroism of the moment. One more thing: Day was the most famous Christian Scientist in American history. She was not a particularly good one.

 

 

 

Part 2: Big Band Girl and Movie Star

 

I’ve never been taught how to act. I don’t know what my method is. I can’t explain it. But when I am called on to do something, I have to do it. And I know I can. I have complete confidence.

—Doris Day, 1960

 

I had a great time in Cincinnati, but why is there no shrine to Doris Day?

—John Updike, 2001

 

 

If a biography is judged definitive based on its length, then David Kaufman’s Doris Day is the definitive biography of its subject. Some readers are likely to think it is too long and a bit repetitive. Many who know Day well think that the book overstates its claims in the subtitle: there is not much here, as I have discovered in preparing this review, that has been “untold.” Day has large, active, and highly committed fan clubs around the world that have printed in newsletters a great deal about the actress/singer’s life and career. Day herself engages her fan clubs far more than most stars and has frequently hired members to work for her. Since 2001, for instance, she has spoken to members at length on her birthday. She writes members frequently and has even invited some to come visit her. She has interacted with her fans quite a bit since her earliest days as a successful performer. Kaufman never interviewed Day for his book. I assume she refused to cooperate with him. This is not a fatal blow to the book, by any means, but it does seriously compromise it, especially among her fans, many of whom have spoken to Day personally.

Doris Kappelhoff was born in 1922 (Santopietro in his book puts her birth date as 1924; Day has issued many different ages for herself over the years) in Cincinnati, Ohio, the third and last child of the Kappelhoffs. Both of her parents were musical, and so young Doris was introduced to performing at a young age as she studied both piano and dance. Her father, an aloof and rather stern man, developed Doris’s ear and thought she had real ability to become a professional instrumentalist. Her mother, Alma, a typical stagedoor parent who lived through Doris, thought she had the ability to be a professional dancer, the next Ginger Rogers, whom Doris remembered a little. Because she liked her mother better, she preferred dance. Young Doris always sang around the house but never took her singing seriously. Doris’s father had an affair with her mother’s best friend. The couple divorced in 1935 when Doris was twelve. She would not see her father again until she was a famous movie actress. Doris seemed well on her way to a dancing career when she was involved in a terrible car accident on October 12, 1937. She had a double-compound fracture of the right leg, which required a steel pin to set. She re-broke the same leg when dancing around on her crutches. She spent eight months in a cast. Both mother and daughter thought she would never have a career as a dancer. But she did like to sing. Her mother arranged to get her voice lessons. Doris never finished high school. She became a working girl with a voice.

The problem that Day was to have her entire career was that although she yearned for a home life, she hardly knew what to do with herself when she was home. She found her purpose in life through her work and worked relentlessly for many years. When she finally retired, she simply filled her house up with dogs and stray animals.

“I hated it,” Doris recalled when a Cincinnati bandleader with whom she broke in gave her the name of Day, “I thought it sounded really cheap.” Day began singing while still a teenager. Despite her casual attitude she has always assumed about her success, she was driven and determined. Her music teacher noted that she had never had a student who worked so hard and made such strides. She sang briefly in 1940 with Bob Crosby’s Bobcats (Bing’s brother) but her big break came when she joined Les Brown’s band, then a new group out of Duke University. It was with Brown’s band that she had her first hit, “Sentimental Journey,” recorded in 1945. By that time, Day had become a noted band singer, admired for her ability to put a song’s lyrics across, to enunciate clearly, to always sing in tune, something not all band singers did (thanks to her good ear training). Her youth, good looks, sincerity, innocence, enthusiasm, and optimistic stage persona made her click with audiences; she was the epitome of the band canary, the girl with the gown and the voice that every guy wanted to have as a girlfriend. Privately, traveling with a swing band, she was often the opposite of this: insecure, frequently depressed and unhappy, lonely, hungry for sex and love (but not wanting to be available to all the guys in the band), and yearning for a stable home life. The problem that Day was to have her entire career was that although she yearned for a home life, she hardly knew what to do with herself when she was home. She found her purpose in life through her work and worked relentlessly for many years. When she finally retired, she simply filled her house up with dogs and stray animals. She has complained all her life about being lonely and her animal activism is doubtless a compensation for that.

In 1941 she married a dashing musician, trombonist Al Jorden, and gave up her promising career. Her mother was against it. Day herself realized the marriage was a mistake when Jorden began beating her. He was a very jealous man and thought Day was, to use today’s parlance, a skank, a reputation against which band girls had to fight. Day gave birth to her only child, son Terry, in 1942. She was divorced in 1943 and was back singing with Brown. She married another dashing, though, less assertive, musician, saxophonist George Weidler, in 1946. He was three years younger than she was. They separated in 1947 and divorced in 1948. So, by the time Day was twenty-six or twenty-four, she had been divorced twice, had a child, and admitted to having at least one extramarital affair, which may have explained, but not excused, Jorden’s jealousy. She was a single working parent. This hardly sounds like the girl next door, and Day did nothing to conceal any of this. She seemed an artistically gifted, lusty, maybe a bit randy, and insecure young woman. How did she become the merry virgin? I supposed she just looked the part.

Hollywood had had its eye on Day for a couple of years. By 1948, she was under contract to Warner Brothers, making her first film with Michael Curtiz, Romance on the High Seas, a musical. (Once Day started making movies, she rarely sang before a live audience again. She never liked singing in front of live audiences. She would have made baskets of money if she had. Las Vegas lusted for her.) Curtiz would direct Day in three of her first four films. He was known for such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Casablanca (1942), and Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Day had signed with Columbia Records, one of the three major record companies, a year earlier. She was no on the verge of true stardom. Her second film, also directed by Curtiz, My Dream is Yours, another musical, seemed based partly on Day’s own life, about a young (widowed rather than divorced) singer with a child. This was Hollywood’s first attempt at spinning or recasting Day’s life into the Day fantasy of wholesomeness and bourgeois respectability. Day played a widow with children again in It Happened to Jane (1959), co-starring with Jack Lemmon , one of her strongest films. She did her first drama for Curtiz in 1950 when she co-starred with Kirk Douglas and Lauren Becall in Young Man With a Horn, based on Dorothy Baker’s novel of the life of trumpeter Fix Beiderbecke. She did her first musical in which she danced—Tea for Two (1950)—her second film with director David Butler, Curtiz, with whom Day had a personal contract that entitled him to 50 percent of her earning outside of her film work (standard piracy of the old studio days), did not want to expose Day as a dancer immediately in her first film. If all her bag of tricks were given out at once, the public might lose interest.

Let us consider Day’s magnitude as a box office attraction: For ten years, Day was one of the top ten box-office attractions in the country. For four years, she was the number one box-office attraction, beating out both male and female peers. No actress has matched this …

During the course of her 39-film career, she played against some of the major actors of the day including Rock Hudson (Pillow Talk, 1959, for which she earned an Oscar nomination, Lover Come Back, 1961, and Send Me No Flowers, 1964); James Garner (The Thrill of It All, 1963, and Move Over, Darling, 1963); Rex Harrison (Midnight Lace, 1960, where she had a nervous breakdown on the set playing a wife whose husband is trying to drive her mad); James Stewart (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1956); Frank Sinatra (Young at Heart, 1954); Gordon MacRae (Tea for Two, 1950, On Moonlight Bay, 1951, and By the Light of the Silvery Moon, 1953); David Niven (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, 1960); and James Cagney (The West Point Story, 1950, and Love Me or Leave Me, 1955, for which many felt she should have earned an Academy Award nomination).

Let us consider Day’s magnitude as a box office attraction: For ten years, Day was one of the top-ten box-office attractions in the country. For four years, she was the number one box-office attraction, beating out both male and female peers. No actress has matched this: not Barbara Streisand, not Julia Roberts, not Angelina Jolie. She was also the number one female recording star from the mid-1950s through the early 1960s. At times she was actually outselling Sinatra.

Day married her third husband, Marty Melcher in April 1951. He had worked for Day’s agent, but now he became her manager. Most of Kaufman’s informants, from ex-personal secretaries to former co-stars, have little good to say about him. He was a hustler, an operator, an obnoxious guy. His background was Orthodox Jewish, but he became a Christian Scientist, as Day had by the time they married. As they did go to the hospital and see doctors, I supposed they were backsliding Christian Scientists or perhaps afflicted with doubt.  Melcher adopted Day’s son, Terry. The marriage fell apart in 1962 when the couple separated. Melcher had been abusive to Terry and Doris. The couple’s sex life had deteriorated. But Day did not divorce him when Melcher explained that their finances were so entangled that it was wiser to say together at least in name and appearance, which they did, until Melcher died suddenly in 1968. Indeed, after his death, Day discovered that Melcher had mismanaged her affairs, working with a lawyer named Jerome Rosenthal, who was actually in charge of Day’s money. She was nearly broke and was forced to sue Rosenthal. She won a judgment of $22 million of which she got very little, probably around $6 million, but she was satisfied nonetheless. She did learn that she needed to watch her business affairs more closely, as she had let Melcher handle all of her money without ever looking into anything he was doing. Day had to support herself by starring in a mediocre television show for five years (1968-1973), which she nearly single-handedly kept going, and in this way she restored her finances. She achieved something else as well: becoming the first star to win great success in film and television and as a recording artist. There was more unhappiness for Day in store: a fourth unsuccessful marriage, this time, the husband was restaurant manager Barry Comden, ending in money-mismanagement over a line of pet food and divorce, the death of a son, Terry, in 2004 at the age of 62 from cancer. But Day has her animal care foundation, her sixteen or so dogs in her house, her fan clubs, and carries on with great resiliency.

 

 

 

Part 3: Did Doris Day Fail or Did Her Pictures Just Get Small?

 

But she is complex and has uncertainties about herself. That’s what makes her such a great performer. Simple girls can’t act. If she were as uncomplicated as her publicity would lead you to believe, she wouldn’t be the tremendous box-office draw that she is.

—Producer Joe Pasternak

 

If only Day’s husband had resisted his inclinations to follow the old and tired formulas and had been willing to surf the changing tide, his wife’s film career may have thrived instead of sputtering out in relative disgrace in the eyes of cultural commentators.

—David Kaufman

 

Kaufman’s biography is a good and useful work, although it is far from definitive. It is likely that certain things will not be revealed about Day until after she dies: access to certain information may open up, and some informants may talk less guardedly or less vengefully. This book relies a great deal on people who used to work for Day and many factors, both good and bad, motivate this sort of testimony.

Kaufman’s theory that Melcher ruined Day’s career by having her play the eternal virgin or the girl next door-type in a series of very had comedies (Caprice, Where Were You When the Lights Went Out, The Ballad of Josie, With Six You Get Eggroll) well into the 1960s, when American cinema changed dramatically, rather makes their relationship out to be not unlike that of Elvis Presley and the Colonel. (In some sense, Day was lazy about her recording career just as Presley was, singing material that was beneath her, generated by her movies. Her preference was the Great American Songbook, although she did yearn for the relevance of rock in the 1970s but this may have been the influence of her son.) Day reportedly turned down the role of Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. But there is more to this story than an inept manager with bad taste. Day herself was reluctant to play a role in which her fans would not accept her, such as seducing a college boy. She was also middle-aged by the late 1960s and not very inclined to play middle-aged parts, the few that were available to women. (Day was under an enormous disadvantage no matter what she wanted to do because she was a woman. Men—from Gary Cooper to Sean Connery—can continue to play leads in exactly the manner they always have until they are quite old. An old Clark Gable could play against her in Teacher’s Pet but the situation could not have been reversed.) Day was a creation of swing bands and the Hollywood musical, both of which had largely disappeared by the late 1960s. Her epoch had ended. She did not have the gravitas to be welcomed into another era, like, say, Miles Davis or Marlon Brando (a gravitas, I might add, she should have had based on her body of work), and she did not wish to work hard to reinvent herself. She was not unique in this regard: in the late 1960s, Columbia Records wanted jazz pianist Thelonious Monk to make a recording of Beatles tunes. He refused, deciding not to record at all rather than try to be trendy. In the end, the mistake Melcher may have made was half-heartedly trying to have her fit into the age of Aquarius, a time which seems more hideously dated now than the great bulk of Day’s films. Melcher would have done Day a great deal of good if he had taken Monk’s example and simply refused to have her do anything but the sort of thing she had done well in the past without in any way trying to update it. If there was no call for her talents at the moment, she would have done nothing until the world came back to her, as it will, if it ever truly values your art in the first place. But then again, Melcher needed Day to work, especially because he needed her money to finance his mistresses and Rosenthal’s grand investment schemes that never amounted to anything. Duke Ellington kept his band and his sound until the end. In this life, the old saying is true: you have to dance with the person who brought you and in the way you know. Or, do not try to be young when you are not. Which Miles Davis looks and sounds more desperately trapped by his time: the hot, amplified David of the wah-wah trumpet wearing high-heels, leather pants, and gold chains in the 1970s, or the cool, muted Davis of Italian suits and modal jazz and the Great American Songbook?

Day was a creation of swing bands and the Hollywood musical, both of which had largely disappeared by the late 1960s. Her epoch had ended. She did not have the gravitas to be welcomed into another era, like, say, Miles Davis or Marlon Brando (a gravitas, I might add, she should have had based on her body of work), and she did not wish to work hard to reinvent herself. She was not unique in this regard … 

There are some mistakes in the book: Kaufman gives the publication date for Dorothy Baker’s Young Man with a Horn as 1945 when it was actually 1938. He credits lyricist Gus Kahn with writing “I’m Just Wild About Harry,’ when it was actually written by the African American songwriting team of Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. He quotes one former employee discussing Day’s Christian Science that “she would flip a Watchtower on my desk with circles around certain articles.” But Watchtower is the official house organ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, not the Christian Scientists. This has to be incorrect, unless Day dabbled in the doctrine of the Jehovah’s Witnesses too, which no source has ever mentioned, nor has she ever mentioned it herself. Kaufman also writes that Gigi set a new record for Academy Awards when it won nine in 1958. But Gone With the Wind had won ten in 1939. Like many books published today, it could have been edited a little more carefully. But it is certainly worth reading not only for those interested in Day or women in Hollywood films or American popular music, but also those who want to understand the 1950s and 1960s better, when the American Century truly became the American Century.

Subscribe to our email news for the latest content!

Subscribe to our email news and stay up to date on the latest content published by The Common Reader. 

This Just In! Subscribe to our email news.

Subscribe to our email news for the latest content on
The Common Reader. 

Subscribe
Subscribe to our "Mixed Issue" email newsletter!