Introduced in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 movie The Man Who Knew Too Much, it soon became a jukebox staple, and it’s one of the few non-rock songs of that era that even millennials can probably hum. But from its fake-Spanish title on down, it’s one of the odder American songs of any era to become universally beloved.
Not only is “Que Sera, Sera” a philosophy lesson, it’s the only one that turns fatalism—“What will be, will be”—into a sunnily upbeat view of life. That’s why it’s a uniquely American sort of national treasure. So is the Cincinnati gal who sang it, and who went from thinking it was a “kiddie song” and “not my kind of lyric” to recognizing it was the perfect expression of her life story.
Now 92 years old, the former Doris Kappelhoff has lived for decades in a town as unlike the Queen City as a place can be while remaining part of these United States. Just try finding a decent Schweinenknacken Kotellet mit Sauerkraut in Carmel, California. Good German-American cooking was what she claimed she’d missed most during a rare return to her native city to promote one of the 39 movies she starred in between 1948 and 1968.
The two-story brick house where she spent her girlhood idolizing silver-screen hoofer Ginger Rogers and studying Ella Fitzgerald’s phrasing on the radio still stands on Greenlawn Avenue in Evanston, looking disheveled but sturdy in a Pippi Longstocking way. It’s privately owned and not a museum, but enterprising tourists sometimes track down the address to make pilgrimages. You see, not long after Doris started singing on WLW—not an all-talk station then—and in area restaurants and nightclubs in 1940, a local bandleader named Barney Rapp convinced the 16-year-old chanteuse to start calling herself Doris Day.
She’s claimed she always disliked the name. “It sounds like a headliner at the Gaiety Burlesque House,” she remembers complaining to Rapp before giving in. She only took charge of her career in earnest when she placidly decided to end it at age 49, as if the whole thing had been somebody else’s idea all along.
Despite multiple attempts to lure her out of retirement, she’s devoted herself ever since to animal-welfare crusading, with a foundation named after her to prove it. Her rare public appearances are usually on her four-legged friends’ behalf. But she does greet fans from her Carmel balcony, chatting with the lucky ones via cellphone, every April 3: her birthday.
If that makes them sound like her royal subjects, she’s earned it. The Gaiety Burlesque House, Ms. Kappelhoff? No way. This country’s mostly flush and merry years between victory in World War II and John F. Kennedy’s 1963 assassination were America’s most confident imitation of paradise, at least for those not excluded from its perks by poverty, prejudice, or both. Back then, DORIS DAY on a movie marquee promised fresh-faced but quick-witted wholesomeness the way Commies spelled trouble and pizza still counted as ethnic food.
On top of that, from “Sentimental Journey” to “Secret Love” to “Que Sera, Sera,” her only rival at providing the Greatest Generation’s alternately wistful and chipper soundtrack was Frank Sinatra. It’s no exaggeration to say we’ll never look upon her like again.
That’s partly because today’s U.S.A. will never again resemble the homogenized culture she flourished in. All sorts of reasons spring to mind to say “Good riddance” to her often blinkered mid-century America. But like Ford Thunderbirds and the Detroit that built them, Doris Day isn’t one of those reasons. Even in the age of Obama, her allure endures. One of 2009’s more unexpected musical charmers was Normal as Blueberry Pie: A Tribute to Doris Day by eclecticism buff Nellie McKay, who doesn’t sound like Doris so much as she sounds like the impudent 21st-century kid sister who knows Doris better than anybody.
Day ruled an only semi-illusory popular consensus that’s now as mysterious as Stonehenge. To picture her modern equivalent, you’d have to imagine Laura Bush, Michelle Obama, Rihanna, Katie Couric, Ellen DeGeneres, and Jennifer Aniston were all somehow the same person—all of them equally mainstream, none of them nonwhite or gay, and none remotely controversial. Almost half a century after her last big-screen appearance, she remains, by pure box-office measure, the most popular movie actress in history.
In other words, any account of 20th century American entertainment that doesn’t give Doris Day her due is woefully incomplete. But mention her name to anyone not already safely clutched to the AARP’s bosom, and you’ll probably get a blank look. Would-be Jeopardy! winners familiar with vintage Hollywood lore may recall that she was famous for playing squeaky-clean prudes who went into a tizzy at the idea of sex minus a wedding ring, the reputation forever cemented by showbiz wag Oscar Levant’s mean-spirited crack that he’d known Doris Day before she was a virgin.
They’ll be recalling wrong, though. No wonder Doris, in her 1975 autobiography Doris Day: Her Own Story—whose actual writing she entrusted to fellow Midwesterner, Depression brat, and Papa Hemingway scribe A.E. Hotchner—was fed up enough with her image to make sure readers knew she’d had lots of great times in the sack, not always with a wedding ring in sight. Even when it comes to her filmography, only 1962’s silly That Touch of Mink—featuring a then 38-year-old Doris fending off Cary Grant’s advances until Grant breaks down and proposes—truly fits the stereotype she’s misremembered for.
Otherwise, she was often cast as a prototypical career woman, in control of her sexuality and no naif. And in big-city or suburban settings, she was also awfully comfortable with the postwar USA’s sophistication and affluence. The Middle American twist was that Day made sophistication and affluence seem like rewards for her—or maybe our—prior innocence and virtue, and that may define how she never really left Cincinnati behind.
“I only left because the tide of events washed me away,” she (or Hotchner) writes in Her Own Story, typically sounding quite sure of herself and passive at once. “I could have happily lived my entire life in Cincinnati, married to a proper Cincinnatian, living in a big old Victorian house [and] raising a brood of offspring.” It says a lot about the former Doris Kappelhoff that when she makes claims like that—which would sound like press-handout drivel coming from anyone else—you believe her.
Even so, her up-bringing was no idyll. Doris was 10 when her father, music-loving but emotionally reticent piano teacher William Kappelhoff, scandalized their tight-knit community by flaunting his affair with a married family friend, provoking the breakup of her parents’ marriage. He was also a virulent bigot, and “I had no reason to question any of these abstract prejudices,” his daughter explains. “Abstract” is the right word because no member of any ethnic group he denounced was actually on hand to help prove Dad wrong.
Curiously, William Kappelhoff was to startle people all over again late in life by wedding Luvenia Williams, the African-American woman who helped run a saloon he owned in what people still called “the ghetto” then. “It was as if the man I knew had died and been reincarnated,” was how Day described her only visit to the “charming German bar,” crowded with black patrons, where “Mister Bill” was much loved—her first sight of him in many years. But his 1934 desertion of the family wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to her when she was young.
When she was 13, a severe auto accident shattered her right leg, putting her on crutches for a year and a half and ending her dream of becoming a professional dancer. Doris was gifted enough that she was about to relocate to L.A. for dance school when the car she was riding in the night of her goodbye party got smacked by a train.
Que sera, sera. She wasn’t sure she’d ever walk again, let alone have any future as an entertainer. Enter the “one person who had the greatest effect on the career that was in store for me”: Cincinnati voice teacher Grace Raine. Raine thought Doris’s singing had such promise that she tutored the teenager at a much reduced fee. And Raine knew talent, since her other pupils included not only Andy Williams but—more interestingly, in those segregated times—the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, two African-American vocal quartets.
That’s intriguing because Day seems to incarnate the era when, as Ronald Reagan notoriously—and wrongheadedly—said, “This country didn’t even know it had a race problem.” Yet her story has a way of evocatively intersecting with black America’s, from her early adulation of Ella Fitzgerald and William Kappelhoff’s conversion from racism to Grace Raine’s color-blind talent roster. The symbolic capper was a rumor that swept the country in the early-’70s that the then-fortysomething Day was having a torrid affair with Sly Stone, then topping the charts with the likes of “Dance to the Music” and “Stand.”
Almost certainly untrue, it was nonetheless a metaphorical—um, rapprochement?—for the ages. Sly himself tipped his hat to the idea’s charm by covering “Que Sera, Sera” on what turned out to be Sly And The Family Stone’s last successful album. You can’t help wishing Day had returned the favor by recording Sly’s “Everyday People,” but some things aren’t meant to be.
Besides giving private lessons, Raine was also the voice coach at WLW. Young Doris became a regular on a show called Carlin’s Carnival. A now obscure ditty called “Day After Day” was her nearest thing to a signature tune. That’s how Barney Rapp came to hear her, hire her, and rename her, taking her on the road with his band once his local nightclub folded. (Day never finished high school.) Next came higher-profile work with Chicago bandleader Bob Crosby and, eventually, Les Brown And His Band of Renown. All this before she turned 17.
But Doris had fallen in love with a trombone player named Al Jorden, and stunned Brown by quitting to marry him. As she saw it, “singing was just something to do” until she made good on her real ambition: wedlock, tending a house, raising a family. Instead, she found herself camping in a dingy New York apartment while Jorden played road dates with Jimmy Dorsey’s band. But life was worse when he was home, since Jorden was not only pathologically jealous but quick with his fists. He first hit her all of 48 hours after the wedding, and went on beating her even after she got pregnant two months later.
They were divorced soon after the birth of Day’s only child, a boy named Terry who became a successful record producer. Returning to Cincinnati with her infant son, she was once again singing on WLW to make ends meet when Les Brown wooed her back to the big time, leaving Terry to be raised by Doris’s very capable-sounding mom. Then she and Brown’s orchestra recorded “Sentimental Journey,” the first smash hit of Doris Day’s career.
It deserved to be. As World War II wound down in 1945, countless homesick American servicemen heard their deepest longings in a song whose combination of elegance and forthrightness is moving even 70-plus years later. Brown gets full credit for the seductive tempo, which mimics a train’s movement with such languor that this is audibly a journey anticipated, not undertaken. But the warmth and hard-won tranquility of Day’s vocal make the song indelible. The way she mutes the closing line’s key word—“Sentimental journey home,” as if she’s suddenly not sure she’ll get there, or maybe whether home’s still there at all—is heartbreaking.
Like most quixotic beliefs, Day’s conviction that wedded bliss was her true calling died hard. By 1946, having quit Brown’s band for love’s sake yet again, she was living in a trailer in housing-short Los Angeles with her second husband, saxophone player George Weidler. But her second marriage was even briefer than the first. More prescient than his bride, Weidler told her she was bound for stardom and he didn’t want to end up being Mr. Doris Day.
Right on cue, Hollywood offered her her first movie role. According to Day, “acting in films had never so much as crossed my mind.” If true, that would have made her unique among American children raised during the Depression, but never mind. When director Michael Curtiz told her he wanted her to play the lead in something called Romance on the High Seas, she answered, “How can I possibly be the lead? I haven’t had any experience—I don’t know how to act. That seems pretty crazy to me.”
But Curtiz convinced her he knew better, just as other impresarios had or would. The essence of Doris Day, or conceivably Doris Kappelhoff, may be that she’s much too sane and responsible ever to take responsibility for other people’s nutty notions of her destiny.
Most of the 17 movies Day starred in for Warner Brothers over the next eight years were fairly undistinguished musicals. She was at the wrong studio for good ones. MGM’s renowned musical unit was the class of the field, and WB . . . well, wasn’t.
The best known of them, 1953’s Calamity Jane, is painful viewing. Doris looks great in her buckskins and little rebel cap, but she’s got to keep overselling the rambunctiousness while costar Howard Keel (as Wild Bill Hickok) looks even groggier than usual. What’s most enjoyable is realizing that this hunk of frantically hearty Americana is based on the same people as HBO’s blood-soaked, foul-mouthed Deadwood. America’s entertainment priorities do change in dizzying ways, or maybe our understanding of a usable past.
Far better is 1950’s Young Man With a Horn, starring Kirk Douglas as a tormented trumpet player. Day plays an up-and-coming singer who loses him to wicked Lauren Bacall. What’s most interesting about her performance is that she’s neither demure nor maidenly; indeed, she’s plainly the aggressor in their first love scene. Day has said that making the movie brought back traumatic memories of her own early years on the road, and the curiosity there is that she’s never spelled out what those memories might be. Of Al Jorden, most likely, but what else? Conceivably, she’s got her reasons to identify with ill-treated pets.
Her lot improved once her Warner Brothers contract expired and Day turned freelancer. As usual, she relied—too much so in the long run—on a male guru to plot her course: her third husband, onetime song plugger and agent Marty Melcher, whom she’d married in 1951. Even her son Terry—who took Melcher’s name soon after the wedding—eventually came to think that his otherwise resilient mother was overly dependent on father figures.
Unlike her first two marriages, though, this one did last, ending only with Melcher’s death in 1968. He also took producer or co-producer credit on most of her movies after 1955’s Love Me or Leave Me, her first non-WB vehicle and one of her best. Day stars as Prohibition-era singer Ruth Etting opposite a menacing James Cagney as Marty Snyder, the petty mobster who became her manager and husband. (Then and later, the parallels to Day’s real-life situation didn’t go unnoticed: “I never knew anyone who liked Melcher,” the usually affable James Garner was to say of Doris’s most durable Svengali.) Her performance is good, but also fascinatingly split down the middle. In her dramatic scenes with Cagney and others, she’s bitter and hardened when she has to be. But as soon as she doesn’t have to be, she’s our eager-to-please Doris again, and the duality is almost schizoid.
By contrast, her work in The Man Who Knew Too Much is terrifically coherent. As the wife of American doctor James Stewart, with whom she’s vacationing in Morocco when their son is kidnapped to keep Stewart silent about a murdered Frenchman’s dying words, she’s probably the warmest human presence in any of Alfred Hitchcock’s latter-day classics. The trick is that she doesn’t act as if she’s conscious of being in a Hitchcock film, and he doesn’t try to turn her into one of the blonde ice goddesses he favored as heroines in those days.
Toward the end, when she reprises “Que Sera, Sera,” the whole point is that she isn’t concentrating on her singing. It’s a signal to her kidnapped boy that she and Stewart are on the premises. Her panicked phrasing is a triumph of Doris the actress over Doris the meticulous singer, not that she could have guessed “Que Sera, Sera” would end up as the tune she’ll always be best remembered for.
One way Day was vital to The Man Who Knew Too Much is that channeling her inner Midwesterner makes her an ideal representative of Americans abroad. But people who believe it’s a great movie—and it is—seldom think of it as a great Doris Day movie. Actresses who epitomize heartland, middle-class values as effortlessly as she does never get taken seriously, either by critics or in La-la-land.
Instead, the films that did the most to stamp her image for posterity, even as posterity got the basic facts garbled, are the handful of sexually knowing romantic and marital comedies—tame now, but bawdy then—she made between 1959 and 1964, most famously the three costarring Rock Hudson: Pillow Talk, Lover Come Back, and Send Me No Flowers. Cary Grant subbed for Hudson in That Touch of Mink, and James Garner was her sparring partner in The Thrill of It All and Move Over, Darling. As cinema, they’re trivial, but trivial art combined with cultural appositeness was always Day’s special province.
Suddenly, she’s a very modern woman, often with her own profession—an interior decorator in Pillow Talk, an ad exec in Lover Come Back—and plenty of brains. Only in That Touch of Mink is she, fairly absurdly, a novice at sex. All these years later, the whole short-lived genre is an affecting reminder of how new and exciting America’s mid-century prosperity was: the gadgets, the sleek cars, the fashion sense, the headiness of a chic life now available even to bourgeois plodders and strivers. Those are the values the embryonic counterculture would soon reject, turning Day’s brand of fun archaic and belittling it in the bargain. But even though Pillow Talk and its sequels aren’t great movies, they’re sure great Doris Day movies—her wartime generation’s last spree before midlife kicked in and those uppity boomers took over.
Ending with 1968’s With Six You Get Eggroll, her final few movies weren’t good, mostly thanks to Marty Melcher. Day was his meal ticket, but he was too cheap to fork over for quality scripts or directors and saddled her with mediocre material instead. Then Marty died out of the blue, and she learned he’d signed her up for a TV sitcom without her knowledge. But she gamely soldiered through five seasons of The Doris Day Show on CBS, peddling the old upbeat goods as the Vietnam War turned into a debacle and Richard Nixon sank deeper into Watergate.
The apocalyptic later 1960s didn’t leave her unscathed. By then, her son Terry was one of L.A.’s most successful music producers, working with, among others, The Mamas and The Papas. That’s how he came to introduce Doris to, yes, Sly Stone—although it may have been their only meeting. Unfortunately, Charles Manson had musical ambitions, and apparently blamed Terry for not being more receptive. Soon after the Manson “family” murdered Sharon Tate and others in August of 1969, the LAPD told Terry that he’d been the intended victim, leaving him not only guilt-wracked but fearful for his and his famous mother’s safety. By his own account, his crackup under the strain lasted two years.
Adding to her stresses, one reason Doris had to keep doing The Doris Day Show was that she was broke. Soon after Marty Melcher’s death, she discovered that his business partner, Jerome B. Rosenthal, had bilked her out of millions in movie earnings, either behind Melcher’s back or with his collusion. (Which it was has never been established.) Not until 1974 did she win the $22.8 million court judgment against Rosenthal that left her set for life.
Afterward, she published her autobiography, settled in Carmel, and never worked again. Aside from her animal-welfare work, she was apparently content to be out of the public eye for good. Plainly, all those movies and records (and certainly the TV show) had just been a job to her—an interesting and rewarding one but nothing to miss much once she was done. In showbiz terms, that’s enough to make her as enigmatic as the Sphinx.
Or maybe just a sensible Cincinnati gal, which probably comes to the same thing in Hollywood’s eyes. So far as anyone knows, she hasn’t been back to her native city in decades, and even healthy 92-year-olds aren’t much on travel. But que sera, sera, and it’s still nice to picture her taking one last sentimental journey home.