Doris Day: America's Sweetheart

How hard it was to read that Doris Day passed away today? It felt like a punch to the gut, even though Day had been retired for decades, focusing her attention on animal rescue projects. For generations of Americans, though, Doris Day was more than just a retired actress. She was an icon of American life, the quintessential girl next door, and a multimedia star beyond measure.

Doris Day was America’s sweetheart … and still is:

Doris Day, who used her girl-next-door good looks to charm American audiences during a decades-long acting and singing career, died on Monday. She was 97.

Best known for her wistful song “Que Sera, Sera,” Day passed away surrounded by close friends at her home near Carmel Valley, California, the Doris Day Animal Foundation said in a statement to The Associated Press.

She “had been in excellent physical health for her age, until recently contracting a serious case of pneumonia,” according to the foundation. She had just turned 97 on April 3.

In addition to her singing career, Day was also a movie star with hits such as “Pillow Talk” in 1959, “The Man Who Knew Too Much” in 1956, “Love Me or Leave Me” in 1955, “Calamity Jane” in 1953 and “Lover Come Back” in 1960.

This isn’t an attempt at a standard obituary. We’ll have all that and more from other outlets. Speaking as a member of the later generation that fell in love with Day, I can only say that her impact was massive, wonderful, and positive. Her movies may come from another time — and even then more of a confection than a reflection — but utterly charming. One never got the sense that Day “used” her looks and charm, but just that films and music allowed us to experience them. I watch them to this day and get the same enjoyment as ever from them, especially her collaborations with Rock Hudson and Tony Randall.

Day occupied a similar position as the late Shirley Temple Black, who passed away five years ago.  They transcended their performances, becoming people who represented America at its best. Day understood that too, although she never tried to exploit it either. She famously turned down the opportunity to play Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate because the seduction of a teenage boy “offended my sense of values.” She did some dramatic and more ambiguous roles too, but later wrote in her memoir that fans struggled to accept her in them. “I don’t think anybody would have believed me if I had been cast in the role of the mistress whore Mildred in ‘Of Human Bondage.’ ”

Doris Day was a woman of grace and beauty of the kind that go well beyond the surface. She had her struggles in life, but even then demonstrated her kindness and compassion. When her friend Hudson became ill with AIDS, Day set an example for love and support that may be largely forgotten now, but was a veritable beacon in the darkness in those days. Day was always appealing, and always appealed to our better natures. And we loved her for it.

Day’s signature song was “Que Sera Sera,” a beautiful tune made even better with her voice. We’ll hear plenty of that today, but here’s another standard that Day brought to life — “Dream a A Little Dream of Me.” It’s one of my favorite songs, covered by many artists, including a terrific version by Mama Cass. Day’s version has everything delightful about her voice and personality, though, and I can’t help but thinking this is a perfect memory of her today. The final verse seems so much more meaningful now:

Sweet dreams ’til sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams, whatever they be

Dream a little dream of me

We will, Ms. Day, and we will miss you terribly. Thank you for all the joy you brought us, and may sunbeams carry worries far, far behind you now. And may we all remember Day like this — and remember how blessed we were to have her at all.