I knew Doris Day before she was a virgin.- Oscar Levant
Doris Day has passed away. She was a singer, movie and television star and an icon of a time gone by. She was also a champion of animals and for me that was enough. I was not a fan of her movies although I can well remember sitting in the old environs of Radio City Music Hall with my grandmother in the early 60’s and laughing along with her at Doris’s hi jinks with James Garner in The Thrill of it All. And while I can appreciate her talents as a big band singer and have had occasion to enjoy some of her recordings, I am a much bigger fan of many of the other lady singers of the era from which she emerged. This is not a slight, it was an incredible era. It is not a slight to be considered a half step behind vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Carmen McRae, Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, Nina Simone or Betty Carter et al.
Doris Day was not all she was cracked up to be and once again this is not a slight. Feminists have often criticized her image, but one must remember it was after all, an image. An image crafted by Hollywood studios, publicists and an era seeking a certain type of escapism. It was an era shaped by World War II and the Korean War, which came rather too closely on each other’s heels. The people shaping those times were the products of the greatest economic failure in the country’s history. They were often the products of bread lines. It was a time which spawned a Cold War between ideologies casting the us and them of such as dark versus light. Doris Day represented the light. Her antithesis in this ideological comic book was Natasha Fatale, who together with her spy partner Boris Badenov were constantly foiled by Rocky and Bullwinkle. Or as Natasha referred to them, “moose and squirrel”.
Doris Day’s movie career happened at a point in time when women had very little if any, real power. But she carved out a place for herself as a female star who understood the power she had and set to using it the best she could in her times. Her characters were working women and mothers as well as home makers and yes, at times, even abused women. In short, she helped make possible the variety of roles of substance women would begin to play from the 1960’s onward. Her life was not without tribulation and tragedy, but like the heroines she often played she possessed the ability of great resilience.
I experience sadness at the news of her passing not because she was a movie or song heroine of mine. No, for me, Doris Day, better than just about any other Hollywood star of her time represents the best of our spirit. And my sadness is borne of knowing that her type of fresh faced enthusiasm for what is good and honest in America is eroding with each election cycle.
Sure, the 1950’s and early 60’s were decidedly not what was depicted in the films of the era. The fresh-faced enthusiasm of Doris Day was too often used as a cover for the tumors metastasizing on all the internal organs of America. The Eisenhower era is often used as the model of what some consider the “great” in America, in a message devoid of any understanding of what those times really meant for more than a few Americans who were not blonde and blue eyed. But it was also the era of the development of the US highway system making possible the connection of Americans from all across the country and with it the possible evolution of deeper understanding. Television and television news made our warts and scars as visible as our freshest linens and whitest teeth. Dwight Eisenhower was a Republican, who respected the law and used the power of his presidency to ensure that certain students being deprived of the education they were entitled to would receive it even if such a thing had to come at the point of a bayonet. For in such a time the constitution and the courts still at least seemed to matter. For more than a few, decency still mattered. If Doris Day represented anything, it was decency and the joy of an American spirit that should be available to all of us. She represented the best in us even when the best in us was difficult to discern. At times it was laughable, but since when has laughter been a bad thing?
Recently I read an article about the disappearance of certain niceties from our culture. Simple expressions like “excuse me” and “sorry” or “my pleasure” have gone the way of the rotary dial phone. Some of this is understandable. Language after all is a living thing and like life itself, it will evolve. We seem to be obsessed with making things shorter and contractions seem to be the words of the day. When I think of the niceties, I can’t help but think of Doris Day who was always honest, fresh and life affirming. Cruelty had no place in her world. Being life affirming means respecting all life. Our dogs and our cats, our frogs and our turtles, our hamsters and parakeets are not just pets. They are family members. Doris Day spent a good deal of her later years and a good deal of her fortune spreading the word about this and making it possible for these very exceptional friends of ours to experience the exceptional lives they deserve.
So today, or any day really, when the daily reminders of our own awfulness and intolerance of each other manifests itself in the news, in the home or on the streets, try to smile and think of Doris, mutter a quiet Que sera, sera and go find a dog to pet. I suggest you get their permission first. But I guarantee, if they allow it, you will feel better.