The Girl Next Door Myth

A reflective Doris Day in “Midnight Lace”1960.

Q “How did you first become interested in Doris Day?”

David Kaufman: “I was all of six or seven years old, when my parents took me to see my first Doris Day film, “The Man Who Knew Too Much”; and by identifying with her on-screen son, I immediately fell in love with her. It was a few years later when I saw her in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies” and fell in love with her again. It was later still, when I was a teenager that I finally caught up with what I consider to be her greatest performance, in her best picture, “Love Me or Leave Me.” Then, over the years, as I kept up with her newly released films, I gradually discovered a number of her earlier pictures. Even though I did not think her last few movies were very good, I still thought that she was utterly natural in them. But some of her earliest pictures I never saw until I began to do the research for the book in the year 2000.”

 "Please Don't Eat the Daisies"

Doris Day preparing for a scene in “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”.

Q “I know from having spoken to you before that in the case of Doris Day, you left certain, possibly even more surprising, revelations out of the finished book. Why did you do that?
And what are your guidelines as a biographer – how do you evaluate the public’s need to know against the subject’s right to privacy and your own sense of might writing about this upset her?”

David Kaufman: “Yes, there were several things I learned which my publisher’s lawyers said I could not include; and I obviously can’t reveal them now, either. There were still other things I learned which I chose not to include because they bordered on being tasteless and wouldn’t have lent anything to the story anyway. But for the most part, as a biographer, I consider it my job to be as complete and as accurate as possible. And, as I’ve already said, an icon of Doris Day’s stature relinquished her rights to privacy when she became such a public figure. It certainly goes with the territory of being such a major star. Indeed, it’s a big part of her story – the extent to which the media was constantly churning out stories on Day during her heyday, which continued even after she retired in 1973, and which sometimes upset her. It’s part of the reason she retreated and cut herself off from the past – even while she continued to respond to fans and devoted herself to her pet causes.”

Doris Day and Ethel Barrymore in "Young at Heart".

Doris Day (Laurie Tuttle) and Ethel Barrymore (Aunt Jessie Tuttle) in “Young at Heart”, 1954.

Q “We know that Doris inspires uncritical adulation among her fans and that people seem to confuse her with her screen persona, expecting her to be a Laurie Tuttle type from “Young at Heart” – or ‘the girl next door’. Why is that?
And why do you think she agreed to hand over responsibility for her career to someone else? I’m thinking of other female stars of that period who fought hard to have control; Betty Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Marilyn Monroe, to name but a few.

David Kaufman: “It’s difficult to say why some people can’t believe that Doris Day is anything other than the girl next door – especially because there probably isn’t any one reason. In other words, different people might have different motives for needing to maintain her girl-next-door image. But perhaps the most common or basic reason is that some people need to believe in the notion of ‘normal’, and that was definitely what Doris Day’s image represented to many.

Some of the most impassioned fans that need to maintain her manufactured image, simply fail to understand that there’s a difference between the movie star image and the person she is in real life. Also, some fans, by their very nature, are nostalgic, and they want to imagine that what they believed when they were growing up, continues to be true.”

Fandom often involves fantasy. And hardcore fans don’t want to have their nostalgic beliefs interfered with or questioned. It’s like a sacred violation of holy territory.

While further considering your question, I am reminded of one of my favourite lines in contemporary drama, from Tracy Letts’ play, “Killer Joe”, which I reviewed for the Daily News when it opened Off-Broadway in 2000: “Normal people are people you don’t know very well.” The point is that no one is “normal,” per se, and Doris Day certainly wasn’t normal. She was —and continues to be – an extremely complicated and contradictory woman. This makes her all the more fascinating for a biographer, no less than for a reader. How boring and tedious her story would be, were she the “normal” “girl next door” she was perceived as being by the world at large. But Doris Day wanted to maintain that image for her fans, some of whom cling to what Doris herself referred to as its “goodie-two-shoes” aspects.

I just read, the other day, in Nancy Franklin’s advance review of Edie Falco’s new HBO series, “Nurse Jackie” (in the “New Yorker”): “Actors have to be willing to burst fans’ bubbles in order to move on; and fans have to let them do it.” And that, in a sense, is something Day never did. It was amazing to discover in the archives how often Day said she never understood where her “girl-next-door” image came from, when, seemingly as many times, she said that she had to maintain that image, otherwise she disappointed her fans. One of the many contradictions…

As for, “Why do you think she agreed to hand over responsibility for her career to someone else?” – Doris Day was taught, early in life, to heed her mother. And with Alma’s blessing, Melcher succeeded Doris’ mother as a parental figure, followed by Terry, her son, her final handler. But increasingly, after Melcher’s death in 1968, Doris pulled away from the limelight and retreated to the privacy she always craved.

Though she hates being called reclusive, that’s what she became, turning down the Kennedy Center Award – among other offers – because she didn’t want to make a public appearance, and also wanted to put the past behind her.

Yet another contradiction: the tireless workaholic was basically a stay-at-home, who didn’t get her real wishes until long after her husband-manager died in 1968.

NEXT: 4. Fan Reaction