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Sandra Dee Dies; Star of 'Gidget,' 'Tammy'

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 2005; Page B05

Sandra Dee, the pert and pretty star of popular low-budget teen movies of the late 1950s and early 1960s and the archetypal blond bobby-soxer of the era, died Feb. 20 in Los Angeles. She was 62.

According to the Associated Press, Ms. Dee's family requested that no other details be released, although CNN reported that she had been undergoing treatment at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., for complications of kidney disease and pneumonia.

The public Sandra Dee, as starlet on a movie set in 1957. Privately she battled depression, alcohol and anorexia, she told People magazine in March 1991. (AP)

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Sandra Dee Dies at 63

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She was best known for her roles in "Gidget" (1959) as well as in "Tammy Tell Me True" (1961) and "Tammy and the Doctor" (1963) -- sequels to Debbie Reynolds's 1957 hit "Tammy and the Bachelor."

Ms. Dee also was notable for more serious roles -- "A Stranger in My Arms" (1959), in which she supported June Allyson; Lana Turner's neglected daughter in "Imitation of Life" (1959); and a young hellcat in "The Wild and the Innocent" (1959), a Western with Audie Murphy. She also co-starred with another young, blond heartthrob, Troy Donahue, in "A Summer Place" (1959).

As the 1960s dawned, Hollywood fans across the country were gossiping about Ms. Dee's one-month courtship with singer Bobby Darin before they married. She was voted one of Hollywood's top 10 moneymakers in 1960 and again in 1961, thanks to that year's "Tammy Tell Me True" and "Come September," with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida.

Ms. Dee was born Alexandra Zuck in Bayonne, N.J. She decided on an acting career at age 5 and by 12 had become one of the country's top models and cover girls. Her agency got her into television and TV commercials for Coca-Cola and Coppertone, and she was discovered by Universal producer Ross Hunter, who didn't want to have to pay Warner Bros. $200,000 to borrow Natalie Wood for a remake of "Imitation of Life."

MGM borrowed her for her first movie role, in "Until They Sail" (1957). "Not since the days when Judy Garland and Deanna Durbin were teenagers has there been more excitement over a young girl than there is over Sandra Dee, a peach-melba type honey with the golden-blond hair and the big brown eyes," gossip columnist Louella Parsons enthused over Ms. Dee's movie debut.

MGM kept her for "The Reluctant Debutante" (1958), in which she played an American being launched into London society opposite John Saxon. "Imitation of Life" was her breakthrough.

She did several movies with her husband in the early 1960s, and with James Stewart and Robert Goulet, but after "That Funny Feeling" (1965), a box-office flop that co-starred Darin, and a supporting role in the less-than-successful "A Man Could Get Killed" (1966), Universal dropped her.

"I thought they were my friends," she told the Associated Press that year. "But I found on the last picture ['A Man Could Get Killed'] that I was simply a piece of property to them. I begged them not to make me do the picture, but they insisted."

She and Darin divorced in 1967.

Ms. Dee's last feature film was "The Dunwich Horror" (1970), although she appeared in made-for-TV films throughout the decade. In a March 1991 interview with People magazine, she said that she had been sexually abused as a child by her stepfather and that she was pushed into stardom by her mother. She said she had battled depression, alcohol and anorexia and had hit bottom after her mother died in 1988. She credited her son with helping her recover.

While the real-life Sandra Dee, mostly out of the public eye, battled her private demons, the archetypal "Sandra Dee" lived on as the perfect prom date, the sweet and virginal throwback to a more wholesome era.

"In the '50s, you know, it was the blond sorority queens and cheerleaders, it was the era of Debbie Reynolds, Doris Day and Sandra Dee," iconoclastic feminist scholar and writer Camille Paglia noted in a 1991 Washington Post interview.

"To be blond in that period was . . . And now, the cover of People magazine, Sandra Dee comes out of hiding 20 years later to reveal she was abused by her stepfather, she was a drug addict, she was anorexic. This is so unbelievable, because Sandra Dee to us was like this model of what we should be."

Ms. Dee's marriage to Darin, who died at age 37 in 1973, has been in the spotlight recently because of "Beyond the Sea," Kevin Spacey's movie paean to the singer and teen idol. In the movie, Kate Bosworth plays Darin's wife.

Spacey has said Ms. Dee approved of the movie.

Survivors include a son, Dodd Darin of Malibu, Calif., and two grandchildren.

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