The melancholy, troubled life of a hard-working pop singer and natural actor.

Reviewed by Gerald Bartell
Sunday, July 27, 2008; Page BW08


The Untold Story of the Girl Next Door

By David Kaufman

Virgin. 626 pp. $29.95

David Kaufman comes right to the point at the start of his life of Doris Day: "Day has been largely and unfairly neglected by cultural arbiters."

Day's career is not something to neglect lightly. After paying her dues as a big band singer, the former Doris Kappelhoff scored big in a series of pleasant but innocuous Warner Bros. musicals: "Romance on the High Seas" (1948), "My Dream is Yours" (1949), "It's a Great Feeling" (1949). Audiences warmed to this fresh-faced, smiling girl who sang in clear, soothing tones. With more complex roles and the push of Martin Melcher, her aggressive husband-manager, Day climbed higher. She played masochistic real-life singer Ruth Etting in "Love Me or Leave Me " (1955), trembled as the mother of a kidnapped son in "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956), and wowed 'em singing and dancing in "The Pajama Game" (1957). Then came a series of glossy comedies, including "Teacher's Pet" (1958), "Pillow Talk" (1959) and "Lover Come Back" (1962). For 10 years, Day reigned as Hollywood's number-one female box-office attraction.

But when Mike Nichols suggested that Day bare body and soul as Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate" (1967), she hung a Do Not Disturb sign on the door. She made trite films like "Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?" (1968) and "With Six You Get Eggroll" (1968). A tepid TV series and a talk show marked her career glide-path.

Kaufman, also the author of a biography of actor-playwright Charles Ludlum, offers a tour of Day's life, but it's not always a guided tour. God may dwell in details, but keen writers sort, omit and evaluate them. Kaufman avalanches a reader with what seems like every detail recorded, written or imagined about Day (except for anything directly from the star herself, whom he did not interview).

For example, Kaufman could well have scrapped a tedious, ongoing narrative about Day's relationships with her British fan club. And instead of describing the bathrobe she didn't wear in "Storm Warming" (1950), her first drama, he might have spent more time assessing her mature acting in the film, which led Alfred Hitchcock to cast her in "The Man Who Knew Too Much."

Throughout the biography, Kaufman appraises Day's acting in enthusiastic but rather general terms. He then hands over the discussion to others, ticking through the contrasting opinions of a slate of critics stretching from the New York Times to the Beverly Hills Citizen. He presents without elaboration James Wolcott's astounding assertion in Vanity Fair that, in their romantic comedies, Day and Rock Hudson were "far superior to Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy."

For all its details, the biography scants a major aspect of Day's career, her singing. Kaufman lauds her vocals as "extraordinary" but describes her full shelf of recordings only in passing. In an appraisal of Day's career far more judicious than Kaufman's, author Tom Santopietro ranks Day's singing with Frank Sinatra's. Does she deserve a niche in the pantheon of American pop singers? Kaufman doesn't explore this most pertinent question.

He does provide some insights into the star's troubled personal life. Day's parents divorced when she was 13, leaving her to be raised solely by a driving stage mother. The first of Day's four husbands beat her when she was eight months pregnant. Her third husband, Melcher, trusted her business dealings to a lawyer who robbed her of over 22 million dollars. (Day's son took charge of a long court battle that recovered the funds.) Kaufman suggests that Day's heartbreaks may have fed the tears welling in her eyes in so many Technicolor close-ups.

And to his otherwise soft-focus biography, Kaufman supplies a sharp, haunting climax. He reports that in 1991, when cabaret singer Mary Cleere Haran beseeched Day to appear in a documentary about Day's career, a "wild eyed" Day burst into tears when asked about her success in films. Her career, she said, "was not a dream come true. All I ever wanted is what you have right now: a baby, a husband who really loved me, a home, all the happiness that they could bring. I never got that, and that's all I really wanted.''

Day, now 86, lives mostly alone on her 10-acre estate in California's Carmel Valley. Fan gatherings divert her, as do the pets she shelters. But her son, Terry, and many close friends have died. According to Kaufman, she once turned her grandson away at the gate, fearing that he might serve papers related to a divorce dispute among his dad, mother and grandmother. Day recently told Liza Minnelli, "Everything is fine." But this book suggests that beneath the phony tinsel of Day's time in Hollywood is not the real tinsel of Oscar Levant's wisecrack, but a deep vein of melancholy. ยท

Gerald Ba rtell is an arts and travel writer who lives in Manhattan.

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