John Locke, when confronted with the question, what gives a person their unique identity, suggested that it is our memories that make us who we are. Even though I don’t agree that identity is solely memory related, it is nonetheless an indisputable fact that our memories provide richness and meaning to our lives.
Locke was correct when he talks about the highly personal nature of our memories. Yet there is another communal side to memories which we apprehend in a wide variety of ways including in person (architecture, theater or art work) or through a medium (movies, television, social media, etc.). We are forever grateful to the artists who through their hard work, natural talent and dedication have contributed to the richness of all our lives. This past week we lost three such outstanding artists: the visionary architect I.M. Pei, the hysterically funny Tim Conway and the talented actress and singer, Doris Day. I only have space to examine one in depth. So here goes:
Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff grew up in Cincinnati in the 1920s. She was a great dancer and her parents knew it. They saved their meager funds to take her to Los Angeles for dancing lessons. But before that could happen, at age 12 the car she was a passenger in was hit by a train. Young Doris survived but had a broken leg and dancing lessons were out of the question. Beside herself on what to do for her daughter her mom decided to do two things which would have a profound impact on the rest of her daughter’s life. First, to distract her from her very unfortunate plight, she signed her up for singing lessons. Second, she bought her a dog, Tiny.
The teenage Ms. Kappelhoff proved to be exceptional at singing but not so much as a dog owner. While still on crutches she walked her beloved dog without a leash. He was hit by a car and died. For the rest of her life (especially during the last 50 years) she dedicated herself to helping animals, blaming herself for “betraying” her little dog. During her lifetime, Doris Mary Anne was to rescue and enhance the lives of thousands upon thousands of dogs, all in Tiny’s memory.
As for her singing, she was a total natural. She left high school and began singing in local clubs. By then she had traded in her crutches for a cane, but it would still be years before she could really dance again. One local club had a rather small marquee and the owner complained to Doris that her name wouldn’t easily fit. Overnight the name Doris Day was born.
She might have remained at the level of a successful local entertainer had it not been for a streak of serendipitous luck. First, band leader Les Brown heard her sing and immediately signed her up to sing in his Les Brown and the Blue Devils. The second piece of luck is a little more involved. Songwriters Sammy and Julie Styne had written a beautiful score for their upcoming movie musical Romance on the High Seas. It was expressly written for Judy Garland but she flatly turned them down. They next approached Betty Hutton but she was pregnant and couldn’t take the role. Then at a Hollywood party they happened to meet Ms. Day and even though she had no acting experience or training they offered her the role. Again she excelled. “Movie acting came to me with greater ease and naturalness than anything I had ever done,” she remarked.
As much as she enjoyed acting, the audiences enjoyed her even more. In 1968 alone she starred in over 40 movies. In the 50’s she had played the perky young girl next door while in the 60’s she graduated to the all American woman. She was ranked the most popular female actress four times, a feat equaled by only one other actress (Shirley Temple).
By the time she retired in 1973 she had established herself as one of the all time greats, not only for her acting but also for her singing. Les Brown once remarked, “As a singer, Doris belongs in the company of Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.” Miles Kreuger, President of the Institute of the American Musical stated without hesitation, “Doris Day was the most underrated film musical performer of all time.”
As all of us do, she had her detractors. Many dismissed her as goody-two-shoes or as critic Pauline Kael called her, “the all-American middle-aged girl.” But if you look closely at her films, she consistently played women who had real careers and although the films’ chauvinistic themes are prevalent, Ms. Day’s characters consistently challenged the societal limits placed upon them.
As for her personal life, it was marred by failed marriages. It is said that she sang one of her most famous songs “Que Sera, Sera” (whatever will be, will be) with a true fatalistic spirit. Life had in a real sense broken her, but not completely. She often remarked to friends that her private life was living proof of the fact that, except in the movies, no one lives happily ever after. As for Ms Day, whenever she was down, she turned to the one source of comfort that never let her down, her animals. She commented, “During the painful and bleak periods I’ve suffered through these past years, my animal family has been a source of joy and strength to me. I have found when you are deeply troubled there are things you get from the silent, devoted companionship of your pets that you can’t get from any other source.”
The latter half of her life was dedicated to her foundation, The Doris Day Animal Foundation, which is a living testament to the important role pets can play in our lives. That fact is not just conjecture, it’s science. My college roommate, Dr. David Hagner recently published a book (which I highly recommend) entitled “Undeniable Solidarity: How Dogs and Humans Domesticated One Another” in which he brilliantly lays out through science, archeology, world mythology, sleep science, dog behavior and philosophy how exactly we came to develop such a close connection to our canine friends and what an important role such a connection can play in our lives.
Thank you Doris Mary Anne Kappelhoff for all the delightful memories your songs and your movies have given us. You will remain in our hearts and minds for a long, long time. And thank you for appreciating the value of our four legged friends.