WASHINGTON — Growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s, there was no avoiding the adorable Doris Day. She was cute as a bug, wholesome, winsome and adored, at least in movies, by the swooning-est leading men in Hollywood — Rock Hudson, Cary Grant and Clark Gable, to name a few.
As a young girl, I simply loved her and, of course, wanted to marry Rock. As dreamboats went, he was without par. And Doris (we were on a first-name basis back then) was this motherless girl’s idea of what a woman should be — cheerfully feminine and wise to men.
Today, Day’s characters would be laughable to world-weary children trapped in a sexualized world. But I can testify that watching grown-ups crawl into twin beds wearing pajamas brings no harm to the underaged. I’m grateful for the innocence that society then permitted its younger generation, and to actors such as Day, who declined roles, including Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” that defied her values.
Also, Day was honest enough about herself to figure she probably wouldn’t have been believable as a seductress. She was certainly glamorous, but was also perhaps cursed by a prevailing perkiness that could be neither subdued nor camouflaged. Besides, who would want to see a lascivious Doris Day? Surely, not her fans.
Day’s singing career — about which much has been written — preceded and succeeded her acting career. “Que Será, Será” became her theme song, and its lyrics were tantamount to an elegy for the songstress, who wanted none of that. Day, who died Monday at 97, made known that she didn’t want a funeral, memorial or even a headstone.
In her later years, Day became increasingly reclusive and dedicated her talents and resources to animal rights. If long ago I admired her fictional personas, I’m grateful today for her animal activism and find myself in agreement with her reflection: “The more I study human beings, the more I love animals.”
Though her work for animals is inarguably her greatest legacy, most obituaries have focused on her film and song careers. Eager to know more, I contacted Wayne Pacelle, former head of the Humane Society of the United States, who knew Day and worked with her in pursuing legislative action on behalf of animals.
“Her compassion for all animals — not just dogs, but for all animals — was central to everything she was about,” he wrote in an email. “She attached her name to advocacy organizations to scale up her work for animals — a rare thing for celebrities, who would occasionally weigh in on issues, but not fully commit to engagement on these issues.”
Pacelle said Day frequently called state and federal lawmakers when animal issues hung in the balance. She advocated for a 1990 ban on the trophy hunting of mountain lions in California, was strong in urging an end to cosmetic testing on animals, helped with a 2010 ballot measure in Missouri to crack down on puppy mills, and made calls and sent letters on a wide range of topics to help all animals.
“Lawmakers who were old enough to have been fans were always thrilled to hear from her,” he said. “She was one of the biggest celebrity names in the 20th century, and her guileless approach on animal issues won her so many admirers and fans. She was part of the process of making animal welfare a mainstream issue. She is like Jane Goodall in being above the fray and was almost impossible for apologists of animal cruelty to attack.”
Pacelle visited Day in her Carmel, California, home 14 years ago to discuss merging the Doris Day Animal League (a political advocacy group) with a planned HSUS political action committee. He remembered her home as elegant but understated and described her as “warm and gracious.” A small herd of rescue dogs followed her everywhere. At first, Day was reluctant to combine forces, wishing to remain independent, but she ended the conversation with, “Let’s do it.” The result was a union of HSUS and DDAL and the creation of the Humane Society Legislative Fund and its PAC.
Come to think of it, maybe Day wasn’t a que será, será sort of gal after all. She saw cruelty and used her celebrity to improve the lives of animals and, by extension, helped create a more-humane world. The future may not be ours to see, but Day demonstrated that the future can be made better through activism, helped along, no doubt, by the memory of a wink, a smile and a song.