I was conquered at age 12 when I first saw Calamity Jane. Her song “The Deadwood Stage,” heroic both in length and its sudden melodic shifts, ascents, and harrowing plunges, was a revelation to me; a masterpiece; a full-throated anthem coursing through several contiguous scenes in a state of almost impossible energy: When I learned later that Miss Day was an avid equestrienne, it made sense. Yes, I was hooked — and I had to have a buckskin jacket for Christmas that year, not because of Bonanza, or a ‘Custer thing,’ but because she wore one in the film. Looking back, I realize she was the first movie star I ever fell in love with.
Calamity led to scanning T.V. Guide religiously for any movie she was in, and I didn’t have to wait long: Young Man with a Horn, where, as Jo Jordan, Big Band chanteuse, she provides Kirk Douglas’ character, virtuoso trumpeter Rick Martin, the safe harbor he needs after breaking up on the rocks of Amy North (Lauren Bacall); Storm Warning, in which she plays the married, and abused, younger sister of Ginger Rogers. Next to the mature Rogers, who possesses the Olympian grandeur of an Athena statue, Doris looks positively mousy — and is, until the finale; the musical By the Light of the Silvery Moon, her second film with Gordon MacRae, features a lovely boating scene at the end a la Currier and Ives — moonlit, of course; 1959’s iconic Pillow Talk, first of the trilogy with Rock Hudson and Tony Randall: triple-split screens and palpable sexuality; That Touch of Mink, perennial favorite with Cary Grant fans (along with North By Northwest and An Affair to Remember), also starring Audrey Meadows and Gig Young, playing what Randall should be playing — and the inimitable John Astin, a guest on my radio show a few years ago, as the hapless Beasley; and Move Over Darling, the madcap remake of Marilyn Monroe’s aborted Something’s Got to Give, with James Garner having to juggle his new life after his declared dead wife reappears on the eve of his wedding. In many ways, like Dante’s Virgil, Doris became my ethereal guide through the wondrous realm of classic films.
Then I struck gold when I finally realized I could watch Doris every week on The Doris Day Show.
Okay, I was 12 or 13. I’d seen from the periphery a lot of attractive older women, usually my parents’ friends, but I was sophisticated enough to recognize an epiphany, a view from a higher summit, when faced with one. I was stunned — the eyes, sparkling; lipstick the color of a rococo sunset; sunglasses cantilevered gently above a fringe of silken bangs — oh, the hair! Apotheosis of the bob?
I’d had all I could take. I wrote a fan letter. I rode my Stingray bike a mile and a half to the Mantoloking post office, making sure the stamp was securely attached and that ‘Beverly Hills, California’ could be read by any in the federal service who might be involved in the conveyance of my precious epistle. On the ride home an old Volkswagen Beetle chugged past me, festooned in a clownish potpourri of streamers and curled paper. Hey, it was June, 1972: hippiedom still reigned, and Nixon was about to commit his fatal blunder. I took the Beetle as a good omen.
Two weeks later, to my utter astonishment, I received an autographed photo. It was the close-up publicity shot from her show: head tilted joyously, hair swept in a graceful hang-ten curl just before the ear; chin nestled like the Logan Rock on her middle knuckle. God bless the U.S. Postal Service! It may as well have been Saint Louis’ Holy Lance or Crown of Thorns. I had energy then: I could’ve built a chapel for it out of driftwood on the beach. Subpar grades on tests, bullying by the big guys at school; none of that mattered. I was the happiest kid in New Jersey.
Back in my room, I scanned the walls like a set designer for an appropriate place to display my treasure. Where to hang an icon? I decided on the bookshelf, next to my “Queen Mary” model (the only one I ever took the time to paint) and worn copy of John Maxtone-Graham’s The Only Way to Cross. I made the mistake of leaving the photo on my desk. (Could I have actually gone out in search of a frame?) My sister, who had witnessed the ecstatic din downstairs when I’d come in with the mail, had entered the room and scribbled — in ink — a mark under Doris’ chin. Today graffiti art is an admired genre. In 1972 that graffiti was a napalm drop on 106 Mathis Place. Collecting myself from what must have approximated an ischemic event, I went into action, converting my desk into a battlefield hospital. I didn’t know then about the miracles achieved by conservators in Florence, rescuing centuries-old manuscripts inundated by the Arno flood of ’66; if I had it would only have heartened me. A Q-Tip, a magnifying glass were found…and a bottle of bleach, which I’d grabbed while ransacking the laundry room. Ah, Ignorance! In an instant I had gone from master surgeon to Albert Pinkham Ryder, beloved American artist with the unfortunate propensity to concoct his own paints. Imagine my horror as I carefully applied the bleach — odious, corrosive elixir! — to the ink curlicue, only to watch as the very paper dissolved below Doris’ superlative jawline! It was all over in less time than a Gatlinburg wedding. I stood back, chopfallen, the scalpel Q-Tip dangling from my fingers. I had received only that day the handkerchief, the favor, of my Lady, only to create, like Victor Frankenstein, a monstrosity.
But I survived. So did my sister. The photo was never framed, never placed next to the Maxtone-Graham book.* I have never beenone to parade my peccadilloes or personal disasters. While I acknowledge this as a weakness, it has the advantage of keeping my shoulders squared and eyes forward. What happened, you ask, to Doris’ picture? It, too, survives, but in an album under plastic. I visit her from time to time. I gaze upon her, more beautiful at fifty than most are at twenty, and feel a welling of gratitude — for the movies, for the T.V. show, and for elevating the spirits of a perceptive but vulnerable twelve year-old in need of something glorious. Doris Day gave me and many others that elusive high note trumpeter Rick Martin finally reaches with Jo.
* John Maxtone-Graham, dean of maritime historians, would join me three
times for interviews. Around the time of this story, I purchased my
first ‘expensive’ book — John’s iconic The Only Way to Cross.
Another distinguished guest, film historian Tom Santopietro, wrote a
fabulous biography of Doris titled Considering Doris Day.