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Doris Day, actress who honed wholesome image, dies at 97

Actress Doris Day has died at the age of 97, her foundation said. She was a No. 1 draw at the box office in the 1960s and had a popular TV show.

Doris Day, the sunny blond actress and singer whose frothy comedic roles opposite the likes of Rock Hudson and Cary Grant made her one of Hollywood’s biggest stars in the 1950s and ’60s and a symbol of wholesome American womanhood, died Monday. She was 97.

In more recent years, Day had been an animal rights advocate. Her Doris Day Animal Foundation confirmed her death at her Carmel Valley, California, home.

Day “had been in excellent physical health for her age” but had recently contracted pneumonia, the foundation said in a statement. She requested that no memorial services be held and no grave marker erected.

With her lilting contralto, fresh-faced beauty and glowing smile, Day was a top box-office draw and recording artist known for comedies such as “Pillow Talk” and “That Touch of Mink,” as well as songs like “Whatever Will Be, Will Be (Que Sera, Sera)” from the Alfred Hitchcock film “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

Over time, she became more than a name above the title. Right down to her cheerful, alliterative stage name, she stood for the era’s ideal of innocence and G-rated love, a parallel world to her contemporary Marilyn Monroe. The running joke, attributed to both Groucho Marx and actor-composer Oscar Levant, was that they had known Day “before she was a virgin.”

Day herself was no Doris Day, by choice and by hard luck. Her 1976 tell-all book, “Doris Day: Her Own Story,” chronicled her money troubles and three failed marriages.

“I have the unfortunate reputation of being Miss Goody Two-Shoes, America’s Virgin, and all that, so I’m afraid it’s going to shock some people for me to say this, but I staunchly believe no two people should get married until they have lived together,” she wrote.

A.E. Hotchner, who collaborated with Day on her memoir, said she had a “sweet and sour” existence and never let her personal difficulties “change her attitude toward people.”

“She was such a positive, absolutely enchanting woman,” he told The Associated Press on Monday. “And she was so loved.”

Day received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. Although mostly retired from show business since the 1980s, she still had enough of a following that a 2011 collection of previously unreleased songs, “My Heart,” hit the top 10 in the United Kingdom. The same year, she received a lifetime achievement honor from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.

The Humane Society of the United States, of which The Doris Day Animal League is an affiliate, praised Day as a pioneer in animal protection.

In 1987, Day “founded one of the first national animal protection organizations dedicated to legislative remedies for the worst animal abuse,” said the league’s executive director, Sara Amundson. Her foresight “led to dozens of bills, final rules and policies on the federal level,” which helped end abusive videos, protect chimpanzees from invasive research and regulate the online sale of puppies.

“She is an icon in the animal protection world and will be sorely missed for her singular advocacy,” Amundson said.

Paul McCartney, a friend, called Day “a true star in more ways than one.”

“Visiting her in her Californian home was like going to an animal sanctuary where her many dogs were taken care of in splendid style,” he said in a statement. “She had a heart of gold and was a very funny lady who I shared many laughs with.”

He cited films like “Calamity Jane,” ”Move Over, Darling” and others and said he would “always remember her twinkling smile and infectious laugh.”

Day “was kind and decent, onscreen and off; she maintained her friendship with Rock Hudson after his AIDS diagnosis, in a climate of fear and abandonment — one of his last appearances was on a TV show with her,” playwright Paul Rudnick tweeted.

Born to a music teacher and a housewife in Cincinnati, Day dreamed of a dance career but at age 12 broke her leg badly when a car in which she was traveling was hit by a train. Listening to the radio while recuperating, she began singing along with Ella Fitzgerald, studying the singer and the subtleties of her voice.

Day began singing at a Cincinnati radio station, then a nightclub, then in New York. A bandleader changed her name to Day after the song “Day after Day” to fit it on a marquee.

A marriage at 17 to trombonist Al Jorden ended when, she said, he beat her when she was eight months’ pregnant. She gave birth to her son, Terry, in early 1942. Her second marriage also was short-lived. She returned to Les Brown’s band after the first marriage broke up.

Her Hollywood career began after she sang at a Hollywood party in 1947. After early stardom as a band singer and a stint at Warner Bros., Day won the best notices of her career with 1955’s “Love Me or Leave Me,” the story of songstress Ruth Etting and her gangster husband-manager. She followed with “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” starring with James Stewart as an innocent couple ensnared in an international assassination plot. She sang “Que Sera, Sera” just as the story reached its climax.

But she found her greatest success in slick, stylish sex comedies, beginning with 1959’s Oscar-nominated “Pillow Talk,” in which she and Hudson played two New Yorkers who shared a telephone party line. It was the first of three films with Hudson.

In “That Touch of Mink,” she turned back advances from Grant and in “The Thrill of It All” played a housewife who gains fame as a TV pitchwoman to the chagrin of obstetrician husband James Garner.

The nation’s theater owners voted her the top moneymaking star in 1960, 1962, 1963 and 1964.

Her first singing hit was the 1945 smash “Sentimental Journey,” when she was barely in her 20s. Among the other songs she made famous were “Everybody Loves a Lover,” ”Secret Love,” and “It’s Magic,” a song from her first film, “Romance on the High Seas.”

Critic Gary Giddins called her “the coolest and sexiest female singer of slow-ballads in movie history.”

Day was cast in “Romance on the High Seas” after Judy Garland and Betty Hutton bowed out. Warner Bros. cashed in on its new star with a series of musicals, including “My Dream Is Yours,” ”Tea for Two” and “Lullaby of Broadway.” Her dramas included “Young Man with a Horn” and “Storm Warning.”

Her last film was “With Six You Get Eggroll,” a 1968 comedy about a widow and a widower who blend families.

In the 1960s, Day discovered that failed investments by her third husband, Martin Melcher, left her deeply in debt. She eventually won a multimillion-dollar judgment against their lawyer.

With movies trending toward more explicit sex, she turned to television to recoup her finances. “The Doris Day Show” was a moderate success in its 1968-1973 run on CBS.

Day had married Melcher in 1951. He became her manager, and her son took his name. In most of the films following “Pillow Talk,” Melcher was listed as co-producer. He died in 1969.

In her autobiography, Day recalled her son telling her the $20 million she had earned had vanished and she owed around $450,000, mostly for taxes. Terry Melcher, who died in 2004, became a songwriter and record producer, working with such stars as the Beach Boys. He was also famous for an aspiring musician he turned down, Charles Manson. When Manson and his followers embarked on their murderous rampage in 1969, they headed for a house once owned by Melcher and instead came upon actress Sharon Tate and some visitors, all of whom were killed.

Day married a fourth time at age 52, to businessman Barry Comden in 1976.

Her wholesome image was referenced in the song “I’m Sandra Dee” in the 1971 musical “Grease,” which included the lyrics: “Watch it, hey, I’m Doris Day/ I was not brought up that way/ Won’t come across/ Even Rock Hudson lost/ His heart to Doris Day.”

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The late Associated Press writer Bob Thomas in Los Angeles and AP writer Shawn Marsh in Trenton, New Jersey, contributed to this report.

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