Noted for her bright eyes, blonde bob and a tremendous singing voice, Day rose up on the big band circuit in the 1930s and 40s, attracting the attention of the recording industry, and of major composers. She hit it big in Hollywood in 1948 with Romance on the High Seas after composer Jule Styne (of Gypsy) recommended her to the bosses at Warner Bros., despite no acting experience. The movie helped launch Day on a successful screen career which would span almost 40 years.
Related: Musical Notes: Doris Day
During the 1950s, Day became one of the screen’s most popular leading ladies thanks in large part to her success in musicals. Films like Young at Heart, The Pajama Game and I’ll See You In My Dreams all showed off Day’s dramatic gifts as well as her vocal talent. One of her biggest hits was Calamity Jane which found her playing the title legend of the Old West…and leaning heavily into some lesbian overtones. The film featured the song My Secret Love and is cited by film scholars in The Celluloid Closet as a good example of Hollywood using veiled subtext to tell a story about queer characters. The movie also became one of Day’s favorites of her own work.
Day further cemented her association with the LGBTQ community through her many appearances opposite Rock Hudson, most notably in sex comedies about a woman in love with a man who pretends to be gay. That Hudson usually played the role of the faux gay man is a meta-comment unto itself.
With film offers waning, Day moved into television beginning in the late 1960s. She hosted both a variety show The Doris Day Show and a talk show, Doris Day’s Best Friends. Though the latter ran only one season, the show became immensely popular after Day interviewed friend Rock Hudson, whose battle with AIDS had begun to take an obvious toll on his health. Though Day retired in the 1980s and became almost a total recluse–she repeatedly turned down offers to appear at the Academy Awards, and to come out of retirement to appear in films–she always supported AIDS research and charities after losing her friend Rock to AIDS. In 2012, she released a statement to the riders of AIDS/Lifecycle, thanking them for their service:
I just want to take a moment to personally thank you all for riding all those miles, and tonight for honoring those lost to AIDS, including my dear, dear friend Rock Hudson. It has been over 30 years since AIDS first emerged. And that means almost 30 years since Rock was diagnosed. It was so hard to see him taken from all of us just a little over a year later. I know many of you there have also experienced similar loss to mine. What you’re doing is so important, both to remember those gone and also to ensure those alive keep living much longer than Rock was able to. So keep pedaling.
Here she is singing “Secret Love” from the 1953 film Calamity Jane: