R.I.P. Doris Day, America’s Sweetheart

Doris Day


To honor Doris Day’s memory, who died yesterday at 97, here’s a John Updike poem. When he wrote it at 76, Updike was having a hard time admitting that Day was 86. Our memories of movie stars remain forever young, even though time itself moves on.

Oscar Levant once joked that he knew Day before she was a virgin, and Updike references how 1950’s Hollywood downplayed her sexuality in order to market her as “America’s sweetheart.” The tabloids, always eager to expose the repressed, predictably feasted upon any scraps they could find. Updike admits that his image of her does not match the reality and asks for time to adjust. “Clara” refers to her nickname “Clara Bixby,” used by intimate friends.

The poem’s title may allude to Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” where the poet says that he could love his mistress according to her worth if only he had “world enough and time.” As it turns out, Updike and Day have been granted a lot of time. Perhaps his “vegetable love” has grown “vaster than empires.”

Her Coy Lover Sings Out

Doris, ever since 1945,
when I was all of thirteen and you a mere twenty-one,
and “Sentimental Journey” came winging
out of the juke box at the sweet shop,
your voice piercing me like a silver arrow,
I knew you were sexy.

And in 1962, when you
were thirty-eight and I all of thirty
and having a first affair, while you
were co-starring with Cary Grant in That Touch of Mink
and enjoying, according to the Globe,
Doris’ Red-Hot Romp with Mickey Mantle,
I wasn’t surprised.

Now in 2008 (did you ever
think you’d live into such a weird year?)
when you are eighty-four and I am seventy-six,
I still know you’re sexy,
and not just in reruns or on old 45 rpms.
Your four inadequate husbands weren’t the half of it.

Bob Hope called you Jut-Butt, and your breasts
(Molly Haskell reported)
were as big as Monroe’s but swaddled.
Hollywood protected us from you,
they consumed you, what the Globe tastefully terms
the “shocking secret life of America’s Sweetheart.”

Still, I’m not quite ready
for you to breathe the air that I breathe.
I huff going upstairs as it is.
Give me space to get over the idea of you -
the thrilling silver voice,
the gigantic silver screen. Go
easy on me, Clara, let’s take our time.
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