Sandra Dee died Feb. 20. A hard-luck story in death as in life, she died on the same day Hunter S. Thompson chose to blow his brains out. Pity the priest of Gonzo, ran the snide asides, for having to share the obit page with Gidget. Mind you, it had been years since Thompson wrote anything that matched his early glories (33his last piece to show much of the old brilliance was, ironically, an obituary--of Richard Nixon). In the end he was every bit the has-been Dee was, but despite his long decline, repellent personality and senseless check-out he received one thing she did not: respect.
Certain elements appear in the biography of a studio-system actress with appalling frequency. Dee's life had them all. Start, as we so often do, with the ghastly stage mother. Mary Douvan was shoving her daughter in front of cameras almost as soon as she noticed the little girl was beautiful. Dee's first modeling gig was for Girl Scouts Magazine. Impatient to start maximizing the Sandra returns, her mother started adding two years to the girl's age when she was four years old, and that lie kept going until Dee's career had long ended.
What with modeling jobs and parading the child before talent scouts, there was little time to notice the small personal details, like the fact that Mary's second husband was sexually abusing Sandra.
Some Hollywood victims of sexual abuse go flamboyantly to the bad, grabbing at alcohol or pills, flinging themselves at men only marginally better than their abusers. Dee, for her part, continued to be a good girl at home and on the set. Her success grew, as she tried to disappear. Anorexia began in adolescence and continued, off and on, until her death. In the 1990s Dee recalled days when all she ate was a head of lettuce.
Knowing Dee's background gives all those sunny movies some pronounced shadows. You start noticing how almost all her characters are trying so hard to please an older figure. The horrific mother in A Summer Place, for example, who forces Dee to submit to a gynecological exam--a rape, in effect--to see if she's still a virgin after a night with Troy Donahue. I wonder how Mary and Eugene Douvan felt watching that one in a darkened movie theater. To a viewer in 2005, the scene is mawkish hokum. Read about Dee's pathetic teenage years, and it becomes a shattering tragedy.
For those who love Imitation of Life, without question the best movie Dee ever made, the story of maid Juanita Hall and daughter Susan Kohner gives the movie its depth and sadness. Those two face the real agony of racial bigotry, while Lana Turner and Dee, as her daughter, deal only with the imitation problems of the wealthy and blonde. Yet Dee's performance deserves more consideration than that. Her confrontation with Turner, where she snaps at Turner to "stop acting" and asks for a little autonomy, echos every woman who ever looked at a neurotic, inadequate mother and decided, finally, to move on.
The year after Imitation's release Dee made Come September, met Bobby Darin on the set and later married him. Her film career began in 1957, and after 1963 it was all but over.
The future held multiple miscarriages, probably linked to her eating disorder; one son, Dodd, born in 1961; a divorce from Darin in 1967; and his early death from congestive heart failure in 1973. Alcoholism followed as Dee became a near shut-in. She had never had much of a social life, anyway; people who form their parents' main source of income seldom do. "I've never had any friends," she said in 1959, "but it's like strawberry shortcake. If you've never had it, you don't miss it."
Dee, tied so tightly to Eisenhower's America as the ideal teen--the perfect date, the perfect daughter--found some acting jobs, but never could revive her career. The only thing that could put her back in the public eye was when Stockard Channing donned a blonde wig and held her up to derision with the song "Look at Me, I'm Sandra Dee" in Grease. Dee always said she thought it was funny.
You must excuse the Siren if she withholds her pity for Thompson and saves it for Sandra, whose troubles were far less of her own making.