Day was born Doris Mary Ann von Kappelhoff in Evanston, Ohio (a suburb of Cincinnati). The name Doris was chosen in honor of a silent movie actress, Doris Kenyon, whom her mother liked. Her family was Catholic, despite her parents' divorce, but she later embraced Christian Science.
Day started out as a dancer, winning a contract that enabled her to travel to Hollywood with her partner, Jerry Doherty, in 1936, but turned to singing when she injured her leg in an auto accident in 1937. She was a singer with the big bands of Barney Rapp, Bob Crosby, and Les Brown before setting out on her own as a singer in the late 1940s. It was Barney Rapp who convinced her that Kappelhoff was too awkward a name and suggested Day after a song named "Day after Day" that was part of her repertoire. She never really liked the name Doris Day, thinking it sounded too much like a stripper; this was ironic, since she eventually became associated with a nearly opposite image of wholesomeness and innocence.
With Brown, she had twelve charted popular music hits, and among them the first two number one songs of her career, "Sentimental Journey" and "My Dreams Are Getting Better All the Time". On her own, she went on to several other number ones, including "Secret Love".
Day also acted in many films, in most of which she sang as well. In 1956, starred in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Man Who Knew Too Much, where she sang the song "Que Sera Sera". The song won an Oscar and it became her signature song. From 1968 to 1973, she made the transition to television, starring in her own sitcom, The Doris Day Show. The theme song for the show was "Que Sera Sera".
Though generally presenting a happy, carefree image to the public, she had four difficult marriages:
- To Al Jorden, a trombonist who she had met when he was a member of Barney Rapp's band, from 1941 to 1943. Her only son, Terry, was born in this marriage, but Jorden was physically abusive.
- To George Weidler, another band musician (a saxophonist), from 1946 to 1949. Weidler never could adjust to the fact that his wife would become a bigger star than he, and the marriage failed on this basis.
- To Marty Melcher, whom she married on her 27th birthday, April 3, 1951. This looked like a happy marriage, and lasted much longer than her first two. Melcher adopted Terry and gave him his last name, as well as producing many of Day's movies. However, when he died in 1968 it turned out that he had been spending her money without restraint. Her money difficulties continued for a number of years after his death, but she ultimately returned to financial security.
- Lastly, to Barry Comden, from 1976 to 1981. Comden was the only husband she took from outside show business. She went into this marriage with much hope, but it just did not work out well. In 1987, she founded the Doris Day Animal League, and she currently devotes much of her time towards the cause of helping animals.