The Lives They Lived

from The New York Times Magazine – Sunday Decmber 25

A look at the tragic life of Sandra Dee. A woman destined to be great things at an early age but her career ended after her divorce from Bobby Darin. Her real life miseries tarnished her innocent movie persona and she never really recovered. Not the most flattering tribute to an actress whom I throughly enjoyed in Gidget and Imitation of Life but her life shows how quickly life can knock you down especially when you have been placed on a pedestool.

Sandra Dee b. 1944
Gidget Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

At the height of her spectacularly short-lived fame, coverage of everything from her dietary habits to her taste in men was enormous, with approximately 15 magazine articles appearing every month. The thing is, it all happened so fast, was over practically before it began, that we can almost be forgiven for misconstruing her as a cultural simulacrum: a blip on the monitor, a media invention, an adorable incarnation of a feminine ideal of the reluctant or unwitting nymphet, rather than a flesh-and-blood creature with needs and wishes (not to mention raging demons) of her own. The lightning speed with which Sandra Dee was first heralded and then discarded may have been just another example of the “now you see her, now you don’t” phenomenon endemic to the fever-dream of Hollywood, but it also suggests the dark “Miss Lonelyhearts” side of the American manufacture of celebrity – the ruthlessness that drives it and the despair it feeds off. She went from being discovered in 1956, at 12, to winning a Golden Globe Award in 1958, to being hailed by The Motion Picture Herald in 1959 as the “Number One Star of Tomorrow,” based on her promising pigtailed debut in the sterling weepie “Until They Sail” as well as her performance in “The Reluctant Debutante.” Less than a decade later, her career all but ended when she was dropped by Universal, after her divorce, at age 22, from the crooner Bobby Darin. “Sometimes I feel like a has-been who never was,” Dee told The Newark Evening News in 1967.

In truth, she never entirely disappeared from the collective imagination, and therein lies one of many painful paradoxes (she was, for instance, among the last actors to be dropped as a contract player before the studio system expired) in what turns out to be a story too full of them. Her moment as “a junior Doris Day,” as she once put it, or “a Tinkertoy,” as an underwhelmed journalist once put it – although she early on demonstrated a far greater range of acting talent than she would later be remembered for – may have been vastly abbreviated, but there’s no forgetting that fluffy neon concoction of a name, or what it stood for. Even if you never caught her in her glory days as Gidget or Tammy, Dee’s legacy as an eclipsed and parodied icon, a cinematic reference that signifies everything blond and unviolated about the 50’s, was assured by her immortalization in a catchy song from “Grease.” Its broadly winking lyrics are declaimed by Rizzo, the designated high-school Bad Girl, at a pajama party and are aimed at converting the goody-two-shoes newcomer Sandy to a life of carnal sin: “Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee/lousy with virginity/Won’t go to bed till I’m legally wed,/I can’t, I’m Sandra Dee.”

Precisely because of the mythic stature we endowed her with, it’s hard to believe that the wisp of a girl who cavorted decorously on-screen with John Saxon and Troy Donahue, in a time before teenagers of either sex thought to have their tongues pierced, lacked the grace to fade out, had the temerity to live on – and so unfetchingly, her life marred by chronic anorexia, alcoholism and depression – after we were no longer paying her any mind. Dee’s death last February at age 60 (her official age was obscured from early childhood, when her mother added two years to it; many obituaries listed her age at the time of her death as 62), of complications from kidney disease, impels us to retrieve her from her vacuum-packed, nostalgia-inducing state as an idealized adolescent prototype. This in turn raises a possibility almost too disturbing to contemplate: how to envision Sandra Dee as middle-aged, as anything other than a bubbling and bikinied beach babe, the candied yin to Annette Funicello’s sultry yang, the sweet and genteelly chaperoned box-office ingénue whose popularity once rivaled Elizabeth Taylor’s and whose elopement at 16 with the scrappy Bronx-bred Darin, after a one-month courtship on the set of a forgettable movie (“Come September“), spoke to a girlishly starry-eyed fantasy of romance.

Then again, the “darling, pink world,” as she herself characterized it, that Sandra Dee was thought to inhabit by her fans had always been a grotesque mockery, plagued not by an overripened case of virginity but by childhood incest. The girl with brimming brown eyes and a fizzy lilt to her voice was born Alexandria Zuck in Bayonne, N.J.

Her parents divorced when she was 5; her father, a bus driver, disappeared from her life shortly thereafter, and her mother, Mary, married a much-older real-estate entrepreneur named Eugene Duvan within a few years. According to Dee’s own account, as relayed by her son, Dodd Darin, in his touching and unglamorized memoir of his parents, “Dream Lovers,” her lifelong battle with anorexia – which would lead to three hospitalizations in her midteens, cardiac distress and multiple miscarriages – began with Mary’s bizarre approach to her daughter’s meals: “My mother fed me with a spoon until I was 6 years old. She would make me a bowl of oatmeal. She’d crack an egg into it, raw, and. . .cold and lumps and streaks, I had to eat it all.” Worse yet, Dee’s devoted but manipulative mother turned a conveniently blind eye to the defiled sexual appetites of her new husband. Duvan, who liked to tease his wife that he married her “just to get Sandy,” started having sex with his beautiful stepdaughter when she was 8 and continued doing so almost until his death when she was 12.

After her divorce from Darin, Dee never remarried. The former teenage sweetheart who had once received more fan mail than Rock Hudson became an anxious recluse whose primary connections were with her mother and her son. A cover profile in People magazine in 1991 depicted her as a damaged and isolated survivor – Dee poignantly expressed a wish to do a TV series, “because I want a family. I can have that if I’m part of a show” – and her son’s portrait of her in his book only deepened the shadows. Dee had plans to write an autobiography and in 1996 did a brief stint as an infomercial spokeswoman for an anti-aging cream. Last year she was played by Kate Bosworth in Kevin Spacey’s movie about Bobby Darin, “Beyond the Sea.”

Sandra Dee’s dazzling wreck of a life – the implausibly meteoric ascent followed by the long fall – would, I suppose, make for a perfect Lifetime special. Or, better yet, a searing biopic all its own, underscoring the gap between the glossy image and the nightmarish reality. It would, that is, if the truth weren’t so unbearably sad, revealing a tale of ravaged innocence under cover of familial enmeshment leading to a wasteland of self-destruction. The problem with a story like this one, at least from a filmmaker’s point of view, is that it isn’t even a cathartic tear-jerker. There is no fortifying moral to be drawn from it, no redemptive “Oprah” ending hovering in the wings. Look at her, she’s Sandra Dee, lousy with debility. Tickets, anyone?

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