(b. 23 April 1944 in Bayonne, New Jersey; d. 20 February 2005 in Thousand Oaks, California), film star who was the icon of the beautiful, playful teenage girl on the brink of sexuality.
Born Alexandra Cymboliak Zuck, Dee was the only child of Mary Cymboliak and John Zuck, who divorced when she was five. Her mother often lied about her age, putting her in second grade when she was four. When Sandra was eight, her mother remarried the much older New York real-estate entrepreneur Eugene Douvan, who sexually molested the child frequently from that time until he died when she was eleven. Dee later disclosed that she believed that her mother either did not know or repressed knowledge about the sexual abuse. Her mother, not previously employed, became highly focused on Sandra’s career, starting her modeling at age eight for the Girl Scouts magazine, catalogs, television commercials, and other magazines from Teen Life to Good Housekeeping. Sandra was enrolled in the Professional Children’s School, with a very flexible curriculum conducive to child performers. By age eleven she was earning $78,000 per year through modeling and was likely anorexic, as some magazine articles mentioned how little she ate.
After Douvan’s death, Mary took her daughter to Hollywood, shortening her name from Sandra Douvan to Sandra Dee, and auditioned for the producer and director Ross Hunter, who offered her a Universal Studios film contract. In her first film, Until They Sail (1957), Dee played Paul Newman’s little sister, growing from age twelve to eighteen in the course of the film by wearing an expanding rubber body suit. When Dee was thirteen (with her mother claiming that she was fifteen), she portrayed the illegitimate daughter of a neurotic woman in Helmut Käutner’s The Restless Years (1958). Hunter then proceeded to serve as Dee’s producer, agent, and friend, aligning her with Rex Harrison in The Reluctant Debutante (1958). In what is generally viewed as her finest performance, Dee portrayed the neglected daughter of a driven Broadway star, played by Lana Turner, in Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959). Dee played her role with touching fragility, and in one notable scene she convincingly asserted herself before her uncaring mother.
In one of her most popular beach films, Gidget (1959), Dee established the persona of a tomboyish teen with sun-soaked innocence, an image later used in the Tammy films and others. Also in 1959 she and Troy Donahue were filmed in A Summer Place, portraying teenage lovers uncertain about the boundaries of their physical relationship. The film was a huge commercial success and may have forecast adolescent rebelliousness of the 1960s. The crime thriller Portrait in Black (1960) reunited Dee with Lana Turner.
On the set of Come September (1961), Dee met her costar Bobby Darin, who was already established as a highly popular musical star. Dee had been so absorbed in her career that she had had few friends or dates, and at age sixteen she was overwhelmed by the twenty-four-year-old music star. After three months they were engaged, and despite Mary Douvan’s disapproval, they married on 30 December 1960. They met with many difficulties in the course of their marriage in juggling two careers, as he sang in clubs across the country and always wanted her in the front row, while they had to schedule around her filming. They made two other films together, If a Man Answers (1962) and That Funny Feeling (1965). After several miscarriages, they had a son, Dodd Darin, in December 1961.
Sandra Dee was listed as one of the top ten money-making stars from 1960 to 1963 by Quigley Publications. In Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy and the Doctor (1963), Dee acted the role created by Debbie Reynolds. She played daughters in Romanoff and Juliet (1961) and Take Her, She’s Mine (1963) and performed in a comic role in Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding (1967).
In 1967 Dee and Darin divorced. By then Darin had shifted focus from rock to politically oriented folk songs, and in the late 1960s he gave away most of his belongings and lived alone in a trailer. According to their son, despite the separation, Dee remained devoted to Darin all her life. Meanwhile, her film career declined, as she had only ever been typecast for teen roles. After Rosie! (1968), The Dun-wich Horror (1970), and several 1970s made-for-television movies, she appeared in her final film for the big screen, Lost, in 1983. Dee later resurfaced on the stage in the early 1990s at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills, California, in a production of Love Letters with John Saxon. The 1972 Broadway musical and 1978 film Grease made her known to a new generation through a song entitled “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” which was performed in the film version by Stockard Channing. Among the lyrics were the lines “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.”
Dee’s mother moved in with her after the divorce, and when Dee lost her savings in a property deal in the 1970s, her mother supported her. Thirty years after Eugene Douvan’s death, Dee told her mother about his sexual abuse. After her mother died of cancer in 1990, Dee spoke publicly about her anorexia and alcoholism, which Dodd helped her overcome. She required dialysis from 2000 onward and died of complications from kidney disease on 20 February 2005 in the Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center, in Thousand Oaks, California. She is buried in Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, in Los Angeles.
Dee’s image in the sugary scripts of the late 1950s was that of a vibrant and perky teen. She was thenceforth cast in similar roles, with a few exceptions, to such a degree that filmmakers did not wish to employ her as she grew older. Further, the divorce with Darin was so well publicized that her image as a lovely young woman, wholesome and adorable, may have been marred. (Kevin Spacey’s 2004 film Beyond the Sea reexamined the Dee-Darin marriage, with more emphasis on entertainment than fact and little focus on the marriage problems and divorce.) In the majority of her films she exuded a healthy innocence, marking the ideal image of a teenage girl in the 1950s and early 1960s. When this image was satirized in Grease, Dee reportedly found humorous the lines of the song bearing her name.
The most complete biographical source on Dee is the book written by her son, Dodd Darin, and Maxine Paetro, Dreamlovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee (1994). Therein, Dee is quoted extensively. For an analysis of her abuse, alcoholism, and anorexia in the context of her performances, see Georganne Scheiner, “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee: Beyond a White, Teen Icon,” Frontiers 22, no. 2 (2001): 87–106. See also Dave Kehr’s retrospective article, “Sandra Dee, 62, Perky Star of ‘Gidget’ and Teenage Idol,” New York Times (21 Feb. 2005). Good photographs accompany the article “Sandra Dee,” People (7 Mar. 2005). An obituary is in the New York Times (20 Feb. 2005).