- Though remembered as the quintessentially sunny “all-American girl” of the late 1950s and early 1960s, Sandra Dee in reality established a markedly more complex persona in several of her most successful films.
- Off-screen, Sandra Dee led a troubled life, having suffered from anorexia nervosa for decades, and later developing a serious alcohol problem. In the 1990s, she accused her (by then deceased) stepfather of having sexually abused her when she was a child.
Pert, pretty & blonde Sandra Dee was more than the quintessentially wholesome ‘all-American girl’
One of the Top Ten domestic box office draws of the early 1960s as per U.S. exhibitors, Universal contract star Sandra Dee, who died at age 63 on Feb. 20 in the Los Angeles County-adjacent city of Thousand Oaks, is generally remembered for her adorableness-exuding young heroines – all blondness, bounciness, and round cheeks – in “family-friendly” fare like Come September, the “Tammy” sequels Tammy Tell Me True and Tammy and the Doctor, and, while on loan to Columbia, the beach comedy Gidget.
Strangely, largely ignored are her disaffected characters in two of the biggest hits of her career, both 1959 releases:
- At her home studio, Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, in which Dee’s cute, blonde teen competes with Mom Lana Turner for the affections of “older man” John Gavin.
- While on loan to Warner Bros., Delmer Daves’ A Summer Place, in which, with the assistance of all-American hunk Troy Donahue, Dee’s cute, blonde, and unwed teen defies God and Country by becoming very pregnant indeed.
There were a couple of other notable such roles:
- Helmut Käutner’s eminently watchable, Peyton Place-ish melodrama The Restless Years (1958), with Dee cast as Teresa Wright’s “illegitimate” daughter – who may or may not follow in her mother’s footsteps after developing a close relationship with fellow student John Saxon.
- Michael Gordon’s crime melodrama Portrait in Black (1960), with Lana Turner and Dee as stylish, well-to-do, and deeply dysfunctional stepmother and stepdaughter. Dressed and made up to look a decade or so older than her actual age, the latter takes a confrontational approach to her murderous stepmom while becoming romantically entangled with John Saxon, here as a small-time harbor-towing businessman.
All things considered, Sandra Dee undeniably was Hollywood’s “all-American” girl-next-door of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Yet, singing capabilities aside, she was just as undeniably out of step with her all-sweetness-and-light predecessors Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, and Jane Powell.
From child model to Ross Hunter discovery
Sandra Dee was born Alexandra Zuck into a Russian Orthodox family on April 23, 1942, in Bayonne, New Jersey. A few years later, her alcoholic father abandoned the family.
Pushed by her mother, who would remarry in 1950, Alexandra began working as a model while still in grade school. By the time she was 12, the young girl had become associated with the prestigious Conover Modeling Agency. Decades later, Dee would recall earning a whopping $70,000 at age 14 in 1956.
Soon after her stepfather’s death that same year, Universal producer Ross Hunter signed the teenager to a longterm contract. Renamed Sandra Dee – short for Alexandra, plus her stepfather’s surname initial – she made her film debut while on loan to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for the 1957 release Until They Sail, supporting Paul Newman, and fellow New Zealand sisters Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, and Piper Laurie. Future two-time Best Director Oscar winner Robert Wise (West Side Story, 1961; The Sound of Music, 1965) handled the World War II-set box office flop ($1.05 million in the red).
Commercial failure or no, Until They Sail earned Dee that year’s Golden Globe for Most Promising Female Newcomer, shared with Diane Varsi (for the blockbuster Peyton Place) and non-newcomer Carolyn Jones (for Marjorie Morningstar).
Once again on loan to MGM, Dee had her first lead in another prestigious but money-losing production: Vincente Minnelli’s vapid 1958 comedy The Reluctant Debutante, playing a young American in London, where she becomes acquainted with wealthy father Rex Harrison, social-standing-conscious stepmother Kay Kendall, and, shades of things to come, allegedly “dangerous” drummer John Saxon.
Also in 1958, Sandra Dee’s decade-long, nine-movie alliance with Ross Hunter began with the aforementioned The Restless Years.
Gidget & Tammy: Blonde apple-pie wholesomeness?
Sandra Dee became a bona fide star in 1959 thanks to Imitation of Life, A Summer Place, and Paul Wendkos’ Southern California-set Gidget, in which she falls for young surfer James Darren, but – shades of her A Summer Place antiheroine – ingratiates herself with older surfer/beach bum Cliff Robertson so she can lose her virginity.
Nothing untoward, of course, actually happens in this romantic comedy infused with reactionary values, chief among them the message “To Be a Real Woman Is to Bring Out the Best in a Man.” Thus, Dee/Gidget, apparently leaving her surfing days behind, ends up with the “age appropriate” Darren while Robertson finds himself a paying gig.
Except for Portrait in Black, in the ensuing years the candy-coated side of Dee’s screen persona would obliterate – or at the very least subjugate – the piquant one, as seen in a series of innocuous light romantic comedies such as Henry Koster’s Nora Ephron-inspired Take Her, She’s Mine (1963), opposite James Stewart and Philippe Forquet; Jack Smight’s I’d Rather Be Rich (1964), a gender-reversed remake of Deanna Durbin’s It Started with Eve (with Robert Goulet in the Durbin role); and Universal’s two sequels to their 1957 hit Tammy and the Bachelor, with Dee replacing the original’s Debbie Reynolds:
- In Tammy Tell Me True (1961), Dee’s leading man is Imitation of Life’s John Gavin, with whom she was partnered that same year in Peter Ustinov’s Cold War comedy Romanoff and Juliet. At age 19, she was no longer too young for her 30-year-old leading man.
- In Tammy and the Doctor (1963), the ever fickle titular character is paired up with newcomer Peter Fonda.
Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin
Other noteworthy Sandra Dee titles of the period include her three pairings with pop singer/actor Bobby Darin (“Splish Splash,” “Dream Lover”), her husband at the time:
- Robert Mulligan’s blockbuster Come September (1961), in which Dee and Darin’s juvenile romance serves as a (somewhat warped) mirror to Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida’s ostensibly more mature one.
- If a Man Answers (1962), in which Dee’s sweet girl/spicy girl persona is, at least at first, used as a key plot question mark: As the daughter of worldly French showgirl Micheline Presle, will she remain a virgin before tying the knot?
- The box office disappointment That Funny Feeling (1965), a comedy about assumed identities.
Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin had married in 1960, after meeting – and initially not getting along – on the Come September set.
“We were an odd couple,” she would recall in a March 1991 People magazine essay, adding, “I was mature but naive, and I’d never dated before. He [age 24] was almost six years older than I was, a swinging bachelor.”
Dee and Darin (Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for Captain Newman M.D., 1963) were divorced in 1967. Following open-heart surgery, he would die at age 37 in 1973.
End of the star system + end of stardom
Her box office appeal eroded by mostly coolly received star vehicles, Sandra Dee was dropped by Universal after supporting James Garner and Melina Mercouri in the spy comedy thriller A Man Could Get Killed (1966).
At the time, Dee complained to Associated Press entertainment journalist Bob Thomas:
“I thought they were my friends. But I found out on the last picture that I was simply a piece of property to them. I begged them not to make me do the picture, but they insisted. So I spent a miserable four months in Lisbon, little fishing villages and in Rome, making a picture that should have taken eight weeks. We had two changes of directors [one change had Cliff Owen replaced with veteran Ronald Neame], and I ended up playing Come September all over again.”
As Thomas explains in his article, the Sandra Dee-Universal split marked the unofficial end of the star system, as Dee had been the last major name under an exclusive long-term contract with a Hollywood studio.
Two 1967 commercial disappointments with exclamation points in the title failed to restore her former standing:
- At MGM, Peter Tewksbury’s moderately subversive comedy Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding! had the A Summer Place star once again being sweet, blonde, unmarried, and pregnant – but is the fetus’ father (George Hamilton) the man she should marry? Or would she be better off with one of three other suitors?
- Back at Universal, David Lowell Rich’s comedy Rosie! featured her as the granddaughter of the titular millionaire widow (veteran Rosalind Russell). This adaptation of Ruth Gordon’s 1965 play A Very Rich Woman turned out to be the final Sandra Dee-Ross Hunter collaboration.
At age 25, no longer a teen and now divorced from Bobby Darin, the former Universal star all but retired from films.
‘Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee’
Based on an H.P. Lovecraft tale, and featuring Sandra Dee as a New England college student and former child actor Dean Stockwell (Anchors Aweigh) as a satanist, Daniel Haller’s 1970 thriller The Dunwich Horror was to have served as an offbeat comeback vehicle. The attempt, however, didn’t pan out.
There would be only one more feature film appearance, in the little-seen and largely forgotten 1983 low-budget adventure drama Lost.
More widely remembered is Dee’s connection – via the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee” – to Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s 1971 stage hit Grease and its Randal Kleiser-directed 1978 movie version. In the mammoth big-screen hit, the song is performed by Stockard Channing (mockingly) and Olivia Newton-John (longingly).
Also in the 1970s, Dee was seen in a trio of TV movies (The Manhunter, The Daughters of Joshua Cabe, Houston We’ve Got a Problem) and as a guest star in a handful of series (e.g., Night Gallery, Fantasy Island).
Troubled real life
In 1991, Sandra Dee appeared opposite former co-star John Saxon in a stage production of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters at Beverly Hills’ Canon Theatre.
That same year, the Gidget and Tammy Tell Me True star explained in her long People article:
“Although I’ve been out of the limelight for more than 20 years, I still get dozens of autograph requests every month. About six months ago, though[,] I received a letter that read, ‘If only I could live your life….’ That’s when I decided enough was enough. The Sandra Dee I was promoting was a creation of Hollywood. It was a lie I no longer wanted to support.”
In the piece, Dee stated that her stepfather had sexually abused her as a child. Having suffered from anorexia nervosa since her days as a child model, she also began drinking heavily after her divorce from Bobby Darin and the demise of her movie stardom.
Following her mother’s death in 1988, she suffered an emotional breakdown. “I couldn’t function. … I’d been sheltered beyond belief. All the people I loved were now gone. I was mad, angry and, most of all, sad. I missed her. So I drank. I could put away a quart and a half a day easy.” She credited her son with Darin, Dodd, for her recovery.
‘Happy and pleased’ with Bobby Darin biopic
A planned ABC TV-movie inspired by the People article ultimately failed to materialize because of rights issues. Sandra Dee’s only film or TV work since then was a 1994 voice-only guest spot on the sitcom Frasier.
In 2004, Kate Bosworth played Dee in Kevin Spacey’s Beyond the Sea, which presented the 45-year-old actor-director as the twenty- and thirty-something Bobby Darin. First screened at the Toronto Film Festival, the musical biopic was indifferently received by critics and audiences alike, though it did earn the star a Golden Globe nomination.
According to Spacey, Sandra Dee called him after watching Beyond the Sea, “and she said she wouldn’t change a frame. She’s incredibly happy and pleased, and she couldn’t believe the movie finally got made after all these years.”
Written by Dodd Darin, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee was published in 1995.
“Sandra Dee: 1960s Box Office Star” notes
Date of birth confusion
As per her son, she was born in 1944; her mother is supposed to have fudged with the dates during Dee’s early years as a child model.
Gidget sequels & adaptations
 In the inevitable Gidget sequels, Columbia had to make do without Universal’s Sandra Dee: Deborah Walley was featured in Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961); Cindy Carol in Gidget Goes to Rome (1963).
Among other Gidget actresses, Sally Field starred in the series Gidget on ABC for one season in 1965. Four years later, Karen Valentine was featured in the TV movie Gidget Grows Up.
Although not quite as trendsetting, Tammy also became a mid-1960s TV series character, with Debbie Watson in the role.
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“Sandra Dee” endnotes
The $70,000 figure for Sandra Dee’s modeling work at age 14 is found in the People article.
Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin Come September image: Universal Pictures.
Sandra Dee and James Darren Gidget image: Columbia Pictures.
“Sandra Dee: 1960s Box Office Star Embodied ‘All-American’ Wholesomeness + Disaffection” last updated in December 2020.