I must have been 6 or 7 when I first heard Doris Day singing Que Sera, Sera.

And just like Doris in the song, I asked my mother ... well, what does it mean exactly? Whatever will be, will be, the future's not ours to see ... Was there ever a song more sweet and beguiling, soft and melancholic.

The singer and actor died yesterday, at the age of 97.

At the time she recorded Que Sera, Sera in 1956, Doris Day was 34, well known as an actor in musical comedy, the star of her own radio programme and already into her third marriage.

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She could little have imagined that the song would become the song with which she would be indelibly associated for the rest of her life, that she would become the biggest female box-office star of all time, that her third husband would rob her blind, that her son Terry Melcher would be threatened by Charles Manson, and that her later life would focus on animal rights.

No actress of her generation better epitomises the role of American sweetheart. Day came to prominence during the Eisenhower years, a time of post-War affluence and suburban, white picket fence comforts.

The US was a country bent on cheerful optimism in the face of nuclear uncertainty, where actresses were obliged to perform to stereotype. Day's romantic comedies, as American as apple pie, fit the bill perfectly.

The wholesome, girl-next-door. Doris Day, in 1955, on a visit to London. Photo / Ap
The wholesome, girl-next-door. Doris Day, in 1955, on a visit to London. Photo / Ap

On the one hand there was Marilyn Monroe, with her hourglass figure and skittish, sexy persona; on the other there was Doris, pretty rather than beautiful, the wholesome girl next door.

She was a role model through whom a generation of women could function vicariously, and whom a generation of men found powerfully tantalising for reasons they might not have been able to articulate.

Of course, the stereotype of Day as "Polyanna" (as she put it), the happy home-maker, was some way from the truth.

Day was riddled with insecurities stemming from an unhappy childhood. She described her first husband, the trombonist Al Jorden as "a psychopathic sadist"; her second marriage, to saxophonist George Weidler, broke down on his infidelity, although Day said in court that "it might have been because of my work".

Her third husband, Martin Melcher, was an agent and producer — "a shallow, insecure hustler" as James Garner described him, who took over as her manager.

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When he died suddenly, in 1968, Day discovered that he and his business partner, Jerome Rosenthal, had lost or misappropriated all of her US$23 million fortune, leaving her in debt.

Day poses with husband number 3, agent Martin Melcher. Photo / file
Day poses with husband number 3, agent Martin Melcher. Photo / file

Day's marriage to Al Jorden had produced one son, Terry. Jorden, on learning of his wife's pregnancy, had demanded she get an abortion.

Shortly after giving birth, Day filed for divorce, leaving the infant to be raised by her mother in Ohio, as she continued with her career.

Melcher subsequently adopted Terry, giving the child his surname. A successful record producer, Terry was rumoured to have been the intended victim of the killing spree, ordered by Manson, that resulted in the death of Sharon Tate in 1969.

Following Martin Melcher's death, Day stopped making films and instead concentrated on her show on television.

In 1976 she married for the fourth time, and the following year she founded the Doris Day Pet Foundation (now the Doris Day Animal Foundation).

Her marriage to Barry Comden, a restaurateur, ended after six years, Comden complaining that she cared more for her "animal friends" than for him.

Day always resented the image of herself as "America's virgin". Her life was far richer, and far racier, than that.