April 23, 1942 – February 20, 2005
Actress Sandra Dee was the embodiment of teen virtue and virginity in a series of films in the late 1950s and 1960s. Off screen, however, Dee struggled with anorexia throughout her film career (which was essentially over by the time she turned 30), and in later life drug abuse, alcoholism and depression.
Dee was born Alexandra Cymboliak Zuck on April 23, 1942, in Bayonne, N.J., to Russian immigrants John and Mary Cymboliak Zuck. Mary and John met as teenagers at a Russian Orthodox Church dance.
Mary’s obsessive mothering included breastfeeding her daughter until she was two years old. When she was advised that her milk alone wasn’t sufficient for a toddler, she switched to spoon-feeding her daughter until she was six. Everything was served from a big bowl – either oatmeal with raw egg, or a casserole mashed into a mushy soup. Mary also spent hours styling and dressing her daughter like she was her little doll. When Sandra developed early to her mother’s dismay, Mary insisted Sandra bind her breasts with tape at age 7.
John Zuck – a bus driver and a hard-drinking gambler – had encouraged his wife Mary to work as a part-time secretary for wealthy N.J. real-estate developer Eugene (Gene) Douvan. John abandoned the family and the Zucks divorced. Mother needed to work, so she forged her daughter’s birth certificate – making her 2 years older and able to attend school full-time. Mother married developer Douvan, who sexually abused his stepdaughter for years, according to Dee.
Douvan teased his bride, “I married you to get to Sandy.” Sandra came to know it as “when we married Daddy.” Gene and Mary brought Sandra along on the honeymoon where she slept in between them. This pattern continued. Sandra later recalled Gene had groped her when he was dating her mother but it got worse after they married. The “cuddle” sessions turned into incest – and strangely she would wake up in her own bed each morning with her parents acting as if everything was normal. Every morning, Dee said, her mother would send her in to her parents’ bedroom to say goodbye to her stepfather. When she returned, Dee would ask her mother to help her button up her open blouse. Years later, Sandra said her mother “had to have known” of the abuse that went on for years. She believed that she was offered to Gene by Mary “so he wouldn’t stray.”
There is a story that Sandra once saw her birth father driving a Manhattan bus when she was 11. Her mother pointed him out, “Look, there’s your father,” and they continued on.
Her mother dreamed of a show business career for her daughter, and Dee began working as a child model and in television commercials when she was 4 years old. Sandra was enrolled in Professional Children’s School and allowed to tag along at her friend’s after school auditions while her Mother remained tied to Gene and at his office all day. Sandra was discovered by agent Harry Conover at a fashion show and offered a regular “Cooking With Judy” photo feature in the Girl Scout’s magazine. Mary propelled Sandra into modeling work – saying she was 10 (instead of 8). Sandra appeared on magazine covers and in print ads, earning her $75,000 a year by the time she was 11.
“I never considered myself a child. I never remember playing with dolls. When the alarm went off at 7 a.m., I’d dress myself, order a cab and go to work. I never had any friends, but it’s like strawberry shortcake. If you’ve never had it, how can you miss it?”
Despite her success, Sandra hated her chubby cheeks and yearned for the rail-thin looks of actress Audrey Hepburn. During her modeling career, Dee tried to keep her weight down by munching on lettuce and walnuts, and using Epsom salts as a laxative. When she arrived in Hollywood, the 5-foot-5 Dee weighed 90 pounds.
The sexual abuse that had begun when she was five years old finally ended just before step-father Douvan died in 1954 from heart failure. Sandra was 12 and on the verge of stardom.
” I hated my step-father so much, I couldn’t even go to his funeral.”
Douvan left nothing in his Will for Sandra and her mother, but left a trust for an institutionalized son. Sandra assumed the permanent role as breadwinner.
Sandra was reportedly discovered on Park Avenue by producer Ross Hunter in town to cast his upcoming film The Restless Years. Hunter was taken by “sophisticated baby” Sandra, who he believed was age 14 (she was actually 12).
Hunter signed Sandra to a seven-year contract with Universal Studios. She was the last major star to sign such a contract. The studio also gave her a new name, created by combining a shortened version of her first name with the first initial of her stepfather’s last name. Dee and her mother moved to Los Angeles in 1957, and she made her film debut the same year, in Until They Sail, which starred Paul Newman, Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine and Piper Laurie. In 1958, Dee appeared in The Reluctant Debutante and The Restless Years, and won a Golden Globe award as Most Promising Newcomer, sharing the award with Carolyn Jones and Diane Varsi.
The studio purchased a house with a pool for her and Mary. They got them a new car each year. Sandra simply had to show up, know her lines, and go to school for 3-hours at the studio. She was the only minor on the Universal lot and had no friends during work hours. Sandra said it was “the loneliest classroom in the world.” During the Imitation of Life shoot, the crew teased that she attended “Sandra Dee High” and was at the top and bottom of her class.
“I call it Imitation of High School.”
Universal loaned Sandra out to Columbia for the lead in her most famous film, Gidget (1959). Sandra played petite (“girl + midget = gidget”) surfer girl Francie Lawrence who just wants to be one of the boys in Malibu. She falls for surfer “Moon-Doggie” (James Darren) and is mentored by the “Big Kahuna” (Cliff Robertson).
Sandra recalled the Gidget shoot as being a “terrible location…cold…but I loved the story and the people.” James Darren remembered Sandra’s mother Mary never leaving her side for a second. Sal Mineo was a frequent (safe) early date who would escort Sandra to events. Mary knew her daughter could be trusted to be home by 9 p.m.
Fun fact: The Santa Monica house shown in Gidget was at 267 18th St. This home’s facade was later replicated on the Columbia Ranch backlot (except the blue prints were flipped). The mirror image of Gidget‘s house became more famous as Samantha’s house on TV’s Bewitched(1964-1972).
Gidget was a huge hit and spawned 2 sequels (Gidget Goes Hawaiian; Gidget Goes to Rome) neither of which Universal allowed Sandra to make. Other actresses were thrown in the role, and Universal searched for their own film franchise in which Sandra could star for them. It was decided that Debbie Reynolds’ role as innocent-but-wise country girl Tammy from Tammy & The Bachelor (1957) would be perfect. Sandra Dee said bye Malibu and hello bayou for Tammy Tell Me True (1961) and Tammy & The Doctor with Peter Fonda (1963).
Despite her independence in Manhattan (taking subways alone to/from jobs) as a working child model, in Hollywood all minors had to have a guardian on set. Her mother adored spending her days on the set. Many co-stars and members of the press said you could almost mistake Mary and Sandra for sisters rather than mother/daughter.[My mother] sat with the crew, she would eat donuts. She would do everything for me. I was almost sometimes embarrassed that my mother would be running up (to me) with a kleenex…I was embarrassed that she would be up to do that. It’s almost like she was the maid. It was hard. I couldn’t hurt her feelings because I needed her on the set – I couldn’t work (without her). She gloried in it.”
Dee met singer Bobby Darin while they appeared together in Come September (1961), which starred Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida. Darin reportedly proposed to Dee when they first met, and Dee replied, “Not today.” But Darin persisted, sending her 18 yellow roses every day for the length of the four-week film shoot, and they eloped two months later. On their wedding night, Dee, after suffering years of abuse from her stepfather, was so afraid of the thought of sex that she slept alone on the couch.
As the new king & queen of fan magazines, Sandy & Bobby had to play the part – and they did, making a string of films together, and Sandra sitting ringside at his nightclub engagements.
In 1961, her husband introduced her to vodka & orange juice, and her physician introduced her to Dexamyl (amphetamines). She was hooked instantly. The speed gave her more than enough energy to work all day on movies, and be up at 1 a.m. for her baby’s feedings. The booze gave her the social confidence she lacked and took away her shyness. It also helped bring out a volatile temper that she had been suppressing.
In 1963, Sandra Dee was asked how it felt to turn 21.
“It means I’ve worked steady for nine years, have been married three – and that I’m now old enough to vote and order a glass of wine.”
After suffering several miscarriages due to her anorexia, Dee gave birth to the couple’s only child, Dodd, in December 1961. After Dee and Darin were married, they appeared together in two more films, If a Man Answers (1962) and That Funny Feeling (1965).
The couple first lived together above Sunset Strip in a mid-century modern home at 141 Rising Glen Rd. They later moved to Toluca Lake after their son was born and settled at 10051 Valley Spring Lane.
The Darin-Dee marriage collapsed in 1967 ending in divorce, though the pair continued to live together off -and-on until Darin’s death during heart surgery in 1973. His body was donated to science. Sandra Dee began to drink more after her husband’s death. Her acting roles had dried up by age 26. Universal Studios attempted to turn her into a more mature actress, and she made several more films, including A Man Could Get Killed (1966), Doctor, You’ve Got to Be Kidding!(1967) and The Dunwich Horror (1970). But audiences didn’t seem too interested in seeing their favorite teenager all grown up, and Dee’s career as a film star was over before she turned 30.
As a result, Dee made guest appearances in several TV series in the early 1970s and early 1980s, including Love, American Style, Night Gallery, The Sixth Sense, Police Woman and Fantasy Island.
Dee’s mother died in 1987. Dee was hospitalized repeatedly due to her alcoholism, and her weight dropped to 85 pounds.
“When my mother died, I died, too. I couldn’t function. I didn’t go outside for nearly four months. I subsisted on soup, crackers and Scotch.”
On Sunday, March 25, 2012, my guy Troy and I ventured into the pouring rain to get shots of Sandra Dee’s last home. In a weird twist of fate, so did the Ventura County CSI who were investigating (I assume) a death in the apartment below Sandra Dee’s last home. We both thought,“Of course there is a CSI crew in the aparement below Sandra Dee’s last home on the rainy Sunday we chose to take pictures. It just makes sense.”
Sandra’s apartment has the red ribbon on the balcony.
In 1978, the 50s nostalgia film musical Grease was the #1 film and #1 soundtrack LP in the nation. The song ” Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee (Lousy with Virginity)” had a new generation wondering who/how she was? When it was revealed how much of a reclusive alcoholic she had become, one writer noted the lyrics “Lousy with Debility” would have been more appropriate.
Sandra lived as a recluse in her Los Angeles home, and admitted to drinking a quart of Scotch every day.
Her son Dodd became her new caretaker and eventually hospitalized his mother when she was underweight and near death.
“My son saved my life.”
Sandra began regular therapy with an addiction-specialist and slowly came out of her seclusion. She appeared on the cover of People Magazine in 1991 and told the world her story of a secret life of incest, anorexia and alcoholism. Though she had been out of the limelight for 20 years, she had never stopped receiving monthly autograph requests from fans.
In 1991, Sandra then age 49, appeared in her first national TV interview in 20 years on Sally Jesse Raphael – taped in San Francisco. She bravely and intelligently told her story of sexual abuse, and her sheltered life in Hollywood. She was reunited with James Darren and John Saxon. Shelley Fabares also came on to tell her how much she idolized her. That same year, Sandra appeared on stage with Saxon in the play Love Letters- a popular play of the decade in which older celebs stood at stage podiums and told the story of two characters by reading their love letters. The script was on stage – no memorization required. Sandra got good reviews, despite her very frail appearance. Her bouts with drinking and depression returned and she didn’t attend her son’s 1994 wedding.
In 1994, Dodd Darin published a book titled, Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, in which he detailed his mother’s anorexia, drug abuse and alcoholism, and the sexual abuse by her stepfather.
In July 1998, Sandra, age 56, appeared alongside Troy Donahue at the The Castro Theater in San Francisco for a staged interview and screening of A Summer Place. After the film, the pair met fans and signed autographs. Fans reported she looked lovely and was gracious as ever. Sandra told interviewers that during the film shoot, she had no time to get to know Troy Donahue since she was in makeup at 5 a.m. and called to her studio classroom at 11 a.m.
“I was lucky if I had time to wave to him, and suddenly there we were (on set) in bed.”
After the success of the TV bio of Patty Duke, Call Me Anna: The Patty Duke Story, producers hoped they could get Sandra Dee on board for a network TV bio-film. It never happened. Two rival studios were trying to get the Bobby Darin Story made. Johnny Depp, Tom Cruise and Drew Barrymore were mentioned in various articles as possible casting choices. The bio film was eventually made in 2004 as Beyond the Sea, a Kevin Spacey vanity project (“He Sings! He Dances! He Produces! He Writes! He Directs!” boasted the press releases.) The film (co-starring Kate Bosworth as Sandra Dee) was screened privately for Sandra and she reportedly called Spacey saying, ” I don’t want to change a frame.” Her mood was joyful after the screening when she told her son Dodd that she was so happy to have been a part of Bobby Darin’s life. The little-seen film was released 2-months before Sandra’s death and earned just $8 mil world-wide.
By the time she was 40, Dee had essentially stopped working, and was beset by a series of medical and psychological problems, including anorexia, depression, and drug and alcohol addiction. Lonely, Dee would make late-night calls to appliance support lines, just to have someone to talk to. By 2000, it was reported that she had been diagnosed with throat cancer and kidney disease.
Dodd Darin volunteered to donate a kidney for a transplant, but doctors decided that Dee was too weak to risk the surgery.
Dodd and Sandra’s friend/assistant Natalie Stortz described her as being in good spirits during her final days – despite her need for kidney dialysis three times a week for the last four years. Dodd Darin told fans that his mother had just moved into a new home, was actively involved with getting a kidney transplant, and loved being a grandmother to his two daughters. He said she was getting out and about more and her sudden passing really came as a shock. Sandra had been hospitalized for the last 2 weeks and her family hoped she would rally but her complications were too great.
Dee died on Feb. 20, 2005, at Los Robles Hospital and Medical Center in Thousand Oaks, Calif., about two weeks after she was admitted for treatment of kidney disease and pneumonia.
She was 62 years old, and was working on her autobiography, which was to have been titled, Look at me, I’m Sandra Dee.
Her funeral service was held at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, with Dee resting in a lavender coffin draped with lavender roses. Singer Nancy Sinatra delivered the eulogy.
Dee’s crypt is just one space away from her mother’s.
Dee was survived by her son, Dodd Darin, and two granddaughters, Alexa and Olivia Darin. In her will (available here), which she filed less than two years before she died, Dee left her Rolls Royce to her son, and the rest of her property, with a total estimated value of $150,000, to be divided equally between her granddaughters.
“I wonder what my mother’s life would have been like if she hadn’t been so pretty,” Dodd wrote.”If she hadn’t been so attractive to a dirty old man. If her mother hadn’t been so mesmerized by her beauty that she turned her into a doll. If Sandy hadn’t had those melting brown eyes that told a Hollywood studio they were looking at a movie star. ‘Bad things happened to little Sandra Dee.”
Wanna see her mailbox?
But which one?!