In the 1950s, no one symbolized purity and innocence more than starlet Sandra Dee. If we only knew.
Sandra Dee was an angel of the silver screen. Starting as a child model before moving to film, the blonde beauty captivated 1950s audiences with her all-American charms, and we still see her as the ultimate “good girl” today. The truth was something else entirely. From her horrific childhood to her biggest secrets, Sandra Dee’s life is so much darker than people know.
Sandra’s troubles began right when she was a child. Born in the early 1940s to her teenaged mother Mary, Sandra’s father was out of the picture when she was still just a toddler, leaving the two women mostly to fend for themselves. This closeness, however, was a very bad thing. Mary soon developed an unhealthy obsession with her daughter, one that would shape Sandra’s life forever.
When Sandra’s mother realized her daughter was turning into a strikingly beautiful little girl, her response was disturbing. Mary began dressing up and using Sandra as a living doll. She would do her up constantly in intensely adorable outfits like “a skirt with an Eisenhower jacket and a little hat”. Unfortunately, this was just the beginning.
Mary didn’t just treat her daughter like a doll, she was also eerily co-dependent on her. Creepily enough, Sandra’s mother insisted on spoon-feeding her until she was six years old. Then, when Sandra was old enough to attend school, Mary would frequently keep her home anyway to keep her company, lying and saying it was raining outside and drawing the curtains closed.
When someone new came into their lives, this behavior only got stranger.
When Sandra was five, her mother began a romance with Eugene Douvan, a dashing NYC real estate mogul. But instead of tempering her obsession with Sandra, it only seemed to heighten it. As Sandra recalled, when the newlyweds went on their honeymoon, she slept between them. More than that, Douvan always said “he was marrying both me and Mary”.
Yes, ick. It was enough to make anyone dysfunctional, but Sandra had so much more where that came from.
There was no way Sandra’s mother would pass up the opportunity to use her daughter’s good looks, and by the age of eight Sandra started working as a model. At first, it was just a gig here and there for brands like the Girl Scouts, but by the time she was 11 years old, she was a complete professional making nearly 80,000 a year.
But far from giving Sandra her independence, this only put her mother into overdrive.
When Sandra hit puberty around this time, her mother’s antics turned horrific. Aghast that her little girl was developing curves, Mary insisted that Sandra bind her chest to tamp down the oncoming changes. Even worse, Mary’s insistence that her daughter stay prepubescent helped produce a dark and life-threatening side effect.
Sandra Dee was already the breadwinner of her family before she hit her tween years, and the immense pressure of modeling combined with her mother’s dismal guidance soon contributed to a full-blown eating disorder. As Dee later confessed, “I ate almost nothing but lettuce one entire year”. And instead of getting her immediate help, her mother only pushed her more.
By the mid-1950s, Sandra’s mother had set her sights firmly on Hollywood. The girl now rode the subway alone to auditions, attended a special performing arts school along with other budding ingenues like Tuesday Weld, and made herself as sophisticated as possible for an 11-year-old. Shortly after, she got her big break—in the worst way imaginable.
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In 1956, Sandra’s stepfather Eugene Douvan passed from a heart attack, sending the family into a tailspin in more ways than one—but more on that later. In the moment, Sandra was heartbroken, but she still managed to get herself to a screen test just days after Douvan’s funeral. Disturbingly, this heartbroken state was exactly what won her the job.
Dee’s test was with the powerful producer Ross Hunter, but when she got there, she couldn’t stop crying. Instead of being alarmed at this, all Hunter could see were dollar signs. “Here was this tiny, lovely, sophisticated little girl who was crying,” Hunter said. “I saw that moms all over the world would say ‘Gee, if my daughter could be like little Sandra Dee, that would be wonderful”.
Yes, that’s exactly what Dee needed: Another adult in her life out to make money from her. It went nowhere good.
Dee’s first film was in 1957’s Until They Sail, playing a young girl tested by the trials and tribulations of love. She starred alongside heavy hitters like Paul Newman and Joan Fontaine, but she got the part thanks to an enormous lie. While the studio thought she was 14 years old, she was actually only 12.
In fact, Dee’s body was still so underdeveloped, the studio had her wear a rubber suit under her clothes that gave her the illusion of more curves. That wasn’t even the awkward part.
Dee had spent so long in an adult world, she didn’t really know how to be a child anymore—or what was appropriate to do as a child. Reportedly, she was so excited about her new “body,” she rushed right over to her 32-year-old co-star Paul Newman and screeched, “Mr Newman, Mr Newman, Want to see my body?” It was going to get a whole lot worse.
Until They Sail launched Sandra Dee’s career, and soon she was a bona fide American Sweetheart. This film was followed by hits in Imitation of Life and as a beachy beauty in Gidget, with gossip columnist Louella Parsons likening her innocent beauty to Shirley Temple. But behind the scenes, Dee’s perfect life was already crumbling.
Even as Sandra Dee bounced and dimpled along the screen to rapt audiences, the reality beyond her dressing-room door was unspeakably ugly. The young girl was still struggling with her eating and would gorge on walnuts every Saturday, only to drink Epsom salts afterward to purge. In this vulnerable position, she was about to make a very fateful decision.
Dee was on a roll, and soon won a part in Come September as supporting actress to legends Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida. Yet it was her young co-star Bobby Darin who would change her life. A popular crooner of hits like “Dream Lover” and “Mack the Knife,” the still-teenaged Dee immediately caught Darin’s attention, and he began pursuing her hard. Very hard.
Darin went from 0 to 60 with Dee, and even casually asked her to marry him on one of their first meetings. Dee, however, was having none of it. She later confessed that she found Darin “conniving” and turned down his so-called proposal. But instead of taking the hint, Bobby Darin resorted to even more intense tactics to get her attention.
In the face of Dee’s indifference, Darin first began taunting her like a schoolboy, chanting “Sandra Dee has a flea”. Then, using a little more of his brain power, Darin turned his attention to Dee’s mother Mary, hoping to woo and recruit her over to his side. It worked, and Mary eventually convinced Sandra to go on a carriage ride with Bobby. This changed everything.
Despite Darin’s creepy way of getting to her, he managed to convince Dee on this carriage ride that his antics were simply because he was terrified of how deeply he felt for her. Desperately in love, Darin was willing to do anything to get her attention.
His explanation obviously worked, because the pair of them started canoodling all over the Come September set—and it led to some very rash choices.
Before Come September finished filming, Dee shocked her co-stars with an announcement. She and Darin had eloped. Although her older co-star Rock Hudson and even her mother were aghast at the young lovers’ quickie wedding, Dee herself claimed that the morning after her vows, “I had never felt so safe in my life as I felt with Bobby”.
This was not a feeling that would last.
It’s safe to say that when Dee married Darin, she had little idea about who he really was. If she did, she might have thought twice. After suffering from heart issues as a boy, Darin’s family coddled him to the point of spoiling him. They called him “the King” in the family, and Darin was used to getting exactly what he wanted, when he wanted.
As his own sister lamented, “It was a mistake…we should have…made him into a human being, and we didn’t do it”. But that was just one of Darin’s less savory traits.
After his intense illness as a child, Darin had an almost pathological need to “make it” in entertainment, and he developed an immense ego to help get him there. By the time he was famous, his head was so big it would hurt his relationships even with his fellow big-name celebrities.
Sammy Davis Jr once quipped at Darin, “Let me know when you stop being a legend so we can be friends again”. Still, Darin saved his worst for Sandra Dee.
Soon after her wedding, Dee had a rude awakening. Her new husband expected her to follow him around like a puppy—an extremely well-coiffed one. He insisted that she was at every one of his Vegas shows, dressed to the nines and with perfect makeup on, so that she could gaze at him adoringly from the crowd. The payoff for this devotion was deeply disappointing.
Even after Dee dutifully went down every night to watch her husband, he paid her back by…ignoring her. As Dee said, “He had me sitting through shows, and then he was with the guys every night”. While her husband caroused with his buddies in front of his wife, Dee slowly grew more and more bored, saying “I had no life, and we had no life together”.
Going out of her wits, Dee began gambling and, most especially, drinking in excess. Then she began resorting to cruel tricks.
In a bid to get Darin’s attention any way she could, Dee acted out. She would do things like tell him his toupee was crooked just before he went on stage, or cause scenes and cry whenever she got the chance—albeit usually because Darin was trying to make her cry. Still, when someone asked her why she was always in the middle of the drama, Dee sniped, “To stir things up. I’m bored”.
Before long, it all reached a fever pitch.
Dee and Darin quickly grew apart thanks to these outbursts. With this distance came suspicion, especially after the birth of their son, Dodd, in 1961. In particular, Darin became paranoid that Dee was having an affair with her Tammy and the Doctor co-star Peter Fonda. Although Dee swore until her dying day that they were merely friends, Darin wouldn’t listen—and he got an ice-cold revenge.
Darin was so sure Dee was cheating on him, he played a nasty end game. He told her he was divorcing her—but he didn’t stop with just that. Apparently unable to face up to Dee himself, Darin got a minion to break the news for him instead. It was an incredibly cowardly way to learn of the split, but Dee had to accept it all the same. Except it got messier.
Dee and Darin couldn’t even do divorce in a clean way. Their initial separation didn’t last long, and they went back to each other for the sake of their love and for their son Dodd…and then this didn’t last either. They separated again, for the last time, in 1966. This go-around, the reason was even more ridiculous than before.
Darin and Dee tried briefly to change their dynamic, but it always ended the same way. In fact, Darin was now more paranoid than ever. The instigating event in their final split was when he simply saw Dee talking to Warren Beatty at a party. And guess what? This time he had his psychiatrist tell her they were through.
Unfortunately, the end of Dee’s relationship with Darin also spelled the end of many other things in her life.
In the late 1960s, Dee experienced more disheartening upheavals. Namely, as she grew older and was no longer the fresh-faced, innocent beauty, audiences stopped coming to her films. It wasn’t long before her studio, Universal, dropped her unceremoniously from their roster. In response, Dee started truly spinning out of control.
Up until now, Sandra Dee had kept most of her private issues extremely private, playing the good girl everyone wanted her to be. But then she made a bitter public revelation. In a 1967 interview with Roger Ebert where she openly smoked, she sneered, “Little Sandra Dee isn't supposed to smoke, you know. Or drink. Or breathe”.
Tragically, she had more trials coming.
Dee tried desperately to keep working during this time, but her roles were slim. Playing somewhat to type, she took a part as a hapless college girl in the supernatural film The Dunwich Horror—though she did refuse the script’s direction to appear without her clothes in the final scenes of the movie.
Still, none of this moved the needle on her career or her personal life. Actually, she started moving backward.
It wasn’t enough that Dee’s life was falling apart—but her ex-husband Bobby Darin wasn’t making it any better. While Dee never remarried and never got over Darin, he sure tried to move on quickly. Soon after their split, he met secretary Andrea Yeager, marrying her in 1973. Dee had to deal with her emotions about this, yes, but that wasn’t all she had to deal with.
Darin did try to get on with his life, but fate had much different plans in store for him. His heart, which had never been good, was now beginning to give out on him. In 1971, he received two artificial valves—and even though Darin was with Yeager at the time, it was Dee he kept going to for comfort during these upsets.
As Dee said, “Bobby kept coming back. And always with an illness”. Things quickly got complicated.
As Darin’s health began failing, so too did his marriage, and he and Andrea Yeager split in October of 1973 after only a few months together as husband and wife. But there was a more scandalous reason for the split. With Darin always at her door, Dee eventually let him back into her heart, and they rekindled their relationship. It would only end in tragedy.
In December of 1973, Bobby Darin put his life right on the line. Although he knew he was supposed to take antibiotics before any medical visits, the egotistical Darin went to the dentist without any prescribed protection anyway. The results were chilling. He developed sepsis throughout his body, and the illness ravaged one of his artificial heart valves.
Knowing he was in deep trouble, Darin checked himself into the hospital. It was a swift decline from there.
By then, Darin was so sick from sepsis, he began developing dementia, and barely understood where he was while he was in the hospital. He did manage one heartbreaking act of loyalty. Remembering it was his son Dodd’s birthday, he called the boy from the hospital and wished him a tearful—if confused—happy birthday.
Within days, Darin would have surgery on his heart. All Dee could do was pray.
At Darin’s surgery, a team of doctors worked tirelessly for six hours to save the 37-year-old singer and love of Dee’s life, then wheeled him into the recovery room to wait and see. But there was no miracle: Darin passed on December 19, 1973, without ever waking up from surgery. The aftermath for Sandra Dee was almost unimaginable.
When Dee heard the news of her ex-husband’s passing, she was beside herself with grief. More than that, her son Dodd was staying over at his friend’s house, and Dee was all alone. Panicked, Dee called the boy’s mother—who just so happened to be Kay Gable, actor Clark Gable’s widow—in the middle of the night and said she was coming to get Dodd.
Kay managed to talk Sandra down and convince her to wait until tomorrow, saying, “Believe me, he’ll know for the rest of his life what happened”.
The next years of Sandra Dee’s life were an uphill climb. As her son Dodd later admitted, “My mom never recovered” from the loss of Bobby Darin. Plus, although she tried to busy herself by taking on a series of guest roles, her career continued to flounder. Heartbreakingly, it was around this time that Dee famously said, “I feel like a has been that never was”.
Eventually, Dee had enough.
By the 1980s, Dee had all but retired from acting. Only, it was much worse than that. She turned herself into a near recluse, focusing only on raising her son Dodd and trying not to fight with her mother Mary, who was still around and still imposing her will on everything. After all, all Dee had now was her family…but she wouldn’t have that for long.
In the late 1980s, Dee’s mother began suffering from lung cancer, and everyone could tell the end was near. When Mary finally did pass, she managed to get in one final insult to her daughter. Reportedly, the old woman told her grandson Dodd on her deathbed: “Don’t be a victim as I was. Don’t waste your life cleaning up after [Sandra]”.
Despite these vicious words, Dee came completely unraveled at her mother’s end.
Dee was only barely holding it together—and then came the implosion. She had always struggled with eating and drinking, but after her mother’s death, she gave over entirely to her demons. Dee confessed once that during this time she lived only on “soup, crackers, and Scotch,” and her weight plummeted to nearly nothing. Her rock bottom was terrifying.
Dee’s son Dodd watched in horror at his mother’s breakdown, but when she began vomiting blood he knew he had to act. He got her to seek both mental and physical rehabilitation, which almost certainly saved her life. She slowly began to improve, even expressing an interest in acting again. In the end, though, Dee’s demons were just too strong.
After this excruciating period in the 1980s, Dee didn’t fully quit drinking, though she did curb it, and still continued smoking. Then again, no matter what she did now, the damage to her body was irreparable. So when she hit middle age, she got a disturbing diagnosis. Years of mistreatment had forced her body into kidney failure, and she now needed dialysis.
Although this pushed Dee to finally stop drinking once and for all, she had precious few years left to enjoy a sober life.
In 2005, Sandra Dee was only in her very early 60s, but suffering from horrible complications of kidney disease that no amount of dialysis could fix. On February 20 of that year, she died in hospital at the age of 62, surprising many fans who still thought of her as that fresh-faced girl.
But how had Dee’s life gone so wrong? Well, in 1994, her son Dodd wrote a memoir about his parents, Dream Lovers. It finally revealed Dee’s darkest secret to the world.
There was an unspeakable sin running through Dee’s life. One she only confided to her husband Bobby Darin after they had split up and to her son Dodd when he was no longer a boy. One that had destroyed her life since she was five years old.
As Dodd confesses, shortly after marrying into the family, Sandra’s stepfather Eugene Douvan intimately mistreated her and did so for years. Tragically, that’s just the beginning.
According to Dee, in her later years, she finally worked up the courage to tell her mother about Douvan’s behavior. Her mother’s reply was ice cold. Reportedly, Mary at first refused to believe that Douvan was anything but a saint to her daughter. When Sandra brought it up again, she was completely silent. With this revelation, however, Dee’s whole life changes.
To the casual viewer, Sandra Dee is just a cinema good girl gone rotten. But this revelation explains so much of her pain—her premature development, her inability to take care of her body, and her difficulties in her relationships. But Dee is also not just what Eugene Douvan did to her, and Dodd’s memoir makes that clear in other ways.
Although Dee’s mother never protected her, she did her best to protect her son Dodd. In turn, he grew up to be both a devoted son and a loving father. Writing when Dee was still alive, Dodd admitted, “In her mind, unless she was Sandra Dee, who had a major career…she was nothing”. But he also said, “I would love for her to be able to feel good about herself and to take some pride in what she has accomplished”.
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