Sandra Dee was beautiful and talented from a young age. Her modeling and film career began early and, while her popularity went up and down throughout the years, she remains a well-known public figure.
Unlike most celebrities, Sandra only had one high-profile relationship with singer Bobby Darin. They were in love but eventually divorced before his early death.
Childhood abuse and a series of tragic losses led her down a self-destructive path. She never felt satisfied with her body and began to punish herself for eating. When that didn’t work, she would turn to pills and alcohol for comfort.
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Alexandra Suck was born in New Jersey on April 23, 1944, to John Suck and Mary Cymboliak. Along with her grandmother, her parents raised her in the Russian Orthodox faith.
Sandra was a beautiful, good-natured, intelligent child. Her mother enjoyed dressing her up and would occasionally keep her from school.
She experienced tragedy at an early age when her stepfather Eugene Douvan first molested her when she was five and raped her when she was 8. The abuse continued for years, but she didn’t reveal it to her mother until decades later. It was also a major contributor to the eating disorder she developed at the tender age of 9.
Sandra was a shy, reclusive girl from an early age. She claims she never wanted to become a model or actress but was pushed into it by her domineering stage mother.
Sandra’s career started when she was young when she landed a Girl Scout modeling gig that started when she was eight, which turned into a lucrative job that earned her $78,000-a-year by the time she was 11.
She was also working in local commercials by this time. Her mother helped her get roles, but she rode the subway by herself to gigs. She also went to the Professional Children’s School with future stars such as Tuesday Weld and Carol Lynley.
Sandra met producer Ross Hunter in 1956. Hunter claims to have discovered her at the age of 12 on Park Avenue in New York City. She arrived for a screen test days after her father died. He was entranced by her beauty when she arrived crying. He was the one who came up with her famous nickname, made by shortening her name and using a last name based on her stepfather’s surname initial.
She was signed for her first film, Until They Sail, in 1957 when she was only 14. Despite being inexperienced, she earned a Golden Globe for New Star of the Year. It was clear that the success of these films didn’t calm her mind, and the signs of Sandra’s later struggles with body image were already on display She had to wear a rubber suit behind her clothes while filming Until They Sail because her body was underdeveloped and she’d already adopted a starvation diet. She had no problem with the suit because she loved the curves it gave her.
Sandra signed a contract with Universal Studios after graduating from Universal High School in 1958, but her big break came in 1959 when she earned a role in movies like Gidget and A Summer Place. This led to roles as innocent ingenues in a long list of teen films in the 50s and 60s. The most successful was Imitation of Life, which earned over $50 million and was Universal Pictures’ highest-grossing film at the time. She earned the nickname Queen of Teens, became a popular pin-up girl, and was voted the 16th most popular star in the country in 1959.
Sandra appeared on the Quigley Publications Top 10 Money-Making Stars poll from 1960-1963 and ranked #6 in 1961. The 1960 thriller Portrait in Black catapulted Sandra to 7th place on the list of biggest stars. She went down to 8th place after acting in Take Her, She’s Mine in 1963, and it was the last time she’d crack the top 10.
The 60s saw her replacing Debbie Reynolds in the Tammy series of films, but her appearances didn’t do as well in the box office. To keep her career trending upwards, she even recorded a few singles in the 60s, including a cover of When I Fall In Love.
Sandra lost her contract with Universal in 1965. She was both the last major star to work under an exclusive contract and the last actress under contract with Universal Studios. The drop came as her popularity began to dwindle. Sweet ingenues like Sandra were no longer a popular draw for moviegoers. Her only major film in the 70s was The Dunwich Horror, but she also found roles in made-for-TV movies and TV series such as Night Gallery, Love, American Style, and Fantasy Island.
The release of the movie musical Grease on June 16, 1978, brought her name back into the public consciousness. It included the song “Look at Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” and its lyrics mocked her innocent image. Despite its tone, she took the joke well and wasn’t offended by it.
Her final appearances included another spot on Fantasy Island and the film Lost in 1983. Her final acting credit was a voice-only appearance in an episode of Fraiser in 1994.
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Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin
Robert Cassotto was born on May 14, 1936. He was raised by his grandmother because his mother had him out of wedlock, and he didn’t discover that truth until he was 32. He was a sickly child, but his biological mother would entertain him with tales of her time in showbusiness. He eventually developed an interest in singing and took on the stage name Bobby Darin. He became a teen idol with songs such as Mack the Knife and Splish Splash. He developed a friendship with Elvis, and George Burns became his surrogate father.
Bobby met Sandra Dee on the set of Roman Holiday in 1960. He was immediately taken with her, but she wasn’t that impressed at first. She was put off by his cocky nature, but that eventually changed as he matured. Her mother convinced her to go on a carriage ride with him, and he finally showed his genuine emotions. She was enamored, and they were married on December 1, 1960, after only knowing each other for one month. Despite that, she said she never felt safer than when she was able to wake up next to him as her husband.
They appeared in 3 films together; Come September in 1961, If a Man Answers in 1962, and That Funny Feeling in 1965. Bobby also wanted Sandra at every one of his Las Vegas casino gigs. She was captivated by the city’s lights and glamour and began drinking and gambling excessively. The relationship began to fall apart, however, when he became convinced she was having an affair with Peter Fonda and asked for a divorce. That only lasted until December 16, 1961, when they had a child named Dodd Mitchell Darin. Despite this, the relationship ended again in 1966 due to her addictions, and this time they stayed apart but remained friends.
Bobby Darin always believed he would die young due to his sickly childhood, and, unfortunately, he was right. He died of complications from open-heart surgery at the age of 37 on December 19, 1973. Sandra never remarried. Their son wrote a book about their relationship titled Dream Lovers, The Magnificent Shatter Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee. A biopic about their lives titled Beyond the Sea was released in 2004 and, despite its painful honesty, she purportedly gave it her blessing.
Eating Disorder and Addiction
Sandra’s son Dodd says his mother never realized how talented she was and never felt content unless she was working and successful. She once said she was only good at walking on the stage with a pretty dress. She also felt pressured by studios to maintain her innocent image. They would hide her drinks and cigarettes because, in her own words, “Sandra Dee isn’t supposed to smoke or drink or breathe.” All of this, along with the abuse she’d suffered as a child, led to years of addiction and a twisted relationship with food.
Sandra became addicted to the amphetamines her doctor prescribed after she had her son, and she would always reach for a drink whenever she needed to calm down. After her mother died in 1988, she would drink over a quart of scotch per day. Neither the public nor her family saw her for some time after that; her weight stayed at 80 pounds while she secluded herself at home for three years.
One day, Dodd found her in a coma after eating walnuts and drinking Epsom salts until she became sick. She later told him it was a way to punish herself for eating. He had always been close to his mother and stayed by her side until her last days. He helped bring her back from rock bottom and convinced her to see a therapist. She eventually gave up drinking after being diagnosed with kidney failure in 2000. While this was a positive step, it wasn’t enough to save her.
Death and Last Days
Sandra was on dialysis for the last four years of her life. Doctors at the Los Robles Hospital & Medical Center in California did everything they could to repair the damage she’d done to her body throughout the years, but it wasn’t enough.
Sandra Dee died of kidney disease two months before her 63rd birthday on February 20, 2005. Her body is buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Los Angeles.
As the reprise to the famous song that bears her name says, hold your head high, take a deep breath and sigh…goodbye to Sandra Dee.
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