Born Alexandra Cymboliak Zuck, April 23, 1942, in Bayonne, NJ; died of kidney disease, February 20, 2005, in Thousand Oaks, CA. Actress. Sandra Dee was one of Hollywood’s hottest box-office draws in the early 1960s.
Best remembered for her role as the irrepressible Gidget in the hit teen-surfer movie of the same name, Dee and her career failed to capture the momentum of her early years as an exuberant, attractive starlet, and she retreated into a reclusive life plagued by substance abuse. Despite her decline, she would be forever remembered as an icon for an era. “The bright, chirpy Ms. Dee defined a new kind of natural, sun-soaked innocence that America, and much of the rest of the world, quickly embraced as the radiantly healthy, outdoorsy essence of Southern California living,” noted Dave Kehr in her New York Times obituary.
Dee was born Alexandra Cymboliak Zuck on April 23, 1942, the year given by most sources, though her actual birth date, according to her son, may have been 1941. She grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey, and her father left the family before she was five years old. Her determined, sometimes overbearing mother pushed her into a career as a child model, often by lying about Dee’s age. She appeared in television commercials for Coca-Cola and Copper-tone, and though to her classmates at the Professional Children’s School in New York City she seemed to lead a charmed life, Dee later said she had been sexually abused by her stepfather, and battled a decimating eating disorder that began in her teens and endured for decades.
At times her five-feet, five-inch frame weighed just 90 pounds.
Dee made her film debut in 1957’s Until They Sail, and had her first hit movie as The Reluctant Debutante the following year, the story of an American teen taking part in the London social season. She also appeared in Imitation of Life, a melodramatic tale in which Lana Turner played her mother, and was signed to Universal Studios for that picture because it would have cost them too much to hire Natalie Wood, one of Hollywood’s newest talents, for the part. Dee next landed the signature role of Gidget, the 1959 hit, and would be forever associated with the easygoing, California surfer-girl character.
That same year, however, Dee took a more substantial role in the movie A Summer Place, which also starred Troy Donahue. The plot dealt with teen pregnancy and the dire premarital sex taboo of the era, contrasted with the hypocrisy of an adult world in which their respective mother and father are having an extramarital affair with one another. The movie was a terrific commercial success and, according to Kehr ‘s New York Times tribute, was “among the earliest studio films to commodify youthful rebelliousness, though Ms. Dee was hardly an icon of adolescent revolt with her shiny helmet of flipped hair and color-coordinated outfits.”
Dee enjoyed a few heady years after this point as one of Hollywood’s leading box-office draws. She appeared with Rock Hudson and Gina Lollabrigida in Come September, a 1961 Italian romantic comedy which served as her introduction to pop star and fellow cast member Bobby Darin. The two fell in love and wed just weeks later, and the union produced one son, Dodd Darin.
Dee went on to appear in two frothy teen screen hits, Tammy Tell Me True and Tammy and the Doctor, and made two movies with her husband. Both were poorly received, however, and the couple’s marriage faltered. They divorced in 1967, and Dee made a few more films before disappearing from the public eye. Universal had dropped her contract after she made A Man Could Get Killed, a 1966 dud. “I was simply a piece of property to them,” Dee later recalled in an interview, according to her Washington Post obituary by Joe Holley. “I begged them not to make me do the picture, but they insisted.”
Her career essentially over at the age of 26, Dee made the occasional television movie, and was devastated by the more permanent loss of her exhusband—to whom she was still reportedly devoted—when Darin died in 1973 at the age of 37.
Darin’s career and his ill-fated marriage to Dee was the subject of a biopic, Beyond the Sea, which starred Kevin Spacey as the pop crooner and Kate Bosworth as Dee. The movie was released just two months before Dee’s death from kidney disease on February 20, 2005, in Thousand Oaks, California; she is survived by her son and two grandchildren. In a 1991 interview with People magazine, Dee had admitted to drinking a quart of scotch a day by the late 1980s and weighing just 80 pounds, but pulled herself out of it with the help of her son. She quit drinking altogether after being diagnosed with throat cancer and kidney failure in 2000. A fuller account of her story is in Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee, the 1994 biography her son wrote.
John Wayne, Lana Turner
A Summer Place
Sandra Dee, Troy Donahue
Yvonne Craig, Sandra Dee
If a Man Answers
Bobby Darin, Cesar Romero
Tammy Tell Me True
Stefanie Powers, Sandra Dee
That Funny Feeling
Bobby Darin, Sandra Dee
I’d Rather Be Rich
Sandra Dee, Andy Williams
Rock Hudson, Gina Lollobrigida
Tammy and the Doctor
Peter Fonda, Adam West
The Reluctant Debutante
Angela Lansbury, Rex Harrison