During their whirlwind courtship, Bobby Darin sent Sandra Dee 18 yellow roses every day. Then, just months after their first meeting, the crooner of “Mack the Knife” and “Beyond the Sea” proposed marriage with a flawless 7-carat diamond. “[Bobby] liked my looks and the idea of protecting me,” recalled Sandra, who wed her love in the wee hours of Dec. 1, 1960.
Sadly, protecting Sandra proved to be an impossible task. The marriage of the gorgeous young couple, who met on the set of 1961’s Come September, would crumble under the weight of her emotional scars and Bobby’s inability to understand her pain. “Their story, it looked glamorous, it looked perfect from the outside — but it was far from it,” says their son, Dodd Darin.
When Sandra and Bobby met on the set in Portofino, Italy, Sandra was already a movie star but had little experience with dating. She had been groomed since childhood by her controlling mother, Mary, who spoon-fed Sandra her meals until she was 6. The onset of puberty made Mary fret over the size of Sandra’s breasts, and she insisted that Sandra bind them to appear younger. By age 9, Sandra was anorexic. “I ate almost nothing but lettuce one entire year,” she recalled.
Her situation got worse in 1950 when Mary married Eugene Douvan. A charismatic real estate developer who was 40 years Mary’s senior, he began fondling Sandra at age 5 and raping her by the time she was 8. Douvan made Sandra sleep between them in bed and joked to Mary that he’d married her “just to get to Sandy,” wrote Dodd in Dream Lovers: The Magnificent Shattered Lives of Bobby Darin and Sandra Dee.
Sandra never talked to her mother about it. “By the time I was 11, I knew it wasn’t right. But what could I do, tell my mother? I figured she knew,” she said. “The shame I felt was awful. I used to tell myself, ‘That’s a stranger who’s doing this to me.’ That’s how I rationalized it.”
Despite everything, Sandra grieved when her stepfather died of a heart attack in 1956, just days before she would take the screen test that would bring her to Hollywood. She made her film debut a year later and almost overnight became a star by proving herself equally adept at comedies like Gidget and melodramas including A Summer Place and Imitation of Life. In 1958, Sandra was named “Number One Star of Tomorrow.”
But her marriage to Bobby at age 19 put her film career on a back burner. He expected Sandra to attend his nightly shows in Las Vegas and hang around with his friends afterward in the casino. “I had no life, and we had no life together,” said Sandra, who began drinking heavily and gambling to relieve her loneliness. “Then, to complicate matters, I became pregnant.” But it wasn’t to be: She suffered the first of six miscarriages caused by the ravages of anorexia.
Bobby was ill-prepared to cope with any of it. As a child, he had contracted rheumatic fever, which damaged his heart valves. His family coddled him after being told by a doctor he was unlikely to live beyond his 16th birthday. The prognosis made Bobby fiercely ambitious. “He lived 12 lifetimes before he met me,” singer Connie Francis, who dated Bobby before Sandra, tells Closer. “He was determined to make it before he was 25 because he had no time to lose.”
Sandra and Bobby’s son, Dodd, was born in 1961, but it wasn’t enough to keep them together. Sandra’s drinking became worse, and she began causing scenes with Bobby “to stir things up,” she said. Bobby, meanwhile, could be unreasonably jealous. He walked out in 1963, accusing her of an affair with her Tammy and the Doctor costar Peter Fonda. They reconciled but split for good in 1966 after Bobby saw Sandra talking to Warren Beatty at a party. “It was all very nothing. But it was the first time Bobby observed me with a handsome man who had a reputation in Hollywood,” said Sandra.
Oddly, the divorce and raising a child together eventually brought Sandra and Bobby closer than they had been as a married couple. She finally confided to Bobby what her stepfather had done to her. “Bobby cried,” she said. Bobby also sought out his ex-wife when his health began to decline. “Bobby kept coming back. And always with an illness,” said Sandra, who was devastated when he died after heart surgery in 1971. “My mom never recovered,” Dodd says.
Despite all the dysfunction in his family, Dodd escaped his parents’ fate. He married, became a father of two and helped Sandra to achieve a measure of sobriety before her death in 2005. “[My parents] overcame tremendous things,” says Dodd, who named his eldest daughter Alexa, after his mom, who was born Alexandra Zuck. “I was fortunate to have shared many good years with my grandma before she passed,” Alexa says. “My grandma and grandpa continue to inspire me every day.”