Laraine Day, a ladylike leading lady who appeared in almost two dozen MGM films between 1939 and 1945, notably as the nurse Mary Lamont in the series of Dr. Kildare movies, died Saturday in Ivins, Utah. She was 87.
For 13 years she was popularly called "the first lady of baseball" for her marriage to Leo Durocher, the Hall of Fame manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants.
Her death, at the home of her daughter, Gigi Bell, was announced by her publicist. She had moved to Utah in March after the death of her third husband, the producer Michel M. Grilikhes, to whom she had been married for 47 years.
Never a major star, Day was relegated to what she called "B(plus) movies" at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She was almost the victim of an ax murderer in "Fingers at the Window" (1942), was married to a traitor in "Yank on the Burma Road" (1942) and served as the intrepid newspaper publisher Edward G. Robinson's girl Friday in "Unholy Partners" (1941).
Day captured roles in A movies only when she was loaned to other studios. In 1940, Alfred Hitchcock borrowed her to co-star with Joel McCrea in the spy thriller "Foreign Correspondent." She was loaned to RKO to play the virtuous society girl who reforms a draft-dodging, gambling ship owner (Cary Grant) in "Mr. Lucky" (1943). And Paramount borrowed her at the request of the director Cecil B. De Mille to play the steadfast nurse at the side of Gary Cooper's heroic doctor in "The Story of Dr. Wassell" (1944).
Paramount had signed Day to a six-month contract at $150 a week after she graduated from high school in 1937. According to an oral history Day taped for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1997, her contract was dropped after she tested for a three-line part in the De Mille film "The Buccaneer." Not only did the director turn her down for the role, she said he also told Paramount that she had no talent and should be dropped.
By the time De Mille was planning a movie based on Dr. Corydon Wassell's rescue of a dozen wounded American sailors during the first days of World War II, Day had played Nurse Mary Lamont seven times. "After seeing me in so many Kildares, I was naturally the only one who could play a nurse and knew the proper instruments," Day said.
Starring Lew Ayres as Dr. Kildare and Lionel Barrymore as the chief of surgery, Dr. Gillespie, the Kildare series was tremendously successful. "Kildare, Maisie and the Andy Hardy pictures were the bread-and-butter pictures for MGM," Day said in her oral history. "Through those three series, they could afford Garbo and Crawford and Shearer, and they could make the big pictures."
Years after "good, marvelous, true, honest" Nurse Lamont was hit by a truck while rushing to buy furniture on her wedding day, people would stop Day on the street and ask, "Why did you die, Mary Lamont?"
Although some sources give Day's birthday as Oct. 13, 1917, the more likely date and the one given on her death is 1920. One of eight children, including a twin brother, she was born Laraine Johnson in Roosevelt, Utah, to a prosperous family that belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. When he was 15, her father had acted as a Mormon Paul Revere, riding to warn polygamists that the federal marshals were coming so that they could hide their wives. Her great-grandfather, three of his six wives and a few dozen of his 52 children had been early settlers in San Bernardino, Calif. The Johnsons followed two of their older sons to the area when Day was 9.
Soon moving to Long Beach, Day took storefront tap dance lessons at 12 and, while still in high school, started her movie career with a bit part in the four-handkerchief melodrama of maternal love "Stella Dallas" (1937). As an uncredited "Girl at Resort," she ordered and ate a banana split with three scoops of ice cream. Then she ate six more, since the director, King Vidor, was not satisfied until the scene was shot seven times.
After three made-in-two-weeks Westerns opposite George O'Brien at RKO ("Border G-Men," "Painted Desert," and "Arizona Legion,") she was signed by MGM in 1939, and her name was changed; the studio already had a Rita Johnson under contract. She had one line before dying in a plane crash in "Tarzan Finds a Son" (1939) and committed suicide in "I Take This Woman," (1940), starring Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. Loaned to Edward Small Productions when Frances Dee collapsed on the set of "My Son, My Son," (1940), she killed herself again rather than ruin Brian Aherne's life. Her performance in that film made theater owners pick her as an outstanding new actress, and Life magazine called her "a major young Hollywood personality."
"Metro did nothing. No publicity," Day said. The MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer showed no interest in her, she said in her oral history, until she married Leo Durocher. "Then we were invited to his house because he was so crazy about baseball." By then, Day had left MGM.
During her years at MGM, she made headlines only once, when she was instrumental in changing Army policy toward entertainers who visited army camps. She had insisted that she be allowed to mingle with enlisted men as well as officers. On a three-day tour of 14 camps, she protested that she had seen only 1,000 of 30,000 enlisted men but had been formally introduced to each of the 300 officers.
Day's marriage to Durocher, in 1947, landed her in a newspaper front-page soap opera that lasted for months. She married Durocher in Texas, one day after being granted an interlocutory decree a temporary court order, now seldom used setting forth terms of divorce from her first husband, the singer Ray Hendricks, in California. Because that divorce would not be final for a year, a California superior court judge tried to revoke it, citing "collusion and fraud." The solution, months later, allowed her to stay married in 47 of the 48 states in the union at the time but ruled that cohabiting with her new husband in California would be bigamy.
In 1946, Day had signed a contract at RKO for one picture a year for five years at a salary of $100,000 per movie, but only two films were made. She played a psychopathic killer in "The Locket" (1946) and a rich girl who is disinherited when she marries the railroad builder John Wayne in "Tycoon." Her last major film role was in "The High and the Mighty" (1954), an early airplane disaster movie.
Day's survivors include two daughters with Grilikhes, Dana Grilikhes Nassi and Bell; and a son and daughter with Durocher, Christopher and Michelle; her twin brother, Lamar, of Chico, Calif., and numerous grandchildren.
During her marriage to Durocher (who died in 1991), she was the host of "Day With the Giants," a 15-minute television interview program broadcast along with New York Giants home games. She also published a memoir, also titled "Day With the Giants." After her divorce from Durocher in 1960, she told an interviewer that she had never liked baseball. "When our relationship was over, so was my relationship with baseball," she said.