A Legend Looks Back: A Visit With Kirk Douglas
Los Angeles – Over the course of an illustrious Hollywood career spanning more than five decades, Kirk Douglas has played many parts: Vincent Van Gogh, Spartacus and boxer Midge Kelly, to name just a formidable few. But the one character he has never played — to his deep regret, he now says — was that of Issur Danielovitch, his own former self.
Douglas revealed this, and much more, when he opened his Beverly Hills, Calif., home to the Forward for a wide-ranging chat in advance of his newly released memoir, “Let’s Face It: 90 Years of Living, Loving, and Learning” (John Wiley & Sons). Wearing a pale-green cotton sweater, khaki pants and tan canvas Vans, the cleft-chinned former Adonis of the silver screen chatted with us about the importance of living a good life, how to sustain a marriage and, yes, sex. But Douglas reserved his most ardent feelings for a topic that has become close to his heart: the renewed state of his Jewish identity. “Now…,” he writes in his book, “I feel guilty for abandoning Issur Danielovitch.”
It was clear from Douglas’s desire to share his reflections on life — both in person, with a reporter, and on the printed page — that he is painfully aware he is nearing his end. The book, in fact, reads like a self-conscious swan song: a final burst of thoughts and opinions on everything from Jimmy Carter’s recent tome on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the tragic death of Douglas’s son Eric three years ago from a drug overdose. But the book also showcases the vitality and verve still fueling the man who helped break the Hollywood blacklist when he hired Dalton Trumbo to pen the film “Spartacus”: It is sprinkled with a hefty smattering of salacious anecdotes from Douglas’s salad days as a young Hollywood buck — the days when he was known to most women under 30 as something other than Michael Douglas’s father.
Indeed, though it might be easy to forget, Douglas once had a reputation that surpassed his son’s. He writes in stunning detail about his youthful sexual exploits, including one with a German stewardess who would yell in wanton moments, “I’m a Nazi!” cuing him to slap her. Asked if he ever bedded Jewish women, Douglas responded, “I never discriminated.” In fact, he added, in a line sure to make the Jewesses of the world swoon with delight, “I’d say my Jewish ‘friends’ were on the whole more passionate.”
With slightly slurred speech — the result of a stroke he suffered in 1996 — Douglas waxed poetic about more serious topics, as well, including his own history. The child of Russian immigrant parents, he grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home in Amsterdam, N.Y., a small upstate town, where he endured daily run-ins with a street gang who pelted him with pebbles wrapped in women’s stockings and called him such names as “Jew bastard” as he walked home from Hebrew school. He was also a promising student of the Torah who had to beat back his community’s efforts to ship him off to yeshiva.
Douglas first rediscovered Judaism after being in a helicopter crash in 1991. He reconnected with his roots, and had a second bar mitzvah at the age of 83. Now he studies weekly with Rabbi David Wolpe, a Conservative rabbi who occupies the pulpit at Los Angeles’s Sinai Temple. Douglas has also has emerged as a committed Jewish philanthropist, giving money to rebuild playgrounds in Israel — in both Arab and Jewish neighborhoods — and to a multimedia theater at Jewish outreach organization Aish HaTorah’s World Center in Jerusalem, where visitors learn about the history of the Western Wall.
Because Douglas married two non-Jewish women, none of his four sons is technically Jewish, nor were they taught any of the customs and traditions. While Douglas contends in his book that he is not bothered by the fact that his children aren’t Jewish, saying he cares only that they do good in the world, in person he is more candid.
When I asked, sitting in his sprawling front parlor in front of an abstract Robert Rauschenberg painting that contains the word “kosher” in bold letters, whether he is truly remorseless about not having Jewish offspring, he back-pedaled. “That’s half-correct,” Douglas admitted. “You see in the entrance to my home that I have a mezuza,” he said, pointing to the front door. “In it, it says you should teach your children. I never did that.”
But if his sons Peter, Michael and Joel do not practice his religion — Eric was eventually bar mitzvahed during a stint in rehab — they are, he said, acutely aware that their father is Jewish. Resting on a bookshelf, above a copy of Leon Uris’s Holocaust tale, “QB VII,” prominently displayed in the inner sitting room, is an ornate menorah with violet- and peach-colored flower buds for candle holders — a gift from Michael on the occasion of his father’s 90th birthday. “They’ve given me so many menorahs, I have to laugh,” Douglas said, referring to his children. (For his 86th birthday, he added, Michael had 86 trees planted in Israel in his father’s name.)
But it is Douglas’s German-born wife of 53 years, Anne, who may have given him the biggest Jewish-themed gift of all: On the occasion of their “second wedding,” commemorating their 50th anniversary, Anne announced that she was converting.
Judaism may have even skipped a generation in the Douglas line: His 14-year-old granddaughter, Kelsey, decided without any prompting that she wanted to have a bat mitzvah. Douglas said that at first he wasn’t convinced of her seriousness, thinking that she just wanted the extravagant party, but he was proved wrong. She studied hard to learn her Torah portion, he said, and now, even her 11-year-old brother, Tyler, is talking about having a bar mitzvah.
Douglas’s final book — his ninth in a slate that includes two novels — is dedicated to his seven grandchildren. He worries, he said, that they are poised to inherit an intractably troubled world.
“Let’s face it, the world is in a mess,” he said. “Horace Mann, a great educator, once said, ‘Be ashamed to die before you do something for humanity,’ and as I get older, I see how correct that is.”
Rebecca Spence is a staff reporter at the Forward.