Kirk and Anne Douglas (Sunday Times Magazine, December 11, 2016)
When I first arrived at the house I thought this house is too small, too nondescript, too unshowy. It can’t be the house where The Spartacuses live.
Then I spot the mezuzah on the door – Kirk Douglas is a dedicated Jew and then a nurse with gently slippered feet lets me in. I knew I was in the right place. The Douglases are old and need full time care.
The house feels alive when you get in. Cosy but with exquisite art, like the Picasso vase at the entrance bought by Anne Douglas when she worked for the Cannes film festival so so many years ago.
Anne is fully made up, fully coiffed in a blue long sleeved T shirt and navy slacks. Her feet in orthopaedic velcroed shoes. Kirk comes in on his walker. He looks fragile of course, who wouldn’t? He’s a hundred. Or will be on December 9th. But as he stares out at me, his glinty eyes still look to charm. There’s something fierce about him still. He has white hair but he has hair. He speaks with a mighty slur – a remnant of a stroke in 1996. It’s difficult to get used to understanding it but not impossible. He was pretty depressed about being rendered speechless. Not much an actor can do without speech unless silent movies are making a comeback he would joke. Except it wasn’t a joke. He contemplated suicide but knew it was too selfish an act and Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovich, is a survivor. He knows how to pick himself up. He is the last living legend, the last screen hero of the golden years. The action hero that started it all. He was a Viking and he was Spartacus. He did his own stunts and had a personal trainer well into his nineties and all this is in him still. He’s learnt to communicate in a different way. He looks at me with a frisking my soul kind of look. “I bet you’ve never interviewed a hundred year old before,” he challenges.
At the start of our meeting he looks to Anne for support, but then he seems feel who I am with his eyes. If I don’t understand the words he’s saying, he’ll intuit it and communicate by sheer telepathy. It’s hard to explain this. I got a full and absolute sense of the man because he didn’t try to hide everything. Or if he did try to avoid questions like how many lovers did his wife not know about? He’ll shrug and just laugh and jokes, ‘I don’t understand the question.’ He tells me how glad he is to see me, a little bit of London in LA. “I haven’t been able to travel to London for the last four or five years. I have been…” and he tries to finish the sentence and just shrugs. ‘I’ve been here.’
Is he thinking about his hundredth birthday plans? “Well I found out when you reach a hundred they forget about you. I think a hundred is a very lonely age because all my friends are gone, all the one from the movies.” Maybe he has new friends I say cheerily, because who couldn’t be sad that Burt Lancaster and Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall didn’t make it to celebrate with him. He’s not suddenly thinking about death. He’s always thought about death. He says, “If you’re Marilyn, you will always be remembered as 36 but if you’re old….I don’t know. I think he will always be remembered for his bare chested bravery, for his virility, for his rogueish handsomeness.
Surely he must have some friends coming to the party? “I have my wife. She is equated to about five friends.” He looks at Anne and Anne raises her eyebrows. He can still joke. The jokes are all based on mocking himself.
He was born in 1916, the only boy with five sisters. His mother told him he was born in a golden box delivered by angels and for many years he believed that – he must have always felt he was special? He shrugs. “Yes. I had six sisters and only one of them now lives. I was brought up more by my mother because my father was busy drinking in the saloons.” His father Herschel was a ragman, which means he had a cart that pulled rags door to door, bought and sold in the poor neighbourhood of Amsterdam, New York. His parents had emigrated from Russia. They were illiterate and they were Jews. There wasn’t great opportunities for them in this time of great prejudice. The ragman sold his rags and spent his money in the bars. He was a big strong man who knew peasant ways, like how to insulate the house for winter with horse dung but not how to be an emotional communicator. He was distant and discouraging even though the young Issur/Kirk wanted to please him, he rarely did. He admired him because he was his father, yet he was absent both physically and emotionally.
How did that affect Kirk as a father to his four sons Joel, Michael, Peter, Eric? He nods sagely. “Of course a hundred years and I think about my father a lot and I realise that my best friends were always women, maybe because my mother was wonderful.” By this I interpret he wanted to be a very different father to the one he endured. “We were poor. We were living in a terrible house. We had nearly nothing and if my mother saw a hobo they would come to the house, knock on the door and while we didn’t have much food, my mother always saved something for them so yes, I was closer to my mother. I called my company Bryna after my mother.” And because of her he always found it easier to become closer to women? In touch with his feminine side? “Yes,” he beams. Even now, slumped in his chair, he’s tough. The least likely man to be in touch with his feminine side, yet somehow he is. “My mother couldn’t speak English when she first came from Russia. I remember taking her to New York City in a big limousine for a premiere. I said Ma, you see, America is a wonderful land.” Did it make her happy to be in the limo with you? He says, “She never expressed it but I know she was.” Neither of his parents were good at expressing love, were they? “Well, it was so difficult to live.”
For many years Kirk blamed himself for his youngest son Eric’s lonely death from a drugs overdose at 45. Eric was always the crazy one. Even as a child he had anger issues. He was a talented actor and in later years a stand-up comedian. I saw his act at the Edinburgh festival. It was based on jokes about his father and his more famous brother Michael. Kirk for years agonised over it and wondered if it was because he wasn’t there enough or because he thought he was too big an act to follow. Eric had been addicted to drugs and his parents had paid for many rehabs and sober buddies. They tried to get him involved in forming a facility to help others. Eric was too far gone for that.
I remember interviewing him after his show in Edinburgh attended by about 25 people. Glad of the attention he followed me back to my hotel and shouted outside the window all night for me to come out. I didn’t. A year later he was dead. Eric Douglas was 46 when he was found in his New York apartment dead for an overdose. He had gone into rehab a month before with renewed efforts at sobriety
Kirk and Anne used to visit his grave twice a week. They did that for as long as they could easily walk.
Anne who is strong and clever and self-controlled was inconsolable. So many other dramatic events informed her life.
She was born in Germany around 1930. She doesn’t give her exact age. As a little girl she was extremely close to her father. “My parents were not too great together. My mother was a beautiful women and we always had a governess. My mother was away a lot. She got the best dresses, the best cars. We had a big silk manufacturing place and my father had a sales lady there that he wanted me to become friends with, so we formed a close friendship. My parents divorced. I had an extremely close relationship with my father. We told each other everything. At night before I went to bed I would write to him in a little blue book and he would write the reply. One day he said, ‘I’m going on a short business trip.’ I trusted him and relied on him. When he came back I ran downstairs to meet him and he was with my friend the sales agent and he said ‘This is your new mother.’ I cried my eyes out. He betrayed me. I started work very young and went to live in Berlin where my mother was. She continued her deluxe life and I had a little divan in her dressing room and got a job in a doctor’s office.” Then she went to work in Belgium and ended up in Paris Hitler had invaded.
“I was working by putting German subtitles on French movies because I spoke three languages. It was very tedious. It looked like I was writing in code and my maid gave my translation sheet to the Nazis so at 5am they picked me up and arrested me. It was difficult to explain to them what I was doing but eventually they let me go.” She must have been terrified. “That was an understatement. I was brought up during the regime of a dictator and a persecutor and now I feel that years later in America, Donald Trump is a dictator and it scares me. People should have lived in Germany where they thought that Hitler was OK. They said, oh he wasn’t too bad. They thought he wasn’t really doing what he was doing. People thought that Hitler was a buffoon and people should realise that Donald Trump is a dictator! It scares me. She speaks with certainty and passion. At whatever age she is, you can tell she was never anybody’s fool. The couple look at each other throughout, checking.
“I worked in the film industry when the war was over and I was sent everywhere because of my language skills. I was asked to do public relations for American films that were being made in Paris.” Kirk chimes, “And that’s where I come into the story.” Kirk grins and his eyes flash. It’s almost as if they’re flirting with each other. Anne continues, “I was asked by a director to work on An Act of Love but I told him no because I had just finished working on Moulin Rouge and had been invited to take the leading lady to Hollywood.” When she came back they still wanted her to work on the movie – a Kirk Douglas movie. “I went to the studio and a friend of mine who was working on set said, ‘I will take you into the lion’s den.’ And that was it.” I look at Kirk. So…he was the lion? He smiles rather sweetly, not even nostalgically because he still thinks he is a lion.
Was Anne a little wary of the lion? She chuckles. “Not at all. He asked me if could do some secretarial work for him and I said no but I’ll find somebody for you.”
Kirk adds, “This beautiful girl was in the lion’s den. I tried to get her to work for me and I was amazed when she said NO. I escorted her to her car and asked her to have dinner with me at Tour d’Argent – the fanciest restaurant in Paris and she said she was going home to make scrambled eggs.” Kirk was obsessed with what he couldn’t have? “Yes.” This wasn’t part of Anne’s massive game play. She just was too sensible, too vulnerable to throw herself in the ring with what was then the world’s biggest movie star. But scrambled eggs I ask her? “Sure. I was exhausted. I’d just come back from LA to Paris and in those days it was propeller planes. You stopped everywhere. It took two days so I said no thank you I have to go to bed.” This must have made her incredibly exciting to this lion here. “Yes,” says Kirk very definitely. But hang on, Kirk, wasn’t he engaged to another women called Pier Angeli? “Well, yes.” And wasn’t she about twelve and he had to take her on dates with her mother? “No. you are exaggerating. She was 18 when we met. 21 when we were engaged.
Meanwhile Angeli was touring the world, with or without her mother and being extremely elusive and Anne was in Paris, as was Kirk. Eventually they went on a date at the circus, a very famous circus I’m assured. Kirk said, “I was surprised when she said yes.” Anne finishes the story. “Everybody was dressed up and it was very elegant and then he appeared on the show with a pooper scooper for the elephant in a tuxedo.” Kirk beams with recollection of the perfect night. “Everybody thought I was very funny but I made her laugh and then we became good friends that night.” How good friends? “Well…” he gestures and for a minute I think is he hamming it up. Anne corrects. “We kissed that night and that was a little more than a friendly kiss and that’s how it started and every so often when we got in the most passionate way he reminded me that he really was engaged to Pier. It was a secret engagement. It hadn’t been announced. I worked on the movie in France and then I was hired for his next picture in Italy called Ulysses, produced by Carlo Ponti.”
He tells me that every night they were filming he would drive up to see Anne. But what about his fiancée? He talks about a day where he and Anne had a boat and they went on a romantic little pleasure trip up the coast, where they thought they were hidden in a private harbour, but somehow Pier found out. “I could never find her when I wanted to but she always knew where I was,” he says, Anne looks irritated to this day. “She was a little devil. She was devious.” Kirk, was he really in love with her? “I was young.. she was a fantasy.” Anne continues. “He and I were very close and the last straw was I was driving him to the airport in my little Renault. He was going to go home to the US to finish 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and at the airport a stewardess comes to the car and says to Kirk, ‘Miss Pier Angeli is waiting for you on the plane.’ That did it. I broke up with him and I told him I’d never see him again. I went to a friend’s apartment in Nice and I told my maid not to tell Mr Douglas where I am. I am gone.”
So how did this make Kirk feel? “I now had my girlfriend Pier without her mother, on her own. This was New Year’s Eve and we were walking in a garden on a river and I was thinking of Anne.” So now he had Angeli he was bored? “Yes, maybe but she seemed to know. She took off the ring I gave her and threw it at me so next morning I used a lot of charm and made Anne’s maid tell me where she was. And I got my passport and went right to her.” Anne continues, “I had told him this was it but then he bribed my maid. I told him I didn’t want to see him again. I didn’t want to start it up again. And somehow he got me to go ski-ing with him in Switzerland. I went to Paris and he went back to America and asked if I would come and visit for two weeks. I told everybody in Paris, either he’s going to marry me or I come back for good. We had a wonderful time and then he said to me, ‘my ex-wife and children are coming in ten days.’ I said don’t worry I will have left. And he said, ‘No. don’t leave.’
Then one day he came home a little bit late, went down on his knees and asked me to marry him and tried to give me Pier Angelis’ ring.” She raises her eyebrows and I ask him what was he thinking? “That’s nothing compared to what she did to me when we were in Paris and she made a birthday party….” Anne finishes the story because she’s proud of it. “Every girl, including the one from the night before when he said he was seeing rushes – he never sees rushes – was invited to that party. Every woman that he’d had an affair with in Paris that I knew of, and that line was very long already and I’m sure I missed a few, was there to greet him. And I was standing at the end and he turned to me and said, “You bitch.” We all laugh.
And you realise Anne’s humour, fighting spirit and ability to brush things off, just like she brushed off a Nazi interrogation, made her probably the only woman that was strong enough for him. They went to Vegas to get married.
Anne recalls, “Because I didn’t know the word lawful I said I would take him to be my ‘awful’ wedded husband. As soon as we were married, Frank Sinatra was in one room performing, Mickey Rooney was in another. We were in a big suite in the Sahara hotel but we went from one place to another. I said to Kirk come on now to bed. He said, ‘we’ve been sleeping together for a year, tonight we are gambling.’”
Kirk and Anne refer to Kirk’s first wife Diana … the woman he married on leave from the Navy and Michael and Joel’s mother as ‘our ex-wife.’ Anne says, “We became instant friends and we never called her by her name – always our ex-wife. The first independent movie Kirk made was The Indian Fighter. He asked, ‘Do you mind if my ex-wife is in the movie?’ I said of course not.” Kirk says, “The kids have to come and live with you and the nanny as well. Is that OK? So the kids moved in while me and the ex-wife made the movie.” Anne was never jealous? “No, well not of her. If I would get jealous it would have become a ridiculous habit. I said to him if it happens, you tell me. If I hear it from other people it hurts me deeply. If you tell me what you’re up to I can get by with it. Maybe I missed a few hundred. I don’t know.”
Kirk, how many affairs did he confess to? “Oh I don’t know,” he says, suddenly put on the spot. “I’m not very good at keeping secrets.” Anne reminds me, “One year he asked me would I like a surprise birthday party? If I have a bottom line it is to say that we were fantastic lovers and better friends. That is what gives us serenity and a great attachment. And now we are, I suppose it’s corny to say, but now we are one.”
They look at each other, their eyes both lock, it’s a sly exchange rather than an adoring one. She catches me observing that. “It has been that way for a long time.”
Why did she convert to Judaism after fifty years of marriage? So Kirk could say, ‘I finally married a nice Jewish girl?’ She smiles. “I told the Rabbi I would like to convert and he said you don’t have to and I said I do for my husband.” The Rabbi comes every week and he and Kirk read scriptures, discuss the Torah and life. “So I did it. I did the Mikvah. Do you know what that is?” It means you have to submerge yourself in water, symbolic of a total cleanse. “Yes all the way in. my hair got wet. I was upset about that. The Rabbi said ‘invite whoever you want,” and I said sure. I’ll invite all my friends and they’ll see me with no polish no make-up, my hair hanging down. No thank you but then I ran to the hairdresser and became that nice Jewish girl.”
The one that Kirk always wanted? “Well, not really. Well…” he says coyly.
Anne Douglas is perfectly coiffed. Full on eye make-up, nails, everything and that’s just for sitting in the house. The Mikvah must have been quite a trauma. Kirk was Barmitzvahed twice. Once when he was 13 and he had to give all his Barmitzvah money to his father and the second time when he was 83. “I never brought my kids up Jewish. Both my wives were not Jewish but Michael’s children Dylan and Carys were interested in it. When Dylan got to be 11 he wanted a Barmitzvah. He said ‘I want to be Jewish.’ Michael also always wanted to be accepted as a Jew, even though his mother wasn’t Jewish. Eric was Barmitzvahed and Peter and Peter’s children. It’s good. They came to it by themselves. Am I a good Jew? I don’t go to the Synagogue but the Rabbi is a friend and he comes every week.” Anne says, “And Kirk takes his confession.”
Kirk, for the first time not joking says, “Let’s not talk any more about religion because nobody really knows. I’m a hundred years old and I don’t think I’ll be going to heaven.” Anne says, “Yes you will be going there. I will send you there and wherever else you want to go.”
They have written a book together, Kirk and Anne, the letters. Letters from when they first met. Letters when Anne was at home looking after the children and Kirk was on location after location. Kirk says, “I’ve written eleven books. I’m always talking about myself. I’ve never given credit to my wife. Why don’t we do a book together?” Anne continues, “Unbeknownst to me I’d kept all the letters. I found them among letters from famous people like Henry Kissinger.” Douglas and Kissinger were friends and he was close to several presidents.
While they were separated on different continents they wrote to one another all the time. It’s interesting to see how he feels. He was so excited when he got the financing for Vikings but Tony Curtis wanted to be in it and take the role that Kirk had earmarked for himself, so he and Anne worked out the decision through letters. Anne encouraging, “give it to Curtis. It will be good for box office.” And in another letter Laurence Olivier said that he wanted to play Spartacus, which obviously didn’t happen.
I wonder if all this swooping up of memories is him preparing to die. What does he think happens after you die? “What do I think of what?” He doesn’t want to talk about it now but he’s written another book, Let’s Face It (he was 90 insert).
Steven Spielberg calls him dad. Why is that? “His mother had a restaurant, the Milky Way and I used to go there for lunch. His mother was so good. I got to know him and he became like a kid to me. I admire him. He’s a great guy and the only billionaire that I like. I won’t hold his money against him.”
My pedicurist went to their house a few years ago and she told me in the bathroom was a framed dollar bill. It was the first dollar he ever made and he framed it so he could always know what it was like to not have any money, to know that he made it on his own. A little touchstone.
He held out for Dalton Trumbo to write the script of Spartacus even though at the time he was blacklisted. Douglas was the catalyst that ended the cruel blacklisting in the McCarthy era. It was the era of the Cold War and anyone in the film industry who was suspected rightly or wrongly of being a communist was blacklisted.
Kirk bought the last ever Trumbo script Montezuma “and Steven bought it from me. I doubt it will come soon because it’s a huge project.” There’s a tangible sadness. Obviously Douglas would have liked to see the movie made and jokes, “will we get any Mexicans in it or will they all be back in Mexico if Trump gets in?” Kirk changes the subject to Michael. Michael is a good son. I never paid attention to him when he was growing up. I said Michael I want you to be a doctor or a lawyer and suddenly he got this part in a play. I told him Michael you were terrible.”
Michael Doulas has referred to this often. It must have hurt him. “No,” says Kirk, “because two months later I went to see him in another play and he was wonderful. I said Michael you were really good and he’s been really good in everything he’s done.” Kirk bought XXXX, a Broadway Play for Michael and he also bought One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Michael, even though Jack Nicholson ended up taking the role. Kirk and Michael had a constant banter about being rivals. They can do that because they’re very close. It’s been written that one close up of Kirk Douglas’s face in Spartacus is more powerful than the whole of Lawrence Olivier’s acting career. That’s a very tough act to follow. You see him talking about Michael with pride and with love, something which his own father was never able to do about him. You feel glad that he was able to survive his past and not repeat it.
“You know when I got sick, the thing that hurt me was I couldn’t go to England. Burt Lancaster and I did the Palladium, you know. We were a big hit.” And then he starts singing. And the singing is really not bad, in fact he’s singing more in tune than me as we both attempt ‘maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner that I love London town.” It’s sweet. We laugh and he says, “I’m glad you brought London to me.”
Kirk Douglas is the last remaining star of the golden age and seeing him, this hundred year old man who has struggles with his knees, with hearing, seeing, talking, you see that spirit, a spirit that wants to not only survive not only conquer but charm. If his father had loved him maybe he wouldn’t have needed the world to love him so much and he wouldn’t have been as good at it. In a couple of hours he has totally charmed me, a man who can barely speak has utterly seduced me and that’s why he is a star.