January 17, 2019

Kirk Douglas, a poet at 98, gets personal

Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, the son of an immigrant Russian-Jewish ragpicker, marked his 98th birthday on Dec. 9 by launching his 11th book.

The legendary star of 87 movies (who can forget “Spartacus”?) can look back, in happiness and grief, on countless one-night stands with filmdom’s most beautiful women, a helicopter crash in which he was the only survivor, a stroke, two bar mitzvahs and the death of a son.

He has written about this and many other parts of his life in his previous works, but there is something special about his latest, “Life Could Be Verse.”

“I have expressed my personal feelings and emotions more than in any other of my books,” Douglas, sitting in his art-filled Beverly Hills home, told the Jewish Journal.

In the slim volume of poems, photos and anecdotes, he is no longer the swaggering Hollywood star and serial philanderer of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

His trademark dimpled chin and bright blue eyes are still there, but his blond hair is now fastened in a gray ponytail; he walks carefully and speaks with a slur, a legacy of his stroke.

What he has not lost is his sharp sense of humor, his pride as a Jew and his love for Anne, his wife of 60 years.

Does 50 years together
Seem so long to you?
The older the violin, the sweeter the music
It is often said, and it’s true.
To me, it seems like yesterday
We met in gay Paree.
Now Paris is sad, but I am glad
You chose to marry me.

Another, lesser-known side of Douglas is expressed in “For Eric,” an elegy for the youngest of his four sons, whose drug-induced death haunts his father still:

I sit by your grave and weep,
Silently, not to disturb your sleep.
Rest in peace my beautiful son
It won’t be long before we are one,
While I lie down by your side.
And talk, no secrets to hide.
Tell me, Eric, what did I do wrong?
What should I have done to make you strong?
Now I sit here and cry,
Waiting to be with you when I die.

Neither Douglas’ first wife, actress Diana Dill, nor his second, Anne, are of Jewish descent, but 10 years ago, Anne converted to Judaism, explaining, “Kirk has been married to two shiksas,” she said. “It’s time he married a nice Jewish girl.”

The conversion did not change the couple’s relationship, except for one ritual. During the first 50 years, Douglas lit the Friday evening Shabbat candles, and now Anne has taken over.

During an hour’s conversation with the Journal, Douglas looked back on the lessons of a very full and long life.

On God and religion: “I grew up praying in the morning and laying tefillin. I gave up much of the formal aspect of religion … I don’t think God wants compliments. God wants you to do something with your life and to help others.”

Douglas celebrated his first bar mitzvah at the Sons of Israel congregation in his hometown of Amsterdam, N.Y., and his second, 70 years later, after the traditional biblical lifespan, at 83 at Sinai Temple in Westwood, with Rabbi David Wolpe.

He skipped his third bar mitzvah at 96, and plans to do the same at 109, when he would be entitled to his fourth bar mitzvah. “That would be showing off,” he said. “I’m an actor, so I have already been showing off all my life.”

As a world-renowned expert on women, how does one go about attracting the other gender, Kirk was asked. He responded with an anecdote:

“When I was courting Anne in Paris, I couldn’t get through to her,” Douglas said. “One day she agreed to go to the circus with me, and when the circus performers recognized me, they insisted that I participate in the show.

“I had no idea what I was supposed to do, but as a string of circus elephants trotted out, I followed them in my tuxedo with a shovel and broom and started to clean up what the elephants had left behind.”

Anne was still laughing when he took her home, and she bestowed her first good-night kiss on him. The poet in him celebrated the triumph by noting:

“Anne thought I was a big hit,
As she saw me shoveling sh-t.”

After this reporter had left, Douglas sent him a final thought on a more serious subject.

“In the Jewish tradition, a birthday gives a person special power,” he wrote. “And if he issues a blessing, his blessing becomes true. So on my 98th birthday, I bless all people in the Land of Israel that the current conflict resolves itself, that no more people die or are hurt and that you can continue your lives in peace.”