Kirk Douglas on Surviving a Childhood Home With Little Food and No Heat

--Wall Street Journal  June 20, 2017


Kirk Douglas, 100, has starred in more than 90 films, including “Spartacus,” and has won an Oscar and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is the author of 12 books, including “Kirk and Anne,” a joint memoir (Running Press). He spoke with Marc Myers.

We were the poorest family on a street of poor families. My father, Harry, had emigrated from Russia and settled in Amsterdam, N.Y. Then he sent for my mother, Bryna. But he couldn’t do much to make money. So he bought a horse and became a ragman.

We were seven kids, and my father was an indifferent provider. My mother always pleaded with him for money. He’d say, “Haven’t got it,” in Yiddish. Growing up, we never had enough food.

When I was hungry, I stole food—an egg from under a neighbor’s hen or a tomato from a garden. I also swiped fruit and vegetables from a stand. For years, I felt guilty about those little sins.

Anti-Semitism was common in Amsterdam. I suppose my personality and charm developed as a way to survive. It also helped that I loved to act and won awards in school.

I also was a hard worker. I’d invent jobs, like selling soda and candy to workers at the mill at the end of our street. Amsterdam was one of the largest mill towns in the country. There were dozens of factories, but no jobs for Jews.

Our house was a rundown, two-story gray clapboard next to the factories, the railroad tracks and the river. It didn’t have heating. Before the winter, my father and I would take dried manure from his horse, Bill, and spread it around the foundation for insulation. It didn’t help.

By the time the family was complete—six girls and me, fourth in line—I slept on a shabby living-room sofa. The girls were in two bedrooms, and my parents in another. I hated sleeping on my own.

I loved my father, but I wondered if he loved me. I wanted to win his praise and affection. But he was distant.

My mother worked hard to feed and clothe us. There wasn’t much money. She took care of the house with no hot running water, washing machine or decent stove.

She was ingenious. The girls would buy a pound of the cheapest meat at the kosher butcher and beg for free bones. The soup my mother made fed us for days.

After high school in 1934, I didn’t have enough for college tuition. So I hitchhiked 200 miles to St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., with a friend who was a sophomore there. I took all my high-school acting awards, transcript, essays and poems. I also took a letter of recommendation from my English teacher and champion, Mrs. Livingston.

I met with Dean Hewlitt, head of faculty, and delivered my pitch. It worked. He helped me get a college loan, and the following semester I won a scholarship.

During the summer after my freshman year, I took a job wrestling in the circus. I was a shill. When the wrestler asked if anyone in the crowd cared to challenge him, I stepped forward. I was head of the varsity team at college and an undefeated champ, so we made a show of it.

It was hard for a Jewish kid to find work at any of the hotels and resorts up there and my name was Izzy Demsky.

Future summers were spent acting at the Tamarack Playhouse on Lake Pleasant. One day, a few of my friends insisted I needed a more American name. Someone suggested Douglas. My new first name took longer. Someone finally said Kirk. My new name sounded masculine and strong.

The big turning point for me was meeting Betty Perske. By then she was Betty Bacall and would soon become Lauren Bacall. We met at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan.

Betty was 17 and I was 25. One winter I only had a lightweight coat. Betty talked her uncle into giving me one of his warmer coats. I loved her from that moment on.

Betty became a huge star with her first film, and she urged film producer Hal Wallis to see me on Broadway. That’s how I came to Hollywood. I co-starred in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946).

Today, my wife, Anne, and I live in Beverly Hills. We decided about 30 years ago to downsize from the large house we owned to a cozy one-story house.

I fell for Anne in 1953. I still see her as an elegant and sexy Parisienne, but it’s her character and wit and how her eyes light up when she sees me that delight me.

I never expected to live to be 100. A stroke in 1996 affected my speech, but it hasn’t stopped me from laughing. You live a long life if you enjoy the things that make you happy and don’t worry too much. You can’t do much about those things anyway.