Daily Mail

SPARTACUS’S LOST SON

Seduced by his English teacher at 15 and a legendary Lothario, Kirk Douglas’s story is the stuff of Hollywood legend. But as a newvolume of his autobiogra­phy reveals, he is still haunted by one overwhelmi­ng tragedy

- by Glenys Roberts

THE BIG blonde German air hostess writhed with pleasure. And when the moment came, she screamed out: ‘I’m a Nazi.’ It was the secret cue to set about disciplini­ng her, and Kirk Douglas, her lover, responded enthusiast­ically as usual.

These days, the 90-year-old Kirk can only enjoy his memories of such athletic scenes from his legendary younger days as sex symbol. Wizened, frail and nearly unrecognis­able but for the celebrated dimpled chin, the father of the now more famous Michael is positively mellow.

Yet, against all the odds, he is still with us. The veteran actor has survived a major stroke, a helicopter crash, a double knee replacemen­t, internal bleeding — and all since he turned 70. He was just as accident-prone in his younger days; nearly drowning at the age of eight and almost killed in action as a naval officer during World War II.

A stroke of luck saved him from death in 1958 when Douglas, due to fly in Lucky Liz, a light aircraft owned by Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Mike Todd, decided to take a commercial flight instead.

The decision saved his life — but Todd was killed. And so thousands of fans and dozens of lovers around the globe were saved from heartbreak.

But Kirk Douglas is by no means immune to tragedy. Two marriages, one son dead of a drug overdose, and many visits to psychiatri­sts, he has had his share of torments alongside fabulous successes — prominent among them, his tally of 90 movies, including the classics Spartacus, Paths Of Glory and Gunfight At The OK Corral.

He has eaten strawberri­es and cream in the Royal Box at Wimbledon with Princess Diana. In his own country he is such a legend that American presidents visit him in his own home, rather than the other way round.

Kirk has already told his extraordin­ary story in four biographie­s, but now he has written a remarkable fifth in which some fascinatin­g indiscreti­ons — such as his memories of that German fling — vie with his musings about the state of the world.

He reveals how he was deflowered at 15 by his very own Mrs Robinson — his married English teacher, Mrs Livingston­e — and was, for many years, incapable of feeling love, so driven was he by testostero­ne.

He confesses that he despised his own father for not being successful and lifts the curtain on his competitiv­e relationsh­ip with his eldest son Michael, now married to Catherine Zeta Jones.

HOWEVER, beneath all these juicy revelation­s lies an undercurre­nt of despair — that of Kirk’s tragic neglect of his youngest son, Eric, who committed suicide at 45. It is evident that he has never put this tragedy behind him. So self-centred was the neglectful Kirk that he admits he never bothered to ask how old his wife was until she had to be rushed into hospital at the age of 80 — and then wondered what he was doing married to such an old woman. He confesses to being so afraid of death that he never wears a wristwatch, so as not to be reminded of the passage of time.

And yet, with all his faults, Kirk thinks he is a model husband, capable of revitalisi­ng everyone else’s marriage with his charming tips.

‘If ever your wife says “I’m going to leave you”, don’t wait to find out if she means it,’ he advises. ‘Quickly say: “If ever you leave, I’m going with you.” Lie to her. Say she has never looked more beautiful.’

Would-be Lotharios are also told always to offer wives an intimate hug rather than a perfunctor­y peck. Add to this a willingnes­s to butter her croissant in the morning and warm up her toes in bed, and you have the perfect marriage, Kirk Douglas-style.

Such tokens apparently make up for all those notorious infideliti­es throughout his 50-year marriage. To this day, there is no doubt that, when it comes to women, Kirk would if he could.

Hard of hearing, hard of seeing, with false knees and an impaired voice he may be, but there seems to be no stopping this force of nature. Kirk has fully lived the American dream. He came from nowhere and is now Hollywood aristocrac­y.

The seeds of the dream were sown when his father, Herschel, fled Russia for New York in 1910. Kirk, born six years later, was the only boy among seven children. The family was so poor that Issy, as Kirk was nicknamed in those days, had to share a bed with his oldest sister.

As well as being poverty-stricken, the Douglases also had to put up with some cruel anti-Semitic bullying. Herschel provided for the family by collecting rags and scrap metal with a horse and cart, but the locals set fire to the horse’s stable because the family was Jewish.

But already the lad was showing his showman’s priorities. When his kindergart­en teacher showed him how to use a toothbrush he asked: ‘Why do you have to brush the back of your teeth — no one sees them?’

It was his English teacher, Mrs Livingston­e, who really left her mark. These days, as he points out, she would have been arrested for initiating a 15-year-old into the joys of sex. But she also taught him to love literature and encouraged him to go to college.

Powerfully built, pushy and already a lady-killer, Kirk left school in 1934, turning down a well-paid position in a grocery chain to carry on with his education, which he paid for by bouts in the wrestling ring.

Soon he had a rich girlfriend who promised him an apartment in Manhattan if he married her, but the independen­t Kirk preferred to do it his way.

Instead, he married Diana Dill, future mother of Michael, whom he met in acting classes, tying the knot in 1943 in New Orleans just before he joined the U.S. Navy and went to war. When he returned, another student friend, Lauren Bacall, got him his first film role. Then, in 1949, he took a chance on the lead in a small budget boxing picture called The Champion and landed an Oscar nomination. At last, he was a star, aged 33.

It took just as long for the self-centred Douglas to realise that his aggressive single-mindedness was hurting his family.

Michael, his oldest son, who was eight when his parents split up, recently confessed how traumatic it was. ‘You were all right as a father — ultimately,’ he told him grudgingly.

His second son, producer Joel Douglas, remembers that being with his irascible dad was like living next to a volcano.

Kirk was to have two more sons, Peter and the ill-fated Eric, with his second wife Anne Buydens, whom he married in Las Vegas — unromantic­ally in their hotel room, between film shootings — in 1954. A multi-lingual German who used to write subtitles for movies in Paris, she was jailed during the Nazi occupation of the city because it was assumed she was a spy.

Anne, who is obviously made of stern stuff, has always known how to put up with her husband’s whims. Shortly after their marriage, Kirk was working in Oregon, having cast his ex-wife Diana in his own production, The Indian Fighter.

Most women would have been concerned by their husband in being such close proximity to a former spouse. Not Anne — by then pregnant with their first son, Peter. She agreed to stay at home and look after Kirk and Diana’s two sons. Typically, as soon as he became a father, Douglas, the high-flying self-starter, was determined his sons would not follow him into acting — just like any other Jewish patriarch, he wanted sons to become middleclas­s profession­als.

He believed Michael would have been a brilliant lawyer. So determined was he that, when the young man was cast in a Shakespear­e play while at university, his father made a point of telling him he had performed terribly. Michael soon showed he had star quality, but in 1971 he was fired from the Broadway production of a Vietnam drama.

In what appeared to be a complete about-face, Kirk bought the script, made it into the film Summertree and allowed Michael to star.

What seemed to be a hugely generous gesture was nothing of the sort. Kirk was still smarting from his own recent Broadway rejection in the stage production of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and was looking for a way to bounce back.

When Cuckoo’s Nest folded, Kirk quickly snapped up that script, too. Failing to get it made into a film himself, he gave the project to Michael to produce, believing any son would have to let his father play the lead role — especially a son who had been so recently bailed out.

In fact, Michael told Kirk that at 59 he was too old and cast Jack Nicholson instead.

WHILE father and son tussled for profession­al supremacy, back home there was trouble in store. Eric, the youngest of Kirk’s four sons, had been going to anger management classes since primary school and was soon seeing a raft of psychiatri­sts. A troubled soul, of all the Douglas children he was the only one who embraced his father’s Jewish faith and, in keeping with tradition at 13, Eric underwent his bar mitzvah. Despite his son’s devotion, Kirk did not bother to attend.

Kirk now reproaches himself for his selfishnes­s — but claims he was distracted by far more impressive company.

Anne, again, was the lynchpin behind another reinventio­n for her husband. A noted charity worker, she encouraged Kirk to become a goodwill ambassador. He duly went on to visit countries from communist Yugoslavia to Afghanista­n, delivering the same pro-American message, and eventually received the Presidenti­al Medal of Freedom.

Yet even the new humanitari­an Kirk wasn’t easy to live with. When Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s Secretary of State, came back from his memorable secret trip to China in 1971, Anne Douglas gave one of her famous dinner parties for him. Everyone ate quickly, eager to hear Kissinger talk. But Kirk, displeased at not being the centre of attention, started flicking the light switches, encouragin­g everyone to go home.

‘Honey, Henry’s on Chinese time,’ he told his wife. ‘He should go to bed.’ Unusually for a supposed hellraiser, Kirk himself liked to be in bed no later than 10pm.

In the past 30 years, Kirk seems to have been punished repeatedly by a succession of serious family illnesses. First Anne was struck by breast cancer.

Then in 1986, while dining in a Hollywood restaurant, he bent over to kiss a friend’s wife. The blood supply to his brain was cut off by his tight collar and his heart began to fail. He survived, but had to have a pacemaker inserted.

Five years later, at the age of 75, Kirk miraculous­ly managed to survive a mid-air crash between the helicopter he was travelling in and a light plane whose two occupants died. Then, while having a manicure in 1996, he had a massive stroke. Once again he survived.

There is nothing like serious illness to bring your life into focus. Three years after his stroke, a typically determined Kirk had regained most of his physical powers.

KIRK was now determined to be on his best behaviour in case he should suddenly have to meet his Maker. And so, in 1999, he publicly embraced his Jewish faith again, arranging his second bar mitzvah at the age of 83.

Then three years ago, on their golden wedding anniversar­y, he gave the loyal Anne the glamorous wedding denied her the first time. Three hundred guests turned out, among them his old friends Lauren Bacall and Nancy Reagan. The traditiona­l Jewish ceremony took place under a canopy of roses conducted by Kirk’s favourite rabbi, who bent over and whispered to the couple: ‘The first time you were married, I wasn’t even born.’

Kirk then tried to smash a glass, as Jewish custom demands, only to find it refused to break on the soft grass underfoot. So in an extraordin­arily comic scene, the weak old man with his crippled knees set about smashing the glass with his walking stick.

Six weeks later, all euphoria dissipated when the couple took a never-tobe-forgotten phone call to find their handsome youngest son Eric had died of an overdose in New York.

Lost to alcohol and drugs for 20 years, Eric had been in and out of at least six different rehabilita­tion centres, to no avail. His body was brought back to Beverly Hills to be buried in the family plot meant for Kirk and his wife.

This dreadful tragedy is what Kirk ponders again and again in his advanced age as he sits in his beautiful garden in Los Angeles with his dogs Foxy and Danny — so-called in memory of the original family name Danielovit­ch. Yet he has not allowed life’s darts to undermine his spirit.

Two years ago, rather than let himself be confined to a wheelchair, he opted for a double knee replacemen­t at the age of 88, though he was warned the operation could kill him.

And so he can now walk round his rose garden, where absent friends like Yul Brynner and Dean Martin had signed their names on his crazy paving.

He can swim, and even works out with his 92-year-old gym instructor. The feisty Kirk declares: ‘ Anne and I always start the day off with a workout at the gym. Each exercise routine takes 15 minutes and we do them one after the other.’

What an extraordin­ary picture is conjured up by those words. Even in Los Angeles, where all things are possible, there can’t be many nonagenari­ans doing daily sit-ups, weight-training and boxing rounds.

But Kirk’s main preoccupat­ion is death, and how to resist it. He visits his parents’ graves, his dead pal Sinatra in Palm Springs cemetery, and the tombs of Natalie Wood and Marilyn Monroe in Beverly Hills.

And most of all, he visits his son, Eric, in the graveyard just a ten-minute drive from his Beverly Hills home, and ponders why so many showbusine­ss parents have experience­d the same tragic loss of a child. Kirk sits on a stone bench and talks to his son as if he were still alive.

Anne brings flowers and Kirk brings a stone. It is a Jewish burial custom — but the real reason the defiant old man brings stones is that, unlike flowers, stones never die.

ADAPTED extract from LET’S FACE IT by Kirk Douglas (Wiley, £15.99). ©Kirk Douglas 2007. To order a copy for £14.40 (p&p free), call 0870 161 0870.

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 ??  ?? Sexy but selfcentre­d: Spartacus star Kirk Douglas admits that he neglected his late son, Eric (right)
Sexy but selfcentre­d: Spartacus star Kirk Douglas admits that he neglected his late son, Eric (right)
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