The Ragman's Son
A leading actor since 1946, as well as a producer and occasional director, Kirk Douglas has been one of the most durable stars in the motion-picture industry. As one film encyclopedia notes, he “started playing weaklings and gangsters but graduated to tense, virile, intelligent heroes in films of many kinds.” His intelligence and sensitivity are reflected in his autobiography, written entirely by himself without the usual celebrity collaborator. In its uncompromising honesty and dramatic impact, The Ragman’s Son is one of the best of motion-picture memoirs.
One of Douglas’ seventy-odd films is Tough Guys (1986), and Douglas’ screen image has often been very tough indeed, so that the French call him “la brute chérie”—“the darling brute.” Beneath his rugged exterior, however, Douglas reveals himself as a sensitive, thoughtful individual who despises physical violence and says, “I hate bullies, people who try to make their point with their fists, or in a macho way.”
Yet sensitivity is anything but weakness, and Douglas has shown impressive strength throughout his life. That life is a spectacular version of the rags-to-riches story, literally, since his father, a Russian immigrant, was an impoverished rag and junk dealer. In Amsterdam, New York, where Douglas spent his childhood, his was one of the few Jewish families in an overwhelmingly WASP community. Born Issur Danielovitch, the only boy among six sisters, Douglas grew up next to the railroad on the wrong side of the mill town that barred Jews from working in the mills or even from delivering the main newspaper. Both parents were illiterate and spoke Yiddish varied by broken English. The ragman father was a tough brawler who once beat seven men in a saloon. Douglas says that he loved his father but hated him for his aloof taciturnity, his inability to show love or to give the approval that his son desperately needed. A sensitive boy in a tough environment, Issur, “with his quietness and shyness and dreaminess,” was forced to go to school, become Izzy Demsky (a last name thrust upon the family), and become tough. Gangs of WASP boys fought him as he went to Hebrew school. Douglas blames the boys less than the parents who indoctrinated them. Though reared as an Orthodox Jew, Douglas rebelled against Jehovah, who seemed a cruel old man, especially when commanding the death of Isaac. He has not been a practicing Jew and twice was married to Gentiles, but he has never rejected his heritage and says that he does not understand how anyone could be an atheist.
Throughout the book, Douglas has internal dialogues with Issur, in poetic third-person passages in which Issur functions as the sensitive side and the author’s conscience. In some fantasy sequences, Izzy is a tough kid taunting the dreamy Issur. Douglas grew up cold and hungry; the house was insulated with horse manure, and Issur sometimes stole food. Repressing his deep rage, he fantasized about turning on the gas jets and killing the family. When his dog was killed by a car, he seemed numb, but he burst out sobbing thirty years later when recounting the episode to a psychiatrist. He thinks that the bravest thing he ever did was rebel against his father by throwing hot tea in his face. Finally, the family separated; the mother and children moved to a better location, leaving Pa at the old home.
A high school English teacher changed Douglas’ life by introducing him to poetry—and to sex. She seduced him and had a long-term relationship with him. Later, when he was a bellhop in a restricted hotel that banned Jews, the Hitler-admiring proprietress got him into bed, where he revealed his Jewish identity to take revenge on her.
With almost no money and no admission, Douglas went off on a gamble to St. Lawrence University, talked his way in, and worked his way through ass a janitor, with a summer job in a steel mill. Despite widespread campus anti-Semitism, Douglas became president of the student body, provoking furious protests from wealthy alumni. He also became an undefeated wrestling champion and obtained his first dramatic training by wrestling in carnivals.
Determined to go on the stage, Issur Danielovitch changed his name to Kirk Douglas in 1939. After a job putting on plays with immigrant children in a New York settlement house, he won a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, supplementing it by working as a waiter at Schrafft’s. After working in summer stock, he became the first member of his class to get a role on Broadway, but his embryonic career was interrupted by World War II. Douglas did not subscribe to the idea of war as a romantic adventure. Nevertheless, he functioned well as a communications officer in antisubmarine warfare until he was injured when a nervous sailor dropped a depth charge under the ship; later, Douglas got fever and amoebic dysentery and was invalided out of the service in 1944. A wartime marriage to actress Diana Dill resulted in the birth of Douglas’ first two sons.
Making a new assault on Broadway, Douglas was...
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