Kirk Douglas died On February 5, 2020, at the age of 103. He will be remembered for his many roles in westerns (Lonely Are the Brave), war movies (Paths of Glory), Roman spectacles (Spartacus), and the Disney classic (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where he played a ukulele and sang to a seal). I will remember his films, too, and probably re-watch a few to admire his performances. But what I will remember most are the stories told to me by my grandmother and mother about Isadore Demsky, son of a rag picker, who was born in my hometown of Amsterdam, New York.
Amsterdam, settled by the Dutch and named after that European city, was once known as a manufacturing center, specifically for the carpets it produced. But it’s also known as the birthplace for an actor who rose to become a mainstay during the Golden Age of Hollywood. Kirk Douglas’s rise from abject poverty to fame and fortune, was as remarkable as it was predictable. My mother, who remembered sitting in class with Douglas, and getting into trouble passing notes from him to one of his friends, often told me that success seemed preordained for this golden-haired boy. Just as those of us who watched Stephani Germanotta’s early performances, including in a high school production of Guys and Dolls, and knew she would one day be a star, my mother told me that Isadore’s classmates early on saw his talents.
When he was born on December 9, 1916, his name was Issur Danielovitch, his parents Russian Jewish immigrants who settled in Amsterdam with their seven children. In his autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, Douglas described Amsterdam as a WASP town. Although the immigrant populations were heavily made up of Italians, Poles, Irish, and other ethnic groups, there were few Jewish families in Amsterdam during my formative years and most likely even fewer when Douglas grew up there. Early arrivals, including my own grandparents, struggled to provide for their families. But Douglas was correct that his father, Herschel, as a rag picker labored at the bottom. My grandmother remembered Herschel making his rounds, visiting her home, and taking whatever scraps of cloth she could spare. She never let him leave, she told me, without offering him something to eat and a cup of coffee.
Douglas’s story is one of perseverance and survival. As he relates in his autobiography, his father had a drinking problem and was rarely home, requiring a young Isadore to fend for himself. After high school, he managed to gain admittance to St. Lawrence College. He knew he wanted to be an actor, changing his name to Kirk Douglas, and found his way to New York and ultimately Hollywood.
These days young people are more apt to think of Michael rather than Kirk when hearing the Douglas name. Indeed, Michael may have had the advantage of the Douglas name when he began his career, but has certainly earned his success, which includes two Oscars, awards which, despite his many leading roles, were never bestowed on Kirk. (In 1996, Kirk was finally awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy.) But perhaps the greatest award Kirk aspired to was one as father. In his online tribute Michael brought that home: “Dad – I love you so much and I am so proud to be your son.”
Kirk Douglas, Amsterdam native, ragman’s son, philanthropist, actor, husband, father, and grandfather. A life well-lived.
Top Bigstock photo: Michael Douglas; Kirk Douglas; Anne Douglas arrive at the 2012 Vanity Fair Oscar Party at the Sunset Tower on February 26, 2012 in West Hollywood, CA