LOS ANGELES — Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch, the son of an immigrant Russian Jewish ragman, 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 these and many other parts of his life in 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,” said Douglas, sitting in his art-filled Beverly Hills home.
In the slim volume of poems, photos and anecdotes, Douglas 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 into a gray ponytail, and 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. The cover of “Life Could Be Verse” shows an early photo of Douglas and Anne fondly kissing and the subtitle “Reflections on love, loss and what really matters.”
In his previous 10 books, Douglas’ prose is marked by the artlessness of a man whose casual conversation has been surreptitiously taped, and his poetry as well makes no pretensions to Shakespearean loftiness. But there is no doubt of his deep devotion when he serenades his wife on their 50th wedding anniversary in “Please Stay in Love With Me.”
Does fifty years together
Seem so long to you?
The older the violin, the sweeter
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.
A lesser-known side of Douglas is expressed in “For Eric,” an elegy for the youngest of his four sons from two marriages, whose drug-induced death still haunts his father.
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 Anne nor Douglas’ first wife, actress Diana Dills, are of Jewish descent. But Anne converted to Judaism 10 years ago, explaining, “Kirk has been married to two shiksas, it’s time he married a nice Jewish girl.” The conversion did not change the couple’s relationship except for one ritual: Anne has taken over the Shabbat candle lighting on Friday nights that Kirk handled in their first 50 years together.
During an hourlong conversation, Douglas looked back on the lessons of a 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 at 83, after the traditional biblical lifespan of 70 years, at Sinai Temple in West Los Angeles. 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.”
>> On attracting women: “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 Douglas took her home, and she bestowed her first goodnight kiss on him. The poet in him celebrated the triumph by noting: “Anne thought I was a big hit, as she saw me shoveling s—-.”
After the interview, Douglas emailed a final thought on a more serious topic.
“In the Jewish tradition, a birthday gives a person special power,” he wrote. “And if he issues a blessing, this 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.”