As an actor, it was really intimidating watching my father because his personality, his presence was so strong and so dynamic that, forget acting, you just didn’t even know how to be a man.
Michael K. Douglas inherited more than his famous father’s dirty blond hair and familiar face. He inherited his freedom. Kirk, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Amsterdam, New York. Herschel Danielovitch, a tailor, had fled Moscow in 1908 for Belarus, like so many Jews did under the threat of endless Cossack-led pogroms and conscription that forced them to fight for the tsar in the Russo-Japanese War. Two years later, taking his girlfriend, Bryna Sanglel, a baker, with him, he left Belarus in 1910 bound for America’s promise of safety and rebirth. They passed through Ellis Island, the gateway to the New World, and settled in upstate New York, where that same year they married and started a family.
By 1924 they had seven children, six girls and one boy: Pesha (born 1910), Kaleh (1912), Tamara (1914), Issur (1916), twins Hashka and Siffra (1918), and Rachel (1924). Issur would later change his name from Issur Danielovitch to the more American (and less Jewish) Kirk Douglas.
Herschel was not a warm man. He liked to eat by himself in restaurants, or alone late at night at the kitchen table when everyone else was already in bed. When not plying his rag trade on the streets of Amsterdam, he would spend hours in town, drinking at the local saloon.
Occasionally he would take Issur with him on the rag route, to show him how much hard work it took to put food on the family table. Issur was a quick learner but not especially ambitious. To help feed the family he preferred to break into neighbors’ houses and steal food from their kitchens.
Sometimes, to supplement what he earned from the rag business, Herschel sold fruits and vegetables off a cart. Issur used to steal from him, too, and then bring the food home to the family. Sometimes he would keep a potato or two for himself and roast them in the basement, until one time he “accidentally” burned the house down. As Kirk recalls in his memoirs, “I have always suspected that this was . . . subconscious arson. I really wanted to destroy the whole house. There was an awful lot of rage churning around inside me . . . my mother was always saying, ‘Don’t be like your father. . . .’ That made me angry. Who should I be like? My mother? My sisters?”
Herschel was a bad drinker, and since the only other person in the house who wasn’t female was Issur, he received the brunt of his father’s frustrations via regular beatings. If he angered Issur to the point where he wanted to burn down the house, he also managed to toughen him up, and it was that intense combination of anger and toughness, along with his blond Russian good looks, that would one day help make the boy an international movie star.
Despite the New World dreams of Herschel the refugee, being a Jew was not so easy in America. Anywhere outside the protective environs of New York City’s Lower East Side was considered dangerous turf. For Issur, living in Amsterdam surrounded by Christians necessarily kept him a loner, and as a result, he turned increasingly inward and let his mind take him where his body couldn’t.
As soon as he graduated from high school, Issur tried to save some money to make a planned getaway. He got a job in the local M. Lurie department store, where he quickly devised a scheme to steal cash by altering the receipts.
While becoming an increasingly clever sneak thief, Issur accidentally discovered another way to act out his inner frustrations when he tried out for the role of Tony Cavendish in a small community theater production of The Royal Family, a popular and successful Broadway play that parodied the Barrymore family. He was curious about what all those people in that little building were up to, so he walked in one night and was handed a script. After he read, he was offered a part and said yes. It turned out to be a fun experience for him, but a limited one with very little in the way of monetary rewards. He then went back to working and stealing until, after another year had passed, his sisters convinced him to take his life savings, about $200, travel north to the town of Canton, and try to enroll in St. Lawrence University, a college education being his best chance to make a better life for himself.
The night before he left, he said good-bye to his father, who handed him some bread rubbed with garlic and slices of herring, wished the boy good luck, and went to bed.
Once at St. Lawrence, Issur felt deep pangs of homesickness, loneliness, and hunger. And there was never enough food to sate him. As a result, he was constantly grubbing food from his friends at the dorm and scrounging off their trays in the cafeteria, until one angry matron loudly dressed him down and humiliated him in front of all the other boys.
Issur hung in there, trying to find new ways to get some more food and maybe even learn something--until girls came into his life. One in particular, Isabella, a WASP beauty attending the university, caught his eye. Too shy to talk to her, he sent her a poem instead, and soon enough they were going together. But Issur knew there was no possibility of any kind of permanent relationship with Isabella. It wasn’t just the religious thing. Isabella was simply not that interested in him.
There weren’t many other extracurricular activities that attracted him besides theater and girls, and there wasn’t much of either of those. He decided to join the wrestling team, where he was easily able to take down all the boys bigger than he was. Wrestling became an effective outlet for his frustrations and anger, and soon he was the best wrestler in the school. Self-pride was something new to him, and he wore it like a badge of honor.
During his first summer vacation, Issur wrestled for cash in carnivals, but his second year he managed to land a job with a summer stock acting company at the Tamarack Playhouse on Lake Pleasant in the Adirondack Mountains. He wasn’t hired as an actor; he did not have anything like the training or experience of the other cast members, most of whom had come to Tamarack together from the Goodman School of Acting in Chicago. Instead, he was a paid stagehand, with the promise of maybe a line or two here and there if needed.
Issur didn’t get a chance to do much acting that summer, but he did manage to steal one of the Chicago actresses from her boyfriend and sneak away and have sex with her. The only other friend he made was one of the regular cast members, Mladen George Sekulovich, who had just changed his name to the easier-on-the-tongue Karl Malden. Taking his cue from Malden, Issur proudly began calling himself Kirk Douglas.1
Back at St. Lawrence for the start of his junior year, he quickly resumed his role as the star of the wrestling team. He was so good he was encouraged to try out for the Olympic team, but Kirk turned all of it down. He knew now what he wanted to do with his life, and it had nothing to do with athletics. He couldn’t get the smell of that girl out of his head, or the thrill of stealing her away and having to pretend they hardly knew each other when her boyfriend was around. He was going to be an actor!
In 1939, after graduating from St. Lawrence, Kirk traveled down to New York City, where he was promptly turned down by the Academy of Dramatic Arts (located at that time in Carnegie Hall), not because he wasn’t a good enough actor but because he couldn’t afford the annual $500 tuition and he didn’t qualify for a scholarship. Instead, he found work downtown in the Village at Greenwich House, putting on plays and skits with immigrant children.
That fall, after spending another fun-filled summer at Tamarack, Kirk returned to New York City, and this time the Academy of Dramatic Arts admitted him, even waiving the tuition. Soon enough he caught the attention of another student, Margaret Mary “Peggy” Diggins, a raven-haired, wide-eyed beauty who also happened to work as a model and was, as Kirk recalled in his memoirs, the current Miss New York.2
They fell in love, and Kirk asked her to marry him. She said yes, and in a heated rush, they took a train to Newark, New Jersey, since an acting friend of Kirk’s had told him it was the quickest place to get married.
It wasn’t. Kirk and Peggy had problems providing the necessary papers, and no wedding was performed that day. They returned to New York disappointed but determined to get back to Newark and get married as soon as possible.
However, before that could happen, Peggy was offered a Hollywood contract to join a group of girls who called themselves the Navy Blue Sextet, the six most beautiful girls in the world! And just like that, she was gone.
Peggy never wrote or called Kirk.
He was crushed and tried to forget her. To keep himself busy he took a job at Schrafft’s on Broadway and Eighty-Sixth Street, one of a citywide chain of ice cream and sandwich palaces where a lot of unemployed actors found work. With salary and tips he made enough money to rent a small room on the West Side for $3 a week. And whatever food remained on patrons’ plates when they left he considered fair game.
He continued to work at Schrafft’s even after he left the Academy in the spring of 1941. He was one of only 80 out of 168 students to make it through the senior year of the program. The rest either couldn’t afford to continue, were drafted into the army, or simply were deemed not good enough to graduate.
Going to school was one thing, but making a living as an actor was another, and despite his job at Schrafft’s he was always just one step ahead of eviction. Then, after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, twenty-five-year-old Kirk decided to enlist in the air force, but he was rejected for being too old.
So it was back to working Schrafft’s at night and making the rounds during the day, finding no prospects, until one day he arrived at the Katharine Cornell–Guthrie McClintic production offices, one of hundreds of doors he had knocked on. Only this time the people in the office didn’t just ask him for a photo and resume and show him the way out. This time he actually got to meet one of McClintic’s assistants, who liked what he saw and arranged to have Kirk audition for a new Broadway play they were producing, Spring Again. Much to his surprise and delight, Kirk landed the four-line role of a singing telegram boy. The pay wasn’t much, and he’d have to give up Schrafft’s in order to make every performance. To make ends meet, he took the job of stage manager and understudied four other roles.
As Kirk tells the story in his memoirs, one night McClintic invited him to dinner and made a sexual pass that shook Kirk up--about McClintic, about acting, about the theater, maybe even about his own manhood. Not long after, he joined the navy.
Times had changed: it was 1942 and the war was raging; now the military was willing to take anyone who could breathe. Kirk was sent to South Bend, Indiana, where he spent four months in training as a naval officer at Notre Dame Midshipman School. One day Kirk was surprised to see one of his fellow students from the Academy on the cover of Life magazine. Diana Love Dill was as much a beauty as he could imagine.
Her father was descended from one of two brothers who had been born in Northern Ireland and set sail for Virginia in the early seventeenth century; but when they stopped in Bermuda they decided to settle there instead, eventually amassing a great fortune in shipping. Diana’s mother, Ruth Rapalje Neilson, could trace her roots back to Northern Ireland as well. Ruth had married Thomas Melville Dill, four years her senior, a former commander of the Bermuda Militia Artillery, and future attorney general of the island.
Their seventh and final child, Diana, born in Bermuda in 1923 to a mother who was forty-three and a father who was forty-six. At the age of six, Diana was sent off to London to attend the Doreck School at the far end of Kensington Garden Square and receive a proper British upper-class education. Diana lived in London until 1930, when she relocated with her sister Frances, or “Fan,” and the rest of the family to the Isle of Wight. There the girls attended the Ryde School with Upper Chine for Girls.
Diana and Fan stayed on the Isle of Wight until 1933, when they returned to Bermuda. Eventually, as war loomed ever closer and it was feared that the British island might come under attack, Diana and her family moved to the relative safety of the American mainland and New York City. When Diana was old enough, she tried out for and was accepted by the Academy of Dramatic Arts, which was where she first met Kirk.
They became friends. Diana liked to call him “Doug”--short not for “Douglas” but like “dog,” as her accent made it sound, when she became aware of his relentless pursuit of women. In her memoirs she remembers him as not an especially good actor but a terrific ladies’ man, “always with one pretty girl or another.”
It didn’t bother her all that much. She found him charming in his own way; she had grown up with aggressive military men. Soon enough their friendship turned romantic, and at the start of her senior year, Diana asked her parents for permission to stay in New York permanently. With the war continuing, they agreed, as long as she lived in housing for women only.
Then an offer came to her from an agent for the movies. Kirk couldn’t believe this was happening--deja vu all over again--and begged her not to give in “to the tinsel of Hollywood.” They fought furiously about it, but Diana’s mind was made up. She left Kirk and New York for the West Coast, where she hoped for a career in movies.
Now, after seeing her picture on the cover of Life, Kirk decided to write to her in care of the magazine. He was pleasantly surprised to receive a warm letter back. As it happened, she told him, Hollywood had not welcomed her with the open arms she had hoped for. She had since returned to New York, where she worked as a nurse at night, first at Bellevue before transferring to St. Anne’s Maternity Hospital, and occasionally worked as a model for the John Robert Powers Agency.
1 It is unclear when Issur legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas.
2 No other source has been found stating that Peggy Diggins was ever Miss New York.
Excerpted from Michael Douglas by Marc Eliot. Copyright © 2012 by Marc Eliot. Excerpted by permission of Crown Archetype, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.