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Books and Beyond

The book I want to tell you about is “The Ragman’s Son,” c 1988, an autobiography written by Kirk Douglas, who was in “The Vikings,” the first movie I saw in my young life. I was 15 years old. It is such a telling book about his young years, the movies he was in (over 80), the nature of making films, his family, and what he thinks about the meaning of life.

The little boy was born into a Jewish family in Russia in 1916. His name was Issur Danielovitch, and he had six sisters. Here is how his mother tells him about his birth: She was baking bread, looked out the window and saw a Gold Box in the snow. When she opened the box, there was the baby boy. Throughout the book there are special sections about memories of his past, and they are in italics, as the birth story is.

Issur liked being in the kitchen with his mother, often asking her questions when she was baking bread. One time she said, “when it snowed, the angels were sweeping off the porch of heaven” (p. 17). He never had such a close relationship with his father, and this was a lifetime regret for him.

His family moved to Amsterdam, NY, where Issur’s father became a ragman, pulling a cart behind his horse to get discarded pieces of junk to eventually sell to make money. Other nationalities living on the poor side of town were Italian, Polish, Irish, German, British, Lithuanian, and more. The son had his bar mitzvah when he was 13.

When Issur was a student at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, he got into wrestling. During this time, he encountered more people who were prejudiced against Jews. As a junior in college, he was elected president of the student body, and “alumni were furious” (p. 71). He graduates from college in June, 1939, and begins his first employment in a theatre. This is when his name becomes Kirk Douglas. He went to a lawyer to officially change his name.

At the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, he meets Betty (Lauren) Bacall and Laurence Olivier. Throughout the book, we read of so many famous names he has met and/or been in films with. After graduating in 1941, he is working for a playhouse in Pennsylvania, and getting leading roles. After this, he joins the Navy, and is Ensign Douglas. He eventually receives an honorable discharge.

He and his first wife Diana Dill have two sons, Michael and Joel. (They divorce in 1949).

He really wants to be in movies, so he takes the train to Hollywood, and he has a part in “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.” He’s in this movie with Barbara Stanwyck and Van Heflin. Soon, he is in movies with many actors and actresses, including Burt Lancaster, Pier Angeli, Walter Brennan, Doris Day, Anthony Quinn, and Janet Leigh.

He signs a Warner’s contract to make one movie a year for eight years. The first one was “Young Man with a Horn.” His travels for movies take him all over the world, including Jerusalem, Rome, and Paris.

He becomes a friend of Anne Buydens, and they eventually marry and have two sons, Peter and Eric. Kirk was 103 years old when he passed in February 2020. Anne is now 101 years old.

A well-known Douglas film is “Ulysses,” made in Italy in 1953. Then “The Vikings,” which becomes very popular. After the film comes out, Kirk christens the Viking ship billboard with a bottle of champagne. His mother is in the car with him.

The movie “Spartacus,” which Kirk Douglas was in with Laurence Olivier and Tony Curtis, is discussed a lot. At one point in the movie thousands of voices were needed, and here’s how they got them: On Saturday, Oct. 17, 1959, they recorded 76,000 screaming fans at the Michigan State-Notre Dame football game, and put these voices in the “Spartacus” soundtrack.

He writes that “Lonely are the Brave” is his favorite movie, based on the book The Brave Cowboy by Edward Abbey. Walter Matthau is the sheriff in the movie.

About halfway through the autobiography, Kirk and Anne are in Brazil for the Mardi Gras Ball. Twenty-five thousand people are there wanting to see the movie star Kirk Douglas.

Soon Bobby Kennedy sends Kirk a wire asking him to go to Colombia to represent the United States at a film festival. Kirk did several trips and presentations like this for the U.S. government.

I read this book for a reason. July 3, 1958, was the first date for Jody Renner and Howard Mohr, and we went to see the movie “The Vikings,” which came out that year and was showing in the theater in Marshalltown, IA. After the movie we went to have a pork tenderloin sandwich in Howard’s 1949 Ford at the drive-in cafe on the north side of town. This memory and many more scenes in my life are strengthened by the lessons Kirk Douglas has taught me.

I will write about those lessons next time. The Plum Creek Library System has several books written by Kirk Douglas.

Your Marshall-Lyon County Library is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. marshalllyonlibrary.org

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