Sunday, June 15, 2014

Book Review: The Ragman's Son by Kirk Douglas (1988)

Kirk Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life, 1956.

Kirk with his son Michael on the set of Cast a Giant Shadow, 1965.

Kirk Douglas promoting The Ragman's Son, 1988.
Kirk Douglas has had a remarkable life. Now 97 years old, he has been one of Hollywood’s most durable stars throughout more than 60 years of making movies. Douglas was born into abject poverty in New York to illiterate Russian Jewish immigrant parents. He has survived a helicopter crash in 1991 and a severe stroke in 1996. Douglas has written ten books, the first of which was an autobiography, The Ragman’s Son, which was published in 1988. 

The Ragman’s Son is an excellent book, and it’s remarkable for a Hollywood memoir because of Douglas’s candor. Douglas is not afraid of telling stories that paint him in a less than flattering light. It’s a very honest book, which makes it a good autobiography. Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch in Amsterdam, New York, was the only boy among six sisters. Douglas’s father was an alcoholic junk collector, or ragman, who largely ignored his familial obligations. Douglas always sought his father’s approval, and he never got it. It’s clear that Douglas’s difficult relationship with his father had a great effect on other relationships in Douglas’s life, as Douglas continually sought approval from other male authority figures. 

Knowing he wanted to be an actor from a very early age, Douglas did everything he could to get away from home and escape a life of mediocrity in Amsterdam. Through hard work and lucky breaks, Douglas attended college, where he was elected president of the student body, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. After appearing in several productions on Broadway, Douglas was offered a movie role and took it. Within just a few years, he was one of the most promising young actors in Hollywood. 

The style of The Ragman’s Son is almost stream of consciousness, as Douglas sometimes jumps from subject to subject. Douglas’s writing voice is as distinctive as his famous speaking voice. Douglas sometimes writes little scenes where Issur, the poor, insecure Jewish kid from Amsterdam talks to movie star Kirk Douglas, who is seemingly brimming with confidence. While that may sound somewhat cheesy, those scenes let us know that Issur is still inside of Kirk Douglas, acting as his conscience and keeping him grounded. 

Despite all of Douglas’s success, it’s clear that happiness was elusive for him. He’s a restless man, always eager for a new challenge. Douglas’s love life gets a lot of ink in the book, and it’s obvious that he was very successful with the ladies. One of the more interesting anecdotes in the book takes place when Douglas is just out of high school. He has trouble finding work at resorts in upstate New York because he’s Jewish. So at one resort he introduces himself as “Don Dempsey,” passing himself off as a WASP, and gets the job. The woman who ran the resort was extremely anti-Semitic, and in a scene worthy of a Philip Roth novel, she comes on to him at the end of the summer, and as Douglas has sex with her he says in her ear, “I am a Jew. You are being fucked by a Jew!” (p.37) 

Douglas pulls no punches about his infidelities during his first marriage to Diana Dill, the mother of Kirk’s sons Michael and Joel. Douglas writes with great feeling about his second marriage, to Anne Buydens, a Belgian woman who worked as his assistant while he was in France making Act of Love. They fell in love, and in May 2014 celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Douglas had found a strong woman who was willing to be his partner in life.

For all of Douglas’s obvious ego, there is a humility and a deep humanity that comes through in The Ragman’s Son. One of my favorite anecdotes in the book is Douglas’s interaction with John Wayne after a screening of Lust for Life, in which Douglas played Vincent Van Gogh. Wayne said to Douglas, “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Kirk responded by saying, “Hey, John, I’m an actor. I like to play interesting roles. It’s all make-believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not really John Wayne, you know.” (p.243) I admire that Douglas was willing to defend the role he had played, and that he was smart enough to know that he’s different from his on-screen image. 

Kirk Douglas is a complex man, and The Ragman’s Son is a fascinating look at the life and mind of one of the greatest film actors of the last 60 years.

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