Copyright © 2012 by Rebel Road, Inc. All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. www.crownpublishing.com Crown Archetype with colophon is a trademark of Random House, Inc. Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request. ISBN: 978-0-307-95236-3 eISBN: 978-0-307-95238-7 Printed in the United States of America Book design by Lauren Dong Jacket design by Nupoor Gordon Jacket photography © Greg Gorman/Icon International 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 First Edition
Christ, I saw my father as a gladiator, nailed to a cross, as an artist who cut his ear off— and he would be shown doing these superhuman things. I’d think, how can I possibly be a man? How can I be the man this man was? —Michael Douglas
eing the son or daughter of a Hollywood icon can be the greatest blessing or the deepest curse. For a child of famous parents who lives in that shadow, the struggle to step into the light of one’s own identity often carries a heavy price. Paul Newman’s son, Scott, blessed with his father’s good looks but void of his unique talent lived in the shadow of the elder Newman’s fame and died of an overdose at the age of twenty-eight. Gregory Peck’s son also could not overcome his father’s fame and eventually shot himself. Charles Boyer’s son, too, committed suicide. Marlon Brando’s daughter killed herself after her brother, Marlon’s son, another failed actor, fatally shot her boyfriend (and went to prison for it). There are numerous less dramatic instances. Sydney Earle Chaplin, Charlie’s son, although a ﬁne actor and an ambitious one, was unable to compete with his father’s old-as-ﬁlm-itself talent and failed to make it as a box ofﬁce star either on the screen or stage. It was the same story for Sydney’s half sister, Geraldine, who had similar performing ambitions but whose career goals, too, were overwhelmed by the reach and heights of her father’s enormous worldwide fame. And despite his singular contribution to 1969’s Easy Rider, Peter Fonda never achieved the star status or the prestige of his legendary father,
Henry. Although both were alive during the making of Easy Rider, Henry never expressed any real desire to work with his son (except for a brief appearance in Wanda Nevada, an independent ﬁlm that disappeared almost as soon as it opened, in June 1979, and which may have been the senior Fonda’s long-overdue and failed attempt to acknowledge his son’s talent and abilities). Peter’s sister Jane did fare a little better. Although she shot her own career in the foot with her “Hanoi Jane” real-life episode, she ﬁnally did get to share the screen with Henry in Mark Rydell’s 1981 On Golden Pond, the dying senior Fonda’s Academy Award–winning swan song. Jane went on to have a long and successful career, a two-time Oscar winner, but nevertheless had to battle forever the demons of her own politics and Daddy’s long legend. Gender, looks, and her canny ability to choose vehicles that were perfectly suited to her talents helped her to escape the worst of Hollywood’s dreaded dynastic curse. And the fact that she was a much bigger star than Peter didn’t hurt. By 1981, Henry needed their reconciliation on ﬁlm as much as Jane did. Canadian-born Donald Sutherland, who came to prominence in Robert Altman’s 1970 M*A*S*H and went on to make more than 160 movies and win a cartful of awards (but no Oscar), is the father of Kiefer Sutherland, a successful TV and ﬁlm actor limited by his range and hampered by his quick temper and substance-abuse battles, as well as by a lack of breakthrough big-screen roles. Kiefer made his name on the TV series 24, which ran in serial spurts for nearly nine years. Tom Hanks made himself a force in Hollywood as an actor and producer in ﬁlm and TV, yet his son Colin has yet to make a solid name in the movies. Sean Connery, ﬁlm’s original James Bond, has a son, Jason, who remains relatively unknown as an actor. To the long list add John Wayne and his actor son Patrick; Lana Turner and her daughter, Cheryl; and the Sheens: relatively sane father Martin, relatively crazy son Charlie, and Charlie’s brother, Emilio Estevez, best known as a member of the cinematically inconsequential 1980s “Brat Pack.” There are yet dozens more examples of children of ﬁlmland
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famously overshadowed by their more famous parents. Naming them becomes a grim parlor game that could easily last all night. There are notable exceptions, of course. Jeff Bridges and his brother, Beau, are the sons of affable TV and screen star Lloyd Bridges, a family man and by all accounts a good father, best remembered for his performance on the tube as Mike Nelson in the low-budget independent TV series Sea Hunt (1958–61) and on the big screen as the smoldering, immature deputy in Fred Zinnemann’s stellar 1952 High Noon and in his comic roles in the 1980 Airplane! (Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker) and the 1982 Airplane II (Ken Finkleman). Eventually both brothers were able to surface from Lloyd’s shadow—which, admittedly, was not as long as those of bigger Hollywood legends—and Jeff, relatively late in his career, emerged from the cult ﬁlm star status he acquired after his memorable performance in Joel Coen’s 1998 The Big Lebowski.1 Jeff’s bravura Oscar-winning Best Actor performance some years later as Bad Blake in Scott Cooper’s 2009 Crazy Heart ﬁnally made him a bankable star. Ben Stiller became a superstar, eclipsing both the small-screen success of his stand-up comedian parents, Stiller and Meara, and Jerry Stiller’s late-in-the-day sitcom and commercial spokesman career. James Brolin was a minor-league actor; his son Josh is one of the hottest Hollywood leading men of the decade. But far more often in Hollywood, the exceptions prove the rule. Let us now meet the Douglas dynasty, beginning with Kirk, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, who went on to international fame and glory and by doing so cast a shadow from which all his progeny, with varying degrees of success, tried to emerge. Perhaps without meaning to, he nonetheless laid down a complex set of twists and turns on their particular yellow brick road of movie dreams of fame, fortune, and glory. Kirk married his ﬁrst wife, socialite Diana Love Dill, while he was
1 Ethan Coen is the uncredited co-director.
still an unknown actor trying to make it on Broadway. He was ruthlessly and singularly ambitious, and what he may have lacked in raw talent, he more than made up for with a ﬁerce determination that perhaps only the child of poor immigrants can truly comprehend. At the same time, he showed little interest in domesticity. He fathered two boys with Diana—Michael was born in 1944, Joel in 1947—and to both he remained distant, mostly physically unavailable, and emotionally unavailable to his wife, while craving the affection and approval of his Russian-born father. After a middling career on the boards, Kirk took off for Hollywood alone, leaving his wife behind with two-year-old Michael. A self-confessed notorious womanizer, Kirk’s arrival in Hollywood was not unlike that of a child with an insatiable sweet tooth given the keys to the best candy store in the world. After the release of his ﬁrst ﬁlm, Lewis Milestone’s 1946 The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Kirk found regular work in bigger and better movies. After several heated affairs, he and Diana began talking divorce. Diana “had some inkling that something was going on with him and his various leading ladies, one in particular.” Kirk never denied any of it: “Yes, I liked women. I liked Marilyn Maxwell, she was beautiful. . . . I was a bad boy, yes, I had lots of women.” Diana repeatedly pleaded with him to stop his incessant womanizing, and when Kirk wouldn’t, or couldn’t, in 1950 Diana went ahead and ﬁled for divorce. Michael, six years old at the time of his parents’ split, was profoundly affected by what he could not help perceiving as his father’s abandonment. He drew ever closer to and more dependent on his mother. In his ﬁrst memoir, The Ragman’s Son, Kirk describes a scene just prior to the divorce while visiting his wife and two children in New York: “When Diana and I were having an intense argument in the kitchen, we saw Michael, who was about six, walking toward us. We stopped immediately, before he entered, but he burst out crying. . . . That’s when we realized that staying together for the sake of the children wouldn’t work.” Michael recalls, “I think my earliest memory was about three and it
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was them ﬁghting. Not physically ﬁghting, but arguing. Voices being raised.” Those voices would reverberate in Michael’s head for years, even as Kirk’s absence turned him into something of an invisible god. Michael’s most frequent contact with his father was watching his giant image on the screen performing heroics and making love to other women. Kirk was there and not there, real and not real, an object of worship and an object of longing. These feelings would grow inside Michael until, as a young man trying to ﬁnd his place in the world, he realized he wanted to be just like his father, and at the same time, nothing like him. The divorce was ﬁnalized in January 1951. Diana received sole custody of the children, with liberal visitation rights for Kirk. That February, she moved into an apartment on Central Park West. As Diana recalled not long after, “Michael . . . was showing signs of deep anger since the divorce and from being a compatible, tractable child, had suddenly become very stubborn and rebellious. He challenged me at every turn. I took him to a child psychologist who observed him in play therapy and then lectured me gently. ‘This is not a deeply disturbed child at all. He has suffered a great loss and blames you for it.’ [He advised me to] ease up on the discipline and give him loads of love.” The “loads of love” was meant to deﬂect what was a not uncommon reaction of young children whose parents divorce: that it is somehow their fault. As a child, Michael struggled with whom to blame for his parents’ breakup, his mother, his father, or himself. At times he blamed his father for abandoning the family. Other times he blamed his mother for somehow driving his father away. And still other times he blamed himself and, later, younger brother Joel for not being good enough children. Michael’s guilt and anger expressed itself in outbursts and mini-rebellions. (Joel handled the trauma differently. He put on weight that he carried on his frame his entire life, as if wishing to insulate himself from his own emotional needs.) Michael would carry his childhood emotional baggage into his ﬁrst marriage, which in many ways mirrored his father’s. Kirk had married
a moneyed sophisticate; so did Michael. Kirk was a serial cheater; Michael, too, loved women. Eventually Michael left his ﬁrst wife and remarried a woman who closely resembled his father’s second wife. The duality of Michael’s identity struggle is vivid; it is as if, on the one hand, he strove to become a better version of his dad, while on the other, he feared he was destined to exactly follow in his father’s heavy footsteps. Diana got the message from the psychiatrist, and this early counseling helped Michael improve his social skills and lessen the periodic traumatic ﬂashes that would occur whenever his father came back to New York City to visit the two boys. On one visit to the West Side apartment, Kirk recalls in his memoir, he “walked in and kissed Diana on the cheek. Michael started to cry. Thirty-ﬁve years later, he told me it bewildered him. He thought Mommy and Daddy were angry at each other. . . . [T]here was a wall between us. Maybe [the boys] felt that I had abandoned them. We never discussed it.” It was a wall that was to remain up for nearly a lifetime. Michael, the more obviously sensitive of the two boys, would avoid expressing anger and arguing in his marriages, the passive Jekyll to the aggressive Hyde of his movie characters. The ghost of his father’s philandering (and the shadow of his own) would emerge in such ﬁlms as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Disclosure. All three characters he played in those ﬁlms were sexually troubled men, and with the exception of Fatal Attraction’s Dan Gallagher they had no apparent connection to or desire to care for their children. According to ﬁlm critic and historian David Thomson, troubled men became Michael’s best roles. He was “capable of playing characters who were weak, culpable, morally indolent, compromised, and greedy for illicit sensation without losing that basic probity or potential for ethical character that we require of a hero.”
Although it is not unusual for sons to follow in the professional footsteps of their father, Michael always maintained he just sort of
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wandered into the profession: “I went into theater because I didn’t have a major. . . . It was my junior year in college [University of California, Santa Barbara] and I really didn’t know what the hell I wanted to do. I really had never thought about acting at all. So when I jumped in, I hadn’t done any high school plays or anything. Earlier in my career . . . I was basically someone who was struggling for conﬁdence. . . . I was withdrawn.” Perhaps Michael’s greatest satisfaction was being able to accomplish what his father could not: at the age of thirty-one, after a middling ﬁlm and TV career, Michael managed to get a movie made out of Ken Kesey’s semi-autobiographical Beat-inﬂuenced novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Kirk had originally purchased rights to the book in 1962, before its publication, for $47,000, and he brought it to the Broadway stage in 1963. Kirk played the lead role, Randle McMurphy, a symbolically sane man trapped in a metaphorical insane asylum, surrounded by other inmates he eventually realizes are all the sane victims of a crazy world, whose authority ﬁgures are sadistically insane. The Broadway production was intended as a showcase for what Kirk hoped would be his greatest ﬁlm achievement and win him an Academy Award, an accolade that had eluded him despite his enormously successful ﬁlm career. Cuckoo’s Nest opened on November 13, nine days before John F. Kennedy was assassinated. In the immediate aftermath of those dark days, the last thing anyone wanted to see was a downcast play about injustice, manipulation, and the misuse of power and murder. Kirk reluctantly closed it on January 25, 1964, conﬁdently believing that the next step, bringing it to the screen, was a cinch. It wasn’t. By the mid-sixties, Kirk’s ﬁlm career had peaked and was on a downslope. Ten frustrating years later, in a last-ditch effort, he handed the rights over to Michael and gave him his blessing to run with it. Michael ran, all right, and, with his producing partner, Saul Zaentz, won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1975. Over Michael’s initial objections, his friend Jack Nicholson, rather than his
father Kirk Douglas, played McMurphy. Nicholson also took an Oscar home, the Oscar that Kirk never won.2 Cuckoo’s Nest marked the moment when Michael changed places with his father and became the more powerful ﬁgure in Hollywood. It signaled the beginning of Michael’s great run as a producer, actor, and sometimes both in a series of top-grossing, award-winning ﬁlms that would culminate in his winning a second Oscar, this one for Best Actor for his memorable portrayal of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s 1987 Wall Street. What follows, then, is the story of how Michael fought to step out of his father’s shadow even as he struggled against falling deeper into it and become his father. It is the story of a search for self-identity, inner peace, lasting happiness, and enduring love. It is the story of how the ﬁrstborn son of Kirk Douglas ﬁnally succeeded in becoming his own man.
2 Cuckoo’s Nest wound up winning the “Big Four”: Best Picture; Best Actor, Jack Nicholson; Best Director, Miloš Forman; Best Actress, Louise Fletcher. It was the ﬁrst time one ﬁlm had won all four major awards since Frank Capra’s 1934 It Happened One Night. It also won Best Adapted Screenplay, Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman.
PA R T ONE
Pa r ent s
Kirk Douglas greeted by his sons, Joel, six (left), and Michael, nine (right), at a New York airport after arriving from Europe to spend Christmas together. Kirk was by then divorced from his ﬁrst wife and the boys’ mother, Diana Dill.
Cha pter 1
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 Douglas
ichael 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 acciden-
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tally 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
1 It is unclear when Issur legally changed his name to Kirk Douglas.
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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.
2 No other source has been found stating that Peggy Diggins was ever Miss New York.
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 résumé 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
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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— déjà 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. Kirk, still stationed in South Bend, began traveling to New York City to visit her every chance he got, but when he received word that he would soon be shipping out overseas, he asked Diana to ﬂy to South Bend to marry him. She said yes. On November 2, 1943, they were hitched in Indiana by the navy chaplain and then again, at Kirk’s insistence, by a rabbi, who agreed to perform the ceremony on the condition that their children would be brought up Jewish. They agreed, but Kirk assured Diana he would not hold her to that promise. They spent the next month and a half together in South Bend until the day Kirk was sent to the South Paciﬁc. Fearing she might never see her husband again, Diana moved to New Jersey to live with her oldest sister, Ruth. Diana thought it unseemly to be modeling while her husband was at war, so she took a full-time day job in Manhattan with E. R. Squibb. Not long after, she discovered she was pregnant.
Aboard ship, Kirk was caught in a non-combat-related explosives accident that nearly killed him. He was sent to San Diego to recover. Diana immediately quit her job and ﬂew to the West Coast to be by his side for the duration of what looked to be a long recuperation. In June 1944, Kirk was given a medical discharge from the navy. They
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decided to move back east and settled temporarily at Ruth’s house in New Jersey to await the arrival of the baby. When he was well enough, Kirk started making the audition rounds and soon found work on Broadway, due partly to his talent and partly to the severe wartime shortage of leading men. While he acted, Diana searched for a place for them to live and found a walk-up on West Eleventh Street in Greenwich Village, complete with a bedroom balcony. However, on September 24, 1944, before they could move in, Diana went into labor. It proved a difﬁcult delivery, but at ten thirty the next morning, the twenty-ﬁfth, their baby boy was born. Upon her release from the hospital, the Douglases moved into their New York City apartment. Choosing a name for the baby had been something Kirk and Diana disagreed about. If it was a boy, Diana wanted to call him Kirk junior. Kirk vehemently refused, because in the Jewish religion, children are named not after the living but after the dead. Kirk ﬁnally agreed to Michael K. (for Kirk) Douglas. And so it was that the son of this handsome, struggling actor and his beautiful Bermudan socialite came kicking and screaming into the war-torn world.
Cha pter 2
I didn’t grow up in Beverly Hills, thank God. I could think of nothing worse than growing up in the richest city in the richest state in the richest country in the world. How could you possibly preserve any sense of reality? —Michael Douglas
ll through his baby years Michael almost never smiled or laughed, and the more anybody tried to get him to do so, the less of it he did. “As a child, he was very shy,” Kirk recalled. Not that Kirk was around all that much to notice. He was appearing on Broadway steadily now, and it was during this period, Diana later remembered, that the seeds of their marital problems were planted. “His deep, dark Russian depressions and sudden rages,” as she described them, confused and frightened her and highlighted the differences in their backgrounds. She was WASP, upper-class, and always wearing a happy face; he was Jewish, working-class, prone to emotional outbursts, and almost never smiled. He was an unhappy person with ﬁts and starts of happiness; Diana was a happy person with occasional small bumps in the road. Still, to the outside world, they appeared to have a solid marriage. Their Village apartment was the frequent locale for parties ﬁlled with actors and artists and writers, and their love life was as strong as ever, no matter how many additional sexual adventures Kirk was having. The appearance, however, was not enough to mask their increasingly difﬁcult relationship. For one thing, Diana felt she needed more in her life than motherhood. If Kirk could work, she wanted to as well, and leave the gilded cage of her marriage. In what was considered an
unusual move at the time for a newlywed mother, and something of a compromise to her, she decided to go back to school part-time, to take a short-story writing course at New York University. This led to a whole new level of tension between her and Kirk. One night they had a down-and-out about, of all things, the Sacco and Vanzetti case, their opposite positions underscored by their ethnic differences. Although Sacco and Vanzetti were heroes to the working class, Kirk was against them, while to Diana they were innocent and should not be made to pay the price for any so-called crimes.1 The Sacco and Vanzetti case was the ﬁrst time in their marriage Diana stood up to Kirk and dared to openly disagree with him, despite his insistence that he was (always) right, and it put another layer of tension on what should have been simply a family discussion. The fact was, Kirk wanted her to be a stay-at-home mother. It was an era when married women who worked were viewed as either economically deprived or unhappy at home. Kirk did not want people to think his wife had to work, that he couldn’t support his family on his own. Late in 1944, against Kirk’s wishes, Diana resumed her acting career while he successfully auditioned for a role in Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s upcoming musical On the Town, with a score by Leonard Bernstein. Kirk was given one of the leads until he suddenly lost his voice. The show was postponed twice while he went to see a series of specialists, but ﬁnally it went on without him. His part was given to actor John Battles, and the show opened on December 29, 1944, without Kirk.
1 Ferdinando Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were accused of armed robbery and murder in Braintree, Mass., in 1920. They were tried twice and were executed in 1927. The trial became a showcase for everything from class division in America and anti-immigration sentiment to anarchy. The evidence was ﬂ imsy, and the case remains controversial to this day. Kirk and Diana were arguing about it in 1945, and they were not alone. Several movies and plays have been made about the two men, their trials, and their execution.
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Early in 1945, after ﬁnishing a brief run in Measure for Measure, Diana took off for an extended stay in Bermuda at the family compound, a jovial retreat where, after serving dinner, the staff would gather around a piano and entertain the guests by singing old familiar tunes. She took Michael with her. Because of the Dill family wealth, rumors had surfaced that the boy might be the target of an impending kidnapping. Not wanting to leave Michael with Kirk, who worked six evenings and two matinees a week, Diana felt safer having her son by her side. Meanwhile, on Broadway and alone in New York, Kirk became reacquainted with a young actress by the name of Lauren Bacall, whom he had dated when both were students at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, and who would play a pivotal role in his becoming a movie star. As a favor to Kirk, she recommended him to her friend, ﬁlm producer Hal Wallis, who had been complaining about the shortage of young male actors in Hollywood and was looking for one to star in his new picture, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers. Wallis tested Kirk, liked him for the part, and offered it to him. Kirk had never thought much of Hollywood as a place where he could seriously practice his craft— an attitude not unusual among New York–trained actors, who preferred the continuous nature of stage performance to the chopped-up mechanics of ﬁlm acting. But with Diana away and nothing new showing up on the boards for him, he took Bacall’s advice and that of his good friend David Merrick, a Broadway producer and future impresario, both of whom urged him to accept Wallis’s offer. Merrick also set him up with big-time talent agent Charles Feldman to close the deal. Early in 1945, Kirk boarded the fabled Twentieth Century Limited to Chicago and from there traveled on to Hollywood by himself, while his wife and son remained in Bermuda. Diana eventually decided she wanted to be with Kirk while he made his movie, and so she surprised him by showing up that winter without advance warning, with Michael and her mother in tow. Diana,
no stranger to Hollywood, knew all too well what a playground it was for good-looking young men like her husband, whose philandering had been one of the reasons she had unofﬁcially separated from him. He was caught off guard by Diana’s arrival, especially since, in her absence, he had decided not to return to New York—Wallis, pleased with Kirk’s work on Martha Ivers, had offered him a ﬁve-picture deal. Now, he would have to put a damper on his living it up and revert, at least for the time being, to playing the dutiful husband and father, until he broke the news of his new deal to Diana. She had a surprise for him as well. She was pregnant with their second child.
Upon her arrival, Diana set about ﬁnding a place in L.A. for them and settled on a small Swiss-chalet-style cottage on Vado Place in Laurel Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. On January 23, 1947, one day after her twenty-fourth birthday, she gave birth to Joel Andrew Douglas. As soon as she could, she moved both boys into the guesthouse and hired a full-time nanny. Almost from the start, Diana saw a troubling sibling rivalry develop between the two boys. Michael was proving to be increasingly insecure with a need for constant attention, and he was not much of a sharer, especially when it came to the affections of his mother. One of the ﬁrst times Diana held baby Joel in her arms in front of Michael, he started crying and screaming, “No, Mommy! No, Mommy!” Diana quickly handed Joel to the nanny and tried to comfort Michael. “It’s okay, Mikey, it’s okay . . . that’s your little brother and you can help me take care of him.”
As Kirk became more successful on his way to major stardom, his marriage continued to deteriorate. At one point, after a series of arguments that had been going on for weeks (and were really one long argument about who-knows-what), Diana angrily suggested he needed
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to see a psychiatrist, which Kirk took as an insult. And if he didn’t, she added, they would have to separate again, this time for good. It set off one of the worst ﬁghts they had ever had. So involved were they in this argument they didn’t notice young Michael standing right in front of them, crying, while he stared at his parents screaming at each other.
Diana kept a busy social calendar while Kirk ground out one movie after another, often staying at a studio bungalow, sometimes alone and sometimes in the company of an eager young starlet. One evening Diana went alone to a party at the home of Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill. Oona, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, was a longtime friend of Diana’s, from before Oona’s marriage to the much older ﬁlm great. At the time, Chaplin was considering Diana for the role of the dancer in Limelight but ultimately gave it to Claire Bloom. After this latest disappointment, Diana had had enough of both Hollywood and her husband and decided to return alone to New York City. Early in 1949, Katharine Hepburn, another good friend, recommended her for Philip Barry’s new play, Second Threshold. Diana was happy to have this excuse to leave L.A., fed up with Kirk’s increasing self-absorption, constant philandering, and, perhaps worst of all, his almost lackadaisical attitude about cheating. He had even gone so far as to introduce to Diana at dinner one night a woman he had been seeing in New York and whom he had newly relocated to L.A. This was Kirk’s version of one big happy family. Diana ﬂew to Manhattan, leaving the boys with Kirk and the nanny until she was settled. A few weeks later, while living in a Midtown hotel, she decided early one evening to call and let Kirk know she was okay. A woman answered the phone. Diana asked to speak to Michael. When he came to the phone she asked him who that was. “Oh,” he said, “that was Auntie Irene. She’s living here now.” Auntie Irene was Irene Wrightsman, a twenty-year-old beauty who
was the daughter of the president of Standard Oil of Kansas. Kirk had been seeing her secretly before Diana left; once Diana was gone, Kirk moved Irene into the house. Diana hung up, called her lawyer, and told him she wanted a divorce. Kirk refused to accept the fact that Diana was serious. In one last, desperate attempt to save his marriage, at Diana’s insistence he agreed to see a psychiatrist, but only for a week. (He would stay in analysis for ﬁve years.) However, to Diana, it was a showy, empty gesture that came too late. In 1951, she went forward with the divorce. Diana would keep the boys with her on the East Coast, which meant among other things that Michael would have to be uprooted once again, this time with little brother tagging along. The divorce came just as Kirk was hitting the stratosphere. The year before (1950), he had been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance in Mark Robson’s 1949 surprise hit boxing saga, Champion, based on a short story by Ring Lardner, in which he gave a performance of conﬂicted ferocity as a man whose moral strength erodes as his professional career rises.2 At one point, he begins an affair with a hot blonde and throws over everyone who has helped him get to where he is. It is a stinging ﬁght ﬁlm with a convenient Holly wood ending dictated as much by the censors as by the story. In this, his eighth ﬁlm, Kirk was able to show more of his real inner self than he ever had before, playing a mean, self-centered, enraged, and hard-ass character he felt completely at home in. As the 1950s arrived, Kirk had become a star, and the last thing on his mind was domestic family life.
2 The other nominees that year were Broderick Crawford, who won for his performance in Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men; Gregory Peck in Henry King’s 12 o’Clock High; Richard Todd in Vincent Sherman’s The Hasty Heart; and John Wayne in Allan Dwan’s Sands of Iwo Jima. It was Kirk’s ﬁrst nomination. He would receive two more, one in 1953 for Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and one in 1957 for Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956). He lost both times.
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Diana, now twenty-seven years old, managed to ﬁnd an apartment in the postwar housing crunch that had hit Manhattan. When a family friend died, she was able to grab his place before it was listed on the open market. The two-bedroom apartment with maid’s room was located on Central Park West and Eighty-Fifth Street, not very far from her old apartment. Diana especially liked that now each of the boys could have his own room. Once settled in, she decided to take the increasingly withdrawn six-year-old Michael to see a child psychiatrist. He was constantly crying and begging his mother to get back together with his father. He felt the emotional pain of the divorce intensely and broke out in tears over the smallest of things. When these outbursts eventually stopped, they were replaced by shyness and a resistance to showing any type of affection. The surface passivity and the inner turmoil were traits that would stay with Michael for the rest of his life. After several visits, the doctor concluded that Michael was not deeply disturbed or especially antisocial. He was simply acting out the anger he felt at the loss of his father’s presence. He told Diana that Michael had developed a “core of sensitivity that he guarded jealously.” Joel, whose natural temperament was somewhat milder than Michael’s, appeared less bothered by the divorce, or by anything. He was apparently a happy, if increasingly overweight, little boy. Diana put him into a morning nursery program while Michael attended an ultra-exclusive all-boys private school on the Upper East Side, AllenStevenson, where every student was required to wear a blazer and ﬂannel pants. She also hired a full-time governess so she could continue to pursue her career as an actress. However, the more she left the boys with their governess, the more mischievous they got, and they soon took to physically ﬁghting with each other all over the house. After seeing the psychiatrist, Diana was no longer worried that this was abnormal. This behavior, she now believed, was what all boys did.
In June 1951, Kirk called and asked if he could have the boys with him in Hollywood for the summer. Diana agreed. As it happened, she had been offered the leading role in Light Up the Sky with a summer stock company in Ohio, and Kirk’s offer made it possible for her to take it. An actor in the company, Bill Darrid, would eventually become Diana’s second husband. Kirk often brought Michael and Joel to the set so they could watch their father work. He was putting the ﬁnishing touches on what would be one of the more important ﬁlms of his career, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful. While there, Michael liked to roam around the studio exploring, enjoying getting lost in the small spaces between walls and ﬂats. One time he happened to return to the sound stage just as Kirk was ﬁlming a love scene with Lana Turner, with whom he was allegedly having an offscreen affair (he has always denied this). Kirk saw him, called “Cut,” and waved Michael to go away until the scene was ﬁnished, but Michael snuck back and watched. “I was very shocked. I remember looking at my father doing this love scene, and his catching my eye (as if to say, embarrassed, ‘Move out of my sight’).” Afterward Michael asked his father why he was kissing another woman. For Kirk, the question, as well as the answer, was both complicated and simple. He didn’t know what to say, nor did he feel comfortable talking to Michael about such things. About anything, really.
Kirk now decided he wanted to buy a bigger apartment in Manhattan for Diana and the kids, and put it in the boys’ names so that if they ever needed cash they could sell it. Diana rejected the notion out of hand, not wanting any of Kirk’s guilt money. She really wanted nothing more to do with him at all, other than sharing custody of the children. She had moved on. After her summer stint in Ohio, she continued seeing Darrid, and their relationship deepened. A relatively unknown actor with a normal-size ego, Darrid wanted to marry Diana and was willing to take her two children as part of the package.
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For Diana, it was a difﬁcult proposition, and not something she wanted to rush into. Being Mrs. Kirk Douglas had been a nightmare, as she saw her once-unknown husband grow famous, distant, increasingly insecure, and, by his own admission, serially attracted (if not addicted) to sex with other women. The only lasting bright spot from their union was her two boys. Diana was sure she loved Darrid, but she was also aware of the disruption that marrying a new man might cause for Michael and Joel.