September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

by Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas seemed to come straight out of Central Casting—cleft-chinned, jut-jawed, self-important, he was the epitome of the-Hollywood Movie Star, standard 1950s issue. How curious that Douglas, a seeming model of egocentricity, should write an autobiography of such surprising honesty and occasional grace. It begins eloquently—”I arrived on this earth in a beautiful gold box delicately carved with fruits and flowers and suspended from Heaven by thin silver strands.” The gold box story, concocted by Douglas’ mother, taunts the truth. The son of Russian immigrants, he grew up poor in Amsterdam, N.Y. Barred from factory work because he was Jewish, father Herschel Danielovitch—now Harry Demsky—earned a scant living selling rags and scrap metal. Kirk recalls his mother screaming at him and his six sisters, frustrated at their complaints that they were hungry. Harry’s drinking made life worse. Douglas writes that he would spend his life futilely seeking his father’s approval. In the book, Douglas reverts to conversations with his childish self, the frightened boy Issur Demsky, and the submerged Issur is far more appealing than cocksure Kirk. A World War II romance with his first wife, Diana Dill, resulted in Michael and Joel, two of the four sons he mostly ignored as children. An instant star in Los Angeles, Douglas began a series of affairs—with Marlene Dietrich, Gene Tierney and Ann Sothern, among others. Diana reacted with spirit—”I’ve gone to the Cowans,” she wrote in a note stuck in the door one night, “You can go to hell.” His second wife, Anne Buydens, was such a sport that once before they married, she threw him a party populated by several of his conquests. Douglas hardly pretends to be the most humility-ridden of actors either. He offers engaging tidbits about his roles—playing Van Gogh, always kept one [shoe] untied, so that I would feel unkempt, off balance, in danger of tripping.” On the other hand, he gives little credit to his directors, who included Elia Kazan, Stanley Kubrick and Raoul Walsh, and likes to label his own way “the right way.” At 71, with a pacemaker marking time in his chest, Douglas now apparently prefers unvarnished truth to softened memories. He recalls Nancy Reagan, for instance, as once being so petty that, when one of Kirk’s sons booed her family’s Goldwater bumper sticker, the boy was ejected from the Reagans’ house. Yet he writes now, “I resent the criticisms that are made of Nancy.” John Wayne is remembered for his reaction to Lust for Life: “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There’s so goddam few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers.” Kirk fascinatingly describes the making of Spartacus and the story of his losing fight to film One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Eventually, of course, son Michael produced the movie of that Ken Kesey book, though Kirk still writes that his stage portrayal of Randel McMurphy, not Jack Nicholson’s screen version, was, well, the right one. Whatever the truth of that matter, there have been memorable Douglas roles in such films as Champion, Paths of Glory, Detective Story and Lonely Are the Brave, as well as six others with pal Burt Lancaster (“Boit and Koik,” they call themselves, mimicking a long-ago fan). The Ragman’s Son, despite all the self-aggrandizing patter, proves equally entertaining. (Simon & Schuster, $21.95)

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