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Kirk Douglas: How I changed my name to beat the bigots


He changed his name to ‘beat the bigots’ (Image: Getty)

There was a girl, Ann Brown. She was pretty and always wore nice clean dresses. She lived in the rich part of town and I danced with her sometimes during lunch hour. I invited her to go with me and she said yes! I was ecstatic. The next day I saw her, my date for the prom, and waved. She didn’t wave back. Finally, I trapped her in the corridor. “What’s wrong?” She started to stutter, then finally said, “I can’t go to the prom with you.”

Lauren Bacall

Kirk Douglas and Lauren Bacall went out ‘occasionally’ (Image: Getty)

My heart sank. She had seemed so happy about it the day before. “Why?” She wouldn’t answer. I insisted. “Why? Have I done something?”

“No.” Long pause. “My father won’t let me.”

I said, “I’m sure the prom won’t be very late. I’ll get you home whenever he’d like.”

“No, no,” she said. “It’s not that.”

“Well what is it?”

“Because you’re a Jew and your father’s a ragman!”

She ran away. I just stood there with my mouth open.

I knew she came from a wealthy family and her father was a college graduate.

I had always thought that those who hated Jews were, like my immigrant neighbours, from a tough background with no education.

It was not the last time I would suffer anti-Semitism.

After graduating high school I was anxious to find a good-paying summer job and decided to try the resort hotels in upstate New York.

So I walked and hitched from hotel to hotel, but was turned down for any kind of a job. Busboy, bellhop, waiter.

Nobody wanted to hire Izzy Demsky. I thought about this as I walked.


Kirk at his graduation (Image: Getty)

By the time I came to a hotel called the Orchard House, I swallowed hard and introduced myself as “Don Dempsey.”

I got the job as a bellhop.

Invariably, my last call at night would be to deliver ice to one guest in her room – a woman who had not found holiday romance and was willing to find it with a bell­ boy.

As the end of the season approached, the lady proprietor grew interested.

The night before the hotel closed, she was more attentive than ever.

She suggested we have a fare­well drink in her room. I thought of all the things she had said: “Hitler is right, the Jews should all be destroyed”, and “No Jew will ever set foot in this hotel.”

After a few drinks, we were in bed together. Strange how hate can be such an aphrodisiac. As we made love, I whispered in her ear that I was a Jew.

A year had passed and people were going back to college.

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My friend Pete Riccio was returning to St Lawrence University in New York for his second year and he urged me to go with him.

How could I? My savings amounted to $163. “Take a chance,” he said.

Pete and I hitchhiked the 200 miles.

Our last ride was on a truckload of fertilizer. We crouched on top, our heads bowed against the wind, with that strong odour I knew so well.

Horse**** had always played an important part in my life. I arrived at college reeking of it.


Kirk was known to be a heart throb amongst fellow actors (Image: Getty)

My first sight of the large green lawns of St Lawrence University in Canton, New York, was impressive.

We were going to talk to Dean Hewlitt to see if I could get in.

He peered at me over his glasses. Laid out on his desk were all my credentials.

I had won lots of prizes, and my grades were high. He looked up, and in a gruff voice said: “So, you want to go to college.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered. His nose wrinkled as he caught a whiff of the horse manure.

I felt uncomfortable. It was very quiet. Then, in that gruff voice, he said: “All right. We’ll take a chance on you. We’ll work out a loan.”

I look back at St Lawrence with warmth and appreciation for my four years there. If I had tried to go directly from Amsterdam to New York, the jump would have been too great.

Having graduated in 1939, The American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York had offered me a scholarship.

The first thing I did was to go to a lawyer to change my name.

It was surprisingly

simple and I was legally Kirk Douglas, the name I have carried for the rest of my life.

peggy diggins

Kirk fell in love with ‘Miss New York’ Peggy Diggins (Image: Getty Images)

It was surprisingly simple and I was legally Kirk Douglas, the name I have carried for the rest of my life.

At the academy, I fell in love. She was tall, slim, with ebony hair and ivory skin, beautiful blue eyes, and an Irish turned-up nose.

Her name was Peggy Dig­gins, and she was Miss New York. The vote must have been unanimous.

She dressed very well, because even though she was an academy student, she made money modelling. I was so smitten that I could hardly speak in her presence.

I don’t remember how we met, all I know is I was shocked to find she returned my affection. What I felt toward Peggy Diggins wasn’t love. It was madness.

Suddenly, she was offered a Hollywood contract with a group called the Navy Blue Sextet, billed as the six most beautiful girls in the world.

My heart sank. I couldn’t believe she would be leaving me. The night before, I was miserable, but tried to hide it. The next day, she was gone. I dragged myself up to my little room and lay on the bed like a zombie.

After Peggy, there was no special girl for quite a long time. There were lots of girls, but nobody special.

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I went out occasionally with Betty Bacall, who became Lauren. She was a junior at the academy, so looked up to me and had kind of a schoolgirl crush.

lauren bacall

Kirk and Lauren remained close (Image: Getty)

I graduated in June 1941. In the last year agents would come to see the plays. I was disap­pointed that not one asked to sign me.

Despite this, I was the first student in my class to get on Broadway when I won the role of singing-telegram boy in Spring Again.

On opening night, Lauren Bacall was there with her mother.

After the show, I was in the dressing room. In the midst of the opening night excitement, I heard a voice yelling up the staircase: “DOUGLAS!”

I recognised that voice; I’d heard it often enough. My heart started to pound as I raced down the steps. And there he was, Charles Jehlinger, the legendary director and teacher who had, on at least one occasion, torn me to shreds. He was almost 80, about 5ft 2in, but everyone was intimidated by him.

“Yes, Mr Jehlinger.” He peered at me with those piercing eyes and said: “You’re on the right track, son. Keep it that way” – one of the happiest moments of my life

IT IS strange to me how little I remember about the war in Europe.

I would hear about the London Blitz, the brave English withstanding Hitler’s assaults.

I heard, but not in defined terms, about the war against the Jews. Suddenly came Pearl Harbor and the shock that the Japanese had blown our men to bits, destroyed our navy.


Lauren and Kirk seemed smitten on each other (Image: Getty)

All the other attacks had been far away. Now they were attacking us. I felt a wave of patriotism and a wave of Jewishness about what was hap­pening in Europe.

So I joined the navy. On November 2, 1943, I married Diana Dill, a young English actress I’d met in New York.

At first, she had felt I had a reputation with the ladies, and kept her dis­tance. She was from an old Bermuda family, where her father was attorney general.

Now, having met again after my anti-submarine training, we were calling and writing every day, back and forth, trying to grab every moment before I shipped out.

Finally we decided: “This is crazy. Why don’t we just do it?” So we were married by a naval chaplain.

After our marriage, I was sent to serve aboard PC (Patrol Craft) 1139 as a communications officer. We had a crew of 72, and five officers, of which I, now aged 26, was probably the oldest. It was an all-green crew.

Using sonar, we would search for Japanese submarines. All day long on the bridge, you’d hear the echoing of the underwater sound waves: “ping ping ping”.

One day, the steady “ping, ping, ping” changed to “ping-ping, ping-ping”.

We had a contact and the sonar was echoing back. I felt like I was in a B-movie. It didn’t seem real.

diana douglas

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Kirk and his estranged wife, Diana Douglas (Image: Getty)

The captain cut back the engines. I heard his order over the earphones: “Release depth charge marker.”

This was a green slick on the water to let us know where to drop the depth charges. I relayed this message to the nervous sailor on the stern.

Suddenly, there was a huge explosion. People went flying everywhere. There was confusion but it didn’t take us long to realise that we hadn’t been struck by an enemy ­torpedo – we had blown up our own ship.

Instead of a depth charge marker, the sailor had released a depth charge. It wrecked our steering gear and ended our engagement with the enemy.

We were told to head for La Manzanilla, Mexico.

On a 24-hour layover, I ate and drank everything in sight. When we proceeded to San Diego I became deathly ill, with severe cramps and a high fever.

They took me to the San Diego Naval Hospital and the ship went off to war again without me. Amoebic dysentery was diagnosed.

Months of mail finally caught up with me, the first letter from my wife… “and when the baby arrives…”

The baby! What baby? I almost fell out of bed. Diana, in New Jersey, got a shocked phone call. Our son Michael would be born in September 1944.

In June, after several months’ at a naval hospital, I was given an honourable discharge. I took my three months’ duty and severance pay, and left for Los Angeles, to seek my fortune in Hollywood.

    * Extracted by Matt Nixson from

      The Ragman’s Son by Kirk Douglas (Simon and Schuster, £9.99). Call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or go to expressbookshop.co.uk

      UK Delivery £2.95 per order, orders over £12.99 free. Please allow 14 days for delivery.

      ©Kirk Douglas 1988


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