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Kirk Douglas celebrates 98th birthday with new book of poetry

Kirk Douglas celebrates 98th birthday with new book of poetry

by Center Theatre Group | Posted on December 30, 2014

On his 98th birthday, Dec. 9, 2014, Kirk Douglas published his 11th book, a charming volume of poetry and anecdotes called Life Could Be Verse: Reflections on Love, Loss, and What Really Matters.

Playing tenderly on the Yiddish accents of his Russian immigrant parents in Life Could Be Verse — not "worse" — Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovitch and once known as Izzy Demsky, takes us on a candid, nostalgic journey through old Hollywood. Douglas reveals the timeless lessons he has learned in life and love through poems, prose and photos, including never-before-seen pictures of Marlene Dietrich, Lauren Bacall, Brigitte Bardot and his most cherished leading lady, Anne Buydens, his wife of 60 years.

This slender volume does not omit the legendary star's 17-year struggle with the effects of a stroke or the pain of his son's passing in 2004, but it doesn't dwell on sadness. Life Could Be Verse is uncomplicated yet revealing, poignant and playful. It's the life and the lines of Spartacus, an uplifting reminder that the story of our lives is often the most entertaining script of all.

An Interview With Kirk Douglas

What motivated you to write this book?

I spoke Yiddish with my parents, which is a very colorful hybrid language, and so is English. I started writing poems by the age of nine because I loved how words fit together with rhythms and rhymes. Poetry is a condensed way to express feelings, not always easy for men, and it became my private outlet for exploring my strongest emotions such as love, loss, fear and wonder. I also enjoy jotting down lines that make me smile and using puns, such as my title Life Could Be Verse. Now that I'm closer to 100 than 90, I wanted a last chance to look back at the poems I've enjoyed as well as those I created at different moments of my journey.

You have written 10 books before this. What makes Life Could Be Verse different from your earlier memoirs?

I have always tried to be honest, but each of my books was written at a different stage of my experiences. In Life Could Be Verse, I am the sum of all these parts. I look back at the child I was, the man I became, and the man I evolved into as a husband, father, actor and writer. And I hope I have learned to be better at all of them.

You have dedicated this book to your wife, Anne, who has been at your side for 60 years. You seem even more in love now than in your early years together.

I fell in love with Anne because she understood me too well, and I had to work hard to impress her. I loved her because she was beautiful and elegant and smarter than me. I loved her sense of humor and her awareness of the world. I loved her because she made for me the home and family life that gave me stability in the crazy world in which I made my living. But now that it's just the two of us at home, and I am no longer rushing off to film sets, we spend such wonderful hours together, some of which I express in my poem, "Romance Begins at 80." It's our private world of sharing and caring for each other and the many charities that touch our hearts. I think I'm finally the romantic fellow I always wanted to be for her. At least I hope she sees it that way.

When you celebrated your anniversary in May, you wrote an essay in the Los Angeles Times about meeting Anne and how she has saved your life on many occasions.

Yes, I said I write her love poems, and she gives me tough love. I wouldn't have fought off my depression after suffering my stroke 17 years ago without her making me get out of bed and insisting I work with a speech therapist. And if I hadn't trusted her uncanny sixth sense, even when it made me angry, I would have been on Mike Todd's plane that crashed and made Elizabeth Taylor a widow a half-century ago.

This book is filled with stories of beautiful women who have had an impact on you and your career, like Mae West, Marlene Dietrich and Brigitte Bardot. They are fun to read, and there are probably many more you left out of the book. Why did you want to include these stories?

Ah, women. From the first I was surrounded by them — my mother, Bryna; my six sisters; my high school English teacher Mrs. Livingston. As an actor, I met some of the most fascinating and glamorous leading ladies of stage and screen. They say actors tend to play to an audience of one. I always imaged the "one" to be a beautiful woman.

On another subject, you have included poems about nature and your relationship to God. You seem to be very spiritual.

Well, when I survived the helicopter crash that killed two young men, I began to question why I was still here. In my book Climbing the Mountain, I wrote about my quest and why I began to study the Bible and Judaism. By the way, the Good Book is a great manual for a writer. You can learn a lot about storytelling by reading it. It explores all of the emotions that make us human, lower than the angels: love, lust, jealousy, war, sacrifice, redemption, fear, even incest. I believe most religions share the same principles, and I despair when bigots and fanatics insist that theirs is the only path to paradise.

We have to ask: Do you have any secrets to your longevity?

Yes. Live with someone you love and admire. Try to play with children whenever possible. Stay involved in the world around you, so you are not bored with yourself and don't bore others. Let the past inform your future, and try to do something special and meaningful each day. Be realistic about your diminished energies, and be grateful for those who make your life easier and happier. And, finally, don't buy any green banana