Tough Facts About Kirk Douglas, The Ragman’s Son

It only takes one look at Kirk Douglas’s chiseled face to realize he was no ordinary Old Hollywood heartthrob. Whether playing Vincent Van Gogh or Spartacus, Douglas brought an intensity to the screen that no one else could match—but the real drama started when the cameras stopped rolling. From countless adulterous affairs to chilling accusations, it’s hard to say whether Kirk Douglas was a hero or a villain.


Kirk Douglas Facts

1. He Grew Up In A Crowded House

Lots of actors like to play up their difficult childhoods, but Kirk Douglas didn’t have to pretend. Born Issur Danielovitch to Russian Jewish immigrants in Amsterdam, New York, his family and friends called him Izzy, the only boy in the house alongside his six sisters. His parents had journeyed to America to try and start a better life for themselves—but their American Dream soon proved to be a nightmare.

2. He Started At Rock Bottom

Izzy Demsky’s father had been a horse trader in Russia, but found finding new work in America all but impossible. With no other option to make ends meet, he became a “ragman”. He would collect old rags, scraps of metal, and other junk, and flip it for a meager profit. Douglas put it best: “Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town, where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son”.

Kirk Douglas genuinely started at the bottom—but poverty wasn’t his only problem.

3. His Home Life Was Chilling

Life as the ragman’s son was even worse than it appeared. Douglas’s father drank heavily, squandering his meager profits on the bottle every night. That meant back home, Izzy, his mother, and his sisters often went hungry. Unsurprisingly, when their father came home, having drank his day’s labor, he grew violent.

Douglas spent his days dreaming of ways to pull himself out of the gutter, but he did find one small source of consolation.

4. He Wanted To Be An Actor

While his life at home was miserable, Douglas excelled at school. He began appearing in plays, and the adulation he received lit a fire inside him. He realized then, as a high school student, that he wanted to become an actor. But he discovered more than a future career at Amsterdam High School. He also found his first scandalous relationship—though it would be far from his last.

5. He Had A Scandalous Lover

Kirk Douglas’s high school flame wasn’t a cheerleader or the girl next door. No, his first love was Mrs Louise Livingston, his English teacher. She took notice of him in class when he was 14, and soon he was staying after class with her to read poetry. However, if Douglas thought this was a normal student-teacher relationship, he was very mistaken.

6. She Came Onto Him

Mrs. Livingston read her poetry to her teenaged pupil, featuring lines such as “I’m in love with the janitor’s son”. Eventually, she clasped his hand under the table, holding it firm to her thigh. In his memoir, Douglas recalls feeling nervous and excited at the feeling of his hand in hers—but that couldn’t compare to what came next.

7. She Invited Him Home

Soon, Douglas and his teacher took their poetry sessions from the classroom…to Livingston’s own house. It was there that she first propositioned the teenaged Izzy Demsky. That first time, he panicked and fled, overwhelmed by the taboo of it all. If he felt that was a missed opportunity, however, he didn’t have to worry. Mrs Livingston was persistent, and soon, they were sleeping together.

8. He Never Forgot Her

Believe it or not, Douglas’s teenage relationship with his English teacher didn’t go the distance. Though they stopped sleeping together once Douglas graduated and left Amsterdam behind, they stayed in touch for the rest of her life. Once he became a star, Douglas helped support her, sending money when she needed it.

In his memoir, Douglas only remembered his old English teacher fondly—but the twisted power dynamics of that first relationship would shape Kirk Douglas’s messy love life forever.

9. He Liked Older Ladies

Young Kirk Douglas definitely had a thing for older women—or at least, they had a thing for him. One summer, he worked as a bellhop at a small hotel called the Orchard House. As the ragman’s son, Douglas was happy for any work he could get—but once he started working at the hotel, he realized he’d made a terrible mistake.

10. He Worked In A Segregated Hotel

Kirk Douglas spent most of his young life trying to hide his Jewish heritage—life was hard enough without having to face rampant anti-semitism. Case in point: The Orchard House. Soon after getting the job, Douglas learned the place was segregated, with no Jews allowed. At that point in his life, Douglas was happy to deny his heritage to get work—but that was before he met the woman who ran the place.

11. His Boss Couldn’t Resist

The Orchard House was a hotel for wealthy gentile women who wanted to get out of the city. The woman who ran the place was one such woman, and beautiful to boot. Like Mrs Livingston before her, she became infatuated with the much-younger Izzy Demsky, with his chiseled jaw and barrel chest. She just didn’t realize her hunky young bellhop was hiding a secret…

12. She Was Despicable

The woman who ran the Orchard House was a raging anti-semite, and she loved to share all of her horrible views with Douglas—completely unaware he was Jewish himself. Ironically, she claimed to Douglas that she could “spot a jew” on sight. Since she was technically Douglas’s boss, there was nothing he could do but smile and nod as she spewed her bigotry all over him—but he was just biding his time.

Kirk Douglas would get his revenge in the end.

13. She Brought Him Back To Her Room

The proprietor of the Orchard House made her intentions for Douglas clear the entire summer, but nothing actually happened until the end of the summer. Before the hotel closed for the winter season, the entire staff gathered for one last party. Once the drinks started flowing, Douglas’s boss finally got the courage to bring him back to her room.

Despite hating her, Douglas obliged—because he knew just how to get back at the woman.

14. He Got Revenge

Once again, Kirk Douglas found himself sleeping with a much older woman. This time, during the act itself, Douglas chose that exact moment to reveal his Jewish heritage to his anti-semitic boss. Perhaps it was the first time ever that Douglas used sex as a weapon—but it wouldn’t be the last.

15. He Knew How To Work

Working as a bellhop at the Orchard House was far from Kirk Douglas’s first job. The ragman’s son had needed to start working before he’d even lost his baby teeth. From selling snacks to mill workers to delivering newspapers, young Izzy Demsky took any work he could get. Before he’d even left school, he’d already held down more than 40 jobs.

But while he’d done his fair share of miserable manual labor in his life, Douglas was determined to make it as an actor.

16. He Met A Future Legend

After university, Douglas had impressed enough people to earn a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City. By now much older than his fellow classmates, he soon became close friends with another aspiring actor—a young woman named Betty Bacall, who would eventually change her first name to Lauren.

The handsome older actor entranced Bacall—but she would soon learn she was not his type.

17. She Wasn’t His Type

Bacall dreamed about getting together with Douglas, but it wasn’t meant to be. Sure, they dated casually (Douglas slept with just about every woman he came across), but she soon realized that nothing serious would ever happen between them. Instead, the pair remained friends throughout school and beyond.

But even though Douglas had made it out of Amsterdam, he was still the ragman’s son, and life remained as hard as ever.

18. He Didn’t Fit In

Most of the students at the Academy came from fairly well-to-do backgrounds, Bacall included. Douglas—still going by Izzy Demsky at this point—was from a whole different world. Bacall came to this shocking realization when she discovered that her friend had spent the previous night behind bars. He hadn’t done anything wrong, he simply had no money to his name and needed a place to sleep.

Bacall never forgot about that, and eventually helped Douglas get his foothold in show business. She also introduced him to his first wife.

19. He Fell In Love

Though Douglas wasn’t serious about having a relationship with Bacall, her friend Diana Dill was evidently another matter. Though they dated casually at first, Dill would eventually become Douglas’s first wife, giving him sons Michael and Joel Douglas. However, before they could tie the knot, Douglas had to put his life on hold.

20. He Fought For His Country

Kirk Douglas enlisted in the United States Army soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He served as a communications officer aboard the USS PC-1139, an anti-submarine warship. He served until 1944, when he was injured in a harrowing accident. While his ship laid depth charges, one of them exploded preemptively, injuring several men on board.

Douglas was one of them, and his injuries were severe enough to earn him a medical discharge. He returned to the US—where stardom awaited.

21. His First Marriage Ended

Douglas married Dill—who became Doris Douglas—in 1943 while WWII still raged. Perhaps the fear of what might happen pushed them to do it, because while they had two sons together, their marriage soon fizzled out. They split amicably in 1951, and remained friends for the rest of their lives. Maybe there was just no spark—or maybe Doris Dill realized that marriage to Kirk Douglas would be an utter nightmare.

22. He Got Into The Pictures

When he returned stateside after his discharge, Douglas started working on the New York City stage. However, he soon got a call from his old friend Betty Bacall—Lauren Bacall, by this point. She had recommended him to Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis, who was looking for new male movie stars. This got Douglas his first film role, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.

Douglas popped on screen, and critics and audiences alike took notice. Within a decade, he’d be one of the biggest movie stars on the planet.

23. He Became The Tough Guy

Kirk Douglas really arrived after his eighth movie, Champion, in 1949. For the first time, Douglas played a true, hard-nosed tough guy—the role he was born to play. His “alarmingly authentic” acting style was a stark contrast to the classic male movie stars of the period, and it defined his performances for the rest of his career. By the 1950s, Douglas was a bonafide star—and that’s when he really started to go wild.

24. No One Liked Working With Him

Though nearly everyone in America now knew his face, Douglas still saw himself as the ragman’s son, who had to fight and scrap for everything he got. Fiercely competitive as an actor, Douglas wanted to take over every picture—every scene—he was in. He quickly gained a reputation as one of the most difficult men to work with in Hollywood, but few people could argue with the results.

But even that wasn’t enough for Douglas. He still wanted more control.

25. He Took Control Of His Destiny

The studio system still dominated Hollywood when Douglas began his career—and he played a large part in changing that. Before, studios would sign actors to extremely long, extremely rigid contracts. That didn’t exactly fly with Kirk Douglas. Chafing under intense studio control, Douglas broke his studio contracts and started his own production company, Bryna Productions.

With Bryna, Douglas gained almost complete control over his own career, something completely unheard of only a few years before. But while he had a handle on his career, his personal life was still as messy as it had ever been.

26. His Son Wanted Them To Be A Family

While Douglas and his ex Diana remained close friends, it wasn’t easy on everyone in their family. Douglas once recalled a heartbreaking moment when he spent the day with Diana and their two sons. At one point, little Michael took Douglas’s hand and put it in Diana’s. He looked up at his parents and said, “Now the family is together”.

Sadly for Michael and Joel, that was only a fantasy—in fact, Douglas’s womanizing was getting worse than ever.

27. He Found A New Love

Maybe it’s not surprising, seeing as his first relationship was with his English teacher, but Kirk Douglas had…let’s say an “unhealthy” view of women. Take Italian actress Pier Angeli, Douglas’s next love after Doris Dill. Many years younger than him, Douglas fell in love with her at first sight. However, it was for all the wrong reasons…

28. His Intentions Weren’t Pure

Douglas discussed Angeli plainly in his memoir: He saw her as a perfect, young, virginal madonna—a woman whom he could mold into whatever shape he wanted. His masculine charms evidently worked on her, and soon, after a whirlwind romance, Douglas asked her to marry him. Had they actually gone through with it, who knows what “shape” Douglas would have molded Angeli into.

Lucky for her, before they got the chance to tie the knot, Douglas’s eyes started to wander…

29. He Two-Timed Her

Despite marrying one woman and proposing to another, Kirk Douglas was never a “one woman” kind of guy. So it should come as little surprise, then, that he actually started seeing his second wife…while still engaged to Angeli. Her name was Anne Buydens, and Douglas quickly realized she was not like the other women he’d been with. However, getting her into his bed wasn’t going to be as easy as it usually was.

30. He Wasn’t Used To “No”

Kirk Douglas was used to having an easy time with women. Ever since his English teacher came onto him when he was 14, Douglas usually only had to give a chiseled grin and women became putty in his hands. Well, he got a rude awakening with Anne Buydens. Enrapt with this European beauty, Douglas asked her out on a date.

He was not expecting her withering response: “No, thank you, I think I’ll go home and make myself some scrambled eggs”.

31. He Wore Her Down

Kirk Douglas was not used to rejection. He simply could not believe that this woman would turn him down—he was a gigantic movie star, after all! The scrambled eggs quip lit a fire under him, and he pursued Buydens until her no turned into a yes. But wait, wasn’t he engaged to Pier Angeli? Believe it or not, it’s even more complicated than that.

32. He Juggled Women

Once Douglas started seeing Anne Buydens for real, he had his family come visit them in Paris. There he was, with his two sons and his ex-wife—with the woman he was having an affair with. However, despite the bizarre love quadrangle that had formed, Douglas realized what he had to do. Pier Angeli was great, but Anne Buydens was the woman for him.

33. She Made A Dark Joke

Douglas rarely waited long when he knew what he wanted. He broke things off with Angeli, proposed to Buydens, and by 1954, they married. However, perhaps Buydens still had some doubts about her new movie star of a husband—when she said her vows, she called him her “awfully wedded husband”. Maybe she was just making a little joke—or maybe she had a feeling about the dark days ahead.

34. He Lost It All

Obviously, Kirk Douglas was a famous movie star, so his new wife assumed that she was marrying a rich man. However, when Buydens traveled to the US with her new hubby for the first time, she made a shocking discovery: Kirk Douglas was flat broke. After growing up in crippling poverty, he naturally hired a financial manager to oversee his wealth. Unfortunately, he had put his trust in the wrong man…

35. She Held The Purse Strings

Douglas was just as surprised as Buydens to learn he’d blown through all of his money. However, his savior had arrived: Anne’s father had been a businessman, and he’d taught her a thing or two. Buydens immediately took control over her husband’s finances, and her smart investments quickly had him in the black.

The couple soon had two more sons, and within just a few years of marrying, it appeared like they had achieved perfect marital bliss. However, behind closed doors, no one would call this union “perfect”.

36. He Slept With The Biggest Stars

Kirk Douglas had spent his entire life jumping from one woman to another, married or not. He adored Anne Buydens, but not even she could hide that. Hollywood in the 1950s was a debauched haven for free love, and Kirk Douglas was at the center of it. One of his most famous conquests was legendary bombshell Rita Hayworth—though Douglas admitted he found her quite “boring”.

“Boring” was better than his affair with Patricia Neal, at least.

37. He Made Her Cry

It seems as though everyone slept with everyone in 1950s Hollywood—but it was easier for some than others. Douglas, for instance, took to the free-love lifestyle like a fish to water. It wasn’t quite so easy for Patricia Neal. They started dating while filming a movie together with Gary Cooper.

Douglas remembers how she would cry when they got together…because she was also dating Gary Cooper at the same time. In the end, Neal ended up marrying Roald Dahl—and thankfully avoided being the worst hook-up of Kirk Douglas’s life. That honor went to Joan Crawford.

38. He Bedded Another Star

Kirk Douglas could spill the tea with the best of them, and his memoir contains detailed accounts of his dalliances—and he didn’t pull any punches when it came to Joan Crawford. The pair of them went out once, and later retired to Crawford’s house. Crawford’s dress hit the floor almost as soon as the front door closed—but Douglas had no clue what he was in for.

39. He Didn’t Hold Back

For lack of a better word, Kirk Douglas absolutely dragged Joan Crawford in his memoir (she had passed by the time of its publication). From the way she creepily whispered to him about how “clean” he was, to her bizarre comment about his shaved armpits (he didn’t shave his armpits), to her horrible breath, Douglas bared it all. Unsurprisingly, once he got out of there, he did not agree to a second date.

40. He Was Completely Open

Douglas slept around while married to Doris Dill, and he continued doing so after he tied the knot with Anne Buydens. However, he and Buydens remained married for the rest of their lives. What gives? Well, this couple kept a shocking secret: Buydens knew about Douglas’s affairs.

She once explained, “As a European, I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage”. It was unconventional, but hey, it worked. Douglas wasn’t the only one who had suitors, though.

41. His Wife Had Exes Too

Anne Buydens had been with plenty of men before she married Kirk Douglas, and one of them came back to haunt her. One day, she got together for what she thought was a friendly dinner with a former lover. She was in for a terrifying surprise. Her ex quickly grew hysterical and begged her to leave Douglas and return to him.

When Buydens made it clear that wasn’t happening, the evening took a disturbing turn.

42. He Went Crazy

When Buydens rebuffed her ex, he flung himself on the windowsill and threatened to jump. Panicked now, Buydens tried to talk him off the ledge—but that only made things worse. Her lover’s despair turned to rage, and he violently grabbed her, pushing a lit cigarette into her face. In his delirium, he planned to ruin her face so Douglas would no longer be attracted to her.

Thankfully, Buydens escaped the room and fled, terrified, back to Douglas. That day, he promised he would protect her for the rest of his life—a promise he actually managed to keep. However, it ended up being Buydens who saved Douglas’s life just a few years later.

43. She Saved His Life

Kirk Douglas would have met a horrible end if not for his wife. In 1958, director Mike Todd invited Douglas to fly with him on his private plane to New York City. Douglas ran the idea by Buydens, and she begged him not to go. She hated private planes to begin with, and claimed she had a “strange feeling” about this particular trip. Douglas was determined to go, and the discussion turned into a fiery argument.

Buydens won in the end—and Todd’s plane went down, leaving no survivors. I doubt she ever let him forget that one.

44. The Blacklist Hung Over Hollywood

When he wasn’t busy sleeping with starlets, Kirk Douglas still managed to find time to change Hollywood forever. For over a decade, the Hollywood blacklist had cast a shadow over Tinsel Town. The studios banded together to ban anyone with “Communist sympathies” from working, and countless actors, directors, and writers lived in fear that they might end up blacklisted as well.

Then Kirk Douglas and a little movie called Spartacus came around.

45. He Risked It All

Kirk Douglas hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write Spartacus (in a bathtub, no less!). This kind of thing had happened before, but here was the difference: Kirk Douglas was outside the studio system, so he actually credited Trumbo with the screenplay. This was the first time anyone had broken the blacklist.

The move scandalized studios, who prayed that Americans would avoid a film written by a communist sympathizer. That’s not what happened.

46. He Broke The Blacklist

A massive success, Spartacus became Universal Studios’ highest-grossing film ever, winning four Academy Awards in the process. The blacklist had already been hanging by a thread, and such an undeniable hit broke the dam—the blacklist was no more. Spartacus became the defining moment of Douglas’s legacy, and breaking the blacklist was undeniably a pivotal moment in Hollywood history.

Though Douglas went on to appear in many more films, none could truly match Spartacus’s impact.

47. He Lost His Speech

Kirk Douglas remained a movie star well into his late life, but that ended forever in 1996, when he suffered a crippling stroke that left him unable to speak. Though he fought to regain his speech and valiantly returned to making movies, his days as a star were officially over. The effects of the stroke affected him for the rest of his life—but that was nothing compared to the pain he endured in 2004.

48. He Lost His Son

In 2004, Kirk and Anne had confronted their son Eric about his addiction and sent him to a rehab center—though, according to Douglas, they had tried putting him in rehab more than 20 times already and nothing had worked. Tragically, this time didn’t work either: Eric succumbed to an overdose mere weeks later.

49. He Lived Over A Century

The rest of Douglas’s sons outlived him, though he gave them all a run for their money: He lived to the ripe old age of 103. His wife Anne was there with him at the end, and she followed him just over a year later. Both of them were interred at Westwood Village Memorial Park, right next to their son Eric.

Kirk Douglas had passed as truly Hollywood royalty—but like all royalty, he kept secrets that couldn’t stay buried forever.

50. A Woman Disappeared

A shocking crime rocked the production of one of Kirk Douglas’s early movies. Jean Spangler, an aspiring actress and extra in Douglas’s 1950 film Young Man with a Horn, disappeared soon after shooting wrapped. Authorities began their search, but the only trace they could find of Spangler was her purse, found near the entrance to Griffith Park.

Inside the purse, doctors found a note that changed the entire case.

51. She Left A Note

There was initially no reason to assume foul play in Spangler’s disappearance—until authorities found the note: “Kirk, Can’t wait any longer, Going to see Dr. Scott. It will work best this way while mother is away”. It turned out, Spangler was three months pregnant at the time of her disappearance…and hadn’t she just worked with a famous womanizer named Kirk?

52. HE Called THEM

Though the authorities had not yet questioned Douglas, he actually called the station himself to state that he was not the Kirk mentioned in the note. Though investigators could find no one else named Kirk who had any connection to Spangler whatsoever, they believed his story and investigated no further. Eventually, they closed the case, and it remains unsolved to this day.

Kirk Douglas went on to have a fabulous career, and Spangler’s disappearance ended up as little more than a minor bump in the road. But that’s not the only young actress who may have ended up on Douglas’s dark side…

53. He Knew Natalie Wood

In his memoir, Kirk Douglas briefly recalls meeting a pretty young girl in a suede jacket, who asked him for an autograph. That young fan was none other than tragic actress Natalie Wood. She doesn’t appear again in the book—perhaps because Douglas was hiding his most disturbing secret from the world. In 1955, when she was 16 years old, a man viciously assaulted Wood during an audition.

Allegedly, her assailant told her, “If you tell anyone, it’ll be the last thing you do”.

54. Her Sister Said It Was Him

Like so many horrible attacks like it, Wood kept that night a secret for the rest of her life. It remained unknown until her 2001 biography hit shelves, but the book didn’t reveal the identity of the assailant. Several years later, an anonymous blog post pointed the finger at Kirk Douglas, but it attracted little attention. However, in 2021, not long after Douglas’s passing, Natalie Wood’s younger sister publicly accused Douglas of the attack.

55. He Left A Complicated Legacy

The truth about what happened that night in 1955 will likely never come to light, but it is now an inextricable part of an incredibly complicated man’s history. Kirk Douglas ended the Hollywood blacklist and donated almost his entire fortune to charity. He was also one of show business’s most notorious lotharios and ended up wrapped up in some of Tinsel Town’s darkest crimes.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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