Kirk Douglas: How amorous English teacher made a man out of me

7 min

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Countdown blunder: Rachel Riley's huge mistake after replacing Carol Vorderman exposed

Born into poverty, the star tells how his teen passion for an older woman inspired him (Image: Getty)

I would have been run out of town if I had ever admitted to liking poetry or said out loud, “I want to be a great actor.” Because of her, I sent away for college and drama school catalogues and saved every penny so I could get there. Mrs Livingston was cool and detached when she walked into the classroom. She never raised her well-modulated voice. Emotion crept in only when she read poetry. She thought I was wonderful. She encouraged me and kept me after school. What a sparkle came into her eyes as she read poem after poem with me sitting by her side. “Oh, I’m in love with the janitor’s boy/And the janitor’s boy loves me.”

Countdown blunder: Rachel Riley's huge mistake after replacing Carol Vorderman exposed

Kirk puts his success down to his teacher (Image: Getty)

Her hand reached under the desk and clutched my hand close to her thigh.

I hoped she couldn’t hear my heart. It was beating so loud.

And my hand touching her thigh was so sweaty. I hoped it didn’t rub off on her thin silk dress.

I tried to draw it away, slowly, but she held it more tightly, as she went on in a reverie.

She asked me to come by and help her with some English papers one evening.

She lived in what I thought then was a spacious room on the top floor of a three­-storey home that had been converted into a boarding house.

That first night, I was sitting on the bed – she kissed me.

My lips felt so hot, I thought they would burst into flames.

She held me and wanted to do more, but I was too frightened, just a fumbling schoolboy of 14.

I had never had sex. But this was real. My heart pounding hard, I ran out of the room before I had pierced any mysteries.

I was angry with myself. Why hadn’t I done it? I wanted to.

Why was I afraid? I was sure she would never invite me back again.

But she did, many times, and our relationship endured.

We saw each other less and the letters became fewer as we grew older and I travelled to different countries making movies.

I helped take care of her until she died.

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Kirk spoke on his love affair with his school teacher (Image: Getty)

FOR a very long time I was a nobody.

Being a “nobody” meant being the son of illiterate Russian Jewish immigrants in the town of Amsterdam, New York, 28 miles north west of Albany.

It meant living on the opposite side of town from the rich people on Market Hill in a run­ down, two-story, gray clapboard house, the last house at the bottom of a sloping street, next to the factories, the railroad tracks, and the Mohawk River.

My father, Herschel Danielovitch, was born in Moscow around 1884, and fled Russia around 1908 to escape being drafted into the army.

My mother, Bryna Sanglel, from a family of Ukrainian farmers, stayed and worked in a bakery to earn enough money to come to America two years later.

My mother and father were happy to escape the pogroms of Russia, where young Cossacks, exhilarated by vodka, considered it a sport to gallop through the ghetto and split open a few Jewish heads.

My mother saw one of her brothers get killed on the street in front of her this way.

Somehow, Herschel and Bryna ended up in Amsterdam, New York, and proceeded to have children. In 1910, 1912, and 1914, my sisters Pesha, Kaleh and Tamara were born.

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Kirk was most known for his role as Spartacus (Image: Getty)

Then me, Issur, in 1916. Then three more girls: twins Hashka and Siffra in 1918, and finally, Rachel in 1924, when my mother was 40.

I think of my life like a stone thrown into a calm pool.

The first ripples are the security of the kitchen. I remember wonderful moments of tranquillity in the kitchen, always a refuge and a haven for me: my three older sisters at school, the three younger ones asleep, or not born yet.

Eventually, I had to leave the kitchen.

There were moments of adventure in the early morning, when I ran all the way down to the front gate, with just a little shirt on, bare­ assed.

My mother would come running after me and scoop me up and bring me back in.

I remember my first day at school, that first real trip away from home. I stumbled not far from the house and fell into a puddle.

I had to go back, bawling, change my clothes, and start off for school again.

When I went to school I was no longer Issur Danielovitch.

By now, everyone in town knew us as “Demsky”.

My father was Harry. My mother went from Bryna to Bertha. My sisters all had American names, too. My new name was Isadore, which I have always hated. The nickname was worse: Izzy.

My father, who had been a horse trader in Russia, got himself a horse and a small wagon, and became a ragman, buying old rags, pieces of metal, and junk for pennies, nick­els and dimes.

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Kirk nearly drowned as a child (Image: Getty)



Even 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.

Many times, as I was walking home from school, I’d see him riding along on his wagon filled with junk and rags. I’d race ahead, jump up on the back of the wagon.

I wanted so much to let him know that I wasn’t ashamed of him. I wanted so much to let him know how much I loved him.

My father was a big drinker, spent most of his time in saloons, much of it in fights.

There were stories: that he popped metal bottlecaps and crushed shot glasses with his teeth; that he would go from saloon to saloon with an iron bar, betting for drinks that he could bend it with his bare hands, and doing it; that nobody could beat him at arm wrestling.

He was probably the toughest, strongest Jew in our town.

It’s tough enough to be a Jew, but it was very tough in Amsterdam.

There were constant reminders.

No Jews worked in the carpet mills.

No Jews worked on the local newspaper.

No Jewish boys delivered the newspaper.

Kids on every street corner beat you up.

But my father was not exactly a good provider and food was always a problem in our house.

I have a picture of our little icebox: the pan underneath to catch the dripping water was usually dry – no money to buy ice. But it didn’t matter, because usually there wasn’t anything in it.

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Kirk met his wife on set for one of his films (Image: Getty)

I stole food. I reached under a neighbour’s chicken for the warm egg, cracked it open, swallowed it raw in secret.

I worked, earning money at whatever a child could do: I ran errands, bought candy and soda pop for the workers at the mill next to our house.

I thought I was lucky when I found a few coins in a kitchen cabinet.

I ran up the street and bought an ice cream cone – one for me, and one for every kid who came into the store, until the money was all gone.

My father kicked the **** out of me.

When I was about eight, they were building another mill near my house. A huge, deep trench was dug for the foundation. A pipe broke, filling it with water.

One Saturday, wearing my best clothes I tried to walk across the trench on a pole, slipped, and fell in.

The other kids ran away.

The water was well over my head. I was drowning.

Suddenly there was my friend “Wolfie”, Wilfred Churchett, who couldn’t even swim, rushing toward me.

He pulled me out and brought me home crying and soaking wet. Wolfie was amazed that I sent him money regularly for many years afterwards.

If he hadn’t pulled me out of that ditch, I would have been just the little boy of a large family that died years ago.

Countdown blunder: Rachel Riley's huge mistake after replacing Carol Vorderman exposed

Kirk met his wife and stayed with her until he passed (Image: Getty)

Countdown blunder: Rachel Riley's huge mistake after replacing Carol Vorderman exposed

Kirk had a troublesome childhood before he met his beautiful wife (Image: Getty)

Sometimes my father sold fruit and vegetables in baskets.

Once he had a pile of new baskets stacked against the wall of the house.

Matches in hand, I went around burning up little scraps of paper in the yard. One ignited the baskets.

They erupted into flames; the whole side of the house started burning. I have always suspected that this was not an accident on my part, but subconscious arson.

I really wanted to destroy the whole house. There was an awful lot of rage ­churning around inside me, rage that I was afraid to reveal because there was so much more of it.

On winter evenings, I would lean on the fence in front of the house, chin resting on top. It was nice to get away from all the hubbub inside.

Leaning there, my face stiff with cold, I would dream. When I grew up, where would I be? What would I be?

Little Issur has never left me. Sometimes I catch glimpses of him scurrying around.

He wears a little shirt and his ass is bare. His face is dirty and smudged by tears.

Often, I tried to kill him, but he never dies. I hate him – and yet sometimes I love him, because he has never deserted me.

FALLING HOPELESSLY IN love and How I beat The bigots: PAGES 18 & 19 

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