It Runs in the Family: “Michael Douglas: A Biography” by Marc Eliot

Acclaimed biographer Marc Eliot has had an enduring and expansive career. He has the penned the stories of the greats, including Ronald Reagan, Walt Disney, Carry Grant, Clint Eastwood, and Jimmy Stewart. Most recently, he immortalized actor Michael Douglas' story. Below is an excerpt from "Michael Douglas: A Biography." For further reading, be sure to check out the Q&A we posted earlier this year.

"Michael Douglas: A Biography" by Marc Eliot

Chapter 1

As an actor, it was really intimidating watching my father because his personality, his presence was so strong and so dynamic that, forget acting, you just didn’t even know how to be a man.

--Michael Douglas

Michael K. Douglas inherited more than his famous father’s dirty blond hair and familiar face. He inherited his freedom. Kirk, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, was born in Amsterdam, New York. Herschel Danielovitch, a tailor, had fled Moscow in 1908 for Belarus, like so many Jews did under the threat of endless Cossack-led pogroms and conscription that forced them to fight for the tsar in the Russo-Japanese War. Two years later, taking his girlfriend, Bryna Sanglel, a baker, with him, he left Belarus in 1910 bound for America’s promise of safety and rebirth. They passed through Ellis Island, the gateway to the New World, and settled in upstate New York, where that same year they married and started a family.

By 1924 they had seven children, six girls and one boy: Pesha (born 1910), Kaleh (1912), Tamara (1914), Issur (1916), twins Hashka and Siffra (1918), and Rachel (1924). Issur would later change his name from Issur Danielovitch to the more American (and less Jewish) Kirk Douglas.

Herschel was not a warm man. He liked to eat by himself in restaurants, or alone late at night at the kitchen table when everyone else was already in bed. When not plying his rag trade on the streets of Amsterdam, he would spend hours in town, drinking at the local saloon.

Occasionally he would take Issur with him on the rag route, to show him how much hard work it took to put food on the family table. Issur was a quick learner but not especially ambitious. To help feed the family he preferred to break into neighbors’ houses and steal food from their kitchens.

Sometimes, to supplement what he earned from the rag business, Herschel sold fruits and vegetables off a cart. Issur used to steal from him, too, and then bring the food home to the family. Sometimes he would keep a potato or two for himself and roast them in the basement, until one time he “accidentally” burned the house down. As Kirk recalls in his memoirs, “I have always suspected that this was . . . subconscious arson. I really wanted to destroy the whole house. There was an awful lot of rage churning around inside me . . . my mother was always saying, ‘Don’t be like your father. . . .’ That made me angry. Who should I be like? My mother? My sisters?”

Herschel was a bad drinker, and since the only other person in the house who wasn’t female was Issur, he received the brunt of his father’s frustrations via regular beatings. If he angered Issur to the point where he wanted to burn down the house, he also managed to toughen him up, and it was that intense combination of anger and toughness, along with his blond Russian good looks, that would one day help make the boy an international movie star.

Despite the New World dreams of Herschel the refugee, being a Jew was not so easy in America. Anywhere outside the protective environs of New York City’s Lower East Side was considered dangerous turf. For Issur, living in Amsterdam surrounded by Christians necessarily kept him a loner, and as a result, he turned increasingly inward and let his mind take him where his body couldn’t.

As soon as he graduated from high school, Issur tried to save some money to make a planned getaway. He got a job in the local M. Lurie department store, where he quickly devised a scheme to steal cash by altering the receipts.

While becoming an increasingly clever sneak thief, Issur accidentally discovered another way to act out his inner frustrations when he tried out for the role of Tony Cavendish in a small community theater production of The Royal Family, a popular and successful Broadway play that parodied the Barrymore family. He was curious about what all those people in that little building were up to, so he walked in one night and was handed a script. After he read, he was offered a part and said yes. It turned out to be a fun experience for him, but a limited one with very little in the way of monetary rewards. He then went back to working and stealing until, after another year had passed, his sisters convinced him to take his life savings, about $200, travel north to the town of Canton, and try to enroll in St. Lawrence University, a college education being his best chance to make a better life for himself.

The night before he left, he said good-bye to his father, who handed him some bread rubbed with garlic and slices of herring, wished the boy good luck, and went to bed.

Once at St. Lawrence, Issur felt deep pangs of homesickness, loneliness, and hunger. And there was never enough food to sate him. As a result, he was constantly grubbing food from his friends at the dorm and scrounging off their trays in the cafeteria, until one angry matron loudly dressed him down and humiliated him in front of all the other boys.