In my decades-long career as a feature writer for the News-Press, I have interviewed numerous celebrities.
The late Kirk Douglas was among them, the first time in July 2000 and the second in August 2012 to celebrate his 95th birthday. Both interviews were at the inviting Montecito home he and his wife, Anne Douglas, who died April 29, lived in when they weren’t in Los Angeles.
In fact, my first story had the headline: “At home with the Douglases: Home and family are what matter to this celebrity couple.”
I immediately found them refreshingly unpretentious despite their sophisticated surroundings and urbane lifestyle.
“You want to know what the three most expensive words are in the English language?” asked Mr. Douglas in my article as he and Anne relaxed in their weekend home on a quiet Montecito lane. “The words are ‘might as well.’
“We moved here a year and a half ago, thinking we didn’t have to do one thing. Then someone suggested we knock out a wall. We thought if we were going to do that, we might as well make another change. We have been working on the ‘might-as-wells’ for a year, and we figure we have another year to go.”
While seated in their spacious pumpkin-colored living room with its abstract art and unique accessories collected during their worldwide travels, the couple said they were looking forward to having meatloaf and mashed potatoes for dinner while watching the Los Angeles Lakers game.
When I mentioned that my favorite meatloaf recipe was from the Betty Crocker Cookbook I received for a bridal shower gift in 1958, Mrs. Douglas presented me with a copy of her recipe for meatloaf after the interview.
They were also more interested in discussing the Anne and Kirk Douglas Foundation and its projects than Mr. Douglas’s illustrious film career. The previous February the couple were invited to the dedication of Kirk Douglas High School in San Fernando Valley, which helps children who are at risk of dropping out.
The Douglases were equally passionate about other projects the foundation funds, including the Los Angeles Mission for the Homeless, Anne Douglas Center for Women and the Anne and Kirk Douglas Playground Enhancement Award Program in Los Angeles.
“I read about the deplorable conditions in the Los Angeles Times,” said Mrs. Douglas. “So far, 98 playgrounds have been redone, and our goal is 400. . . . It’s purely selfish on our part because we want to see the children’s faces. It’s so rewarding. They take our hands and say, ‘Thank you.’ ”
The couple also endowed four playgrounds in Israel, one in honor of the Oklahoma City bombing victims and another that is shared by Arab and Jewish children in Jerusalem.
Soon after Mrs. Douglas began the project, her husband asked what he could do to help.
“Do you know what she said? ‘Get a job. We need the money,’ ” laughed Mr. Douglas, who got an inkling of his wife’s devilish humor before they were married in 1954 when she and director Anatole Litvak gave him a surprise party.
“We invited every woman he had known — known in the Biblical sense — in Paris before we met,” said Mrs. Douglas. “After the third or fourth woman went through the receiving line, Kirk realized what was happening. It was a fun party.”
She told me about meeting the actor in Paris when he was making a movie and she, who was born in Germany and lived in Belgium as a child, was working in Paris handling public relations for movies.
“I was in demand because I was multilingual,” she said in my News-Press article. “I came to Hollywood for the movie premiere. I had always dreamed of coming to Hollywood.”
A romance developed, and after Mrs. Douglas returned to Paris, Mr. Douglas invited her to come back to Los Angeles for a visit.
“He wrote the word ‘VISIT’ in capital letters and underlined it several times,” said Mrs. Douglas, who, according to the article, “agreed to join him for a three-week VISIT (underlined several times) but had already decided that if he didn’t propose before she left, the relationship was over.”
One week before her departure, Mr. Douglas popped the question.
“We got married in Las Vegas. Where else?” roared Mrs. Douglas. “I picked him up at the studio at 6 p.m. We flew to Las Vegas, got married at 9 p.m., stayed overnight and flew back to Los Angeles so he could be at the studio the next morning.”
Even worse, Mrs. Douglas had to return to Paris and arrange for a visa to re-enter the United States. It took one month to get the papers processed.
Despite the rocky start, the Douglases’ marriage endured for more than half a century in a milieu where long happy marriages are a rarity.
The couple considered Mr. Douglas’ first wife, Diana Darrid, as family.
“Diana and I are best friends,” said Mrs. Douglas. “We play tennis together. We talk once or twice a month on the phone, and we have dinner with her and her husband. Kirk and I call her our first wife because we like her so much.”
Asked about the secret of their successful relationship, Mrs. Douglas said, “I believe it was Sam Goldwyn who said, ‘You have to take the bitter with the sour.’”
Then she added, “Basically, we talk a lot. We like to be by ourselves. I don’t interfere with his creative pursuits, and he lets me take care of all the business. … We respect each other’s abilities. He plays golf, and I play tennis.”
Fast forward to 2012 and another interview I had at the Douglas home to talk about his 95th birthday. The News-Press story on Aug. 5 was headlined, “Young at heart: For actor/author Kirk Douglas, 95, age is just a number.”
After greeting me warmly, Mrs. Douglas retreated to another part of their home, but she was very much a presence in the story, which began:
Ever since Kirk Douglas had a stroke in 1995, he has had some trouble with his speech, a minor disability he sometimes used as a ruse when he would rather stay home than accompany his wife, Anne, to a social event in the evening.
“I would say to her, ‘I don’t think I’ll be able to talk.’ Do you know what she said to me? ‘If they put a mic in front of you, you will talk,’ ” said the famous actor, producer and writer, laughing uproariously at the response he learned to expect from his spouse who was never known to coddle him during their long, happy marriage. (In 2012, they had been married almost 60 years.)
During my interview with him, the white-haired iconic movie star was eager to discuss his latest book, “I Am Spartacus! Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist,” a memoir about his experiences as producer and star of the classic epic that was made during the Joseph McCarthy era when Hollywood moguls refused to hire anyone accused of Communist sympathies.
Mr. Douglas paid tribute to his wife who “compiled an extraordinary scrapbook, which contained a treasure trove of contemporary media coverage of the making of ‘Spartacus’ from pre-production through release of the film.
Typical of his wife’s wry wit was the photo at the end of the book that shows the couple with two coffee mugs. His said, “I am Spartacus,” and hers said, “No, I am Spartacus.’”
When asked what he thought was the secret of their long, happy marriage, Mr. Douglas’s immediate response was, “Communication. We have the golden hour every day — cocktails in front of the fireplace and we talk. … Too many people lose the talent of talking when they get married.
“They need to express their differences and respect each other for these differences. … When you marry, never lose your individuality.”
Mr. Douglas said that over the years, he learned to heed his wife’s advice, ever since the day his good friend, producer Mike Todd, then married to actress Elizabeth Taylor, was killed in a plane crash while flying to New York City on his private plane.
“I was supposed to be on that flight … Only Anne’s near-mystical insistence that I shouldn’t make the trip kept me from going. We fought about it bitterly.”
Recalling the tragedy during the interview, Mr. Douglas said, “Now, I listen to my wife, and I obey. I think she has a special antenna.”