“One day you will write about me,” he said, peering seriously at me over his glasses, “just make sure no one knows I’m a nice guy.”
“Don’t worry, no one would believe me if I tried.” I replied. His eyes crinkled as he threw his head back and laughed.
Kirk Douglas was an icon, a Hollywood legend, and my boss for 16 years. To me, he was Mr. Douglas, or Mr. as I called him. During my time with him I learned a tremendous amount, about him, and through him, about life.
He was a writer. Not by choice, as he told me numerous times, but because after his stroke he needed something creative to do. His wife told him to start writing and he did. Prior to his stroke he had written several books and many articles, but after, he wrote every single day: poetry, letters to family and friends, articles, blogs, books, plays. He loved being creative, he loved the process of writing, editing, rewriting. He would come into the office with pages and pages of notes, sitting with me as we went through them together, often times leaving them for me to decipher and fax him the results (yes, we still used a fax machine). He would sometimes ask, “Can you read my writing?” I would reply that I could, he would nod his head, slightly impressed and go back home.
We began this process when I first started my job. He was in the middle of writing his 4th memoir, Let’s Face It. I was a week into being his assistant. For the first few days he would amble into the office with his notes dictating as I typed his thoughts into the computer. That Friday, after completing my first week, I asked him, “Can I read this? I’m typing but I don’t know what this is about.” “Of course!” he replied. Before I left work that day I printed out the book, spent my weekend in a coffee shop and read the draft. When I was done I summarized my thoughts. On Monday, I nervously handed them over to him, afraid I had been too honest in my assessment. He sat, carefully reading my notes. When he was done, he took off his glasses turned to me and said, “You know what, you’re right.” From then on we worked together – he would tell me thoughts and ideas, I would write them down and talk to him, getting a different perspective on his memories. Whenever we disagreed, and I would get visibly frustrated he would say, “You have a right to your opinion and I have mine. I will listen to you but I don’t always have to agree with you.” Over the years, I learned the importance of that statement, you can value opinions, and criticism, but you don’t have to bend to every critique. At the end of the day, it’s your decision and that is the most important.
He was funny. He loved a good joke, and often times a bad one. He loved to laugh, and that laugh was infectious. He would throw his head back, close his eyes and laugh from deep inside his belly. Sometimes banging his cane on the ground for emphasis.
He enjoyed teasing his staff, giving each of us imaginary fines of $5 or $10 for not paying enough attention to him. He often would serenade us or recite poetry, originals and famous pieces he had learned in his youth. His love of literature, particularly poetry, was extensive and his memory had not diminished with his age or his stroke. Occasionally he would dress up as a clown when he felt the mood needed to be lifted.
In 2008 he performed a one-man show that he had written, Before I forget. Before we opened, Mr. asked a few close friends to come to a rehearsal to give notes. One friend was the writer Larry Gelbart. After rehearsal, Larry asked for a ride home. Mr. said, “Ask Grace, she drove us.” I agreed but warned him my car was not something he was used to. At the time, I drove a 2001 Kia Rio that my uncle had given me. It lacked air conditioning and power anything. I used to call it my Fred Flintstone car. Mr. Douglas had a Mercedes and a Lexus but I was too scared to drive either so we would go to all appointments in my Kia, the windows rolled down for fresh air. After the rehearsal, Larry climbed into the car and we drove in silence. Finally, Mr. said, “I bet it’s been a long time since you drove in a car like this.” Larry exclaimed, “I love it! It reminds me of my first car.”
“Me too!” Mr. giggled. Then, “Grace, show him how we make a/c!” I asked them to roll down all the windows and then I sped down a hill as fast as I could. “Whee!” he cried, the wind blowing our hair. After we dropped Larry off, Mr. Douglas turned to me and said, “You won’t always drive a car like this. Never forget where you came from.”
Sure enough, a year later I bought a new car, Mr. slipping me extra money every now and then to help pay it off.
He was kind. “Are you dating anyone?” He asked me one day, out of the blue.
“Yes,” I responded.
“Tell me about him.”
“Well, he’s a principal of an elementary school… I don’t know that much about him, we just went on a few dates.”
“He sounds like a nice guy.”
“Yeah, I think I may break up with him.”
“He’s too nice.”
He looked at me sternly, put his hand on my knee and said, “Don’t be an idiot. Keep dating him.” And I did. Weeks later, he asked me, “Are you still dating that guy?”
“Yes,” I responded, “You were right. He’s pretty great. I really like him.”
“I want to meet him.” Kirk Douglas wanted to meet my new boyfriend, um…no thanks. Another week went by, “I want to meet the guy you’re dating.”
“Oh, that’s okay, don’t worry about it,” I said. Another week went by.
“We are having dinner, at my house on Saturday, in the den. Talk to my wife. She is arranging everything.” This time there was no ignoring it. I brought my new boyfriend, Chris, to my boss’s house, there was Mrs. Douglas, and Mr.’s best friend, Jeff Kanew, They peppered Chris with questions, he answered them, I went from being nervous to incredibly proud of the man I was seeing. That Monday when I returned to work, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas declared him “charming” and “a good man.” I agreed.
A year later, I lost my mother to a brief but painful battle with lung cancer. Mrs. Douglas allowed me to go home to be with her, and keep my job, checking in on me with great regularity to make sure that I was okay. After she died I returned to Los Angeles. My first day back, Mr. called me at the office, “Come over, we want you to have lunch.” I walked over to the house, happy to see them again. After lunch, Mr. Douglas and I went to his room to work,
“How are you?” He asked. I shook my head and shrugged, too sad to answer.
He nodded his head in understanding. “My mother told me before she died, ‘don’t worry, it happens to everyone’.”
“I know,” I said, “I just don’t know what I’ll do without her.”
He looked at me and grinned, “Don’t worry, you have me. I’ll take care of you.” And then he sang, “If you are ever in a jam, here I am!”
He would often say, in his sweet, grandfatherly way “as long as I’m here I’ll take care of you.” And that was what I needed to hear, to know that there was someone in my corner after such a devastating loss. Later, when I married my too nice boyfriend, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas gave a toast at our wedding and, were the first few people to hold our babies after they were born. I don’t know if I would have my wonderful family without them. It is easy to let go of life after a shattering loss but, there will always be someone there to pick you up. Sometimes, they will even sing it.
He was incredibly smart. “I don’t know is a very good answer!” he bellowed at me. I learned that the hard way. One day, Mr.’s publicist sent over an interview request. When I showed it to him, he asked, “Have you ever heard of this magazine? Is this something you think I should do?” I hadn’t, and I didn’t know. So, as a recent college graduate, I did what I knew best – I bluffed. “Yeah, I think it is, I mean it could be a good thing for you, it looks like,” I rustled through some papers, “it could be beneficial.” He looked at me sternly and said, “Sometimes the best answer is I don’t know. If you don’t know something it’s okay to say you don’t. People will respect you more if you are honest with them. Just say ‘I don’t know’ and look it up!” From that day on, I did. And I still do. In school, I was taught that if I didn’t know, the answer the best thing to do was to fake it until I did. That’s what the smart people did. And that, is stupid.
He was spiritual. “Don’t be too religious!” he would always say after we would talk about Judaism (his religion) or Catholicism (mine). Mr. believed in God and loved his Jewish roots but was open to who God was and where He resided. Many times he would ask me, “Do you believe in God?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Do you really think there’s a heaven and a hell?” he asked.
“Yes,” I paused, “but I don’t know if it’s so clear as a space up above and a firey pit down below. But I believe it exists. What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” he shrugged, “I think God is there,” he pointed to the freshly cut yellow roses on his desk and gestured to the garden outside of his window. “I think God is in nature.”
“And what do you think happens when you die?” I asked.
Again he shrugged, “Nothing.”
Through the years we had many conversations about God, death, and dying. He would always end with the same phrase, “don’t be too religious.” Now, I understand. Ultimately, we don’t know what will happen to us, what God is or where we will end up. To hold too firmly to any one gospel is to not understand God’s full impact. And, like Mr. always used to say, “I don’t know is a very good answer”.
He loved his wife. Unconditionally. Often when we were driving we would talk about the weather, the traffic – small talk. Occasionally he would recite poetry. I remember one afternoon as I drove him to a doctor’s appointment he turned to me and said, “A man is only as good as the woman he marries.”
“Does that apply to women?” I asked, “Is a woman only as good as the man she marries?”
He shook his head, “No, men need help. You can tell a lot about a man by the woman he chooses as his wife.” He spoke from experience, he chose an exceptional woman, Anne. Their love story has been well documented, primarily by Mr.
Anne took care of him – she saved his life (literally), took care of the children, established their wealth, ran his business. She inspired him and challenged him, everything you would want a spouse to do, she did for him. And he loved and respected her for it. He would often tell me how much he regretted not truly appreciating her until he was much older, as he used to say, “Romance begins at 80.”
Falling in love is a beautiful, powerful thing. Choosing someone to be your partner is one of the hardest decisions you can make, because that person will shape who you will become. If you are lucky they will change you for the better, if you are extremely lucky, you will live long enough to truly appreciate how fortunate you are to be with them.
He was my mentor. “Do you have a mentor?” he asked me while we were going over his notes one afternoon. I thought about it, “No,” I finally said. “Of course you do,” he said, slightly annoyed, “Me!”
Kirk Douglas taught me how to edit a book, how to handle publicity, how to produce a play and later a film. When I first started, he would climb up the stairs to my office, throw open the door and sit at a chair next to my desk as we worked. As he grew older, he could no longer make it up the stairs so I went to his house and worked with him in his room. Towards the end, he only had the strength to work for a few minutes. He would always start our sessions with the same question, “How is your baby?” From the day she was born, I would bring her to their house, a few times a month, to say hello to Mr. and Mrs., the nurses and house-staff thoughtfully setting out toys. Once we had a dance party to Bruno Mars. While my little girl danced in the middle, Mr. and Mrs. Douglas swayed in their wheelchairs shaking tambourines and maracas with their nurses as she danced and laughed. I will never forget that. The joy he had in children. “You know,” he said to me, “to be an actor is to be a little bit childlike. You never really grow up.”
I would take that one step further, Mr. Douglas taught me that to be an artist is to constantly create, trying again and again even when the only answer you hear is no. To never be satisfied with what you have done because the desire to do more is always within. But, the most important thing he taught me was to be a good person, a kind person, who is curious about life, about people, about love. Always happy to see the innocence of a child, always aware of those around him, ready to take care of them, especially in times of sadness. To know him was a rare gift, one that I will hold with respect and
admiration – don’t worry Mr., I will never tell how you used to sing, “I’m a nice guy, I’m a nice guy.” Because you were, you were the nicest guy and you will be forever missed.