On the silver screen: Fourth yahrzeit: memories of Izzy

By Bill Simons

Time passes and it’s Izzy’s fourth yahrzeit. The son of poor, Jewish immigrants, he achieved renown as movie star, breaker of the Blacklist, philanthropist, World War II veteran, undefeated wrestler, political activist, author and champion of Israel. And he was the most famous native of Amsterdam, NY. 

Names are central to identity. His birth name was Issur Danielovitch. When he was in grade school, his parents changed their surname. He grew up as Isadore Demsky, know as Izzy to friends. As customary for actors in those days, he adopted an anglicized stage name, Kirk Douglas. That name change signifies Izzy’s long search for identity. 

Actors hide behind the names of the characters and personas they portray. On the screen, Issur/Izzy/Kirk morphed into Spartacus, Odysseus, Doc Holliday, George Patton, Vincent van Gogh, Midge Kelly, Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Mickey Marcus, Hans Muller, Colonel Dax, Jiggs Casey, Matthew Harrison Brady and countless others. Memorable, cinematic portrayals of Roman slave turned revolutionary, hero of Greek mythology, Viking raider, Israeli general, American and French colonels, detectives, Western gunmen, lovers, tortured artist, cornetist, juggler, reporter, producer, boxer, psychopath and attorney did not reveal the authentic Izzy. He long searched for who he really was. 

In the years since his death, I have made several trips to Amsterdam in search of Izzy and to gather materials for annual yahrzeit columns. My thanks to the keepers of Amsterdam history and lore who assisted me, amongst them Bob Cudmore, Jerry Snyder, John and Linda Naple, and Ann Peconie. During past visits, I paid my respects at the physically distant graves of Izzy’s parents (Herschel/Harry and Bryna/Bertha), Kirk Douglas Park, the porch of the English teacher (Louise Livingston) who introduced him to serious literature and more intimate matters, the high school and his Eagle Street neighborhood. 

Although I wanted to go inside the house at 46 Eagle St., where so many of Izzy’s formative experiences took place, that long eluded me. It is a private residence, unmarked, not open to the public. I felt entry into the house would heighten my understanding of Izzy’s genesis years. Once again, John Naple, a former Peace Corps volunteer, retired science teacher and angel to the local library, emerged as my benefactor.

Back in the day, the Naple family resided close by the Demskys on Eagle Street. Retired from General Electric after nearly four decades, Eddie Gegzno, the current owner and resident of the old Demsky home, is a friend of John’s. Through John’s intercession, Eddie allowed me to spend some time inside 46 Eagle St. on a Saturday afternoon, May 20, 2023. Although Eddie never met the Demskys and the house was extensively remodeled since the Demsky family moved from it, spending time in the interior of the structure heightened Izzy’s descriptions of his life there. 

The house on 46 Eagle St. figures prominently Izzy’s first and most revealing memoir, “The Ragman’s Son.” He described his life within the house as a place of poverty, loneliness and thwarted dreams. Moreover, the address 46 Eagle St. is referenced as home by Izzy’s pugilist protagonist in his breakthrough movie, “Champion.”

From the old Demsky home, I looked at the nearby steel fence that marked the street’s end. Residing in the last house on this dead-end street, the Demskys lived close to the former carpet factories, the railroad tracks and the Mohawk River that lay just beyond the fence. I thought of the noise and human congestion that accompanied shift changes. According to Izzy, his father, as a Jew, was blackballed from working in the carpet factories. So, Harry the ragman roamed the streets of Amsterdam in his wagon, pulled by a horse named Bill, selling and trading used metals, cloths and other disposables. 

Although young Izzy endured beatings by antisemitic gangs, he also had good friends in the neighborhood. But the house on Eagle Street offered little refuge to the boy. Only later did he come to appreciate his mother and sisters. Izzy yearned for the larger world outside the house, his father’s domain. And he wanted his father’s attention and approval, both of which proved elusive. 

Once Izzy ran excitedly to the horse-drawn wagon when he saw his father coming and hoisted himself up to sit beside Harry, who offered the boy nothing more than a terse hello. And so it went. 

Evenings, Harry, the toughest Jew in Amsterdam, would flee the house for his favorite bar and a night of drinking and sometimes brawling. Left at Eagle Street with his mother and six sisters, Izzy felt emotionally suffocated by the seven women. With Harry squandering his meager earnings, the family left behind at 46 Eagle St. frequently knew hunger and want. They used Bill’s manure for fertilizer and to insulate the house in winter. 

Izzy loved Bill, considering the horse his best friend. Bill lived out back in the barn. In the dark of night, antisemites, seeking vengeance for a beating Harry gave them, set fire to the barn. Hearing terrible sounds of fear, Izzy tried to run into the barn, but was restrained by Harry. Bill burned to death. Izzy never forgot Bill or stopped mourning him. Decades later, Izzy would say that his main inheritance from Amsterdam was an anger that drove him to escape his beginnings. During my time at 46 Eagle St., I imagined the emotions that swept through young Izzy and wrote the script for the man, Kirk Douglas, he would become. 

At age 92, Kirk Douglas finally got to play himself in a one-man autobiographical play, “Before I Forget.” Given his age, Douglas’ performance was astonishing and brutally honest. Izzy and Kirk finally understood one another. When Douglas recounted young Izzy’s anguished relationship with his father Harry, he confided, “I don’t think I can forgive him.” In response, Douglas’ own son, Michael, rose from the audience and said, “If you forgive him, I will forgive you.”

After I emerged from my visit to Izzy’s old home, John and I walked the length of Eagle Street. John greeted some old acquaintances. When we reached 29 Eagle St., John’s friend Emil Suda came out to join us. At the end of Eagle Street, the three of us turned left on East Main Street to see the former site of Harry’s favorite bar and the lodging house where he lived, courtesy of Kirk’s rent money, after Bryna left him. Then, our discussion switched to Kirk’s films. I never met anyone who knew more about the plots, characters and dialogues of Kirk Douglas films or spoke more enthusiastically of them than Emil. 

Perhaps Izzy and Kirk never truly escaped Eagle Street, but they came to terms with it. And Izzy and Kirk left quite a legacy not just for Jews, but for all aspirants of the American Dream.