On the silver screen: Second yahrzeit: Searching for Izzy, part I

By Bill Simons

Although the death certificate states that Kirk Douglas died on February 5, 2020, at age 103, his films, writings, family, charities, struggle to synthesize Jewish and American identities, military service and controversies continue to resonate. As his second yahrzeit approaches, it’s time for reflection. When Robert Caro began his epic biography of Lyndon Johnson, he moved to the former president’s boyhood home in the Texas Hill Country. To understand the environment and experiences that forged Douglas, I made two trips to Amsterdam, NY, an old industrial city still awaiting renewal, 29 miles northwest of Albany along the Mohawk River – and a third journey to the grave of the woman who gave Izzy life. 

In the photograph accompanying this article, which was taken on October 11, 2021, Columbus Day, I stand at the intersection of East Main and Eagle streets in Amsterdam, next to a plaque honoring Douglas, dedicated in 2018, but not planted in cured concrete until 2019. The script on the sign reads, “Kirk Douglas Film Legend Born Dec. 9, 2016 to Immigrant Parents at 46 Eagle Street Rose From Poverty To Appear In Over 90 Films In Hollywood.” The words perpetuate a myth. Kirk Douglas never lived on Eagle Street. However, a boy named Issur Danielovitch, whose illiterate, Russian Jewish parents informed him one day that he was now Isadore (Izzy) Demsky, grew up there. Kirk Douglas came later. 

It takes less than 10 minutes to walk the length of Eagle Street. Izzy’s boyhood home at 46 Eagle St. still stands, compact, but well maintained. The last house on the left of this one-way street, it was a far grimmer place during Izzy’s youth. Bryna (Bertha) and Harry (Hershel) Demsky, their six daughters, and son Izzy lived in poverty. A “ragman,” trading in scrap metal and other used materials, Harry stabled his horse, Bill, and wagon in back of the house. During the winter, horse manure around the structure served as insulation from the cold. Across from the Demsky residence and at the end of Eagle Street lay a cluster of factories; carpet manufacturing dominated Amsterdam. Factory shift changes, noise, smells and pollution punctuated daily rhythms. 

Helping to put food on the table, young Izzy held a succession of part-time jobs. Antisemitic gangs terrorized Izzy on his way to Hebrew school, and they set fire to the backyard barn. A petrified Bill burned to death. Izzy loved that horse. 

The worst bullying Izzy endured was from his father, Harry, an abusive alcoholic. Harry squandered the family’s limited income on drink at neighborhood bars. Izzy witnessed little intimacy between his parents, who eventually divorced. The boy took note of his father’s physical strength and triumphs over antisemites in tavern brawls. Izzy craved recognition and attention from his father: that rarely came.

Despite Dickensian circumstances, Bryna Demsky and others in Amsterdam instilled within Izzy a fervent belief in the American Dream; that and a ferocious anger fueled his rise from the ragman’s son to the celebrated Kirk Douglas. 

Contemporaneous with its 100th anniversary celebration of incorporation as a city, Amsterdam proclaimed June 1, 1985, as Kirk Douglas Day. And Amsterdam’s most famous native returned as grand marshal of the centennial parade to receive a key to the city and participate in the dedication of a park named for him. It was a glorious day. The enthusiasm of the crowd of 28,000 – more than the 1985 population of Amsterdam – and of Douglas, then 68 but still ruggedly handsome and robust, are palpable in Bob Cudmore’s contemporary radio coverage of the event. Izzy’s sisters were there and so were boyhood friends. The newly named Kirk Douglas Park is an oasis of beauty graced by waterfalls. New York Governor Mario Cuomo eloquently praised Amsterdam’s hero as emblematic of the best of America. 

I visited places significant to Izzy Demsky, amongst them: 46 Eagle St., hulks of old factories, the former high school building, ruins of O’Shaughnessy’s Tavern, the lodgings of his high school mentor, Kirk Douglas Park, exteriors of a former and contemporary synagogue, and a cemetery. My friends and SUNY colleagues Rob Compton and Fred Bucalos participated in on-site research. By phone and e-mail, I communicated with several people – some passionate, two requesting anonymity – who facilitated the search for Izzy. Columnist/radio personality/historian Bob Cudmore and Jerry Snyder, retired engineer, former president of the Historic Amsterdam League, and leader of community walking tours, generously shared of their extensive knowledge. At the Walter Elwood Museum, Executive Director Ann Peconie graciously accessed extensive primary sources that connected me to Izzy’s transformative high school years. My wife Nancy scoured censuses, city directories and other primary records. 

Three years after Amsterdam’s love feast for Douglas, publication of his 1988 autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son,” contained revelations about the actor’s Amsterdam coming of age that strained his hometown standing. Part II of “Second yahrzeit: Searching for Izzy” will return to Amsterdam, drilling deeper into the making of Kirk Douglas. 

Bill Simons is a professor emeritus at SUNY Oneonta where he continues to teach courses in American history. He is also the co-director of The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture, and served as a speaker for the New York Council on the Humanities.