By Bill Simons
Two photos of the adolescent Izzy Demsky reflect very different takes on his coming of age in Amsterdam, NY. In one, Izzy’s smiling mother, Bryna, pulls him close, their heads and shoulders touching. The mother’s loving embrace appears protective while the son seems withdrawn and timid. In the other photo, Izzy poses with other high school yearbook staff. Occupying the center of the group shot, Izzy, wearing a fraternity sweater, brims with assurance and vitality – already a preliminary sketch of “Spartacus.” When Izzy, at age 68, returned to Amsterdam for Kirk Douglas Day in 1985, his rise from hard circumstances was noted, but the emphasis was on the imagery projected by high school triumphalism and the ascent to cinema stardom.
The reciprocal appreciation and affection expressed between its most famous native and his hometown on Kirk Douglas Day yielded to a wave of anger upon the 1988 publication of the actor’s autobiography, “The Ragman’s Son.” An anti-Douglas faction emerged in Amsterdam, and it took several years for the polarization to subside. Infuriated by Douglas’ depiction of the city as a “dirty mill town,” former Mayor Mario Villa fumed, “I will go to my grave regretting my part in putting a park in his honor here.” As late 20th-century Amsterdam struggled for revitalization, boosters also resented the book’s claim of a pervasive antisemitism that subjected Izzy to gang beatings and excluded his father, Harry, for employment in the carpet factories. Even more explosive, Douglas revealed his relationship with a respected Amsterdam teacher.
According to “The Ragman’s Son,” Louise Livingston, a 47-year-old high school English teacher, initiated a physically intimate relationship with a student, 14-year-old Izzy Demsky. Amongst my Amsterdam correspondents, opinion ranged from denunciation of Mrs. Livingston as a pedophile who ought to have been imprisoned to “people were kinder in those days.” A Mount Holyoke graduate and by all accounts an outstanding teacher, passionate about literature, Mrs. Livingston was a widow with a grown son. Under the pretext of helping with papers, Izzy would visit Mrs. Livingston’s comfortable lodgings at 17 Mohawk St. in the evening. When Mrs. Livingston retired in 1955, the school yearbook, to which she long served as faculty advisor, was dedicated to her. A moving tribute read: “To Louise Livingston – who gave me her friendship, help, and guidance at a time I needed it most. I wish all of you seniors much success and happiness… But no greater wish can I give you than that you all find a ‘Louise Livingston’ in your lives.” Those words were written by Kirk Douglas.
Izzy’s years at Wilbur H. Lynch High School were a time of growth in terms of physical maturation, confidence and skills. He acquired proficiency in writing, public speaking and acting. In his high school yearbook, no one listed more activities than Izzy – amongst them: Alpha Beta Gamma fraternity, basketball cheerleader, junior prize for speaking, lead roles in plays, senior class treasurer and second prize for a school paper article. The quote beside his yearbook photo brashly proclaimed: “Not to know him argues yourself unknown.” And in high school, friendships deepened that lasted for a lifetime: Wolfie Churchitt previously saved Izzy from drowning in a ditch; Sonya Jacobsen Seigal early on began a scrapbook about the friend she thought would go far; and Peter Riccio persuaded the ragman’s son to apply to St. Lawrence University, where he would become a champion wrestler and board the trajectory to becoming Kirk Douglas.
Izzy loved his “Yiddishe momme.” He named his film company, Bryna Productions, in her honor. In late fall 1958, Bryna was terminally ill and hospitalized at the former Albany Hospital. An attending doctor, Henry Tulgan, then a young intern, wrote the following decades later, “Kirk Douglas spent every day of his mother’s last days at her bedside. He was an absolute gentleman and interacted with all her caregivers with great courtesy. He smiled at the student nurses who couldn’t keep their eyes off of him and was very appreciative of all the care everybody was rendering.” Age 74, Bryna died on December 12, 1958. Dr. Tulgan remembered: Douglas’ “mother was an Orthodox Jew and when she did die, we made certain that all the rituals necessary for burial were followed, for which he was very grateful.”
Bryna is buried in a Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Albany, near where she lived with a married daughter after leaving Amsterdam and an abusive marriage years before. Harry is buried in another Jewish cemetery. In the photo shown here, taken on November 5, I am placing a stone on Bryna’s memorial. Some of her daughters lie close by. The Hebrew inscription on the gravestone translates to “May her soul be bound up in the bonds of life.”
Kirk Douglas lived to be 103. Bryna would have taken pride that her Izzy renewed Torah study in his later years, celebrated a second bar mitzvah and did “a beautiful Kaddish.”
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.