Kirk Douglas was born at a time when fighting raged in the trenches of World War I and while women didn’t even have the right to vote in all American states. But for his part, the celebrated actor lived the kind of life that most people can only dream of. And for over six decades, his wife, Anne Buydens, was by his side throughout – although according to Douglas himself, there was a touching reason why that was the case.
Buydens was in fact the second wife of Douglas; his first was Diana Dill, who was the mother of Douglas’ most famous son, Michael. But while the performer’s first marriage lasted less than a decade, this one endured for 65 years. And Buydens herself is actually almost as long-lived as her husband was, as she turned 100 in 2019. Douglas, by contrast, made it to an impressive 103.
It seems, too, that Douglas lived a very long and happy life with Buydens. Nonetheless, their experiences were sufficiently extraordinary to pose certain questions. How did they keep a marriage going for over six decades in Hollywood – especially while going through things that would tear most couples apart? Well, Douglas actually answered that exact question, and his response may just make you cry.
But while Douglas may be rich and famous now, he was born into poverty. And the moniker by which he was known now wasn’t the one that his folks gave him, either. Yes, his parents – who were Jewish emigrants from the Russian Empire in modern-day Belarus – actually named the future star Issur Danielovitch. There were seven children in all in the Danielovitch family, with Issur being the only boy. And, sadly, life was far from easy for the clan.
Douglas would speak about his early life in an autobiography published in 1988. The book is called The Ragman’s Son – a hint, perhaps, at just how destitute his family once had been. There, the star wrote, “Even on Eagle Street, in the poorest section of town where all the families were struggling, the ragman was on the lowest rung on the ladder. And I was the ragman’s son.”
Buydens’ early years were likewise full of difficulty – as well as outright danger. Her family fled Germany as soon as the Nazis started gaining power, you see. After that, she gained Belgian citizenship and the last name of Buydens by marrying a friend. But her biggest dream was always to live in the United States.
When Douglas and Buydens first met, moreover, both were working in the film industry – just on different continents and in different capacities. It was 1953, and Douglas had overcome his childhood to become a successful actor. After serving in the Navy during World War II, he had begun doing radio plays, following which he made his film debut with 1946’s The Strange Love of Martha Ivers.
Buydens, on the other hand, was a film publicist and writer of subtitles for French movies. She was also multi-lingual, which was why Douglas happened to encounter her in the first place. Douglas was filming Act of Love in Paris at the time, and he needed an aide who spoke English. Buydens was seemingly the right woman for the job, then. And, apparently, the film star was immediately taken with her.
In 2017 Buydens and Douglas spoke to USA Today about that first meeting. Buydens explained of Douglas, “He said, ‘Would you like to have dinner tonight with my friends at some chic restaurant?’ And I said, ‘No, thank you, I think I’ll go home and make myself some scrambled eggs.’”
Buydens cheerfully added that her refusal was “not what [Douglas] expected.” And the actor himself had plenty to say, too. He claimed, “She was the most difficult woman I [had] ever met. I mean, I was a big movie star! And I invited her to dinner, and she said, ‘Oh, thank you very much, but I’m so tired.’”
But things soon changed between Buydens and Douglas. And the veteran movie star wrote all about that transformation in a book that he and his wife published in 2017: Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood. There, he noted, “With no romance in the picture, I stopped trying to impress [Buydens]. Instead, I stopped talking about myself and began to listen to her.”
Meanwhile, Buydens gradually learned more about the sort of man Douglas was. They ran rings around each other, too, with Buydens challenging the handsome young actor at every turn. Then, one night when they went to the circus together, Douglas found himself having to pick up elephant droppings with a giant scooper. And his future wife found herself starting to fall in love with him.
Yet the couple’s relationship was an odd one – not least because Douglas was actually engaged to actress Pier Angeli at the time. At one point, he even took Buydens with him to buy a ring for Angeli; of this moment, the actor would write in Kirk and Anne, “I cannot believe how insensitive I was.” But no matter what, Buydens was the woman whom Douglas preferred.
Ultimately, Buydens prepared to walk out on Douglas, and the star knew that he couldn’t just let her go. So he broke off his engagement with Angeli and proposed that Buydens be his wife instead. She accepted, too, and a few days later they were officially married – although the ceremony was just a small one in Las Vegas.
The wedding itself, however, was a rather bumpy affair. It had to be done quickly, for one, because Douglas was busy filming the movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. And though Buydens was proficient in English, she hadn’t yet grasped the word “lawful” and rather comically referred to Douglas as “my awful husband” during her vows.
To top it all off, Douglas seemingly wasn’t interested in being strictly monogamous. Indeed, he reportedly slept with a variety of famous women – including Rita Hayworth – while married. Buydens later wrote in Kirk and Anne, “[Douglas] never tried to hide his dalliances from me. As a European, I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage.”
Later, Douglas and Buydens had two children together: Peter and Eric. Sadly, though, they lost Eric in 2004 after he died of a drug overdose. Yet while the family kept their thoughts on the tragedy out of the media, in 2015 Douglas released a book of poetry that included a piece named “For Eric.” And the work left no doubt that he felt the pain of his son’s death deeply.
Health problems and brushes with death also plagued Buydens and Douglas throughout their long marriage. In 1991, for instance, Douglas was in an air accident that killed two people. Then, a mere five years after that, he suffered a stroke – a setback that even made the actor consider suicide.
Apparently, Douglas thought that the stroke signaled the end for him. He told Parade in 2014, “A stroke, especially for an actor, is a terrible thing, because if you can’t speak, you can’t act. At first, I thought my life was at an end. But when I put the gun in my mouth, it hit a tooth. Ow! And that struck me [as] funny. A toothache was stopping me from committing suicide? Funny! And it made me stop.”
Yet throughout every difficulty and tragedy, Buydens and Douglas remained together. Then in 2014, after 60 years with his beloved wife, Douglas wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times about the couple’s marriage. And in the article, he not only ran through the early years of their relationship, but he also talked about how he’d evolved as a person alongside Buydens.
Douglas mentioned, too, just how much of a ladies’ man he had been before meeting his wife. He said, “Beautiful Parisians might love to be seen with Kirk Douglas, the Hollywood leading man, even though they never would have looked twice at Issur Danielovitch, the ragman’s son from Amsterdam, N.Y. The way I figured it, we both got pleasure from these fleeting entanglements.”
But meeting Buydens, Douglas said, changed everything. Recalling those early days, the actor wrote, “The fact that I didn’t impress her certainly impressed me, and I was determined to win her over. Anyone who knows my story knows the rest.”
Douglas also reflected on his mistakes in the Los Angeles Times article. He divulged, “[Buydens and I] had a wonderful time together. And then she announced she was going back to Paris. I’m not proud that it took me until then to realize how much I didn’t want to lose her, and I’m not proud that I put so little thought into our wedding.”
Indeed, Douglas’ description of the wedding suggests that it was hardly the stuff of dreams. He continued, “I left the studio on a Saturday afternoon and picked up Anne, my lawyer, and my publicist, and we flew to Las Vegas. Anne and I joined our lives before a hastily summoned justice of the peace. I was eager to get the vows over with so I could take everyone to my pal Frank Sinatra’s show at the Desert Inn.”
Douglas mused, “I don’t know why Anne stuck with me through those early decades. If anyone I worked with is still alive, they will attest that I wasn’t Mr. Popularity. I had a lot of anger matched by a lot of arrogance. Some people put up with me, I think, simply because I had such a wonderful wife.”
And Douglas talked about all the philanthropic endeavors in which he and his beloved wife had engaged. He wrote, “[Buydens] joined me as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. Information Agency, and we traveled to more than 40 countries, paying our own way. I received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but she should have received one too.”
Then there were the pair’s charitable works closer to home. Douglas continued in the Los Angeles Times article, “We rebuilt 401 Los Angeles Unified School District playgrounds. Through the Anne Douglas Center at the Los Angeles Mission, we have seen hundreds of women turn around their lives.”
Buydens even inadvertently saved Douglas’ life once, the veteran actor said. Referring to a plane crash that ultimately claimed the life of Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband, Douglas explained, “With uncanny intuition, [Buydens] refused to let me join Mike Todd on his fateful flight east. We stopped speaking over that one until we heard the news the next morning. Elizabeth Taylor became a widow, but not [Buydens].”
And there was more. Douglas wrote of Buydens, “When I had my stroke… she drove me to the hospital like a Formula One racer. And when I wallowed in self-pity because of my impaired speech, she made me get up and work with a speech therapist. To this day, I write her love poems; to this day, she continues to give me tough love.”
It turned out, too, that the actor had regretted never having had a big wedding. In 2004, then, he finally arranged a much more splendid event. Douglas wrote, “I finally gave [Buydens] the wedding she never had at Greystone Manor in Beverly Hills, with some 300 guests sharing our happiness. She surprised me by converting to Judaism before the ceremony.”
Ten years later, the couple then celebrated their diamond anniversary. Douglas noted in the article that he “was superstitious about planning a celebration too far in advance.” But Douglas’ son Michael and his wife Catherine Zeta-Jones would go on to throw the pair a massive party, which was naturally attended by friends and further family members.
And at the bash, Douglas decided to reveal the secret of his truly impressive relationship with Buydens. In his Los Angeles Times article, the actor said, “A newly engaged friend asked, ‘Kirk, why did your marriage last so long?’ ‘That’s easy,’ I replied. ‘I just told my wife, if you ever leave me, I’m going with you.’”
Remarkably, Douglas lived for half a decade after penning that article. In 2016 he even turned 100 years old – a milestone he celebrated with his friends and Buydens at the Beverly Hills Hotel. And incredibly, he was able to walk into the room by himself despite his age.
Granted, Douglas couldn’t always walk unaided towards the end of his life, although he had nurses who assisted him around the house. And the helpers were present when The Guardian interviewed Douglas in February 2017. The star told the publication, “I never, ever thought I would live to be 100. That’s shocked me, really. And it’s sad, too.”
But why did Douglas consider the feat a bittersweet one? Well, part of it was down to the fact that he had outlived many of his old friends. He told The Guardian, “I miss Burt Lancaster. We fought a lot, and I miss him a lot. And John Wayne – even though he was a Republican and I was a Democrat.” Luckily, his close family members – including Michael – weren’t going anywhere.
Then, later on in 2017, Douglas and Buydens gave an interview to the Daily Mail about how they were doing. Buydens told the newspaper, “We still like to write a little note to each other. I’ll find one on my pillow at night, or [Douglas] sends it in a formal letter and tells me how much he appreciates something. It’s lovely.”
A whole collection of those notes ended up collected in Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter and a Lifetime in Hollywood, in fact. Douglas continued, “It was something I really wanted to do. Reading some of the letters from 60 years ago was often emotional, but I wasn’t embarrassed about them.”
And Douglas made that decision even though at least one of the published letters was rather revealing. In the note in question, the veteran star apologized to his wife after an argument, writing, “Darling, I have a feeling that you’re not coming back tonight. I hope I’m wrong! It’s been a bad day for me and probably a worse one for you. Because my bad day means all of my problems added to yours. Forgive me. But I hope that you are here to read this and that I find you when I get back.”
All in all, in fact, Douglas’ letters to Buydens are terribly romantic. One of them reads, “Darling. I am now in Acapulco staying at a most beautiful little house. How I wish you were here. The bed next to mine is empty, and I wish you were in it.” Another one says somewhat prophetically, “If we live to be , there will still be so many unsaid things.”
And the pair did indeed live to be 100. Douglas passed away in February 2020 at the impressive age of 103. But regardless as to whether Douglas’ secret to a long marriage comes to pass, hopefully there weren’t many things left unsaid between him and Buydens.