Kirk Douglas, who died today at the age of 103, may have been an Academy Award-winning actor and an icon of the film industry’s Golden Age, but he's should also be remembered for the incredible six-decade bond he shares with his wife.
Douglas became a leading box-office star in the '50s and '60s, primarily known for serious dramas, westerns, and war films, including his first starring role in the 1960 film Spartacus. In the decades following, he also gained recognition as a director, producer, and author. Through it all he was married to Anne Buydens.
But the Douglases lasting marriage didn't start with love at first sight. Douglas’s six-decade commitment to Buydens actually began with a slightly sour meet-cute in 1953. Already a successful movie star at the time, Douglas was adored by audiences, mostly women, for his recurring portrayal of the brave hero with "steely blue eyes." That's exactly why he was so surprised when Buydens rejected his initial request for a date.
Buydens was working as a film publicist and living in Paris when a photographer friend introduced her to Douglas on the set of his film Act of Love. Buydens recounted this meeting with her future husband in their book, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood, a compilation of letters the couple sent to each other during their courtship and marriage. “He said, ‘Come on, let me take you to the lion’s den," Buydens remembers.
The "lions den" was apparently Douglas's trailer, and there the actor asked Buydens if she wanted to join him for dinner. “I thought, I'll take this young beauty to dinner at the most romantic—and expensive—restaurant in Paris, La Tour d'Argent,” Douglas recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “She's sure to approve of my taste and my ability to get a last-minute reservation.”
Buydens, however, declined his offer. “No, thank you, I think I’ll go home and make myself some scrambled eggs,” Buydens told the movie star, catching him completely off guard. “She was the most difficult woman I ever met,” Douglas said in an interview with USA Today. "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.‘”
Though Buydens did go on to work as a publicist for Douglas, their relationship remained platonic until “I stopped talking about myself and began to listen to her,” Douglas wrote in Kirk and Anne.
It was this willingness to change and show her that he was more than a one-dimensional silver-screen hero that won Buydens over. Douglas proved to her that he was different than the typical Hollywood actor. When they first started seeing each other, the pair attended a charity gala held at a circus, where Douglas gladly helped scoop elephant dung while fully dressed in a tuxedo. "That’s what got me,” Buydens told USA Today. “It was not only funny, it was showing me that he was able to do things that are not expected from him.”
Douglas and Buydens eventually got married in May 1954 and had two children together, Peter and Eric; Douglas's other two sons—Michael and Joel—were from his previous marriage to actress Diana Douglas.
In one of the letters from Kirk and Anne, Douglas wrote to Buydens to tell her how much he missed her while he was in Munich filming Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film Paths of Glory.
“Darling, How is it that when I am away from you, such love for you overwhelms me at 2:30 in the morning—as it is now—I awake to write to you. How incomplete I seem without my family. How can a man live alone? To live just for yourself is to be dead. And yes I welcome this parting from you to rekindle my awareness of how much you mean to me. The early hour brings out the poetic side of me."
In turn, Buydens once wrote to Douglas in May of 1956 to share how much she missed him. "I am so sad and depressed. I don't think I ever wanted to be near you as much as right now," she wrote. "The toilet paper is too hard; the coffee is too strong … the telephones are impossible. Don't I sound like a true American? But even being a European broad, what on Earth am I doing here!!!"
Life wasn't always perfect, of course. In Kirk and Anne, Douglas wrote openly about his affairs with actresses like Rita Hayworth, Patricia Neal, and Joan Crawford’s daughter, Christina Crawford. “Kirk never tried to hide his dalliances from me,” Buydens explained in the book. “As a European, I understood it was unrealistic to expect total fidelity in a marriage.”
Still, the couple always managed to work things out. "Darling," Douglas wrote in a letter to Anne after a fight while they were still dating. "I have a feeling 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 ... but I hope that you are here to read this and that I find you when I get back. Suddenly it seems stupid that I am going to dinner without you — Because believe it or not I love you!"
Buydens loyalty to her husband even saved his life. In 1958, Douglas was invited to fly on a private plane from Palm Springs to New York with director Mike Todd, Elizabeth Taylor’s husband, to present Todd with a Showman of the Year award at the New York Friar’s Club. Buydens, who generally disliked private planes, insisted that Douglas skip the trip as she had a “strange feeling” about it.
Her request lead to an intense fight between the couple, but Douglas ultimately agreed not to go. “She kept insisting,” Douglas recalled in his interview with USA Today. “And we had a big fight. I said, ‘OK, I won’t go.' But I was very mad at her.” Shortly thereafter, the radio news announced that Todd’s plane had crashed, leaving behind no survivors. “She saved my life,” Kirk said.
Not only did Buydens save Douglas’s life, but she also saved his fortune. When the couple first began seeing each other officially in 1953, Douglas was oblivious to his own financial disarray. It wasn’t until Buydens questioned his business manager that she found out the actor was essentially broke. Using the business skills she learned from her father, Buydens found someone to help Douglas invest his salary, saving him millions.
Together, the two became prominent Los Angeles Philanthropists. Douglas and his wife have even provided Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless for years at the Los Angeles Mission where he would get meals when he first came to LA and did not have any money.
In 2004, the couple suffered a tragic loss when their youngest son Eric Douglas—an actor and stand-up-comedian—died of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 46. In addition to Buydens’ battle with breast cancer and Douglas’s struggle with depression after suffering a stroke, the couple has stood strong beside each other over the years.
After more than 60 years of marriage, the romance Douglas and Buydens built together never faded. They even renewed their vows for their 50th anniversary and hosted the big wedding they had always dreamed of having.
In his collection of poems and stories entitled Life Could Be Verse, Douglas wrote a poem called “Romance Begins at 80,” proving that his love for his wife has only increased as the years have gone on.
“Romance begins at 80
And I ought to know.
I live with a girl
Who will tell you so.”
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