Death of Kirk Douglas: the most francophone of American cinema legends

The son of a Jewish rag-maker who fled Russia, Kirk Douglas (real name Issur Danielovitch Demsky) was born on December 9, 1916 in Amsterdam, a small town in New York State. After a miserable childhood, enlisting in the Navy during the Second World War, he landed small roles before finally meeting success as a fierce boxer in The champion, then he goes on with a hundred films including the famous 20000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), The Paths of Glory (1957) by Stanley Kubrick and Spartacus (1960).

Private life and francophilia

In his first marriage, he married Diana Hill (born January 22, 1923, divorced in 1951 and died July 3, 2015) with whom he had two sons, actor Michael Douglas and Joel Douglas. In his second marriage, in 1954, he married a French-speaking woman: Anne Buydens.

Born more than 100 years ago, Anne Buydens (née Marx) is a producer who was born in Germany (Hanover), whose family left for Belgium to flee Nazism. She became Belgian from her childhood. Perfectly French-speaking, she studied in Belgium before continuing in Switzerland. The couple who celebrated their golden wedding anniversary in 2004 and, 50 years after their civil marriage, a new exchange of marriage vows in the Jewish tradition, also had two sons.

Assimil and Francophonie method

Kirk Douglas’ first contact with the French took place during his first visit to Paris in the early 1950s, where he was to shoot Act Of Love (An act of love) with Serge Reggiani and Brigitte Bardot. This drama tells of the unhappy love affairs of a GI and a Frenchwoman in Paris at the end of the Second World War.

This film, whose dialogues were by Joseph Kessel, was to be shot in two versions: in French and in English. But Kirk Douglas insisted on doing both versions even though he didn’t speak a word of French!

He rightly thought it would be more realistic to hear a GI speak French on the screen with an American accent. The actor, who already spoke German, Yiddish and a little Italian, began to learn French diligently, as he reports in his memoirs, The ragman’s son (Archipoche, 2013), and thanks to a method well known at the time, Assimil.

“I found a French teacher. We worked two hours a day, six days a week, on an Assimil. Every day we made one chapter, sometimes two […] She raved about my progress. She told me (in French) that she literally saw me swallow large portions of French. […] After two months, I was speaking French fluently and could read the newspapers. As an exercise, Mme Lafeuille and I would go to lunch at Fouquet’s. I placed orders in French and all the conversation with Ms. Lafeuille was in French. My teacher was staring at me in admiration: his student had mastered the language in two months, and he spoke with an accent, not American, but perhaps slightly Dutch. ”

(extract from his autobiography: The ragman’s son)

For the release of his autobiography “The ragpicker’s son” in 2013, the sacred Hollywood monster spoke of his life and his career in perfect French, interviewed by Christian Defaye on the set of Spécial Cinéma de la RTS (Radio Télévision Suisse).

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Death of Kirk Douglas: the most francophone of American cinema legends