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If at first you do succeed

Times Staff Writer

This time, she got it right.

“I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine,” Anne Douglas told Kirk Douglas at an encore on Sunday of the nuptials they celebrated 50 years ago. During their quickie first wedding in Las Vegas she’d vowed in her Continental accent: “I take thee, Kirk, as my awful wedded husband.”

“She was thinking ‘full of awe,’ ” the 87-year-old star of vintage epics such as “Spartacus” said in an interview a few weeks before their golden anniversary. Observed his wife, 80, chuckling at the memory, “I’d never heard the word ‘lawful.’ And when everybody laughed, I nearly cried.”

The tears she shed before 300 guests at the Greystone Mansion in Beverly Hills were of joy. Half a century of marriage to a cinematic icon once celebrated nearly as much for his conquests -- among them Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney, Rita Hayworth and Marlene Dietrich -- as for his art, had been a challenge she’d met with compassion and determination. Kirk Douglas, too, was tearful. Not only had the couple pulled off a marriage lasting far longer than most in Hollywood, but each had survived near-fatal illnesses: her breast cancer, his stroke.

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Standing beneath a rose-festooned arch in the mansion’s formal garden, Rabbi David Wolpe officiated at the traditional service, in which the couple sipped wine, “symbolic of the sweet things they would share,” and Kirk Douglas was asked to crack a linen-wrapped glass, “a symbol that marriage involves not just joy, but difficulty.” Douglas stomped on the glass. And stomped again. No luck. Finally, flashing his famous grin, he struck it with his cane.

Before and after the ceremony, guests -- among them former First Lady Nancy Reagan, Merv Griffin, Karl Malden, Dan Akyroyd, Barbara Sinatra, Angie Dickinson and Red Buttons -- talked about the reasons for the couple’s success at one of society’s most challenging institutions.

“They have a great mutual understanding,” said publicist Warren Cowan, who was best man at their first wedding. “I don’t want to sound sexist,” he added, “but Anne really made the marriage work. Kirk used to be more self-centered. Now, he’s more in love with Anne than when they were married.”

Joked Tony Curtis: “She must be an excellent cook.”

Observed the couple’s son Peter Douglas: “Each has a great sense of humor. They needed it, with all they’ve been through.”

Ventured actress Jennifer Jones: “Just love, I guess.”

A recent convert to Judaism, Anne Douglas was thrilled that she and her husband retied the knot in a Jewish ceremony. “It was about time he married a nice Jewish girl,” she said.

A film assistant who’d worked with director John Huston on “Moulin Rouge,” Anne Douglas, nee Buydens, met the dimpled-chinned actor after being invited to do public relations for “Act of Love,” a movie he was filming in Paris in 1953. His reputation as a skirt-chaser was already well known. When a photographer escorted her to Douglas’ dressing room, he said of the divorced actor, “ ‘Let me take you to the lion’s den,’ ” she recalls in an interview in the couple’s Beverly Hills home.

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“I was quite taken with Anne,” Kirk Douglas says. The same night, he called to invite her to La Tour d’Argent for dinner. Never mind that he was engaged to actress Pier Angeli. She refused with an excuse that still makes him blush: “No, I’ll just make some eggs.”

“Well, what a turn-on!” he exclaims sarcastically. But it got his attention.

What drew him to her? “Her vicious sense of humor,” Kirk Douglas says. An example: “The surprise birthday party she threw for me that year in Paris when she invited every girl I’d gone out with there.”

“Including that one,” Anne Douglas interrupts, her blue eyes narrowing.

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“Oh, I knew you’d bring that up,” he says.

She was a young girl Kirk Douglas had broken a date with Anne to be with, the night before the surprise party. “I got her number and invited her to the party too,” Anne Douglas says smugly. “I had them all stand in a receiving line, and when Kirk came to the end and saw her -- “

“I turned to Anne and said, ‘You bitch!’ ” he says, and they laugh.

During the earlier years of their marriage, “I could have thrown another one of those parties,” Anne Douglas confides. “I had no illusions about that. But I told him, ‘Look. I’ll understand a lot of things if you tell me. But if I hear it from others and it has happened, that would hurt me very badly.’ ”

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“Scratch that .... I’m tired of always being the bad guy,” Kirk Douglas says, only half joking. “Anne had her own share of boyfriends before we got married.” And then, turning to his wife, he takes responsibility for their marital bumps. “I think I was most to blame for our problems, because I hid behind the mind-set of ‘I am an artist, an artist!’ ” he says, drawing the back of a hand to his forehead.

These days, the artistic posturing and the vanity are gone, he says. In their place: the realization that his wife is everything to him. “I think I’m more romantic than ever,” Kirk Douglas says. His “greatest joy” is the moment his wife returns home from her charity work on behalf of breast cancer research and the renovation of L.A. playgrounds, “and we sit in the den, have a drink and talk,” he says. His: vodka on the rocks. Hers: a light Scotch. “For me that is the golden hour. And I feel cheated if I don’t have my full hour.”

Of his decision to marry Anne, mother of his sons Peter and Eric, he adds, wistfully, “A woman knows the man she wants to marry and a man knows the woman he doesn’t want to be without.”


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