Kirk Douglas: Amsterdam Native’s 1960 African Safari


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Kirk Douglas in the navyAmsterdam native and movie star Kirk Douglas, who will turn 98 next month, killed a leopard and other big game during a 1962 African safari.

According to an article in the men’s magazine True, Douglas, 46 at the time, said at the end of the trip, “I’m hooked. I don’t know how I got along all those years without hunting.”

History enthusiast Emil Suda, who lives in Amsterdam’s East End where Douglas grew up as Issur Danielovitch or Izzy Demsky, provided a copy of the magazine’s account of Douglas’s safari written by Ralph Daigh. True folded in 1975. A chapter called “Killer Douglas” is devoted to the actor’s hunting trip in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son.

True was doing a series worthy of today’s reality television called “True Hunts with Famous Men.” Douglas was whisked by air on a 15-hour flight to Nairobi, Kenya, where the star met “2,000 autograph seekers intent on hunting down the hunter.”

“My God,” Douglas exclaimed, “in Africa, too!”

Douglas was physically fit. He had played the lead in the action epic “Spartacus” in 1960. He had served in the U.S. Navy in World War II where he was issued a sidearm. He had shot rifles in the movies. However, he apparently had never fired long guns loaded with real ammunition.

He proved to be a good shot, although he injured his nose during the recoil of a high powered rifle early in the hunt.

The safari was organized by the luxury travel company Ker and Downey, which still exists. The emphasis was on killing big game and Douglas’s party spent several days of its three weeks in the field in an unsuccessful effort to find an elephant with large tusks for Douglas to shoot.

In “Ragman’s Son” Douglas reported he shot and killed many other animals including a zebra, gazelles and a 1,200-pound eland, a species of antelope.

“I experienced a feeling of power,” he wrote. “I looked at something and BANG! I had total control over it. ”

Douglas tried native food, sucking on a bone to get at its marrow. He joined women in pounding maize with a stone, much to the amusement of the men of a village.

The safari moved from Kenya to Tanganyika, now Tanzania. The professional hunters hung animal carcasses on a line as leopard bait. Toward dusk of one of his last nights on safari, Douglas shot and killed a leopard. He said that killing the animal gave him satisfaction, “Perhaps it was somehow connected with my killing a killer.”

Douglas’s goal was to kill a leopard and use the skin for a leopard coat for his wife Anne. But he learned that a single leopard skin makes a fine coat, but only for one leopard.

Before Douglas left Africa, “Spartacus” premiered in Nairobi with the proceeds going to Christian medical missionary Albert Schweizer, still alive at the time.

Kirk Douglas with a lion cub named Spartacus presented to him by the director of Southport zoo in 1960 (Publicity Photo)Back in Hollywood Douglas decorated his movie projection room with his African big game trophies. The leopard skin served as a rug. He had a leopard coat made from other skins for his wife.

In time Douglas had a change of heart, reporting a dream-like visit from his alter ego Issur from his Amsterdam days, who represents his Jewish roots throughout “Ragman’s Son.” Douglas gave the trophies, including Anne’s coat, to the Museum of Natural History in New York.

He said he would shoot animals for food or to save his own life, but had this comment on safari hunting, “Those animals are not out there looking for people. We’re looking for them.”

Photos: Above, Issur Danielovitch (a.k.a Kirk Douglas) in the U.S. Navy during World War II; and below, Kirk Douglas with a lion cub named Spartacus presented to him by the director of Southport Zoo in 1960 (Publicity Photo).

A version of this post was first published in the Daily Gazette.

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