As a lifelong resident of Amsterdam, NY, I for one would like to go on record as being someone who has always been proud of the fact that Kirk Douglas was born and raised in my hometown and graduated from the same high school I attended. Like so many others, I read his 1988 autobiography entitled “The Ragman’s Son” and unlike some, I did not take anything he wrote in it that was negative about his time as a resident of this community as a personal insult. After all it was an autobiography and Douglas was the son of an abusive, alcoholic, Jewish, ragman. Those last four words in the previous sentence help explain why the actor would have felt ostracized in most any similar community in America during the 1920’s and 30’s or even today for that matter. And as for the charge that Douglas has given back nothing to this city, what does that have to do with his amazing accomplishments as an artist since he’s left it? And who really knows what the guy has done or not done for this city or its residents since he’s left?
Most Amsterdam, NY residents are familiar with the story of Douglas’s time here. Born Issur Danielovich on December 9, 1916, the only son of Hershel and Bryana. His father used the surname Demsky when he migrated here from Russia so during the time Douglas lived here he was known as Izzy Demsky. He and his six sisters were raised on Eagle Street. In his autobiography, Douglas writes about how even though everyone around them was poor, his family was looked down upon because his father was the ragman. He writes about how Jews in the Rug City were barred from working in Amsterdam’s rug mills and he writes about how he was often beaten up because he was a Jew.
But he also writes of the things he loved about his hometown. His best boyhood friend, Peter Riccio who could care less what religion he was or what his dad did for a living and who’s mom treated Douglas like one of her own. He writes about how the drama program at Wilbur Lynch High School and its advisor, Margaret Schuler introduced him to the craft that would change his life.
He graduated from Lynch High School in 1934 and went to St. Lawrence University with his buddy Riccio. The fact that he couldn’t wait to get out of Amsterdam makes him no different than thousands of high school graduates who’ve received diplomas from Lynch before and after he did. Then when his Mom finally had tolerated enough abuse from his father and moved to Schenectady where Douglas’s older sisters lived, his biggest reason for returning to Amsterdam moved with her. That’s the true and simple story.
He served his country in World War II and then began a career in acting that included appearances in 90 films, three Academy Award nominations and an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement. He is by far the best known and most accomplished native of Amsterdam, NY
Izzy Demsky has certainly created the most famous story ever to come out of Amsterdam, NY but not the only interesting one. During the past two years, I’ve written more than 600 pretty good stories about current and former Amsterdam residents. When you string them all together, you learn the history of Amsterdam, NY and along the way I’m pretty sure you will smile, maybe laugh out loud, shed some tears, feel some pride and hopefully most of all remember something good about this place.
I will be at Liberty Fresh Market on Saturday, December 10, 2016 signing copies of the first and (brand new) second editions of my book “A Year’s Worth of Amsterdam, NY Birthdays”. I hope you have a chance to stop up there and share a Rug City memory with me. Thanks for reading my stuff. Its been an honor and a privilege to share it with you.