Hollywood history would have gotten a tragic rewrite, had it not been for Kirk Douglas' wife, Anne. In the late morning of March 21, 1958, Elizabeth Taylor's third husband, award-winning film and theater producer Mike Todd, called his close friend and neighbor Douglas across the street to his Palm Spring, California, home. As a surprise for his then 26-year-old wife, Todd had arranged a display of Van Cleef & Arpels jewels in his yard.
"He led her out to it and said, 'Go ahead, Pick whatever you want,'" Douglas wrote in his wife's 2017 book, Kirk and Anne: Letters of Love, Laughter, and a Lifetime in Hollywood. "It wasn't their anniversary; it wasn't a holiday. Mike didn't need a reason to indulge his passion for his young wife."
Douglas' wife has a 'strange feeling' and said he couldn't travel on Todd's private plane
The next morning, Douglas returned to Todd's home for their "regular game" of tennis, where he says he "joshed him" about the jewels and making him "look bad with his wife." It was then that Todd, whose film Around the World in 80 Days had just won the Best Picture Academy Award one year earlier, told him that Taylor was ill with a cold and invited Douglas to accompany him to New York City later that day.
“Mike asked me to go on his private plane with him, and we were going to stop and see Harry Truman [in Independence, Missouri] and then go on to New York,” the actor, who has called President Truman an idol, explained in an interview with People. “I was very excited.”
Six months pregnant with their son Eric at the time, Anne knew, however, that Kirk would soon be on the road promoting his movie The Vikings and jetting off to England soon after to film The Devil's Disciple. As she wrote in their book, "I don't know what came over me, but I had a strange feeling. 'Absolutely not, Kirk. I don't want you on that plane. You can fly commercial and meet him there.'"
An argument ensued between the husband and wife, and a "furious" Douglas decided that if he couldn't fly with Todd, he'd pass on the trip altogether. As Anne later recalled, he even "stomped off to bed without kissing me goodnight."
Douglas says his wife, Anne, 'saved my life'
The tension continued the next morning as Kirk, Anne — still not speaking to each other — and their young son Peter, along with his nanny, piled into the family car to drive to Los Angeles. To break the "uncomfortable silence," Douglas says he turned on the radio and soon heard the devastating news that Todd's plane, the Lucky Liz, which was carrying the producer and three others, had crashed in New Mexico shortly after takeoff. There were no survivors.
"I pulled onto the shoulder of the road immediately," wrote Kirk. "Shakily, I got out of the car. Anne joined me. We stood, wrapped together in a strong embrace, tears streaming down our faces. Finally, I said, 'Darling, you saved my life. I will always trust your intuition from now on.'"
Taylor and Todd were only married for a year before his death but had an epic love story
In Kirk and Anne, the pair, who have been married since May 1954, further reflected on their friendship with Taylor and Todd. One of Anne's favorite memories of the couple came in 1957 when she and Kirk visited the pair at London's Dorchester Hotel while the latter was on a weekend break from shooting The Vikings. Taylor was pregnant with her and Todd's daughter, Liza, and the Douglases arrived at their suite to find the Cleopatra actress eating chocolates in bed. "Elizabeth kept calling to Mike for more treats," she recalled. "Finally he went into the bedroom and yelled, 'Just shut up and be beautiful!'"
Anne, who noted she had "never seen Mike as besotted with any woman as he was with Elizabeth,” remembers giggling with Douglas as they also listened to their friends plan that evening's dinner. This is how she remembered the conversation:
"Mike, do you remember that little French restaurant on the Left Bank in Paris where we had that delicious meal a week ago?"
"Yeah, I remember."
"I feel like that."
As Anne told the story, Todd immediately called the restaurant, chartered a plane and had the meal Taylor requested flown in from France. "We ate that dinner at 10 o'clock," she said. "Now that's a showman!"
Joked Douglas, "Mike was a fantastic guy, but I hoped his extravagance with Elizabeth wouldn't give Anne ideas!"