Cover image for In the wings : a memoir
In the wings : a memoir
Douglas, Diana, 1923-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New York : Barricade Books, 1999.
Physical Description:
370 pages, 16 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 24 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library PN2287.D283 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
Central Library PN2287.D283 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
Williamsville Library PN2287.D283 A3 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

On Order



The author recounts her career as an actress, first marriage to Kirk Douglas, second marriage to author Bill Darrid, and her relationships with her sons, Michael and Joel, and fellow actors.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Born Diana Dill to a privileged family in Bermuda in 1923, Darrid, the mother of actor Michael Douglas and former wife of Kirk, writes that she acquired an "English schooling reticence" during her teens. Indeed, an admirable reserve and dignity characterize this memoir. Working as a Powers Agency model, she graced the cover of Life in the early 1940s. She met Kirk Douglas in New York City, and although their subsequent marriage resulted in two children, Michael and Joel, it ended quickly. They separated in the early '50s as he rose to fame on the strength of Champion (1949), while she played a supporting role in Joseph Mankewicz's House of Strangers (1949). She later married the actor-producer-novelist Bill Darrid; they remained together for 37 years until his death in 1992. Her own career was prolific if not stellar, including a dozen movies, live television, Broadway (Edward Albee's Everything in the Garden) and several stints as a regular on Days of Our Lives. Darrid tells anecdotes well, amusingly relating how her car broke down on a deserted California highway 20 minutes before curtain time, and how the actor Murvyn Vye, unable to handle screaming directions from Otto Preminger, became "trembling and incoherent" on stage. As one might expect, a host of celebrities make cameos, but Darrid does not linger on them. Even her friend, the "charming and funny" Brenda Vaccaro, and her son, Michael, appear on only a few pages. While readers may regret having their curiosity aroused and not sated, Darrid should be praised for keeping her priorities straight and her focus on her own story. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One BERMUDA--1926 M y earliest memory is of standing, holding the bars of my crib in the dark.     Something had awakened me. Some noise beyond the pounding of the waves below my parent's bedroom. Something that seemed to come from the fireplace.     I heard it again. A faint tinkle. Then a louder jingling of bells. I gripped the bars tighter. Then footsteps stamping on the roof and a loud, hoarse male voice echoing down the chimney.     "Ho-ho!" it bellowed. "Ho, ho, ho, ho, ho!"     I screamed loudly.     "Oh my God," said the voice.     I kept on screaming till my mother's footsteps came pattering up the hall. In vain she tried to comfort me while my teenage brother, Laurence, stood red-faced and apologetic. He had decided, with his flair for the dramatic, to reinforce my belief in Santa Claus by acting out the part, shaking sleigh bells, and shouting down the chimney.     I viewed both Laurence and Santa with suspicion from then on.     I don't know why I was in my parents' room that night. Some relative or guest must have been occupying the bed in my nursery. The nursery was painted a vivid shade of pink with the high, white-tray ceiling typical of Bermuda houses. Sometimes a lizard or land crab would cross the beams, and the large bed was draped in gauzy mosquito netting. Stuffed animals and long-legged dolls lolled in the pillows, sometimes sharing the bed with friends of my brother's, sleeping off hangovers.     There was a bookcase with all the Christopher Robin books and a large dollhouse that my sister, Fan, would decorate with tiny, white lights at Christmastime. On the wall were two pictures of a sailing ship," The Seeadler", autographed to "My dear little Diana, from Erich Von Luckner." I don't remember meeting the infamous Count Von Luckner (known for his piratical raids on British ships during World War I), but I gather, as a baby, I made quite a hit with him when he was visiting.     Our house was always an open and hospitable one. Guests came and went in bewildering profusion. One young man, a Scottish laird named Lord Dundas, hung around for several months, claiming to be a Cambridge classmate of my brother Bayard. I would see him in the morning, scurrying out of the bathroom past me wrapped in a sheet, looking terminally anxious.     Mother kept mentioning him in her letters to Bayard and finally got a response that he barely knew the guy and, furthermore, could not stand him. Nevertheless, it was hard for my kindhearted mother to ask him to leave. It wasn't until Laurence came down with pleurisy, and Dundas, raiding the fridge, ate up the last of the eggs she had been saving for the invalid's eggnog that she hit the roof and ordered him gone. By that time he had been with us almost four months.     Once, I found the entire Edwards family in my bed. They had recently moved into "Winton," a house on the hill behind ours, and we knew them only slightly. Their father had gotten drunk and chased them out of the house with a shotgun. Mother took them in, with warnings to me not to talk about the incident as it might upset them.     Life was full of adult secrets that must not be discussed and, though a sunny exterior was maintained for the most part, the difference between things as they were purported to be and things as they actually were puzzled and fascinated me.     So I watched the Edwards family in church. Father, mother, and children all singing lustily together, praising the Lord, and I wondered. I watched a friend of my brother's sleeping in my bed in a fume of alcohol, his face innocent as a baby's. I remembered how cruel and sarcastic he was when awake. And I wondered.     I would hear slurred and angry voices coming from the library at night, but when my father's bugle wakened us in the morning, I was told that they were merely discussing Points of law. I would hurry by the library door with its smell of cigar smoke and whiskey.     Still, by and large, those days were sunny and blissful. Barefoot, I would squat on the rocks, watching the tiny sea creatures in the tidal pools, feed hibiscus buds to my pet turtle, dress my patient Airedale in my doll's clothes and wheel him in a pram, and drag a stick behind me, explaining to my black nanny that it was a prancing steed. And sometimes I would run away.     I remember my forays being based on curiosity, not unhappiness, a wish to see what was around the next bend, what new interesting friends there were to be made. Once, I slipped away from my mother at the Agricultural Exhibit and hitched a ride home with a farmer, his cart piled high with produce. We had an interesting discussion about frogs.     Later, I was told of the anxiety I had caused by my wanderlust. My father had recently proposed legislation in Parliament limiting immigration to the island, and this had caused some families to be separated. He had been receiving threats, to him and the family, but none of this was imparted to me.     I loved the hurricanes. The preparations as the waves grew higher and the sky grew darker, the outdoor furniture brought in, the last phone calls before the line went dead, the candles and hurricane lamps brought out. It was a time when the family was closest, huddled round the fireplace in the dining room. Mother sang softly as she massaged our scalps and we sipped cocoa. Beatrice and Israel, the cook and groom, sang hymns from their native Antigua, and Father and the boys made occasional forays to check on the storm shutters while the wind shrieked outside.     The curious look of everything after the storm. Boats high on the pasture land. New vistas across the hill where the trees had been toppled. The oleanders smelled like ice cream tasted, and dew shone on the cedar berries. Fan's marmoset rode an upturned table floating in the garden. Big fronds, fallen off palmetto trees made fine sleds for racing downhill, and we bumped them over the ha-has on Granny's lawn.     My father was descended from two brothers born in Northern Ireland in the early seventeenth century. They were on their way to Virginia, but stepped off the boat in Bermuda and decided to stay. They were ardent royalists and remained so all during the tenure of Oliver Cromwell, one of them reportedly fighting a duel in Devonshire churchyard defending the king's name.     Their descendants were mostly sea captains, building their barques out of Bermuda cedar grown on their properties, sailing them to England in the good weather to have the iron ribs put in, then doing commerce from Newfoundland to the Caribbean. From letters my father unearthed, it seemed likely that some of the business in the Caribbean included privateering, but they maintained their churchgoing respectability at home.     The last of the sea captains was my great-grandfather, Thomas Melville Dill, who sailed one of his ships, the Sir George Seymore , from Bermuda to Ireland in thirteen days, a record I believe is still unbroken. His last ship, the Cedrene , was wrecked off the Isle of Wight on her maiden voyage, but all hands were saved. The vessel had an afterlife as the ceiling in the chapel at Mottistone where it remains to this day, filling the air with the aroma of Bermuda cedar. Sadly, Captain Dill contracted cholera at the East India docks in London, his signet ring was mailed back to his wife in Bermuda, and he was buried in the Bows Lane cemetery, in London, crossed anchors on his headstone. That signet ring had five cuts on the back of it where it had been cut off the fingers of five deceased Dills. It was reputed to be cursed so that any male member of the family wearing it off the island would die abroad, and the ring mailed back.     His son, my grandfather, Thomas Newbold Dill, was mayor of Hamilton and, I gather, of somewhat liberal persuasion politically, something that my father rebelled against. My father was fiercely and dogmatically Tory with a strong militaristic bent. "Might makes right!" he would pronounce with a triumphant grin, silencing all opposition.     My mother, Ruth Neilson, was an American who traced her ancestry back to Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch governor of New York. Livingstons and Van Rensselaers were also in the family tree, along with presidents of Columbia and Rutgers. However, she grew up in relatively modest circumstances, living with her parents and two sisters on the banks of the Raritan River in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.     She described her first sight of my father, Thomas Dill, climbing up the hill from his sailboat, with a watermelon tucked under one arm as a house gift. She immediately lost her heart. She was then fifteen. When she was twenty-one, she persuaded my grandmother to take a trip to Bermuda, where she and father met again, and he proposed to her, sitting on the High Rock, the rock where all their children learned to dive.     She was a merry soul, optimistic and pliable, traits that she certainly needed in dealing with my autocratic father.     "You are much too lenient!" he would say.     "I have to be since you are much too strict!" she would retort.     Nevertheless, they were a deeply devoted couple, complimenting each other with their differences, both with a curiosity and relish for life that made them lively companions. They were also both incredibly handsome.     Granny Dill lived in the house across the way, and she kept a severe eye on all the comings and goings at Newbold Place. She heard our catechism on Sundays and laid down the law as to what could and couldn't be done on that holy day. No tennis on Sundays. No jazz music on Sundays. No red to be worn on Sundays. And definitely no dancing on Sundays. She looked a bit like Queen Victoria and always had a tin of licorice at her side. One of the grandchildren was always delegated to ride in her carriage with her to church, something we always tried to avoid, as we got our knuckles rapped if we missed a part of the catechism.     For the first few years of my parents' marriage, she had insisted that they live in her house in an apartment she had built over her living quarters. But when the third child, Bayard, was on the way, my usually docile mother delivered an ultimatum to my father. They had to move to their own house ... or else. With that, Newbold Place, a family holding directly across the way and on the seashore, was made over to them, and the rest of their six children were born there.     Ruth was the oldest. She married Seward (Johnny) Johnson, when she was twenty-one, in 1924, the year after my birth, so I have no early memories of her. Then Tommy, sweet natured, awkward, and unpredictable when drunk. Bayard, away at Cambridge until 1928, sending pictures of himself on the tennis team looking dapper in a striped blazer, racquet tucked under his arm. Laurence, red-haired and musical, an incorrigible tease and prankster. And Fan, almost eight years my senior, busy with her girlfriends and school.     "Remember," she would say to me, "you're not the only drip in the ocean!" Perhaps, my being the youngest, she was afraid that I might be spoiled.     I was born late in my parents' life. Mother was forty-three and Father close to fifty when I arrived, unplanned. Father seemed in a continual state of chronic, middle-aged irritation through my childhood, but my mother was comforting and protecting always. The only time she lost her temper was when confronted by dishonesty or lying, resulting in a swift whack with her hairbrush across one's bottom.     My father's punishments were always more deliberate. One waited in trepidation for the razor strop. At the age of about five or six, I announced that I was too old to bare my bottom and asked that my hands be whipped instead. Father complied on the condition that I not weep. I didn't, but fixed him with a steely stare.     I don't remember getting the razor strop again.     The nannies came and went, not making much impression, but I loved Beatrice and would hang around while she was ironing and listen to wonderful, scary stories about Antigua. One day we were watching the boys on the dock hang their feet in the water to catch octopi (scuttles they were called locally). They waited for an octopus to wrap its tentacles around their ankles, then lifted the creature out, biting between its eyes and turning it inside out where it lay, paralyzed but still alive, waiting to be cut up for bait.     "In Antigua," Beatrice said, "I did that, and you know what happened? Damn octopus go right up my arm. Up, up my throat. Tentacle up my nose. Israel cut off the tentacle, but it kept wiggling up ... up ... "     "Did you ever get it out?"     "I don't know. Take a look up there. See anything?"     I peered up the broad nostrils, and she grabbed me, laughing and rocking me back and forth. She sang wonderful Calypso songs about crime and death and voodoo. Later, when Calypso became popular and was played in nightclubs, it always seemed out of place to me. It belonged with Winnie the Pooh and nursery rhymes.     My brother, Bayard, came home from Cambridge when I was five, bringing with him a fellow law student who later became his partner, Jim Pearman. I fell desperately in love with Jim, and asked him to please wait until I grew up before making any plans to marry.     "But can you cook?" he asked seriously.     "I can make great tomato sandwiches," I answered with equal seriousness.     "Well, then ... "     He seemed to be considering it, but married the first year I was in boarding school.     The fifth of November, Guy Fawkes Day, was always the cause of a big celebration. Preparations would start weeks earlier. Stuffing a rag dummy (lifesize), painting its face with curly mustaches, and finding the right clothes for a seventeenth-century plotter (black cape and plumed hat were best, but once we made do with my father's riding breeches), assembling firecrackers, rockets, sparklers, and little red spitters that wriggled through the grass spitting blue flame.     Then the pyre was built. Cedar branches and palmetto fronds were stacked to a height of about twenty feet and soaked in kerosene.     On the night of the fifth, the effigy would be strapped to a chair and carried up the hill to the bloodthirsty chant of: "Guy Fawkes Guy!/Stick him up on high/Stick him on a wood pile/And there let him die!"     Then someone would climb up on a ladder and rope him to a stake. Someone else would plunge a torch into the pyre, and the flames would roar up into the sky while everyone cheered. Rockets flew and sparklers danced.     One fifth, someone set off a rocket too close to me, and I took off running down the hill in the dark. I ran into a barbed-wire fence and tore a corner of my mouth open. There were family discussions about whether stitches should be taken, but Mother, with her instinctive knowledge of home medicine, knew that stitches would leave a scar. Instead, she applied bread poultices, letting it heal slowly. Bread, we now know, is the basis for penicillin and there is no scar. Only occasionally will a studio makeup artist remark that one side of my mouth doesn't match the other.     At this time, there were no cars in Bermuda (they didn't arrive until the 1940s). Most families owned a horse and carriage, and those who didn't got around by pedal bike. We had a horse and carriage and also a pony trap with a vile-tempered pony named Joe. He would kick and bite anyone who came within range while being harnessed, but once between the shafts, behaved quite sensibly and would transport me to Woodside when I started school.     Woodside was the Watlington family home over on the Middle Road, and one of the daughters, Clare, had started teaching a few children. Some people are natural teachers, and she was one. She never talked down to her charges, listened well, and made learning an exciting adventure. She was disciplined and brought us along at a smart pace. We were doing long division by the time we were six, and we had a good start in geography and history.     There were about ten boys and as the only girl, I was a natural target for their teasing. After pouting a bit, I discovered that if I told long and outrageous stories, they would leave off baiting me and listen. I was the Scheherazade of Devonshire Parish, weaving ever-more elaborate tales, some with a tiny kernel of truth, but mostly sheer fabrication.     I took one little fellow under my wing. His mother made him wear pastel knitted suits, and he took a lot of ribbing from the rest of the boys. When they taunted him, he would get nervous and pee, and this aroused all my maternal instincts.     Clare remembers coming into the classroom, seeing a large puddle on the floor, and hearing me claim, dramatically, "Miss Clare, I've been crying and crying. See what a big puddle I've made." That little fellow is now one of the directors of the Bank of Bermuda. I haven't reminded him.     Bayard began courting Clare at around this time, and sometimes he would ride me over on the bars of his bike with Fan pedaling beside us on her way to Bermuda High School.     One day, as Fan was on her way up the North Shore, cycling alone, a dog leapt on her from a high wall, and she was badly bitten around the neck and shoulders. I lay on her bed while she was home from school and had her relate every grisly detail. Thereafter, I had months of nightmares involving bulldogs and would run, whimpering, up to my parents' bed and leap in beside Mother.     She would pat me, making a comforting sound we called the motherly neigh.     Father would say, "Jesus Christ, not again !" as he flopped over.     Living on the water, it was important that we all be able to swim, and we all could by the age of three. Father would blow reveille on his bugle at about five-thirty in the morning, and we would all pile out as he came bellowing down the hall.     "Show a leg! Show a leg!" Some sort of naval term which galvanized us into action.     We would leap into the water from the dock, swimming year-round. (He had a theory that cold water prevented colds.) Then up to the lawn behind the house for calisthenics, then the flags were hoisted: the Union Jack up the main flagpole, the red ensign up one adjacent, and the house flag on the tower. Then we were allowed to have breakfast.     One family I loved to visit were the Tites, who rented one of the Devonshire Dock houses from my father. The grandfather was a carpenter with a great, white walrus mustache and a deft hand at turning cedar. I loved to watch him at work, the cedar shaving curling up around his feet, his blue eyes concentrated, the rich sharp smell of the wood filling the room. The Tites had five children and the eldest, Alice, was about my age. The others were a year apart, stepping down to the baby whose diapers were always full.     Mrs. Tite was tired and harried, her hair stringing loose from a skimpy bun. Mr. Tite was a shadowy figure, seldom seen, until one memorable day.     Alice had been playing with me in my nursery and had admired a dress I had. I had insisted she take it. The next day, I dropped over to the Tites and was met outside the back door by a furious and tearful Mr. Tite. He threw the dress at me.     "Take it!" he yelled. "We don't need your charity! We may be poor, but we're proud!"     It was the first time I had seen a grownup cry. I was aghast and ashamed, but still not sure what I had done wrong. The Tite children stood behind the screen door and didn't come out. Mr. Tite's eyes were red and full of hate as he glared at me.     I picked up the dress from the dirt and backed away.     I supposed I played with the children again, but I don't remember it or any reconciliation. I know that I didn't tell my parents as I sensed that they were implicated in some way.     Mother sometimes took me along when she went calling, an excruciating experience for an active child, but one that she felt was helpful in terms of discipline and the social graces. Cards were left on a silver platter if the recipient was not at home, and tea was taken if she was. I would stare at my black patent-leather shoes and will myself to a land of castles and pirate ships while the grownups spoke of dinner parties and charitable organizations, dropping their voices and darting sidelong glances at me when anything scandalous was in the air.     Scandalous. Sex was interesting, fascinating, there was no getting around that. Fan and her best friend, in their early teens, would closet themselves in our bedroom, locking me out, while they discussed delicious secrets, told smutty jokes and otherwise exchanged information. Infuriated, I told them that I would chop down the door if they didn't let me in. They didn't believe me, and to this day, there are deep hatchet gouges in the cedar door of the bedroom.     Alice's brother, Sonny Tite, proposed one day, "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." Alice and I took off our pants with alacrity and pulled our skirts above our waists. A sideways glance reassured me that Alice's hairless pubis was identical to mine, and Sonny stared to his heart's content, blue eyes glittering, but when it came time for him to reciprocate, he refused and ran off laughing while Mice and I pelted him with stones. I remember tears and anger at having been taken advantage of and a fear of parental discovery for, though sex had never been discussed, there was a consciousness of shame.     In 1929, when I was six, we spent the summer at Bayhead, New Jersey. The musical Whoopee with Eddie Cantor was a big hit that year, and one saw it everywhere. Laurence had a Whoopee shirt that he wore until Mother insisted it be laundered. He then sat on the beach sulking, getting the deadly sunburn that only redheads seem to get. I remember peeling sheets of skin off his back, putting them carefully into a tin lozenge box.     Bobby Johnson, Ruth's nephew about my age, tried to interest me in another bout of "show," but I was too canny this time and suggested it would be more fun to set fire to an abandoned house instead. Luckily, some adults intervened before we could carry out our plans, and for the rest of our stay, I was bedded with whooping cough.     Back in Bermuda, plans were afoot. Steamer trunks came out and Snapper, our Airedale, sat on them and howled. Last minute trips to the dentist (a woman, as I recall--fairly unusual for those days) and being fitted for shoes, lace-up oxfords which felt strange after bare feet or sandals but were, I was told, de rigueur for ... London. Copyright © 1999 Diana Douglas Darrid. All rights reserved.

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