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The Kirk Douglas Booked A Seat On Flight 375

Little did Kirk Douglas realize, when he checked into Boston’s palatial Ritz Carlton Hotel on a crisp fall morning a few weeks back, that as long as he lived he’d never forget the two days which were to follow.

It was 11 o’clock, Monday morning. Kirk wrote his signature with bold swiftness on the hotel register. He was scheduled to meet the press in ten minutes, and he didn’t even bother to unpack. He needed to get on with this tour he was making to plug “Spartacus,” the huge twelve-million dollar epic film he’d just finished.

That noon he was host at luncheon to seven local columnists. Later in the day he addressed a group of college professors at Boston University. And then, following a quick dinner with his Boston field man, Bucky Harris, the actor greeted more press in addition to taping a couple of radio interviews. It was well past midnight when he switched off the lights in his suite overlooking the scenic Boston Commons. He slept, as he always does when he’s on the road, very restlessly, and was up and dressed by 6:30 A.M.

Over an early cup of coffee he studied his agenda, discovering that he had seen everyone on it except commentator-writer Elliot Norton. He frowned as he noticed that the television show he was to tape with Norton was set for the afternoon. If he could do it earlier, he’d be all cleaned up and could move on to Philadelphia.

When Harris joined him for breakfast he said, “Look, Bucky, can’t I do the Norton interview this morning instead?”

The request wasn’t as easy as it sounded. Bucky explained that the television studio was tied up until afternoon with other shows.

“See if you can sneak us in,” Kirk said as he got up from the table.

“But there’s another problem,” Harris said hesitantly. “You’re not booked out of Boston until the 5:30 flight. There’s one other at 1:30 but it’s probably booked solid.”

Kirk never is put off by long odds and Bucky was soon on the telephone. He finally succeeded in getting the interview arranged for that morning, but the second request seemed hopeless. The airlines were swamped with reservations.

“All we can do is put Mr. Douglas and you on a standby list,” Harris was informed by a clerk.

They had both been confirmed on the 5:30 flight, an Eastern Airlines Electra jet. Now they stood one chance in a thousand to get on Flight 375 at 1:30. But Kirk was so sure it would be all right that he began making plans.

“I’m ahead of schedule,” he thought to himself, “they don’t expect me in Philly till tonight, and I have nothing to do until tomorrow morning. So why not have some fun?” He remembered reading in the New York papers that Dore Schary’s new play, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” was in Philly for a break-in. If they got on the 1:30 flight, he could see it tonight.

One final call to the airlines met with success. There were two last-minute cancellations. So Kirk and his associate checked in at the Eastern Airlines counter for the 1:30 tourist flight to Philadelphia. In the busy terminal building he paused to put fifty cents in an insurance coin machine.

“There’s another fifty cents shot to hell,” he said with a grin. He’s heavily insured, but explained, “It’s a habit with me, taking out flight insurance.”

Logan Airport bustled with activity as Kirk stood by while the ticket agent scanned the passenger list to check his name off.

“You’re all set,” the agent smiled as he handed the ticket back. “I’ll cross your name off the 5:30 flight.”

Walking to the plane, Kirk took deep breaths of the crisp clean air, and commented on the ideal flying conditions. Soon the plane raced down the runway and into the clear blue sky. As the shoreline of Boston harbor fell away, he settled back in his seat, content. Everything had gone well in Boston, and tonight he would relax.

That afternoon, he checked into the Warick Hotel in Philadelphia. First thing he did when he got to his room was to telephone his wife in New York. No matter where Kirk was, Paris or Mexico City, he always phoned Anne each day to let her know he was all right. And this time he was particularly anxious to talk with her because she was stuck in New York with a sprained ankle and couldn’t stay on the “Spartacus” tour with him.

“I finished up in Boston sooner than I expected,” he told Anne. “I’m in Philly.” And she assured him she was feeling much better and would meet him in Chicago on Thursday. Kirk didn’t know, but it was one of the most meaningful calls of his married life.

He went downstairs intending to grab a quick dinner before the show, and in the lobby heard people discussing a plane crash. Others began to cluster, talking excitedly.

Suddenly he heard a newsboy calling:

“Extra, Extra. Boston plane crash kills 61.”

He hurriedly bought a paper.

“An Eastern Airplane’s Electra jet crashed this afternoon shortly after takeoff from Boston,” he read, “At least 61 of the 72 passengers aboard Flight 375 are dead.”

He stood in the middle of the lobby, staring at the words.

Not that one, he thought. Not the plane I was supposed to take.

The shock was enough to numb him. It was like being hit over the head. He said it out loud. “I was supposed to be on that plane.”

A game with Fate

He shuddered The newspaper was crumpled in his fist, but he didn’t have to see the words. He knew what they were like. From last time. From March 22, 1958 He’d never forget those words either. “Producer Mike Todd, writer Art Cohn and the pilot and co-pilot of Todd’s private plane, The Lucky Liz, were killed instantly today when it crashed and exploded on a desolate mountain top in the badlands near Grants, New Mexico.”

He was supposed to be on that plane, too. What was it with him? What kind of a game was Fate playing with him—again!

All these poor devils, he thought. Sixty- one dead and I’m alive. He went into the hotel restaurant and ordered coffee. Usually, he would sip it automatically but now he noticed the smooth feel of the cup, how hot the coffee was, how good it tasted. He was safe out of it, but a whole planeful of people had died hideously! He was grateful to escape—but, he thought they’d wanted to live too!

Thank God he called Anne as soon as he did. She’d be out of her mind otherwise.

Shaken up as he was, he decided to go ahead and see the play, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.” Maybe it would take his mind off this terrible thing that happened to 61 people. But he couldn’t shake the chill of his own near miss. If he hadn’t plowed through his work and finished ahead of schedule . . .

That other time too—only work saved him. Mike Todd had all but insisted: “Come to New York with me.” But he couldn’t be tempted, he was in the middle of a big job and it had to be done. He’d have liked to see Mike collect his “Showman of the Year” award from the Friars Club, but he didn’t go. So out of duty he had escaped death. And again today!

In New York some of his friends who hadn’t dared phone his wife, were sick with the news. For high on the list of dead or missing, a victim was identified as R. Douglas. Could this be Kirk? Douglas always used his full name, but maybe in the excitement there was a mixup in the name. Finally one of them got up the courage to call Anne. Even though she knew that Kirk was in Philadelphia, the thought of his near-disaster unnerved her. She had never shared his confidence in flying. She went with him—but always apprehensively.

Who died in his place?

The next day he read the fuller details of the crash and it was one shock on top of another, it was so horrible. He felt full of pity, and a queer feeling that was almost like remorse. The poor unfortunate who rode in the seat that would have been his—who was he? Or she? And he wondered about the coincidence of a man with his last name being on the same plane where he might have been riding to his death too. This man had now been fully identified as Robert J. Douglass of Marblehead, Mass. But what about the rest of it—was he married, did he leave a wife and children?

It hurt to read about Al Cohan. Al was on the same kind of tour as he was. M-G-M had sent him to the Eastern cities to publicize “Butterfield 8”, the Liz Taylor – Laurence Harvey picture. He’d taken the plane. Now he was dead and what seemed to make it even more tragic was that just the day before the crash, Cohan had written to his mother in New York, telling her he had been at odds with himself, but now knew that life held a purpose for him. A purpose—a meaning—and now it was too late!

The news of the crash, the worst in New England’s history, stunned the nation, Only eleven of the seventy-two passengers had survived. If he had been on the plane, would he have been one of the luck eleven* he doubted it. He’d escaped death once in Mike’s plane, but this time, he told himself, the odds would have been against him. Because most of the survivors were in the rear of the craft, and he had a habit of usually riding in the front.

When investigators turned up the shocking evidence that the crash was caused by hundreds—maybe thousands—of starlings being sucked into the big Turbo engines, at take-off, a sudden memory gave him another hard jolt. He remembered looking out of the window and seeing the birds, clustered in masses on the sunny end of the runway to keep warm against the pavement. And he’d smiled at the sight of them, so innocent, so trusting, to sit on a runway with a Jet rushing at them.

He read all the accounts of the tragedy and they were sickening. All over the United States, people were reading them. But who, besides him and Bucky, knew what it was like to feel, “It could have been me . . . I was supposed to be on that plane . . .” If he swore off flying forever, while he was ahead, nobody would blame him.

But he didn’t.

“You have to accept life as it comes,” he said. He was back at his desk at Bryna Productions in Hollywood. “What must be, must be.”

Yet he insists he’s not a fatalist. “I don’t believe that life is predetermined for us,” he says. “I think of life as a challenge. To get where you want to go, you accept the risks and take the gamble. My job calls for flying and I fly. People get killed every day just crossing streets—if I were a fatalist I wouldn’t go out of the house.”

As the only son of Russian immigrants, Kirk struggled so hard in his youth to help feed his parents and six sisters, that he had no time to fear death. His struggle to be a top money-making Hollywood star was even tougher.

“And I’d never have made it,” he says, “if I didn’t take gambles.” He admits you might call it luck or fate that he wasn’t on either the doomed Electra or the Lucky Liz. But he also wonders if keeping his nose to the grindstone both times didn’t give fate or luck a helping hand.

But his wife takes a different view. Anne now refuses to fly on the same plane with her husband. Not because she’s afraid he could be “marked” for tragedy. But she feels it would be terrible for their children, Peter, aged five, and one-year-old Eric, if anything ever happened to both of them at the same time. So they fly on separate planes that leave a few minutes apart from each other.

“Anne left on a jet from Chicago five minutes before I did,” Kirk recalled, “and we arrived in Los Angeles five minutes apart.” He goes along on this precaution, but he certainly isn’t superstitious about being in for a third brush with death. As this writer was leaving his office, he picked up the telephone and made reservations to fly to Europe for a new picture.




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