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Authors: Tony Curtis

American Prince

BOOK: American Prince
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AMERICAN
PRINCE

To my wife, Jill Ann VandenBerg Curtis

Bring your visions to me clearly
Let me hear the sight of you
Reach out and know the wind is trembling,
Sighing silently your shade of blue.

T
ruly, Tony Curtis
has led an extraordinary life. He and I have been together for almost fifteen years now, and even for me it has been an amazing experience to read these pages. Of course we’ve always shared the most intimate stories of our lives, and yet Tony never talked much about the tragic deaths of his siblings, or what it truly was like to grow up in poverty, or in fear of being beaten up for being Jewish. I see more clearly now how Tony became such a fighter—there was no other way to survive, much less to make his amazing journey from living in an abandoned tenement building to becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, a member of America’s royalty. And now I know that so much of what is special about Tony—his generosity, his grace, his charm, his kindness, his enthusiasm for life, and his instinct for making every moment somehow grand—he taught himself by going to the movies and immersing himself in the cinematic lives of actors like Gene Kelly and Cary Grant, whom he so admired. I have never known anyone more romantic, more poetic, or more
alive
than Tony.

Tony may not have dwelled on the hardships he faced growing up, but he certainly never lost sight of what it’s like to have to work hard just to get by. From time to time we travel to New York City, where we sometimes stay at the St. Regis Hotel. When Tony was a boy, he shined shoes outside this very hotel, wistfully watching all the rich and famous people coming and going. Nowadays, when Tony pulls up in a chauffeured sedan and is warmly greeted by the doorman, he greets him graciously in return before pausing and looking at the spot near the sidewalk grate where he stood as a little boy, shoeshine box in hand. I have always loved that about Tony, his appreciation for just how far he has come.

Tony Curtis loves people, whether they are doormen or billionaires, and he is supremely comfortable in his own skin, which inspires me to live the same way. Shortly after he and I started dating, he said, “Come on, we are going to my friend Frank’s house for dinner.” Starting to learn that I always needed to be on my toes with Tony, I asked him the usual barrage of questions, so at least I would have some sense of what to wear. Tony’s response was simple, “It’s just my friend, Frank Sinatra.” Just like that. For Tony, the most important word in that sentence was “friend.” Not long after that dinner, Frank’s health declined, and Tony and I would go over to visit and play poker so that Frank could have a little company and remember the good times. At some point in the evening Tony would always sneak off to Frank’s bedroom, just to sit and be with his friend. From the living room Barbara and I could hear laughing, and sometimes a few tears. Tony and Frank were like brothers, and I think a little piece of Tony died the day Frank passed away.

After Tony and I were married in 1998, we moved to Las Vegas, where we live now. Vegas is a wonderful town. We have some great friends here and Tony really enjoys his life. People who live here somehow seem less judgmental than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I guess you have to have a sense of humor to live in a city with an Egyptian pyramid that shoots the most powerful light in the world out its top.

One day after we moved to Vegas the telephone rang, and Tony was offered a job performing in the stage musical of
Some Like It Hot.
He had not done theater work since he was very young, and he thought it would be an interesting challenge. Little did he know! For months, he trained, practiced lines, and rehearsed; there was Tony, seventy-seven years old, tap dancing and singing with his coach out in his art studio overlooking the Vegas strip. I was amazed at how hard Tony worked. After months of lessons at home, it was off to New York for rehearsals, and then to a year of touring and living out of suitcases. At age seventy-eight, Tony performed in all 237 shows in thirty-seven cities across the United States. People loved the show, and he was hilarious in it. What an experience!

The worst day of my life came in December 2006. That morning started much like any other. I woke early, spent some time with Tony, and left the house to tend to the horses at our ranch. A few hours later, I received a call that Tony had been taken by ambulance to the emergency room at St. Rose Hospital in Henderson, Nevada. Our housekeeper, Luz, had been at the grocery store, and Tony’s assistant had not yet arrived at work, so to this day none of us knows exactly what happened. We do know that Tony called 911 and told the dispatcher he was having difficulty breathing. Paramedics arrived within minutes, and placed a breathing tube down his throat, which is standard procedure. It was all downhill from there.

By the time I arrived at the E.R., Tony was already on a ventilator. The situation got worse when fluid began to accumulate in his lungs and he developed pneumonia. It was truly a horrific cycle: as Tony’s lungs filled with fluid they grew weaker, so the doctors couldn’t take out the breathing tube that was causing the fluid buildup. Worst of all, Tony was so confused that he fought the tube down his throat, forcing the doctors to keep him heavily sedated, and then to put him into a drug-induced coma. He stayed that way in the intensive care unit for thirty days.

It was the longest month of my life. Family and close friends came to town to help me with my bedside vigil, but all of us felt terribly helpless. Finally, the doctors came to me and said, “We’ve done everything we can. He’s either going to turn the corner or he’s not. Now it’s up to Tony.”

Christmas and the New Year came and went, and still Tony showed no signs of coming out of his coma. Finally, two weeks later, the clouds parted: he regained consciousness and came off the ventilator. But our happiness was short-lived. Now that Tony was conscious, we discovered that he was almost completely unable to move. All he could do was blink. It took everything I had not to break down completely when the doctors told me they didn’t know if his condition would ever improve.

But in a manner nothing short of miraculous, Tony slowly began to grow stronger. There have been poems written about the beauty of a nightingale’s song, or the joy in a baby’s laugh. I will tell you, though, that the sweetest sound I have ever heard was in a Nevada hospital room. I was sitting by Tony’s bed, passing the time watching a movie on my DVD player, when all of a sudden I heard that unmistakable gravelly voice: “What movie are you watching?” I turned to Tony, hugged him, and wept for joy.

After that, Tony underwent months of intensive rehabilitative therapy, learning to walk and talk again—all the things we take for granted. The amazing staff at HealthSouth in Henderson, Nevada, even taught him how to write his name, which may give you some sense of how far he had to come back. This was a man who had signed millions of autographs all around the world!

It has been a long and difficult fight for Tony, but the man is nothing if not a fighter, and he is doing wonderfully now. He is still in a wheelchair sometimes, but only when he gets tired. Not long after Tony finished his last rehab session, he was offered a role in the movie
David & Fatima,
and off we went to L.A. At one point between takes, he wheeled past me and my mom at high speed, shouting, “I am having the time of my life, girls!” Tony Curtis was back.

These days Tony is dedicating himself to painting, something he has enjoyed doing all his life. In April 2008, he had a sold-out art show in London, and another very successful art show in Paris. He also takes great pleasure in meeting people who have followed his movie career. There is nothing in the world like his laughter when he’s chatting with a fan that has waited a lifetime to meet Tony Curtis.

When Tony is not busy in the art studio, writing his poetry, or traveling the world, he’s actively involved in our ranch, a nonprofit foundation that he and I set up in 2003 called Shiloh Horse Rescue (
www.shilohhorserescue.com
).
Shiloh
is a Hebrew word meaning “a place of peace,” and on our forty-acre ranch in Sandy Valley, thirty miles outside Las Vegas, we take care of horses rescued from slaughter or from abuse or neglect. Tony and I have been very active in our support of the American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act and we have traveled to Washington, D.C., many times to walk the halls of Congress and the Senate trying to gain support for this worthy cause. Tony, my mom Sally, and I work hard to make Shiloh a place of peace for horses and other animals in need. Little did Tony know when he married me that one day he would have so many animals in his life; in addition to our many dogs and cats we usually have nearly two hundred horses at Shiloh at any given time. Our life is fulfilling and very busy.

One of Tony’s favorite poems is “Richard Cory” by Edwin Robinson, and there’s a stanza in the poem that always makes me think of Tony:

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

Tony truly does glitter among us. And it’s not just for the 122 movies he’s made, or for the hundreds of amazing stories you’re about to read. He also has been knighted by the Hungarian Government and has received the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Government; among his countless awards is an honorary doctorate from the University of Nevada at Las Vegas; his art is in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and in the homes of some of the world’s most influential people. Tony is a generous sponsor of the U.S. Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C. (he always refers to the Navy as his “other mother”), and he feels very strongly about supporting the men and women in our armed services. He also helped restore the Dohány Synagogue in Budapest, in honor of his family.

As you will see in the pages ahead, Tony Curtis may be a film icon, but he’s no saint. He’s very much flesh and blood, a human being with his share of faults and weaknesses. Yet there really is something about him that is larger than life. You can’t help but smile when you hear his loud burst of laughter, see his mischievous grin, or hear that mellow, baritone voice. A bit of Tony’s glitter rubs off on everyone he meets, and all our lives are richer for it.

J
ILL
A
NN
C
URTIS

July 2008

Las Vegas, Nevada

BOOK: American Prince
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