When 85-year-old screen legend and Bronx native Tony Curtis died at his Henderson, NV, home 2 years ago on September 29, 2010, he left behind a body of work that included classics such as The Defiant Ones, Spartacus, and The Sweet Smell of Success.
But his greatest success came in Billy Wilder’s 1959 classic comedy, Some Like it Hot, where he and co-star Jack Lemmon paraded around in women’s garb lusting after Marilyn Monroe.
Curtis’s success was hardly surprising. With picture-perfect good looks, an intriguing raspy New York accent, and plenty of raw talent, he quickly climbed through the studio ranks and into the hearts of millions of fans.
Jill Vandenberg, however, wasn’t really one of them. Even as a teenager, she was more interested in horses than movie stars. But when Curtis approached her at a Los Angeles restaurant in 1994, the couple exchanged phone numbers, and began dating. Four years later, they were married.
“He was the funniest guy ever, just hilarious and so sweet,” Jill Curtis said in a recent phone interview. “I felt I’d known him forever.”
Despite being some forty years his junior and his fifth wife (not sixth as is widely reported), the couple became inseparable and traveled the world together.
But horses remained Jill’s passion. She was horrified to learn one day that thousands of unwanted American horses were slaughtered each year, for human consumption in Asia and Europe. So she approached her husband with an idea.
Curtis recalled the moment to me in the summer of 2006 during an interview at his ranch in Sandy Valley, NV, 45-minutes south of Las Vegas.
“We were driving in the car one evening and Jillie told me she wanted to save some of those horses. I told her let’s go do it,” he said.
With a team of volunteers, they dug wells, erected fences and stables, and began transforming a 40-acre desolate spot in Sandy Valley into an oasis for mistreated horses which the couple called Shiloh. To date, some 600 horses have found safe haven there.
Prior to creating Shiloh, Curtis was no stranger to horses himself.
“I had to learn how to ride for many of my films,” he told me. “But being a Jewish kid from New York City, the studios didn’t think I could ride. So I’d go to the studio stables when no one was around, get a horse, and go down to the corral and practice.”
Jill says her husband was very enthusiastic about her horse rescue efforts.
“He supported it, supported me doing it, and was wonderful,” she said. “Tony was a well-known artist, and a percentage of his income from his artwork went to saving horses. He liked knowing that something good was being done for them. We were planning to build a house at Shiloh when Tony got sick for the last time.”
After Tony’s passing, Jill found it difficult to live in the house they shared for over a decade in Henderson, a suburb of Las Vegas.
“I sold our house in Henderson and moved out to Shiloh at the beginning of the year,” said Jill. “Having Shiloh really saved my life after Tony’s passing. We were together for 16 years and married for 12. It has been such an incredibly emotionally difficult two years for me without him. Shiloh gave me something meaningful to work on during my grieving. The whole property has now been developed with barns and pastures. We named it Shiloh, meaning ‘a place of peace.”
However, in addition to grieving, the past 2 years have been anything but peaceful for Jill Curtis who was left the bulk of her husband’s estate. Not surprisingly, several of Tony Curtis’s five children from previous marriages publically voiced their disappointment at being omitted from their father’s will, which was unsuccessfully contested in 2011.
“Tony wasn’t close with his family and he knew this was going to happen,” explained Jill. “So he had good attorneys to make sure his final wishes were carried out. He actually left almost half a million dollars for his grandchildren. That was never talked about, but he thought their education was important.”
Despite initial concerns about their daughter’s involvement with an older man and legendary womanizer in his youth, Jill says her parents soon accepted their famous, elderly, son-in-law.
“My family loved Tony, and helped me look after him in the last years of his life,” said Jill.
When I talked with Curtis in 2006, he was clearly enamored with his wife. “I can’t imagine life without her,” he said. “She keeps me young.”
But he also acknowledged the rough patches and poor choices: an impoverished childhood living in his parents’ Bronx tailor shop, a physically abusive mother and distant father, several high profile marriages, alienation from his children, the deaths of his younger brother and his youngest son, the uncertainty of an acting career, and a past cocaine addiction.
“It wasn’t always easy, but I’ve had a great career and can’t complain,” Curtis told me. “I started with nothing and got to the top of my profession. I want my success to be an example for young people who aspire to be actors.”
Perhaps one of those ambitious actors will go on and earn an Oscar, something which Curtis never achieved (just one nomination for The Defiant Ones).
“It has bothered me at times that I never won,” he admitted with a stoic laugh.
Curtis never forgot the Hollywood snub. The day before he passed away, the doctor visited him at home and asked if he had any pain anywhere.
“Tony looked at him and said ‘only in LA,’” recalled Jill. “He kept his sense of humor, right up to the end.”
Thomas is author of “Raised by the Stars: Interviews with 29 Children of Hollywood Actors,” published by McFarland Press. His features and columns have appeared in more than 200 magazines and newspapers, including the Washington Post, LA Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, and Christian Science Monitor.
For more on Tony Curtis, please visit his official web site here.
For more on Shiloh horse rescue, please visit here.
– Photo by Reuers.