My Memories of Will Durant

by Rose Levy

The first time I met Will Durant was on a Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1954.

My husband and I had announced our engagement, and were invited to the Durant's hilltop home, "Casa de la Vista," on Briarcliff Road in Hollywood.

Will Durant seriously observed our then young and eager faces. He talked about the secret of a happy marriage. "We have no secret formula," he smiled, "I can only advise you to love each other and respect each other's differences." He glanced at his beloved Ariel, a twinkle in his blue eyes, "Never go to bed angry at one another." He continued gazing at his wife, "Tell yourselves - This is for life!" He cleared his throat, "When Ariel and I married in 1913, Whitman's words were on my lips as we left the baffled judge in the City Hall. "Shall we two stick to each other as long as we live?" Ariel, standing behind Will's rocking chair, piped in, "To the very end!" The same words she had answered him on their wedding day.

I had studied about Will Durant at school. His Story of Philosophy had been on our required reading list. It was inconceivable to me that this great man of history, literature and philosophy would take the time to walk us to our car. His white-peppery hair shone in the sun as he kissed my hand, bidding "goodbye, come back again soon." At that moment, I was completely in awe of the slight mustached gentleman who, in my eyes, was nothing less than a giant.

Rudyard Kipling, in his poem "If" said:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch.
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much.

Will Durant walked with kings an never lost the common touch. He always cared for his fellow human beings. He was a true friend and was most appreciative of any attention bestowed on him and his dear Ariel.

Among my treasures is a typewritten letter dated November 7, 1977:

Dear Rose, Ben and Family,

Am writing with just one finger available on my right hand; my sprained wrist turned out to be broken. Can't have everything! Sweet of you to send that birthday card.

May you all be as happy and fortunate as you are good.


Will & Ariel

This short note tells it all: The quality of the man, the goodness of his heart.

My visits to the Durant home are forever engraved in my memory. As I drive into the circular driveway, I can see the profile of Will through the window. As usual, he is working at his desk, sitting in his rocking chair. Before I can ring the doorbell, he is already outside leading me towards a chair near his work desk. He returns to his rocking chair. The table attached to it is his work desk. I visit with him for a few minutes before joining Ariel in the kitchen. There are books everywhere. The familiar scent of a room well lived in and warmth reaching us from the fireplace.

It is approximately ten o'clock in the morning. Will has already been at his desk for a few hours. On this particular day is working on something called "Falling Leaves."

"I'm just playing with it," he laughs, "we are in the autumn of our lives," he comments wistfully, "the leaves are falling." He pauses, quickly adds, "Sister Ethel came in from the East. She arrived yesterday. You know she is always here for my birthday and Thanksgiving." His face brightens like a small boy. "I am looking forward to the turkey feast she will prepare for us. Ha! Ha!"

I walk through the foyer past the bookshelves filled with rare collections. Past the photographs of daughter Ethel as a child. Another of Monica, their granddaughter, at her graduation. I marvel at the beauty of Ariel and the debonair Will in separate portraits by George Hurrell (1927). Also separate portraits of Ariel and Will receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford.

The aroma of vegetables simmering on the stove permeates the house. His lunch read and waiting, Will passes the kitchen; enters the sunny breakfast room. He stands at the window. The view is magnificent on this clear October day in 1978. The hill in the back of the house is covered with a rust and gold carpet of foliage. Tucking in his napkin over his tie, he keeps up with world events by reading Time and Newsweek from a magazine stand stationed in front of him.

The moments I spend with him are precious, for soon he will be taking his nap, until four o'clock, then back to the rocking chair. A morning shared with Will and Ariel! How lucky can I be? It is time for me to leave.

I recall with fond memories the evenings we sat in front of their television set, watching the World Series. Will cheered on the underdog. He loved baseball and often joked about the sport being his other "love." However, the most memorable evening spent watching television was an interview with the Durants. The program was called "Follow Up" with Sandy Hill.

The Age of Napoleon was ready for release in 1975. While we watched the Durants on television, the real life Durants were debating the question at hand. Ariel played the devil's advocate; challenging him, her voice raising, her eyes dancing with excitement. His calm, controlled voice would meet every challenge, answering her point by point. They would laugh together then go on to the next question. The love and respect they had for one another was like no other I had ever witnessed.

Will Durant was honored by Pepperdine University. It was his 92nd birthday. A Dual Autobiography had just been released. The place was the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills. When the birthday cake was brought up to him, Ariel coyly said, "Make a wish." He looked directly into her eyes - as thousands watched - "Why should I?" he quietly asked. "I have everything I have ever wanted."

Their marriage was the least likely to succeed for they were totally different. They came from opposite backgrounds. Will Durant was French-Canadian and a Roman Catholic who had become skeptical of religion. Thirteen years older than his fourteen-year-old pupil when they met at the Ferrer Modern School in New York City. Ariel Durant was born Ida Kaufman, Russian-Jewish lineage. Her parents had separated. They were poor immigrants. She was a child without discipline or education. She hated the public schools. When she discovered the libertarian experimental Ferrer Modern School, she was hungry for guidance. She had a keen mind. Everything excited her and she was full of life. She laughed, sang and danced through the days; while her quiet and reserved teacher fell in love with her.

He was a man of philosophy, history and literature. She, a young girl with "ears open to the world, the voice of the future." Ariel would often comment that it was their differences which allowed them to grow. It was that growth which led to a lifetime partnership as collaborators of The Story of Civilization. The eleven-volume enterprise spanned over a period of forty years. They worked from early morning until late night, seven days a week. They covered ten centuries; reading, re-searching over five thousand books and writing more than two million words. Will wrote in long hand, Ariel, researched and carefully catalogued notes on colored paper. It had been their lifetime dream and labor of love.

"Death is an incident in an extended existence," wrote Will Durant on the back of a blank, bank check (also among my treasures). "Death makes life possible" was his message during the last public appearance in May 1980.

Will Durant, in his 96th year, joined his beloved Ariel in death, thirteen days after her passing. Neither mourned for the other; for he was not informed of her death. Somehow, I feel, deep down in his heart he knew. He could not be without her.

They were inseparable in death as they were in life.


Our thanks to Mrs. Levy for the permission to include her essay on this site.