Tea With the Durants

by Geoff Smith

In the late seventies I was working as a TV reporter in LA. One day I did a TV interview with a man who mentioned the Durants in the course of the conversation. The Durants were friends and neighbors in the Hollywood Hills and when I said I was an admirer he arranged for me to go to tea.

Ok, I hate tea; but how many admirers own salt-stained copies of The Story of Civilization that had weathered forays onto the hot beaches of the Gulf Coast? Those were my seaside thrillers and the Durants were far more important than the kings and killers that made up my working life.

A week or so later I went to their huge, Spanish-style mansion overlooking Los Angeles. An ancient, black Cadillac stood - clearly in limited use if at all - in the courtyard. By now the Durants occupied only the first floor of the house. Ariel appeared in a frumpy floral dress. Her "other dress" was tossed carelessly over the top of a door. Around her neck was the Medal of Freedom they had been given by the Government.

Will, of course, was dressed to the nines.

They were charming, both still very sharp and tried to understand just why I was there in my Seventies, loud double-knit finery. After we chatted a while she urged him to "show Geoff the body," gesturing to a sunporch. Indeed, through the glass doors I could see what looked like a gurney with a sheet covering a - human form ? Impishly she snatched off the sheet There stacked up were fruits of their original research...piles and piles of papers, pamphlets and books all carefully arranged to look - feet, chest and head - like a corpse. A great joke on visitors.

This prompted a loud argument over where all that was going to go at their deaths. One argued fiercely it should go to Stanford; the other insisted with equal heat it would go to UCLA. It was obviously and old battle in which Ariel thought she had the final word. She said sulkily she was lots younger, he'd be dead first, and the stuff was going to UCLA.

Small talk with geniuses is hard. I asked questions about their work but I certainly had nothing to say they'd care to hear. Pressed, I allowed that I'd like to write a history book about King Stephen of England. Will looked puzzled. "Who ?" "Stephen," I said, "You know, 1135-1154... 'Christ and all his saints slept' and all that. Followed Heny the first." Nothing. "Oh, you know," she said impatienty. Well, no. So she fetched a reference book so he could reacquaint himself. After running through a few pages, he slammed it shut and scolded me for wanting to write about such a nonentity. "Why write about him?" "Um - because no one else has." He spread his hands out in a broad gesture meaning. "Well, you see ?"

After a tour of the shelves and shelves of copies of all their books in many languages it was time to go. I produced my salty copy of Our Oriental Heritage for them to sign. Briskly he wrote: "To Geoff Smith with cordial regards from Will &.......Durant." And he handed the book to her, pointing to the blank space he had left between Will and Durant. Then he softly prompted her. "Put 'Ariel' there," said. And he dated it.

I mean, the book was a treasure by itself. Now it's priceless, as was the afternoon.

Geoff Smith