Will Durant, 96, a student, scholar and popularizer of history and philosophy who devoted much of his life to writing "The Story of Civilization," a monumental and much-praised 11-volume work, died late Saturday in Los Angeles.
The author and teacher, whose volumes sold in the millions and buttress home libraries across the nation, died of heart failure at Cedars-Sinai hospital.
His death came 13 days after that of his wife, Ariel, who was his collaborator on most volumes of the series and was his coauthor on the last five.
News of Mrs. Durant's death Oct. 25 at their home in Los Angeles was apparently never given to her husband, who had been in intensive care for three weeks following surgery.
Spanning 11,000 years of human history, from "Our Oriental Heritage," which appeared in 1935, to "The Age of Napoleon," published in 1975 in Mr. Durant's 90th year, the series represented its authors' attempt to provide a coherent synthesis and description of every aspect of the entire story of civilization.
Eager and thorough, irrepressibly enthusiastic and unflaggingly energetic, Mr. Durant spent from three to six years on each of the volumes, traveling the world, poring over as many as 500 books for every one he wrote.
Ranging in their work over the entire spectrum of human activity, Mr. Durant and his wife made everything grist for their mill, grasping and gathering every available index and indicator of man's life and work, condensing, compiling and ultimately creating their own story of civilization.
In one of his works, Mr. Durant called his method "synthetic history, which studies all the major phases of a people's life, work and culture in their simultaneous operation."
From the start, Mr. Durant found high praise and enthusiastic admirers.
The first book in the series was lauded as an "impressive effort to break away from that fractionalization of knowledge which is one of the curses of our time."
Of a later book, "The Age of Faith," which appeared in 1950, one scholar wrote: "Rarely has a historian writing for the general public combined such a readable style with such assiduous documentation, encyclopedic interests and indefatigable zest."
And after the publication in 1961 of the seventh book, "The Age of Reason Begins," a reviewer for a national news magazine said: "He shows once again that, better than any other historian living, he understands how to distill the flavor of an age from its arts and manners."
The 10th volume, "Rousseau and Revolution," which was published in 1967, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction.
In 1977 Mr. Durant and his wife received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
While "The Story of Civilization" brought him enough honor, acclaim and activity for a lifetime, he was also widely known for one of his first works, "The Story of Philosophy," which early demonstrated his abilities as a scholar, synthesizer and popularizer. The book, which appeared in 1926, has sold more than 4 million copies.
William James Durant was born Nov. 5, 1885, in North Adams, Mass., into a family of 11 children of French Canadian immigrant parents. He grew up in Massachusetts and in Arlington, N.J., where his father was a supervisor for a branch of the Du Pont Co.
After attending Roman Catholic elementary and secondary schools, he entered St. Peter's College in Jersey City, obtaining his B.A. degree in 1906 and his M.A. the next year.
After a stint as a newspaper reporter with the old New York Evening Journal, Mr. Durant, following the wishes of his parents, who hoped he would become a priest, entered Seton Hall seminary, in South Orange, N.J.
In addition to his studies, he taught Latin and French from 1907 to 1911, but it was there that he also lost his faith.
"I discovered Spinoza," was the explanation he once gave, referring to the 17th century European philosopher, whose thinking influenced his.
Mr. Durant gave up his studies for the priesthood. The slightly built, gray-eyed, 5-foot-5-inch ex-seminarian crossed the Hudson River and entered the radical and bohemian world of New York City.
For two years he taught at an experimental school that was said to be under anarchist sponsorship.
One of his pupils there was Ida Kaufman. She was 15 when they were married, and one of the often told stories about the couple is of how she roller-skated to their wedding.
In 1914, the year after his marriage, Mr. Durant became director of the Labor Temple School, an adult education center not far from Union Square in New York City.
Meanwhile, he continued his studies at Columbia University, where he received a PhD in philosophy in 1917. But he was 40 years old before his first book was published, and, he once said, "like the other pivotal events in my life, it was pure accident."
Having abandoned youthful dreams of becoming an author, he was spending 16 hours a day running the adult center when, as he told it, "One afternoon, at 10 minutes of 5, a man named Haldeman-Julius passed by the Labor Temple and noticed on the bulletin board that one Will Durant was lecturing on Plato at 5 o'clock."
Haldeman-Julius, a publisher of flimsy 5-cent books on a vast range of subjects, went to hear the lecture.
"Had he passed by 20 minutes earlier or later, he probably would not have stopped," Mr. Durant said.
But he did stop, asked Mr. Durant to submit the lecture to be published as one of his nickel books, and overcame Mr. Durant's hesitation by sending an advance check for $150.
Soon, there was another check, and another book, this one on Aristotle. Before long there were 11 such books, and from these pamphlets came "The Story of Philosophy."
The huge popularity of that book liberated Mr. Durant from his academic shackles and enabled him to devote the rest of his life to "The Story of Civilization."
And so the dogged and diligent decades-long collaboration began between Mr. Durant and the wife whom he called Ariel after the blithe spirit in Shakespeare's "The Tempest."
The history, which Mr. Durant had conceived in 1912 on a sickbed in Damascus during a trip abroad, became a way of life for him and his family, which included two children. Everything was subordinated to the project.
Besides helping with research, Mrs. Durant ran their home, reared their children and protected him from anyone who might interrupt the enterprise.
"He is so good himself, and believes so much in the goodness of others, that he really needs protection," she said.
Indeed, it might be said that it was Mr. Durant's essential optimism and the intellectual associations it spawned that most exasperated his critics, who found him too prone to simplify, to emphasize cohesion over complexity, to see in history not bleakness and unmitigated uncertainty, but instead to see order, pattern and the hope of progress.
For himself, Mr. Durant -- who had moved from religious belief to atheism, to agnosticism -- had faith in mankind.
"Is progress possible?" he asked rhetorically in a speech shortly after the outbreak of World War II.
"It is," he resolutely answered.
If there was one thing he stood for and believed in, it was the human civilization that he chronicled.
"Even Hitler cannot quite destroy our civilization," he said.
On his 90th birthday, he asserted that "the general theme of my life is the discovery that order is the mother of liberty and liberty is the mother of chaos . . . ."
Deploring what he saw as corruption in politics, dishonesty in business, faithlessness in marriage, pornography in literature, coarseness in language, chaos in music and meaninglessness in art, he said:
"It is time for all good men to come to the aid of their party, whose name is civilization." In his 90th year, he announced that his great work would close with "The Age of Napoleon," published that year.
"The ego is willing," he said, "but the machine cannot go on."
He said he never regretted having devoted so many years to the task. "But," he added, smiling, "if I had my life to live over and someone proposed this, I'd say 'never.' A certain amount of ignorance is necessary to ambition."