Gerald Durrell, a Modern Noah, and His Wife, Lee, Have Made An Ark of Their Island Zoo
Like his older novelist brother, Lawrence, writer-naturalist Gerald Durrell has no fear of florid prose. In one of his 25 books on adventure and animals, for example, Gerald evokes an image of “a creamy-skinned Parisienne belleamie clad in nothing more than two pairs of black silk stockings” to describe, of all things, a mongoose. In The Mockery Bird, a new novel set on a fictional isle called Zenkali, Durrell is as fervid as ever, especially when praising this creature: “She was slender with a peach-like skin. Her dark hair…fell to her waist, her mouth was generous. But it was her large almond-shaped eyes that were most remarkable…” Another beast? Perhaps one of the 1,200 or so Durrell keeps on the famed zoo park for rare species that he operates on the English Channel island of Jersey? Not this time. That passage in his latest work, which Simon & Schuster will publish in the U.S. this spring, deals with the 57-year-old author’s own first impression on meeting his 32-year-old wife, Lee.
It occurred in May 1977, when Durrell spotted her across the room at a reception in his honor in Durham, N.C. Durrell was there to inspect Duke University’s collection of lemurs and other prosimians. Lee—then Lee McGeorge, a Memphis-born graduate student working on a Ph.D. in zoology—was sipping a bourbon when, as she tells it, “he made a beeline for me.” Dinner, dates and a 1979 wedding were to follow, but even then she was smitten enough to reckon that their 25-year age gap was “unimportant.” As for Durrell, he says, “A lot of crap is talked about love at first sight, but I just knew I would have taken 17 bazookas down to Durham to force her to marry me.”
At first Gerald kept his menagerie in the Bournemouth, England garden of his sister, Margo. In 1959 he moved it to a rented estate on Jersey. Not merely a haven for animals of imperiled species, the 20-acre zoo breeds them and ships the offspring to other zoos to promote further procreation. Over the years Durrell has raised pygmy hedgehog tenrecs, African civets, lemurs and many other rare fauna. The white-eared pheasant, found only in China and Tibet, has become available to the Western world due largely to Durrell’s zoo, which has produced 150 chicks from two pairs. And in the past four years the zoo has also bred 193 rare Jamaican boas.
In his courtship of Lee, Durrell proved a fast mover too. Not long after they met, he persuaded her to do a research project on Jersey. “I knew that once she saw the place, she’d be hooked,” Gerald explains. Says Lee: “I leaped at the opportunity and was trying to be a good little girl when I arrived, but it soon became evident that his interest was not just professional.” In two weeks they became lovers. When Gerald asked her if she would like to stay on, she responded, “Do you mean you want to marry me?” He did, and they wed a year later, after divorce ended Durrell’s childless first marriage (to British-born Jacquie Rasen) and Lee had won her doctorate. Quips Durrell: “I’m the only man in history who’s been married for his zoo.”
The Durrells lead a migratory life. They spend four months a year on Jersey, where they have a flat in the estate’s 16th-century Norman manor. They live another four months in France in the cottage near Nîmes where Lawrence Durrell completed his Alexandria Quartet novels more than two decades ago. There, with research help from Lee, Gerald compiled most of The Amateur Naturalist, a massive guide for laymen to be published later this year in Britain and possibly next year in the U.S. (Lawrence, now 70 and living 25 miles away—”just the right distance to keep a brother,” says Gerald—is working on his 11th novel.) The rest of the year the Durrells travel to raise money, lecture and collect animals.
Gerald was born in India, where his Irish father, an engineer, built bridges and railroads. Durrell recalls that even as a toddler he was always demanding to be taken to the zoo—and hearing his brother, Larry, tell people, “He’ll grow out of it.” After his father died when Gerry was 2, his mother, Louisa, brought the family back to Britain. Eight years later she took Gerald and his two older brothers and sister to the sunny Greek island of Corfu, which Gerald found “magical after the dullness of England.” World War II drove the Durrells back to Britain. Gerald, kept out of the fighting by chronic sinusitis, decided after the war to roam the world to find beasts for zoos—a way to satisfy his love for both travel and animals.
With an inheritance of $12,000 he’d come into at the age of 21, he left for West Africa in 1947 to search for a gliding rodent called the flying mouse squirrel and other exotica for British zoos. After two years and two more excursions, he was broke. Larry advised him to start writing. “If you’ve been on three expeditions,” he said, “you’ve got enough for three books.” In 1953 Gerry published his first work, The Overloaded Ark, a joyful account of his stay in an African village. Says Gerald today: “Larry was always my father figure. One had to imitate him.”
Lee, too, was hooked on animals as a child. At home in Memphis, where her father was sales manager of a grain company, she had a menagerie that included dogs, cats, white mice, horned toads, guinea pigs and parrots. She was a philosophy major at Bryn Mawr, but in 1971 her interest in animal behavior took her to Duke. By the time she met Gerry she had logged two years of field work in Madagascar, where she began to read his books.
When Gerry met Lee, he was separated from his wife and depressed over his personal life. Says Lawrence: “Lee was sent by God when Gerry was sad and low, and has pulled everything together.” If anything, it’s Lee who could now use some help, just to keep up with her boisterous husband. “But I’m adaptable,” she says. “I’ve always felt comfortable with him, with his laughing and teasing. He’s always at me over being female or being American. ‘Stupid, bloody woman…can’t speak English.’ The more he likes you, the more he teases you.” Gerry and Lee alternate with the cooking. He has a heavy hand with cream and butter, and specializes in curries and bananas flambé. When their weight balloons, as it does two or three times a year, Lee takes over the kitchen and they both go on the Scars-dale Diet. There is no restraint on Gerry’s drinking, though: He begins with beer at breakfast, progresses to brandy and Perrier in midmorning, drinks wine with lunch and straight brandy in the evening. “My doctor says I don’t deserve to have such a magnificent heart, liver and constitution,” he says.
Last month Gerald was hospitalized briefly for exhaustion as a result of overwork and his exuberant life-style, and had to cancel a U.S. visit. Lee is resigned to Durrell’s excesses. “I accept it—that’s just Gerry,” she says. “I can’t imagine being married to anyone else.” He is grateful for the sentiment. “Suddenly, and to my astonishment at my age, I have a girl who is beautiful and brilliant and shares my own enthusiasms,” he says. “It has opened an enormous window.”