The Lévi-Strauss Boas Death Story

Part of the oral tradition of anthropology is that Boas died in Lévi-Strauss’s arms when Lévi-Strauss was in New York, having fled the Nazi takeover of France. There are several versions of this story: that Boas died giving a speech on racial issues, or (my favorite) that Boas’s last words were “I have a new theory of race!” But where does this story really come from? While preparing a lecture on Boas I came across the answer — the journal Études/Inuit/StudiesThe English translation of the story goes like this:

“The incident I have just related [eating dinner at Boas’s home] took place a few weeks before he died. Since I witnessed this directly, perhaps the time has come for me to describe its circumstances which will remain engraved on my memory forever. Boas was host at a luncheon at the Columbia University Faculty Club in honour of Paul Rivet, then a refugee in Columbia, who was passing through New York on a mission for General de Gaulle. I was invited along with a few other people, including Mrs. Yampolski, Boas’ daughter, Ruth Benedict, Gladys Reichard and Ralph Linton. It was December 21, 1942. The city was in the grip of a bitter cold spell and Boas arrived from Grantwood wearing an astonishing faded fur hat that must have dated back to his travels among the Eskimos. The meal began gaily; you could tell that Boas was happy to see an old friend again and to be surrounded by former students, some of whom had followed in his footsteps. The conversation was going along at a good pace when suddenly, in mid-sentence, Boas jerked violently backwards, as under the effect of an electric shock, and fell over, taking his chair with him. I was sitting next to him and hurried to help him up, but he remained motionless. Rivet, who had been an army medical officer, tried in vain to revive him; he was only able to pronounce him dead. Boas’ son Ernst, a professor at Columbia, arrived a little later. Leaving Mrs. Yampolski and him to their sorrow, we withdrew in silence, grief-stricken at the loss of the greatest ethnologist of all time.”

I think I’ve read this story elsewhere — perhaps in View From Afar? — but since I ran into it here I thought I’d post it just to confirm that the story is in fact well grounded. Lévi-Strauss was never one to turn down the opportunity to seize the mantle of past giants. For instance, he was hardly a confidante of Marcel Mauss, but he did his best to paint himself as the true inheritor of Mauss’s brand of ethnology. This story subtly reinforces the sense that Lévi-Strauss walked among giants, and hence was one himself.