Gurdjieff International Review

It’s Up To Ourselves

A Mother, A Daughter, G. I. Gurdjieff
A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album

By Jessmin and Dushka Howarth

A Review by Michael Benham

Jessmin Howarth (1892-1984), one of the accomplished women who contributed to the transmission of Gurdjieff’s practical teaching, known as the Movements, rarely talked about herself and her own personal life, and as her daughter Dushka Howarth (1924- ) recalls in this book, particularly not to her. It is therefore fortunate that in the later part of her life she began to write down some of her reminiscences and inner thoughts as neatly typed hand-bound essays that she gave to her daughter on birthdays and other special occasions. From these essays, private letters, family scrapbook fragments and the accounts of others Dushka has assembled the story of her mother’s life (in Jessmin’s words) and expanded it with comments, historical background and her own recollections of later events. To this she has added an account of her own Jessmian Howarth life, including her experiences with Gurdjieff in his last years and her meetings and work with his senior pupils from the 1950’s to the present day.

Jessmin Howarth was orphaned at an early age, her parents dying within four years of each other from fever contracted while living in South Africa. Bought up in England by guardians and developing a gift for music she was sent at the age of 17 to Dresden in Germany to study violin. Here at the suggestion of some older music students she went to see the first public performance of “Rhythmic Gymnastics” at the Institute of Dalcroze Eurythmics in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden. Emile Jaques-Dalcroze (1865-1950), composer, educator and theorist had developed a system of movements, he called “eurythmics,” based on his research into the relationship between body movements and responses to music, especially rhythm. He claimed that the aim of eurythmics was to enable students at the end of their course to be able to say, not ‘I know,’ but “I have experienced.”  Jessmin eventually gained her guardian’s permission to leave her violin studies and in 1912 registered at the Institute of Dalcroze Eurythmics as a full-time student thus beginning her lifelong involvement with movement, dance and body technique. At the Institute she met fellow student, the young Jeanne Allemand (just married to the painter and stage designer Herr von Salzmann) who was to become a lifelong friend and colleague.

When Jaques-Dalcroze was forced out of Germany for protesting against the German bombing of Reims Cathedral the Salzmanns returned to Georgia (in the Caucusus) and Jessmin moved to Geneva where she shared an apartment with another Dalcroze pupil, Annette Ponce (who later married Jean Herter). Here she received notice from her guardians that nearly all the money held in trust for her and her brother (who was killed shortly after in the war) had been lost. She was confronted with what became a lifelong experience, the necessity of supporting herself by teaching, first music and later eurythmics and movement. While in Geneva she was introduced to Jacques Copeau (1878-1949) who invited her to work with him in Paris. Copeau had been working before the War with a group of actors and technicians gathered together under the name of the “Vieux Colombier” which was responsible for bringing French theatre into the modern age and he was looking to reform the group and adding “new blood.” Jessmin joined the group in Paris in 1917 and taught body technique, some eurythmics, beginnings of solfege, games, pantomine and dance to the actors, while also training in Copeau’s improvisation techniques. When the United States entered World War I an American group “Friends of the Vieux Colombier” invited Copeau to bring his company (including Jessmin) to New York for the two theatrical seasons, 1918-1919. In March 1918 she moved into the Dalcroze School at 9 East 59th Street where she also taught eurythmics. With the return of the Vieux Colombier to France Jessmin was encouraged to go to Paris and try her luck with theatrical activities. On arrival, the director of the Paris Opera, Jacques Rouche (1862-1950), who’s daughter was an ardent “rhythmicienne,” asked to see her. He was considering Operas with more modern music and felt that his dancers and extras were not capable of moving in the more natural way required and asked Jessmin to form a special “corps de ballet” and prepare them for eventual performance. She received permission to bring over two gifted American Dalcroze pupils and her own pianist.

Jessmin was at the Paris Opera for three years and during the summer of 1922, as there were no Dalcroze classes, she was left in charge of the studios on the rue de Vaugirard to do any Opera rehearsing or give private lessons there. One day feeling ill she sat on a bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg opposite the studios and was struck by a couple walking by who looked like Jeanne and “Sasha” Salzmann. By the time she realised this they were gone and thinking she had been hallucinating, for she was sure they were dead, hurried home to go to bed. A friend happened to telephone and explained that Salzmann had just come to the Theatre des Champs-Elysees to do the lighting for “Pelleas and Melisande.”  On re-meeting the Salzmanns they told her about an extraordinary man (Gurdjieff) that they were close to, whom they said had true secret knowledge. Jeanne was also looking for a hall to rent where his pupils could work on their dances and Jessmin arranged for the pupils to be allowed to practice at the rue de Vaugirard studios. As an accomplished choreographer at the height of her career she at first exhibited a professional disdain for the pupils and the dances, even appearing to surprise Gurdjieff with her ability to follow and mark time to one of the Movements. However she soon came to realise that the roughly dressed pupils comprised some very talented people and when she started to learn herself the preliminary Movements known as the "Obligatories" found them not at all easy. As she came closer to the group she was invited to the Sunday lunch at the house in Neuilly where they were staying. Gurdjieff also asked her to translate for English visitors when Major Pindar and Jeanne de Salzmann were unavailable.

At this stage Jessmin was having an unhappy love affair and Gurdjieff on noticing her state invited her to come and live at the new house in the country he was acquiring for his school (the Prieure). She had also just engaged an old eurythmics student from New York, Rosemary Lillard (later to marry Stanley Nott) as her pianist. Gurdjieff said Rosemary was welcome to come as well. They were initially treated as guests but gradually undertook daily tasks like everyone else. On the first Christmas at the Prieure when Gurdjieff insisted that the English people (women) should prepare a traditional English celebration for the Russians it was discovered that Rosemary was the only one who actually knew how to do the preparation and she was placed in charge. While Rosemary developed her piano playing under the guidance of Thomas de Hartmann it was eventually decided that Jessmin's chief interest and task was to be the study of the Movements. Though she did not at the time record much about her experiences at the Prieure she did keep a record of the specific Movements worked on during this period.

The culmination of the following year was the Movements demonstration in December, 1923 at the Theatre des Champs-Elysees. Soon after the Paris demonstrations everyone involved except the orchestra packed up and sailed for America. During the Movements demonstrations in America Jessmin discovered she was pregnant (by Gurdjieff) and a case of food poisoning in Chicago forced her to return to New York to stay with Rosemary Lillard who had returned from France. Gurdjieff vetoed Jessmin’s plans of going to live with friends in Switzerland during the pregnancy but at the same time sailed for France leaving her without a return ticket. It was only many years later that it became known what a precarious financial position Gurdjieff had been in at the end of his first American visit. At the time it was a devastating blow to Jessmin and she remained ambivalent about Gurdjieff as a person (though never doubting the importance of his work) till the last years of his life. She supported herself teaching at the Dalcroze school and various private schools and began classes of Movements with the groups formed under the guidance of Orage who had stayed on in America. After a new daughter Cynthia Ann (who was immediately and from then on called "Dushka") arrived in September, she shared an apartment with Rosemary Lillard and began to study the Mensendieck System of Functional Body Education with Dr. Mensendieck. Dushka (Sophie) Howarth Dalcroze had been an admirer of Bess M. Mensendieck (1863-1957), an American who went to study sculpture in Paris. Her fascination of the obvious relationship between health and beauty led her to Switzerland where she studied medicine becoming one of the first female physicians of the time. She developed her system after many years researching "kinesiology" the science of human posture and motion, analysing in minute detail the individual functions of every bone, joint and muscle and their intricate interactions.

On Gurdjieff's second visit to America in 1929, Jessmin refused to see him, so her friend Louise Michel (later Welch) and some others of the Orage group were recruited to take Dushka to him. He objected to the name Dushka and insisted she be called "Sophie," his favourite sister's name. In the summer of 1929 Jessmin decided to pack up and set off to California, possibly on Orage's suggestion after his visit there the previous year. On arriving she discovered the Movements classes she had been promised never materialised. Luckily Michio Ito the dancer, whom she had known at the Dalcroze Institute, asked her to join him running a dance studio in Hollywood. She also taught the Mensendieck method and joined Leah Lovell, wife of noted health food pioneer, Dr. Phillip Lovell and some educators in starting their own experimental school, "The Children's Workshop." Early in 1934 Orage, who had returned to England after years of running the New York Gurdjieff groups, got in touch with Jessmin regarding his plans to supervise special work in Dartington Hall, a progressive school. During this time Rosemary Nott had been in France studying with Thomas de Hartmann who passed on to her and taught her how to play the music for the Movements. Rosemary and Stanley Nott (who had married in 1927) had also moved back to England so when Jessmin and Dushka arrived in London in the fall of 1934 they renewed their friendship. Mme Ouspensky had also heard that Jessmin was in England and asked her to go see her at Lyne, the country property that Ouspensky's English pupils maintained for him. Mr. Ouspensky was persuaded to allow the pupils at Lyne to be taught the Movements when somehow Jessmin managed to give a right answer to Mr Ouspensky's grim question. "Why do people do the Movements." She replied "To help develop their attention."  For more than two years Rosemary and Jessmin went to Lyne regularly every week for Movements classes and also had the privilege of talking with Mme Ouspensky whom they both held in high regard. Jessmin also records that in either 1936 or 1937 Jeanne de Salzmann came over from Paris to Lyne and they went over the Movements they remembered together. Jeanne then talked to Mme Ouspensky who advised her to go and live close to Mr. Gurdjieff again.

In 1938 when preparing a demonstration of Movements at Colet Gardens in London a misunderstood whisper resulted in the pupils freezing in the middle of the Movement. After awhile Jessmin felt she had to call out "Enough." The next day Ouspensky called her to him and said, "Jessmin, I will show you how superstition begins. You remember that last night we sat together and you made no sign to the pupils and yet they suddenly stopped. Today, already, many people from the audience have called me saying: "Wasn't it extraordinary how Mrs Howarth was able to give a "stop" without any of us being able to see it was done." And they laughed together. By this time it had been arranged for Jessmin and Rosemary to also teach Movements for the groups of Maurice Nicoll and Mrs Allen. However their services were promptly withdrawn when it was observed that notes were being taken of both the Movements and the music. Later some of these group members who joined the Gurdjieff Society after the war, found that their aim should not have been to "learn" the movements, but to learn to work on themselves by means of the Movements.

As war approached Rosemary Nott had taken her two sons back to New York. Jessmin's friend from her Switzerland days, Annette Herter had opened the "American Conservatory of Music, Drama and Dance." and was hoping to recruit old friends like Jessmin and Rosemary as teachers. In June of 1940 Jessmin was able to obtain passage for herself and her daughter under the South African quota and set sail for America. On arrival they were installed on the upstairs floor of the "American Conservatory..." On finishing high school in New York Dushka, with the help of an old friend from the Orage groups in the twenties, obtained an art scholarship at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Jessmin came to join her and was able to get a job helping run the "Country Day School"

By the fall of 1941, the Ouspenskys had also come to the United States with some of their followers. After a brief stay at Rumson, they were invited by Rodney Collin-Smith's wife Janet to occupy Franklin Farms in the, then small rural community of Mendham, near Morristown, New Jersey. While Mr. Ouspensky spent most of his time in New York City, concentrating on his writing and lecturing, Mme Ouspensky, supervised the new community and wrote to the pupils left in England at Lyne. She also wished the people at Franklin Farms to work at Movements so she contacted Jessmin who agreed to move back east. With help from friends Dushka was able to obtain a tuition scholarship at Brown College, Columbia University in uptown Manhattan. New York was to become their legal residence for the remainder of Jessmin's life.  An old Dalcroze friend involved Jessmin in some volunteer translation work for the Free French offices in New York which led to a real and often very difficult job in the Press and Information Service and its Overseas Department, at which she struggled for many years. Through this period Jessmin was also occupied with the groups on Wednesday and her classes at Mendham on the weekend which she found helped her in coping with her demanding job. However late in 1948 when she heard of Gurdjieff's impending visit to America she began to dread his arrival and his influence on her daughter.

After Jessmin’s death Dushka’s discovered a collection of letters from Ethel Merston (who had been at the Prieure), together with Jessmin’s letters to Ethel between 1948-1957 which Ethel had returned before her death saying she had kept them, thinking they might one day interest Dushka. These letters provide the basis for several chapters, which cover in detail the last two years of Gurdjieff’s life, his death and the subsequent efforts to bring together the Gurdjieff groups in New York, London and Paris.

The early letters document the prelude to Gurdjieff's arrival in America in 1948. Ouspensky had just died and some of the pupils who used to be in London had decided that they must still be loyal to Mr Ouspensky's express wish that they have no contact with Mr Gurdjieff and so had cut themselves off, some starting their own small groups. This was despite Mme Ouspensky's counsel that they should return to Gurdjieff and her striving to unite people. Jessmin reports that Mme Ouspensky had asked her long ago what would be her reaction if ever Mr Gurdjieff came to America. She answered that she would probably hide under her bed. Mme Ouspensky laughed and said: "No, I think Mr. Ouspensky already there!" Jessmin had to work on her fear of the complications that would arise for Dushka and herself when Gurdjieff arrived. Nearly eighteen years earlier he had proposed that Thomas and Olga de Hartmann adopt Dushka so that she could be brought up near him in France but Jessmin had forbidden all contact of her daughter with Gurdjieff.

Jessmin had always considered herself to be a pupil of Sophie Grigorievna (Mme Ouspensky) and her loyalty to Mme Ouspensky and the continued teaching of Movements at Mendham created friction with some of the old Orage New York group members. In November 1948 Gurdjieff sent a young Frenchman, Alfred Etievant, to New York to teach a new series of thirty-five Movements in preparation for his visit in December. Jessmin took Etievant to Mendham and showed him the work of the Movements group there and Mme Ouspensky made it possible for the members to go to New York and work with him. When Gurdjieff arrived in New York he went the first evening to oversee the Movements class and afterwards asked Jessmin to come to his apartment to talk seriously. There he said  “And now I am not interested in many people, only interested in a few young people. Your daughter also. You please give her to me while I am here. I am impartial parent, not kind, but I will teach her.”  Jessmin reluctantly agreed and when Gurdjieff, unhappy with the way his apartment at the Hotel Wellington was being run, told Alfred Etievant to take over, Dushka elected herself Alfred’s assistant in the running of the apartment.

When John Bennett arrived from England and enquired if Jessmin could go over to teach Movements Gurdjieff told her to choose a first row of six young pupils to be trained to give Movements demonstrations in London. Though he found fault with everyone suggested, they were the ones he took over to Paris. Shortly after he asked Jessmin to make notes of exercises to be used when Alfred was no longer there. Then he announced “You are now Director of Movements in America. You will teach when I leave.” She told him “I did not wish to be a “Teacher” again — that I had had classes for many years and that this only fed my vanity.” Paying no attention he told her to arrange to practice with Alfred every day and never talked to her about anything else. Just days before Gurdjieff’s departure a chance sighting of him as an old man picking his way across the street amid the mud and melted snow erased Jessmin’s hostility. That night she went to him and said that she would do as he wished and teach the Movements, and that, if he wished to take Dushka to France, she would encourage her to go.

The young women invited to Paris in 1949 to be trained as the first row for a future Movements Demonstration included Dushka, her half sister Petey Taylor, Tania Forman (Mme Ouspensky’s granddaughter), Marian Sutta, Iovanna Wright (Olgivanna & Frank Lloyd Wright’s daughter) and Lise Tracol (Henri Tracol’s niece). They were affectionately known as “the calves.” Apart from Movements work they were taken by Gurdjieff on his automobile trips to Geneva, Cannes, Dieppe and elsewhere. Dushka, the oldest, was also put in charge of recording all the music Gurdjieff played on his hand harmonium every day after lunch and dinner. On her birthday, the 16th of September, she was commanded to present herself at Gurdjieff’s apartment for lunch. During the meal to her surprise he announced that she and Alfred Etievant were now engaged and that he would be sending them to London to unite the various groups and start Movement classes there. When Dushka talked to him privately later, Gurdjieff said that he needed the two of them to go to London together but that to the “English” it wouldn’t look correct unless they were engaged. Shortly afterwards they travelled to London to take up residence at Colet Gardens the old Ouspensky centre with the Woltons as their hosts. When news arrived that Gurdjieff had died they flew immediately to Paris.  Dushka finally left Europe for New York at the end of 1949 and gradually let her “Sophie” identity and her involvement with Gurdjieff’s work disappear as she sought to establish herself again professionally and socially in America.

After Gurdjieff’s death Jessmin set about creating archives, co-ordinating the making of accurate notations, drawings and recordings and was constantly training instructors, assistants and pianists. A lot of time was spent in France with Mme de Salzmann on the preparation, rehearsing and filming of the many valuable Movements films. She was also brought in to help with the Movements segment of Peter Brook’s film “Meetings with Remarkable Men.” Adhering to Gurdjieff’s request to bring people together she worked hard to achieve unity between the older established groups and the developing communities of John Bennett and Wim Nyland. She eventually retired from teaching Movements at the Gurdjieff Foundation in 1978, aged 86. With the encouragement of the Welch’s she continued giving Movements teacher seminars and it was on the morning of such a seminar, 13th October, 1984 that she passed away as her daughter was preparing her hair. As Dushka comments, “she simply leaned back and was gone, just as she would have wished it, in full involvement, no fuss, no trouble to anyone.”

During this period Dushka led a lively and varied life. Utilising her natural skills for self-promotion and professional role-playing, inherited from her father, she established a successful tourist business in Paris. This was followed by a career as the guitar playing, folk singing performer Dushka “The Jet-Set Gypsy.” Her versatility and large foreign repertoire enabled her to work as a performer for many years on a large number of cruise ships. In 1986 Mme de Salzman’s daughter “Boussik” (Nathalie de Etievan) suggested to Dushka that she return to teaching Movements and go down and join her in South America for four or five months each year to help supervise or establish classes. This she did and “after some years of careful monitoring, encouragement and correction proved what many of the older Europeans still deny, that it is possible to inspire and develop someone’s ability to pass on to a class an understanding of Movements and how to work with them. And that instructors, to be useful, needn’t always, (in fact often shouldn’t), be only those who happen to have ‘done’ Movements well physically for years. Rather, I believe, they should be those who have come to a personal realization of the value of what they may have experienced in Movements, and have a wish to help others have a meaningful experience.” She concludes the book with an examination of Gurdjieff’s Movements and her mother’s legacy.

Spanning nearly eighty years this book is a testament to the transmissibility and validity of Gurdjieff’s great experiential teaching, the Movements. It records how the Movements were presented by Gurdjieff himself and the difference between the original public demonstration Movements of the 1920’s (so carefully preserved by Jessmin and others) and the later thirty-nine series Movements of Gurdjieff’s last years. It highlights the, often overlooked, contribution of Jessmin’s teacher, Mme Ouspensky (1878-1961). For without her urging there may have been no continued Movements work in England, New York or even Paris. A chapter is devoted to Mme Ouspensky in which Dushka records that Jessmin on her 90th birthday resolved to seek material and recollections to include in a privately printed record of Madam’s contribution to the work. Regrettably this project did not proceed. It also speculates that Gurdjieff’s change of emphasis from ideas to work with practical body based Movements and sensing, for which Mr. Ouspensky showed no aptitude, may have contributed to his break from Gurdjieff.

When the initial manuscript of “It’s Up To Ourselves” was circulated almost ten years ago it received little encouragement and some criticism for its unique personal voice. Its length and limited appeal made it commercially unpublishable without extensive editing. It is to Dushka’s Howarth’s credit that she resisted the call for change and compromise and embarked on acquiring the skills needed to compile, prepare and produce her own unique family record. During the later years of preparation she was able to collect and add many previously unseen photographs. Most significant are those from Madame Ouspensky’s early photograph album (of Gurdjieff and his companions travelling through Europe, Gurdjieff in Germany and life at the Prieure) and photographs of Alexandre de Salzmann’s sets for Gurdjieff’s proposed ballet “The Struggle of the Magicians.” In all there are over 950 photographs of varying degrees of clarity due to the difficulties of scanning old photographs and the financial necessity of printing on plain paper. Despite the poor quality of some photographs we must be grateful that they have been preserved.

It is important to reflect that this book’s publication was only possible through the efforts of Dushka Howarth over many years and her determination under difficult circumstances to faithfully record and preserve the legacy of both her mother and her father. As Mr Gurdjieff used to say to her in 1949 “Bravo Sophie!”

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It’s Up To Ourselves: A Mother, A Daughter, G.I. Gurdjieff, A Shared Memoir and Family Photo Album (2009) New York: Gurdjieff Heritage Society, by Jessmin and Dushka Howarth, over 950 illustrations, 511p.
Copyright © 2009 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Revision: December 30, 2009