Gurdjieff International Review

George and Mary Cornelius

How does one come to this Work,
and where does it take them?

Jan Jarvis


ary Cornelius, whom I consider one of my primary teachers, came to the Work from a small village in Kent, England. She was born into a family of eleven children, one of twins, as Mary Stella Smith, in 1907. Her father was the village vicar of Postlings, near Hythe. She told me that her earliest memories are being held in her father’s arms and watching the Zeppelins come over from Germany to bomb London in the First World War.

As a young teen, according to her diary, she was sent to France for having formed an ‘unsuitable’ friendship with a farmer’s son, and so spent two years there, learning to be fluent in French and French culture. Upon returning, she wished to go to university to study medicine but her father, instead, was determined that she marry an older man from her brother’s regiment. Reluctantly, she acceded to her father’s and mother’s wishes, and it was a disaster. Her husband proved to be violent and eventually Mary left him to find refuge with an older (and in her words, more worldly) friend. That friend was Sybille Day (the sister of Laurence Olivier) who had already been interested in the Work. Mary, recovering from a broken bone, sat in Sybille’s parlour and read A New Model of the Universe by P.D. Ouspensky, finding her path, and, eventually, John Godolphin Bennett, and the living Work.

George Harvey Cornelius, whom I also consider one of my teachers, but for entirely different reason (to be hinted at later), was born in 1913 on a farm near Whitewater, Kansas, one of eight siblings. His sister told me that his favorite trick was to carry baby copperhead snakes around in his pocket—thus saving them from the plow and being killed by his father. She said he never got bitten and considered them a part of Great Nature, which he loved. She also said that he was considered weird.

George had ambitions beyond Kansas and enlisted in the Navy (from a landlocked state) at the onset of America’s involvement in the second World War. He eventually became a quartermaster, a skill he used well when he sat at Gurdjieff’s table. George could procure anything due to his Naval training. He was eventually stationed in London. During the war, he experienced the bombing that shook the capital nightly. Carrying around copperheads prepared him to face fear with a certain equanimity.

Mary, in the meantime, having left her abusive husband and received an annulment, much to her family’s chagrin, settled in a small cottage on the coast and lived by herself with her dogs. At the onset of the second World War, she was searching for a way to be useful in the war effort and received training as a nursing sister. She worked in a head injury hospital, first locally, then on the Isle of Wight and afterwards, London. Her diary tells of the great suffering she saw, especially the suffering of children who had been injured, and the quiet that was necessary among the wards.

In the midst of a bombing run, Mary took shelter in the London Underground. It was there that she met George, the Kansas farm boy, snake lover and Naval procurement officer.

Mary was already part of a core group, studying Work ideas with J.G. Bennett and living during the war in the Bennett household. She had to keep her meetings with Bennett a secret, as was done in those days. After George confronted her about being a spy (typical George), she asked Bennett if she could bring him along. The permission set up a life-long relationship between themselves and the family of J.G. Bennett. Indeed, when Elizabeth Mayall first came to meet with Bennett and his then-wife, Polly, it was Mary who was serving the tea. Mary went from being a spy (in George’s eyes) to being a conduit for George to come to the Work ideas.

After the war ended, George and Mary were married. Through Mme. Ouspensky, Bennett discovered that Gurdjieff was still alive and began to visit him in Paris, and to take his students, including George and Mary. They became key supporters, not just of the Work but of Gurdjieff himself, since George could procure what wasn’t to be found in post-war France. George and Mary were among the first residents when Bennett began his Work community at Coombe Springs in 1946. After 1948, with others, they continued to go to Paris. They were to devote the rest of their lives to Gurdjieff’s Work, passing his unique approach on to those of us who worked with them, and striving to keep the relationships alive between the branches of the Work that began to split apart after Gurdjieff passed away.

If you want to know more about George Cornelius and his ways, here is a story of his relationship with Gurdjieff, who referred to him as the “American.” “American, you get this, you get that.” And George always could, being a procurer of American goods after the war. Gurdjieff sent George on a task to the United States somewhere around 1948. The task was to go to Washington D.C., to bring a message from Gurdjieff to Hugh Ripman’s groups. As the story goes, Hugh Ripman gathered his people together and got as many others to come from Chicago and New York as possible. He went so far as to rent an auditorium to accommodate all those who wished to hear Gurdjieff’s message, brought to them by the “American.”

George Cornelius walked onto the stage, looked over the gathering of people, took a piece of paper from his pocket. He looked at the words written from Gurdjieff and said, “Your Work is shit; you are ruining my Work.” Then refolding the paper and returning it to his pocket, George walked offstage. This may be apocryphal, but it is a typical George story. Everyone who ever met him will have one.

Here is one last story about Mary’s determined self. Before marrying George, Mary had been staying in a women’s hostel in London to be close to her job at the hospital. Women had to stay in such to preserve their ‘moral reputation.’ Shortly after getting married, George took Mary to visit his family at the homestead near Whitewater, Kansas, to meet the relatives and siblings. Sitting alone in the living room a few days after arriving, Mary was confronted by a pig wandering in, followed quickly by others. They could not be shooed out.

Appalled by the living room pigs in Kansas, Mary packed up the next day, telling no one. She got into the nearby town, took a bus to the rail station several miles away, got the train to New York, got on a passenger liner going to England, arrived back there and went and took a room in her old hostel. Her old life beckoned. Several days after, she looked out her window to see a man with a bouquet across the street. It was George. He had followed her back to England and had stood outside each day until she noticed him. He promised they would never live in Kansas.

After Gurdjieff’s death, still in the Navy, and after the disastrous visit to his home with Mary, George was posted first to Turkey and then to Alaska, on the island of Kodiak. In the 1960s, George and Mary then began collecting people and sharing their knowledge of the Gurdjieff Work. Soon they gathered a substantial group of young Alaskans, members of that generation searching for something real. Fishermen, hippies, seekers of all sorts came to their door and when Bennett began to form the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne House, to begin in the Fall of 1971, George and Mary sent many of them and also went themselves as staff members, on both the first and second ten-month courses, designed to impart the experience of those at the Prieuré.

After Sherborne, George and Mary moved to Anchorage where more young people found them, and the groups continued. Both on Kodiak and in Anchorage, they brought other teachers to Alaska, including the Venerable Vira Dharmawara, known to us as Bhante, to teach vipassana meditation and color healing and the Green Light meditation.

Another example of who Mary was is this story shared by a student who attended one of their weekends. One weekend there was an important personage invited to assist in taking theme observations from the large group. At five o-clock sharp, he and George were sitting in front of the group, waiting for Mary. George became restless and demanded to know where Mary was as the minutes crept past the time set. About ten minutes late, Mary appeared, and George demanded to know where she had been. She answered, “I was feeding the ducks.” George then scolded her for being late to theme. She answered, “But I like the ducks.”

George and Mary sent around 50–55 people to the five courses at Sherborne House in England and afterwards to the first eight courses at Claymont Court, in West Virginia. Many of these people came home and started groups of their own and sent others to Claymont. To be in an Ashiatan brotherhood, one needed to bring in one hundred people. George and Mary certainly topped that number, directly and through their students. And this was only, the ‘middle of the middle,’ for them. The next chapter opens in Oregon.

George and Mary Wedding Photo

In 1981, after a long search, George and Mary purchased six acres outside of Cave Junction, Oregon and moved there to begin a Work community. John McPherson, a student from the first course at Sherborne was instrumental in facilitating their relocation. The first task on the first summer seminar was the building of a large, two-story barn with a kitchen below and a large multi-purpose space above to be used for both meetings and movements. That first seminar was graced by the attendance of Lord Pentland who gave a seminal talk on ‘Sequence.’ The well-known movements teacher, Paul Reynard, also attended the first week-long seminar there, as did Robert de Ropp and Annie Lou Staveley.

Thus, began the effort to bring the Work together, with Foundation people and other groups from different threads all coming together to make common cause. As at the Prieuré and Sherborne, seemingly impossible practical tasks were undertaken, buildings, ponds, gardens and all of these activities were supported by cooking, cleaning, organizing, as well as movements, inner exercises and meditations as well as the physical practical work.

One story, from my friend, Sarah, who was in residence in Cave Junction at the time went like this. Asked to make up a menu for a three-day seminar on practical application of Work in everyday life, she took up the task with gusto. Down to the last detail and recipe, she planned a vegetarian, three-meal sumptuous bill of fare, including even the recipe for the cookies with tea. Along with this, she prepared a shopping list and a strategy to have much prep work done. Proudly, having felt her job was done, she presented the work to Mary. Mary read very slowly through every detail, the food, the prep, the shopping; then she said “Very detailed; very self-willed. I shall have to consider further.” Smiling Mary left. Nothing of Sarah’s menu was served at the seminar.

Every year, until Mary’s death in 1991, (the same year that her great friend, Elizabeth Bennett, died) a summer seminar was held. During the rest of the year, long weekends addressed issues of life and Work: Work and health, Work and careers, Work and the education of children, led by people of that particular specialty. There were visits from groups in Seattle, San Francisco, Aurora, Oregon, Bend, Oregon, Norway, Massachusetts, England and more. People came from different lineages to work together. This was the Cornelius form of magic.

Other leaders came from different paths to give a flavor of connection to spiritual Work. Bhante came to teach vipassana. Beautiful Painted Arrow (Joseph Rael) came to teach Native spiritual practices. Experts on the Enneagram gave lectures; movements teachers from around the world came to teach. Annie Lou Staveley, herself a direct student of Gurdjieff through Jane Heap, along with Dr. John Lester from that same group background, provided tremendous support. Carrie Kimmler came with her group from Bend, Oregon. People came to work on themselves from Massachusetts, Norway, California, New Mexico, from all over the United States and beyond.

One of George and Mary’s big projects, first in Alaska and then in Oregon, was to stage an historical pageant. Here it was called “The Song of the Seven Winds.” The writing was begun beforehand and helped by a San Francisco playwright, but the memorization, set building, costume creation, rehearsals and music were all created in the stretch of a week, and then performed on two nights before the greater community of Cave Junction and beyond. The pace was frenetic but contained with inner exercises given and applied. Still, meals had to be prepared, themes discussed, and movements taught, and the rest was a super-effort with a curtain-call deadline. The pageant was put on for two years and then all materials, scripts and costumes were given to a community group to continue as they wished.

Speaking with a friend recently, I was struck by his conclusion on the value of the gatherings. He said, “George and Mary brought together disparate people and groups in the Work, some who literally weren’t speaking to one another. One seminar had representatives of seven different lineages but in the hard, physical work, the shared silences and movements, by the end, it always felt like one large group, bound together.”

I had the same feeling at several of the seminars and work weeks, one of certainty that the differences were small and the opportunities to unite as a whole ‘Work’ community were large. Indeed, the close relations and amity with different forms and individuals continues to this day. George and Mary, from different worlds came together and with their intention, made the Gurdjieff work a continuing saga in the world. □

Jan Jarvis came into contact with the Work in 1977 and has worked with George and Mary Cornelius, Pierre and Vivian Elliott, and Elizabeth Bennett, all direct pupils of G.I. Gurdjieff.


Copyright © 2020 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (2)
Revision: January 1, 2021