Gurdjieff International Review

Martin Benson

Carl Lehmann-Haupt


artin Benson’s life began with a shock. In the months just prior to his birth and just before the turning of the old century, the family learned that his father and uncle had been drowned off the Cape of Good Hope. Both men were ship’s captains who owned the vessels they commanded. When their ships foundered in a storm, the entire family was financially ruined. Up until then, his substantial, Swedish, sea-faring family lived comfortably on Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, NY. His mother’s mother had been the first woman doctor in Sweden. His mother, who had come to New York as a young bride, bore four children. Besides Martin, the youngest, there was a brother, older by nine years, a sister who died at an early age, and a second sister who raised Martin when his mother was forced to work as a nurse to support the family.

The family must have moved to Carroll Gardens early on, for it was in Carroll Park that he found “his tree,” the large oak under which his sister learned to look for him every time he mysteriously disappeared when he was still only three or four. He grew up “pretty wild,” as he would say—fatherless and poor. While his brother went on to become “a famous engineer,” Martin stopped school when he was fourteen or fifteen. Afterwards, he apparently lived for a time alone in the Catskills in a cabin he had built for himself. When the country entered the First World War in 1917, he lied about his age and enlisted in the Pioneer Infantry.

He told us of a terrible shock he got while fighting on the Belgian front. Seeing an Allied soldier fall between the lines, he left the relative safety of the trenches to gather the wounded man onto his shoulders and carry him back, but a German rifleman shot the man dead as he was rescuing him. The incident left him with a double burden of remorse. Not only had the man’s dead body shielded him under fire, but he would always wonder if the man might not have lived if he hadn’t tried to rescue him. His sorrow was overwhelming. When he arrived at the Prieuré, he asked Mr. Gurdjieff if the memory of that event would ever leave him, and Gurdjieff told him he would carry it forever. Many years later he still wept when he recalled it.

One winter shortly after the war, he built himself a cabin near Johnsontown, New York, in an area that is now part of Harriman State Park. He had been gassed at Passchendaele Ridge and needed to clear his lungs. A friend I met at Mr. Benson’s funeral had spent time with him there and told me that they shot and ate so many squirrels that winter that, as he put it, “We smelled like squirrels.” He made good contact with the hill people, the “Jackson Whites,” who were famously disinclined to trust outsiders. “Them’s violets, Ben,” one of these tough, distrustful men said to him one day as he handed Benson an early spring bouquet.

The Work “found him,” as he put it, after the Herald Tribune had run a story about his life in the hills. Someone in the Orage group read it and, sensing a candidate for the Teaching, took it upon himself to trek all the way to Benson’s cabin on snowshoes in the dead of winter to tell him about the Work. (Benson never said much about Orage, though his thinking was clearly influenced by him.) The next time we see Benson, he’s become gatekeeper at the Prieuré.

There is a photograph that shows Mr. Benson and his wife, Rita Romilly, on their wedding day in 1934. A smiling Gurdjieff is posed between them, one arm around the shoulder of each. The wedding took place in Stamford, Connecticut, in the church where Orage had been married; Mr. Gurdjieff came up especially for the occasion. When the minster asked him about his relation to the bride and groom he replied, “I father both.” Mr. Gurdjieff’s three words speak volumes about how close he was to his two pupils.

After Gurdjieff’s death, Madame de Salzmann undertook the daunting task of reconciling the differing work groups in and around New York—the Ouspenskyites based at Franklin Farms in Mendham, NJ, and the Gurdjieff/Orage groups in the City. Bill Segal described Madame’s skill in reconciling the groups as “sheer wizardry.” One of her strategies was to send Martin Benson to live at Franklin Farms because, although he was vehemently “anti-Ouspensky,” he was a person who, as Segal (an Ouspenskyite) put it, “we could all like.” Benson took over the Gate Cottage and soon began to raise pigs and chickens. It was there that he persuaded a chicken to adopt a litter of orphan pigs.

Listening to Benson was like riding a small raft over the rapids. His sentences veered and plunged, but you hung on. You knew that you were getting the shocks of an authentic teaching, conveyed in an entirely idiosyncratic way and it didn’t matter if, like me, you were too young and inexperienced to assimilate it on the spot. You might not get the point, but you could hear the greatness and wonder in his voice. The Work he spoke of was no hand-me-down; he had made it his own and he always encouraged his listeners to do the same.

Talking in the way he did seemed natural, but by his own account it came hard and late. He only learned to speak freely about the Work late in life. Whenever he tried to organize his ideas in advance or write out his thoughts, he was so utterly unschooled that he couldn’t do it. And because he was essentially a storyteller, his talk was subject to the temptations of improvised narration—lurching mid-sentence digressions, solecisms, clumsy repetitions and wild leaps. Whatever he thought of he simply added to the mix. Giving his tongue free rein to ramble and veer allowed him to align himself with the shocking scale and power of his understanding. “Knowing isn’t my best force,” he said. “Not knowing, just not knowing (but knowing) is. Whatever I can draw upon, that’s where I am. That is my position. The depth of my knowledge is there. It’s stored in a place in my being from where, if I’m honest with the situation, I’ll just talk and let it come out. I don’t care anymore what comes out. It’s not intellectually thought out, or correct.” When he at last found a way to speak, it was because he had ceased to be concerned with the logical expression of what he was saying. When he turned his attention entirely to the sensation and feel for what he was talking about, his subject could shock him into articulate speech. “[My way] is different,” he would say, “and probably crazier than most people’s, because I’m working on the subject as I’m talking, through myself, and not through one possible center. I’m trying to say these things through my whole self. And that’s why some very good things can happen, and some God-awful things can happen.”

Although he was, at the end of his life, the stubborn, fierce protector of his idiosyncratic style, Mr. Benson did not hold himself in high regard. He often lamented that he had fallen short. “Something more should have come of it,” he’d say, or, “I’m such a failure.” We tried, without really understanding what he meant, to honor and assure him. But praise of the sort we could muster, coming from the choir, was cold comfort to a man of such visionary ambitions.

Martin Benson died standing up. We carried his coffin into the church “feet first,” the same way he went into any new undertaking. After the funeral, Ken Ward and I followed the coffin to the crematorium. Driving west across the park, something uncanny occurred: a young man mounted bareback on a huge white draft horse entered the line of traffic directly in front of the hearse while at the same time, seemingly out of nowhere, a man in kilts with a bagpipe also appeared. Now led by the horse and rider, we proceeded, solemnly and majestically, as far as the park’s exit, while the piper stood playing “Wha Wadna’ Fecht for Charlie?”[1] It was as if the world had paused for a moment to salute Mr. Benson’s passing. □

Martin W. Benson was born in 1898. In spite of a limited academic background he was accepted by the University of Paris as a special student in animal husbandry. Martin Benson met Gurdjieff in France in the early 1930s. Later he became one of the most important guiding forces at Franklin Farms and at Armonk. His original and inventive ideas inspired projects of glass-blowing, iron­working, and experiments in sound. He died in 1971.

These excerpts, slightly edited and shortened for brevity, were originally published in Carl Lehmann-Haupt’s book, Martin Benson Speaks, New Paltz, NY: Codhill Press, 2011, and are reprinted here with the publisher’s kind permission.

[1] A patriotic martial song of the Scottish Jacobites that celebrates the past glories of Scotland and the heroism of those fighting for the Scottish Prince Edward Stuart.


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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: August 20, 2020