Gurdjieff International Review
orn on September 7, 1900 to a successful Viennese businessman and a former opera singer, Rita Romilly Benson initially lived in England and traveled widely before moving to the United States. A debutante, she graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and became a dancer and actress in her teens. By the 1920’s she was in New York City and playing in numerous plays and musicals on and off-Broadway, sometimes in starring roles. She was with the Washington Square Players and later a member of the famous Nantucket Players. It was not long before she was acclaimed both as a performer and a teacher of those arts. She taught as well as appeared in theatrical productions of George M. Cohan’s plays and was part of the Eva Le Gallienne Repertory Civic Theatre. Later she taught acting at the American Academy and was one of the founders of the American Conservatory. When Paul Robeson was chosen to play Othello in a Broadway production in 1943, she was his drama coach. Robeson received a Gold Medal for the best diction in the American theater for that role.
I believe Mrs. Benson initially studied the Work ideas with Alfred Orage. Orage regularly gave lectures about the ideas to many of the leading artists and intellectuals of the day. So it seems possible, and perhaps even probable, that one of her artist acquaintances first invited her to one of these talks. Her introduction to the Work must have been received very profoundly because in April of 1924, it was at Miss Romilly’s apartment at which the announcement of the American Branch of the Gurdjieff Institute was made.
Later, after acting as Mr. Gurdjieff’s secretary at the Prieuré—especially during the period during which Mr. Gurdjieff dedicated himself to the writing of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson—she was often the appointed reader, both of that manuscript and of various lectures given at large venues. She was named, ‘The Reader,’ as she could project her voice to the furthest seat in a theater. Martin Benson had been living at the Prieuré at the time, and in 1934 Rita Romilly and Martin Benson married.
After Mr. Gurdjieff’s death in 1949, Rita Romilly was one of the founders of the New York Foundation and worked closely with Jeanne de Salzmann and other senior pupils who had worked directly with Gurdjieff.
Mrs. Benson always said, “You can change nothing ... but you can change your attitude.” She insisted on keeping the purity of Mr. G’s ideas, methods and processes—especially the concept of putting someone on the next rung of the ladder. She often expressed a wish to work only with the few who were able to personify that approach. She lived by the axiom that, “if one makes efforts, greater efforts will be expected of them.” She insisted that her groups be pro-active in all ‘three lines of work,’ and would accept nothing less. I always felt that she was beyond any need for personality-based approval.
When you were with her you felt a demand to be awake and to bring yourself up to the level of attention she wished for you. One did not ‘sleep’ comfortably in her presence or willingly act from one’s habitual personality. It appeared that she often went out of her way to ‘shock’ all who met her under work circumstances. This surely caused many who ‘wished to be comfortable’ to react negatively. Although I certainly witnessed a degree of ebullience when Mrs. Benson was with old acquaintances, our groups and work circumstances were not about socializing. Later I began to understand her as a group leader and to see her work on herself by bringing her personal work into the moment, thus helping her ‘audience’ to see themselves.
My wife and I moved from Chicago to New York to join her group. We began attending group meetings and, thus, our ‘real journey’ began. Her younger groups usually met in her apartment on East 69th Street; only later were we able to attend meetings at the Foundation. Meanwhile, we were introduced to weekly ‘workshop evenings’ at a storefront where we all worked at producing items for the annual Christmas sale to benefit the Foundation. As sale time drew near we worked whenever we weren’t at our jobs or sleeping, and from Thanksgiving on it was ‘all hands’ and weekend work days as well. I learned to re-bind paperbacks with hard covers, make and decorate wooden boxes with inlays of ivory and fine veneers and craft fine hardwood trivets, among other things. One of my first major work lessons about ‘shocks’ was at the pricing session for my items. Each mistake I had made, each corner I had cut, or process I accepted as OK, was pointed out, and my items were priced accordingly. I was forced to see myself in a new way, and I’ve never failed to remember that lesson and pass it on. As Mr. G. said, “Good enough is not good enough.” The idea that the Fourth Way starts on a level higher than life can be understood only from repeated experiences of seeing how one continues to manifest one’s habitual, ordinary level of efforts while trying to attempt to accomplish the extraordinary.
In 1960, the person who normally drove Mrs. Benson lost his driver’s license. His bad luck was one of the most fortunate things that ever happened to me. Not only did I have many more hours with Mrs. Benson than would otherwise have been possible, but I drove her to and from their cottage at Madame Ouspensky’s Franklin Farm in Mendham, NJ, where Mr. Benson resided most days. Mr. Benson would occasionally visit our groups, which was quite a treat because his answers came from such different perspectives. His presence was always stimulating. In fact, Mrs. Benson even referred to him on occasion as her ‘secret weapon.’ Martin Benson often told us stories of the Prieuré, about the “Old Man,” (Mr. G.), how and when he met the Work, and what work there was like.
You did not sleep in Mrs. Benson’s presence! To drive with her was an exercise in attention. She demanded I make the best possible time and was a pro-active back-seat driver. My job as her driver gave me early access to work days at Franklin Farms and later to the property in Armonk NY, as well as the Foundation during a time when one could still work closely with many of Mr. Gurdjieff’s direct pupils. One thing they all had in common was that they demonstrated their obligation to propagate the Work—to actively give back what they had received from him. Their unremitting efforts exemplified that you can’t ‘rest on your laurels,’ and that there is no momentum in the Work. If you made efforts yesterday, greater efforts are required today and even greater tomorrow. That is the way it is; you have to learn to willingly pay in advance. If you demonstrated that you were willing to make the necessary efforts, they gave of themselves at an extraordinary level.
In 1964, in response to a request by Madame de Salzmann, some Bunraku Puppet groups were formed. Although Mrs. Benson was in poor health, she took on this project—truly a ‘super-effort’—and went on to guide these groups for over 15 years. She was assisted by Mr. Lawrence Morris.
In 1965 the Benson’s bought a small country house in Mount Kisco, NY and group meetings and workdays began to be held there. This was far from where we lived but gave extra opportunities to work with Mr. Benson who was a teacher to us all until he passed in December of 1971.
Christmas holidays were extraordinary. Mrs. Benson’s tree was always perfect. In the Viennese manner the tree lights were real candles, and two men armed with long-handled candle extinguishers guarded against accidents—a great exercise in attention! Mrs. Benson entertained all of her students and their families as well as many friends. Each family was invited to visit separately, just a few visitors at a time. The children were delighted with the unusual candle-lit tree and carols were sung. Afterwards, children had ice cream and received tasteful gifts, and the adults had a libation. It was a highlight of the season.
Mrs. Benson died in April of 1980. □
These are excerpts from Marshall May’s book, Gurdjieff Group Work with Rita Romilly Benson, Lulu Publications, 2014. The book can be acquired from Lulu.com or from Amazon.com.
 Bunraku is a form of traditional Japanese puppet theatre.
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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: August 20, 2020