Gurdjieff International Review
velyn Sutta was a group leader, at one time working with over sixty people in three groups. She originally met the Work during the Second World War in the early 1940s. Her initial contacts were two couples, William and Louise Welch, and William and Cora Segal, who were students of Gurdjieff in Paris. Mr. Gurdjieff had told them that, since they wouldn’t be taking Movements when they returned to New York, they should find a good yoga teacher there.
Mrs. Sutta had studied yoga with a swami and taught herself Sanskrit in order to read the sacred Indian texts in their original forms. When the Segals and the Welches returned to New York, they sought out Mrs. Sutta to study yoga with her. Soon thereafter, they invited her to join groups practicing Mr. Gurdjieff’s teaching.
Mrs. Sutta attended groups in New York and spent weekends at Franklin Farms in Mendham, New Jersey in order to work with the Ouspensky groups. When Mr. Ouspensky returned to Europe, Mme. Ouspensky invited Mr. Gurdjieff to Mendham, giving Mrs. Sutta the opportunity to meet and work with him directly.
Mr. Gurdjieff invited Mrs. Sutta to Paris where she worked as one of the typists of the manuscript which was to become All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. A chapter would be read at dinner in Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment, and revisions would be made. Mr. Gurdjieff would then give the manuscript to the typists who would return to their hotels and stay up as long as it would take to type the changes. They would then hurry back to the apartment in time for the reading at the next meal.
Mrs. Sutta’s husband, Maurice Sutta, was a wealthy real estate attorney and the first treasurer of the Gurdjieff Foundation. They had two children, Elihu and Marian. Marian was fifteen years old when she met Mr. Gurdjieff and became a part of a group of young people gathered around Mr. Gurdjieff whom he called “the calves.” He loved the energy of the young and, I suppose, felt they were less “broken” than others.
I was living in Chicago when I was first introduced to the Gurdjieff ideas in 1960. A friend called and asked if I would like to meet a man named Richard Ebbole, who had convened a group of people and was reading to them from a special book. I went to a meeting, a handful of people in a darkened apartment who listened to the reading, and then sat around staring at the tips of burning cigarettes and free associated about what they had just heard. None of this interested me very much, except the ideas from the book being read, In Search of the Miraculous, by P. D. Ouspensky. I didn’t understand much, but at the same time I was touched deeply by the truth of what I read. Soon thereafter, Richard Ebbole and I both felt that we needed to find people who worked in such groups. So, we moved to New York City in 1960 to find a Gurdjieff group, and we were referred to Mrs. Sutta.
Richard met Mrs. Sutta right away and brought home fantastic stories about her. He met her in the lobby of the Fashion Institute where the first public demonstration of the Movements was taking place. She was sitting in a chair, surrounded by her students. A mink coat was draped over her shoulders, cigarette holder held in red-tipped fingers.
I had to wait six months before meeting Mrs. Sutta. I was told that when I saw her for the first time, I would have to answer the question of why I wanted to study the ideas. My answer would determine whether or not I would be allowed to join a group. The day finally came. I had an appointment for three in the afternoon. I carefully chose an outfit I thought I looked best in––a light green skirt and matching sweater. I went to a park near her apartment on West End Avenue to think about the question and to prepare myself. Each time I approached the question I found a different answer. Nothing I could think of seemed true. Close to panic, I announced myself to the doorman and took the elevator to the Sutta apartment. I rang the bell. A woman, a little shorter than me with short, red hair, answered the door. She was wearing a white blouse and brown skirt. She showed me to a chair.
“Would you like tea or coffee?”
“Yes, coffee please.”
She brought out a tray. “That’s a lovely color on you,” she said.
I don’t remember what we chatted about. Suddenly, the question, “Why do you want to join a group?”
I had no idea what would come out. “I feel as though I’m walking through a fog and there are boulders in the way that I can’t see, that I keep tripping over. I want the fog to lift. I want to see what’s ahead and try as best I can to prepare.”
“That sounds like a good reason,” she said and gave me instructions when and where to go to my first meeting.
Richard and I became totally involved in the life of the Gurdjieff Foundation, attending meetings, classes, and work groups every night, and going to the work house in the country on the weekends. For me, the group leaders represented parents I never had. Richard and I were married in 1963.
In 1970, Mrs. Sutta had a massive heart attack which weakened her, forcing her to retire to South Florida and she ceased leading groups entirely.
Soon thereafter, our family also moved to Florida. I woke up one night with the thought, “It’s Mr. Gurdjieff’s birthday and I have forgotten.” I poured myself a toast, read some of All and Everything, played some of Mr. Gurdjieff’s music, and went back to bed. The next day I put an ad in the local paper, “Anyone interested in studying the ideas of G. I. Gurdjieff call ...” Over twenty people answered the ad. We began to meet weekly at our house, and soon we approached Mrs. Sutta, asking if she would join us. She turned us down saying that she was too weak, which clearly she was. She had become a nice, elderly Jewish lady playing mahjong by the pool. She was nothing like the strong, confident woman I had met ten years before.
There was a woman in the group, a snowbird from Michigan, who, when she found out there was someone in Florida who had worked with Gurdjieff and was not available to her, wrote a letter to Lord Pentland, the President of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. Lord Pentland wrote to Mrs. Sutta saying that she had to “get back into the saddle.”
If I had not witnessed what happened next, I would never believe such a thing was possible. Mrs. Sutta began coming to the group. Most of the people were young and energies were high. The effect of what was coming from the group transformed Mrs. Sutta into the woman she had been with Mr. Gurdjieff. Whatever it was that he had deposited in her became activated and for the next five years we all benefited from its expression. By the end of the first year the group had grown to 80. Mrs. Sutta interviewed each person individually asking each one to make a pledge. They had to formulate an aim and give as much money as they could to purchase a house of work for the group.
We bought what had originally been a chicken coop. It had been broken up into three apartments located in an unincorporated section of North Miami. The man in our group who led the renovation was a former playboy who had taught himself building skills in order to survive. He gutted all the rooms and removed the interior walls. The others in the group helped as best they could. A steel beam had to be raised in the center of the building to keep the walls from collapsing. Mrs. Sutta and I watched as the men attached a winch to the ceiling and hauled the steel beam in place. The floor was then ground down, cement was laid and we had a room for Movements. The house provided work for the group for many years.
On the surface, Mrs. Sutta was a representative of Mr. Gurdjieff’s Work. She once said to me, “When I was first in the Work, I wanted to become conscious. Now I just want to live my life with dignity.” Her piercing view of herself filled me with shame when I saw how I would turn away again and again from the truth of myself. She taught me by example how to live my life, whatever happens—to accept what I see in a moment. Several days before she died she stopped eating and speaking. I never knew what a “state of grace” meant until I saw how she was then. She passed on the outbreath. Only she would know how close she came to her aim. I only hope I have the courage to follow her example. □
Barbara Reser, a retired Special Education teacher, is a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. She worked closely with Mrs. Sutta in New York and Miami, has served as a Movements instructor, and currently leads groups in New York and Missouri.
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Featured: Spring 2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (2)
Revision: August 20, 2020