Gurdjieff International Review

Thomas Forman

Mary Rothschild


homas Forman was born on May 29, 1910 in Nottingham, England and died on March 23, 2001 in New York City. He attended Trinity College, Cambridge and worked for British Intelligence during the Second World War. He served as an editor of the American Heritage Dictionary[1] and was on the Board of Editors of Gentry Magazine,[2] published by William Segal. He was a trustee of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York and responsible for groups in New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland.

When he was a young man, his doctor, Kenneth Walker, introduced him to the Ouspenkys. He worked with them at Lyne, England and then in Mendham, New Jersey, where Mr. Forman managed their property. After p. D. Ouspensky’s death, Tom Forman, along with Lord Pentland and others, began to meet with Gurdjieff at Mme. Ouspensky’s initiative.

I joined the New York Forman Group in 1978, after Mrs. Cynthia Pearce died and Tom Forman took responsibility for her groups in New York and Philadelphia. He had already been working with the Cleveland group beginning in 1970. I, and those with whom I have been in contact for this article, saw the man, warts and all. What stood out then—and still does now—is the direct impression of his work on himself, his vigilance, compassion, and integrity. And, yes, his service. He consistently pointed, not to himself or even to Gurdjieff, but to the Work as an action from above, to the responsibility to be open to that movement, to the need to become oneself and thereby bring one’s individual work into the world. When I was in question about what to do “in life,” he told me to work, that I was responsible for what I saw, and that if I didn’t address it, perhaps no one would.

It was clear that he took his own obligations very seriously, whether it was his work with the doormen for the care and safety of the New York Foundation building, or the way he prepared in deep silence each weekend as he travelled to Armonk on the chance that he might be called on to be in front of a sitting. He willingly acknowledged his weaknesses and had stringent rules for his own ethical conduct in personal relationships with individuals in his groups.

When there was a transgression, he could discipline without a word, leaving it up to us to learn from it, if we wished. During my first work period with him, I was in the kitchen and decided that the way something was being cooked was all wrong. A co-conspirator and I waited until the cook left for a meeting and we changed the recipe dramatically. The next day, though I asked the new cook several times about what we were preparing, there was silence. I was assigned to chop a very large pile of onions. I got the message.

Mr. Forman found the language and attitude to address each of us as we were. At times, a simple hand gesture sufficed to convey a message. He listened and was able to find the nugget of meaning in what seemed to be a most uninteresting question, not only with those of us in his groups, but also when he responded to people at the lectures he gave as part of a course at The New School[3] in the 1970s, and later in Philadelphia and Cleveland. He understood how to speak from his own understanding and in simple terms to anyone, no matter how familiar they were with the ideas. After the New York lectures, there were dinners at a nearby artist’s loft so that those new people could ask questions in an atmosphere that allowed for an openness and contact with the group. His groups benefited from the times when we would cook and share meals together, where there was a sense of “family”—a simple, joyful recognition that we were closest to him and had a strong bond in a common work. For all his personal warmth, there was an underlying discipline to his work with us. While dinner occasions were natural and informal, the occasional “Stop!” exercise would bring us back to our most important connection.

One occasion that stands out from his New York group was during a work period we had in Piedmont, NY where we made masks as part of a study on the chapter “Art” from All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Mr. Forman demonstrated, not only his mask, but how to look from behind that mask, how to engage the whole body to enter into the personality as a role.

Though he was an intellectual, Mr. Forman made every effort to not speak of the ideas without a relationship to personal experience and a visceral effort of presence in the moment. There were times when he would stop one of us mid-sentence and insist that we find our own words for what we were trying to express, that we return to sensing and inhabiting the body, especially while relating a past experience. This could be infuriating. My experience was that when I could get beyond reaction, submit to the process he offered, and return to a physical center of gravity to speak from that place, it made an indelible impression of work in the moment.

Our group received many visits from Mme. de Salzmann, Michel de Salzmann, Henri Tracol, Pauline de Dampierre, Nathalie de Salzmann de Etievan and others. At those times, Mr. Forman was a fellow student, unafraid to have others bring their influence. While some of us went to work places independently, we also traveled as a group to work in Venezuela with Nathalie de Salzmann, in the South of France with Henri Tracol and Lise Etievant, and several times at Beau Préau with Michel de Salzmann. In those situations, and in an interview filmed by Michel de Salzmann at Beau Préau, Mr. Forman demonstrated a vulnerability, a willingness to question himself, to always learn. In later years, as he worked alongside both Lady Pentland and James George, they modeled what it was to be true friends in the Work.

At summer work periods at the Cleveland group’s work space in an arboretum outside the city, more than one hundred of us pitched twenty or more tents on a huge sloping lawn—there were no inside accommodations except three rooms for the elders. It rains a lot in Cleveland in the summer. The challenging physical conditions were alleviated somewhat, at least for me, by a glorious sauna. At these work periods, there was a demand for precision in the crafts: carding, spinning, dying and weaving wool, leathercraft, wattling, building stone walls and digging the herb garden. Mr. Forman was situated right in the middle of the activity, sometimes joining a craft. He was particularly adept at leatherworking.

Mr. Forman was a master at arranging things so that, if one was open to seeing oneself, there was a mirror. He sometimes enlisted others in “theater” exercises. One day, after speaking at a discussion earlier in the day, I came upon one of the senior Cleveland people seated on the grass and surrounded by small logs as if in a meeting. Turning from one log to the other, he mimicked exactly the way I had spoken: “I don’t really know.” “Not that I understand.” It was a shock that still resonates.