Gurdjieff International Review

Jeanne de Salzmann

Pamela Travers


first met Mr. Gurdjieff just before the war when an old and valued pupil of his, seeing the effect upon me of the diagram of the Ray of Creation, took me to the Café de Paris and then to Mr. Gurdjieff’s apartment. It was a day I shall always remember for not merely did I learn things that only later I came to understand, but it pointed me in the direction my life was to take. On leaving my vital and benevolent host, he declined to say goodbye, “You will be back,” he said, and I agreed, not knowing that it would be several years before the prediction came true. War intervened, also the Atlantic Ocean, and it was not until peace broke out and I returned to London that the Golden Arrow, and I in it, could speed from its bow to Paris.

I came shyly to his new apartment feeling myself very much a stranger. I was shocked, therefore, to find myself placed at luncheon in the seat opposite his. When I protested at this I was told that is was customary for the latest arrival to sit in front of him. So I accepted. Who was I to do otherwise?

Then suddenly there was a new vitality in the air and he was in the room. I trembled. How was I to greet him? But instead, after a long piercing glance, he greeted me!

“Ha!” he exclaimed, “You come back!” Shocked again, but this time joyfully, I nodded mutely. How could he have remembered?

“H’m! English!” he said, reflectively. “English sell their butter and eat their margarine. True—Yes?” He leaned across the table.

“Oh, no!” I replied. Sell one’s butter—two ounces a week on the ration book! Who would do such a thing?

“I say Yes,” he said, belligerently. But for me it was not true. He was my host, but even so I could not lie to him.

“No.” I said, almost apologetically.

“Yes!” he insisted. And from then on, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ went back and forth across the table, until, seeing me weeping into my cutlet and saffron rice, he broke off and left me severely alone.

But what if the same thing happened at dinner and I had to face it all again? I went and sat in a small local garden trying to gather my energy for I knew, if the same proposition was put before me, I would have to repeat my fatal word. Fortunately, a new guest had arrived during the afternoon and I was able to take a seat further down the table and when the vital presence entered making myself as inconspicuous as possible, I leant back behind a pair of shoulders on my left. As the meal proceeded I became more and more aware of these shoulders. I sensed that they would neither shield me from, nor expose me to my fate.

Moreover, they were as aware of me as I of them and that what they were telling me was “Don’t hide!” I knew they were right and was just about to move from their shelter when a head craned round from the opposite side of the table and the searching black eyes found me.

“Still No?” the fierce morning voice demanded.

“Still No,” I said, to my surprise, firmly. Those shoulders had steadied me. His smile came up like the rising sun, spreading over everyone.

“I very glad for you!” he said, lifting his plate and passing it across to me. I was non-plussed. After all that—this! I did not know what to do till the face above the shoulders looked at me, glad also, and a voice said “Eat!” It was my first glimpse of Madame de Salzmann!

At first, it was as a presence, rather than as a person that I knew her. Each time I came from England—and it was often—by some lucky chance or fate, it was he whom I confronted at table, in groups and readings, or in his private office. Confront is indeed the word. It was always a challenge, a chance to learn, and ultimately to rejoice.

Gradually, however, as the years went by, the presence, radiantly human, became more tangible. I saw her as a thread that held everything together—the lively meals, the groups, the movements, the motor cavalcades—contributing her own vivacity to the general celebration that the Work itself, whenever a group of people gathers together to pursue it, gives as a grace to life.

During the 1930s when he was writing his books, these matters had been largely held up, but she had quietly gathered about her a covey of pupils—one of them René Daumal—familiarising them with all aspects of the Work, against the time when he would be ready to teach again. These became a nucleus for the vigorous labours of the war years and prepared the way when the lights came back, for those coming from England and America, whom she now gathered into the fold.

She knew intuitively whatever was needed, clarifying word or gesture to the student baffled as I had been, by the enigmatic, equivocal—one might almost call them antics—of the teacher, which were always designed to enlighten. When it was given out that the destination of a motor trip would be, say, Vichy, her quiet “Or elsewhere,” would prepare those taking part in it for at least one change of direction.

When he refused to take money—as he did from me—“From you, work, not money,” she cheerfully put the wad of francs into her own pocket. Above all, instinctively, she knew what he himself needed and how to make harmonious his declining years.

He valued and revered—perhaps even envied—the idea of long life and predicted that she herself would live to be 100. But it was becoming clear as time went on—not to new-comers, perhaps, but to those who had known him longer—that this would not be his fate. There was an occasion in the Salle Pleyel in 1949 when, in the middle of a particular Movement, Mme. de Salzmann at the piano, he, in the words of an old pupil, “brought his body in.” Immediately the music changed and after one staggering moment, the class swung evenly as one man, into No. 17, his favourite Movement, calling forth from him a beatific smile!

After his death when, at Avon, we left the one who had given us new life and was now himself on the way to the ever-living, it became clear to everyone that only those shoulders through which I had first come to know her, could now carry, and indeed had been designed by him to do so, the burden—and she made it a joyous burden—of the Work.

Her first task was to spread the net which would bring together all those who throughout the world owed fealty to Mr. Gurdjieff; pupils of Ouspensky who, at his death, and advised to do so by Mme. Ouspensky, had gone to Paris and become adherents; others who had worked with Dr. Nicoll, himself a pupil from the Prieuré days; still others with whom Jane Heap, who had worked with him over many years before the war, had shared her subtle interpretation of the ideas; and certain of those of Mr. J.G. Bennett—all of these as well as the groups that during the war years had sprung up in various cities in America, led by those who had themselves been pupils.

On one of her early visits to England, two of our senior friends arranged a meeting in a room in central London setting up three enormous armchairs and filling the rest of the space with camp stools and benches. But when she was ceremoniously ushered towards the largest armchair, she threw up her hands, almost in horror, and glancing around for a face she recognized, came and sat on a stool beside me and, from among the nonentities, discussed possibilities and ways and means.

In a later meeting, a crowd around her in Colet Gardens, she suddenly cried out ringingly the name “Marthe,” thus summoning one who had long been pupil, companion and helper—constant as the sunflower to the sun—to her side. And the tone of her voice, so free and natural, assured everyone that now she felt at home amongst us. It was here at Colet Gardens that she instituted groups and Movements classes, enlivened a Christmas party for children—she teaching them, even taking part in various games—and it was from that base that she worked upon the first Movements film that was to be shown at the Fortune Theatre, and later supervised a demonstration of the Movements in the Rudolf Steiner Hall.

So the Work in England prospered—and happily—under her tutelage, until at last she was able to put it into the care of one and then another of Mr. Gurdjieff’s pupils, specifically Mme. Lannes, one of her most faithful pupils, to whom we must all be grateful for welding together the London groups. For Mme. de Salzmann was needed in America to perform the same services, and it was not long before it could be said that the Work was now one whole. New headquarters were established in Paris, England and America and, as well, in each region a house in the country where crafts of all kinds were practised, not merely for their own sake, but also as an opportunity for communal activity and a means of bringing mind, body and feeling together for such as were ready to strive towards this end.

Tirelessly, this dea ex machina—though never asserting herself as such—travelled from country to country, not so much to oversee, but to take a vivid part in the Work in conjunction with those pupils who everywhere were becoming ready to carry the responsibility of leading others. And as the years went by, between these sojournings, she, ever in love with the Movements, was able to fulfill her ambition by directing the films which are so vital a part of the archives of the Work. And later in Peter Brook’s Meetings with Remarkable Men, her influence was evident in every aspect of the film—the choosing of the players, the writing of the script and the manner of execution of the music.

But in all these labours, there was nothing authoritarian. She carried authority within herself, along with her human warmth and natural gaiety. Once, at a party in America, finding herself established by her hosts regally and all alone on a sofa, she cried, “Can nobody bear my emanations?” And beckoned two or three to her side. She was quick to note that warmth in others, and several times suggested to one who shared it, that he gather around him, naming them, three or four who also possessed it but were perhaps too shy to reveal it.

This was not only, one felt, for these others but to activate the general Work, which needs for its life’s sake a togetherness amongst its adherents.

Her very presence in a group never failed to bring about this condition. Indeed, it was here that her quality was most graphically declared. Everything was lifted to a higher level, the question as well as the questioner, and at the end each one felt nearer both to himself and to the others.

But the years that had been predicted were now crowding upon her. As far as the Work was concerned they had little effect. True, her memory for names eluded her, but what, after all, was a name when the face behind it, if she had had any relation with it, was faithfully remembered; so also, were the ideas and her manner of presenting them. And, as well, her capacity for giving exercises showing one new aspects of oneself, thus constantly animating one’s work.

Two years ago, I said in a group that I intended to speak on a different subject from that which was concerning the others. She held up her hand, “No! You and I will talk it over alone.” Her intuition, ever lively, had seized upon my unspoken need which only she, I felt, could satisfy. But she was returning to France that night, so I arranged to go to Paris the following Sunday. There, after luncheon, where questions were forcefully dealt with, we—I will not say talked—communed together. Almost without words the question was not so much answered but shared. I felt it was hers as well as mine and went away renewed.

In one of his later talks, Mr. Gurdjieff bore heavily on the question of aim. First of all firsts, he insisted, was to die an honorable death. I have pondered long upon this. Does it not require, as a preliminary, an honorable life? And was hers not such a one? Everything one knows about her suggests that she lived her life. She was not—as we are, except for rare moments—lived by it. Moreover, it was a life of service—to her essential self, to life itself and above all to the Work. To be thus remembered, who would not wish for that?

I have been told that the recent ceremony [at her funeral] in the Russian church in Paris was similar to the one in 1949. People walked in single file—though none perhaps with that light, firm, dancing step as she had then walked—to the edifice of flowers, topped by a handful of white roses from the garden at Addison Crescent, to make whatever vow was in them. Not exactly, but similar perhaps, for this time there was one, known and revered by us all, who stood throughout, still as a stone, no visible breath, in service to the one who had served.

After that, among flowers, her son took her by car, not to Avon, but to her homeland, to lie amongst her own folk in Geneva. Truly a noble and fitting departure as a prelude to the ultimate setting forth. No question here of Farewell but a many­throated Hail!

As for those who are left, with that sound still ringing soundlessly, her loss has, I feel, left us in an interval in an unnameable octave. As an intimate community, as people caring for the Work and each other, and remembering with love and gratitude all we have been given, must we not strive to discover the energy that will carry that octave forward? Here, it could perhaps be helpful to remember together the epitaph for Gurdjieff’s father:

i am thou

thou art i

he is ours

we both are his

so may all be

for our neighbour.

~ • ~

Pamela Travers was an Australian-born British writer who spent most of her career in England. She is best known for the Mary Poppins series of children’s books.

This was originally published in The Gurdjieff Society: Report of the Council to Members, (London) April 1989 – March 1990, and is reprinted here with their kind permission. The first photo of Mme. de Salzmann is by Louis Andrieux and is from the archives of Dr. Alexandre de Salzmann.


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Featured: Winter 2018/2019 Issue, Vol. XIII (1)
Revision: August 1, 2019