Gurdjieff International Review

The Death of Gurdjieff

By William J. Welch, M.D.

In the lunch hour of the day of my specialty written examination, my private life impinged on my professional life. I was called to the phone. Word had come from Paris that Gurdjieff was seriously ill, and I was asked if I could arrange to send to his doctor in Paris some serum albumin that had recently become available in the United States.

Gurdjieff had not been vigorously well when he was in New York in the winter of 1948, but he had not seemed seriously ill and never took to his bed. He was racked by a spasmodic cough, a deep, gurgling, tracheal rumble that reflected not only a chronic inflammation at the bases of his lungs, but also his love of Gaulois Bleu, the popular French cigarette, fat with harsh, black Turkish tobacco, which he selected from a bright blue package and carefully screwed into a short, hand-whittled wooden holder.

His abdominal girth was heroic and his presence in the Turkish bath, while not gargantuan, was at least the match of Rodin’s Balzac. He held court, when in New York, in the vast hot room of the Luxor baths on West Forty-sixth Street, an iced towel flipped around his bald head, his tiny feet splayed out under his vast belly above the expanse of which he poured himself tumblers of Perrier water, belching roundly, proclaiming with gutty satisfaction to no one in particular, “Bravo, Perrier!”

Regular visits to the bath were a ritual part of the festival of his life, and many of the men in the group around him became devotees of the hot room, the steam room, and even the Russian room, where the blinding heat, produced by splashing white hot rocks with cold water, was nearly more than could be borne, especially at the uppermost levels of the bleacher-like benches that lined the enclosure.

Other patrons must have wondered at the enigmatic, caramel-colored, fiercely moustached figure of Gurdjieff picking his way with feline grace from the hot room to the steam room to the Russian room, ultimately to lead his band of followers to the marble staircase going down into the neo-renaissance pool, which took up the central area of the baths. Only an “eedyot” would have the stupidity to plunge into the pool on emerging from the heat of the steam room or the sauna. (My son, Dick, received a dressing down for not restraining himself.)

We would line up on either side of him as he took a sitting position in the middle at the top of the staircase, with only his feet touching the water, several steps below the level of his tawny rump. At measured intervals, we would follow his lead in unison, and slip down one step at a time, until we were finally sitting chin deep in the chilly pool.

I was astounded to read some years later that among the bemused adepts who participated in this droll ritual, one believed himself to have been initiated into some special level of illumination in the course of his gradual, and ultimately total, immersion. I am afraid my only illumination derived from the shuddering chill to which I never became wholly acclimated, as my fundament and its anterior appendages were finally plunged into the icy water.

However much the analogy to an esoteric baptism might appeal to the unduly suggestible, I was not convinced, though almost anything Gurdjieff did could be interpreted as symbolic. When I went to the bath in Gurdjieff’s absence, I avoided such slow motion heroics and preferred to emulate another habitué of the bath who was not connected with our tribe. It was this gentleman’s habit to emerge from the Russian room six feet and at least six inches more of massive, steaming, tomato-red bulk. He would lumber impassively down the steps in measured strides, walking tall, looking straight ahead, and never hesitating at the shock of the cold water, but continuing to walk until he was completely submerged.

Still walking, and turning in a slow circle, he would start back. Gradually he rose up out of the water like Triton, his skin having returned to its apparently natural dull gray-blue. He was, I suspect, a Russian, or perhaps like Gurdjieff, a Georgian, who seemed wholly impervious to the ordeal, including the attendant illumination high or low.

It was thus with memories of Gurdjieff’s no longer young, but sturdy, aged vigor that I heard with disbelief in the late summer of 1949 of his dwindling strength and deteriorating health. He had talked of going away on a journey, or leaving his followers to pursue his own aims, and we had listened with mixed emotions. But in his presence, although he was not a big man, he gave a massive impression of contained energy—leonine, alert, watching, and capable of springing up. We certainly did not think of his death as near.

An acute observer might have seen, as some did, that he ate and drank sparingly, while giving the impression of gorging, and that, unlike his old self, he sometimes nodded during a reading in the late hours of the night.

But his padding, nimble stride was undiminished in agility when I saw him one winter afternoon alone, threading the crowds and traffic of Sixth Avenue. One would surely have said that he was not young, but by no means did he seem feeble.

Now the reports from Paris said his breath was short, his appetite was no more, his ankles were swelling and he was sorely fatigued. Those around him felt the effort he made to continue his grueling rounds and he seemed to them to be drawing into himself. Some had the impression, as they sat with him that autumn, that he would look long and deeply at this one, then at another, slowly around the room as though he was fixing them in his awareness, and in retrospect it seemed to some that he had been at the same time bidding each one good-bye.

One day, about two weeks before he died, in his car with four or five men, he drove to the Russian Cathedral on the Rue Daru, where he pulled up to the curb and sat silently with them for the better part of an hour. They remembered it only later and wondered about it when they found themselves in that same cathedral standing around his bier.

For though it was clear that he was ill, no one yet was prepared to accept the severity of his illness. Various doctors among his French followers had attempted to treat him, but the difficulty of undertaking diagnostic tests, or imposing a regimen on one whom they were accustomed to listen to and obey, only succeeded in creating an atmosphere of inappropriate diffidence and indecision that culminated in their being shrugged off.

Among them was an elderly Russian, perhaps once a physician, who encouraged Gurdjieff to swallow vast amounts of bicarbonate of soda for his “indigestion,” only worsening his fluid retention and the failure of his circulation. Professors from the Sorbonne, summoned by well-meaning friends, were given short shrift when they assumed the role of wise clinician, outlining strict regimens coupled with stern admonitions and gloomy prognoses.

At the same time, he was desperate and looking for someone with technical skill who could take over and see him through his illness, if not out of it. As a sort of surrogate doctor ex machina with no known demerits against him and, being American, which always meant a special sort of bright hope to Gurdjieff, I was called to Paris.

In the words of Mr. Kenneth Walker, the English surgeon and writer who had long been a follower of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, to “physic the king” is not an easy or enviable role. In court circles, I gather, tradition has it that the king simply cannot be physicked.

Six hours after receiving the summons from Paris from one whose English was as bad as my French, my plane was airborne, my passport—which had materialized in an hour, thanks to a highly placed friend—in my pocket, and a bag under my seat full of equipment selected that afternoon in a medical supply shop in anticipation of need.

The trip took nineteen hours, with a stop at Gander for fuel and an hour for a lunch at Shannon. Then the slow drift over the English Channel and my first glimpse of Paris at dusk as the car that had been sent to meet me moved along boulevards lined with chestnut trees, softly green in the light of the street lamps, the blur of passing sidewalk cafés, and the beeping claret-colored taxis, with the chill of early autumn in the air.

We went directly to Gurdjieff’s flat in the Rue des Colonel Renard near the Etoile, and were met at the door by two stiffly bowing, gray-haired men on their way out, each wearing in his lapel the little, fluted red drum of the Legion of Honor. They sniffed ever so slightly, but remained impeccably correct as I was presented to them. They were consultants from the Paris Medical School, still ruffled by their encounter with Gurdjieff and perhaps relieved to see that so young a man, who could not possibly be their match, was about to receive his just desserts in the sick man’s room.

The salon was crowded—a half-dozen French men and women, two towering, unmistakable public-school Englishmen, a short, black-suited Turk with slicked down hair and a jet-black moustache, a white-haired, kindly Russian (the one who had supplied the bicarbonate of soda), several obviously English women in sweaters and skirts, and an elegant, fragile woman dressed in one of those simple black French frocks I’ve heard my wife speak of as unobtainable.

Among the Americans was an old friend I had not seen for a year who was working in Gurdjieff’s kitchen and who came warmly out of the back of the flat bringing me a plate of chicken legs, ham, cheese, bread, and a glass of brandy. I refused the latter and put off eating until I had seen my patient, and was led down the back corridor to the little room where he lay. I was shocked to hear his labored breathing, to see his gray color, and the gaunt wasting of his body, except for his swollen belly and legs. The mark of death was on his face.

“Bravo, America! Bravo, docteur!” His guttural voice had lost none of its rich timbre. He turned warmly to me, and his smile brightened his face with an almost childlike gaiety, so characteristic of him when he was pleased. I said little and set about examining him slowly and thoroughly.

As I began, he settled himself expectantly.

“Doctor,” he said, “you do your business.” And he only spoke again when he saw that I was leaning near his mouth to smell his breath, which was faintly tinged with the aroma of his failing kidneys.

“Not stink?” he inquired, his eyebrows arched, a trace of his old smile on his lips. “No, Mr. Gurdjieff,” I assured him, “not stink.”

My father was forty-five when I was born, and I never knew him other than as a man with gray hair and not young. As he and I each grew older, I realize now that my attitude toward him became one of increasing deference and included a private pleasure in his vagaries and his stories. I fell into playing a sort of game with him, to ask him leading questions on subjects I knew he liked to talk about, and to anticipate his needs and surprise him with my foreknowledge of what would please him.

Something of this early conditioning certainly colored my deference toward Gurdjieff in those last few days I spent with him as we faced together what I felt sure he knew, and knew that I knew: he was close to the end of this part of his life. I told him that there were some procedures that would have to be done to make him more comfortable, that we could manage them in his flat, but it would be much better for him and for me if we could go to the hospital. I knew that a room had been taken at the American Hospital in Paris and, thanks again to influential friends, assurances had been made that I could care for him there.

He agreed without hesitation, and while we waited for the ambulance to come I went into the little dining room to eat what my friend had prepared for me and to talk to the others. They were sobered by what I had to tell them, that Gurdjieff was mortally ill and there was little hope of recovery. Where I sat in the little dining room I faced the corridor to his room, and as I was speaking I looked up and saw him walking toward me, slowly in a kind of caricature of his old vital stride. It was as if he had picked himself up by the scruff of his own neck and was hoisting himself along by a naked will. He turned into the watercloset down the hall and disappeared from my view.

He did not walk again. But I remembered stories of a recent accident in his car in which he had broken several ribs, crushed his sternum against the steering wheel, and twenty-four hours later, indifferent to his doctors’ pleas, had walked to the café for morning coffee and entertained his guests as usual at lunch and dinner.

I do not know why he took this merciless attitude toward his body, but all his life he had scorned its complaints and put it to tests that would have done in a lesser man. Now its resources were nearly exhausted and it would at last have its way.

Once in the hospital, it was possible to make him more comfortable, to ease his breathing and support his heart. But the more we studied him, the more the evidence emerged that no bodily system had been spared and what had seemed inevitable was indeed imminent.

I can see his wasted body propped on the edge of the hospital bed, his legs spread, his tiny, slippered feet resting on chairs that flanked me on either side. I sat between them on a footstool, looking up at him as I prepared to drain a portion of the fluid that distended his belly and pushed against his diaphragm, impeding his breathing. His red fez was cocked to one side of his brown, bald head, his camel’s-hair coat was thrown over his shoulders.

An old Russian nurse leaned over him, her arm supporting him while he juggled a small cup of hot, black coffee and a wooden cigarette holder. Two young doctors were assisting me, together with a prim Scottish nurse. A shy, young probationer in her starched, blue-and-white-striped apprentice-gown stood on tiptoe, wide-eyed, behind her Scottish mentor. The small room was crowded, and there was an air of expectancy as Gurdjieff tranquilly watched my preparations.

“Only if you not tired, Doctor,” he said, his breathing labored and his sad eyes looking down on me warmly. “You carry on.”

He chuckled when I said to him, “Not only never before in this hospital, but perhaps never before anywhere has there been such a scene.” Even in extremis, he had a taste for the absurdity of the human drama.

What can one learn from the death of a man who was indeed a man? He had lived with the inevitability of his death a daily reality to him, yet he lived, if ever a man did, to the full. He was to leave behind him, among other books, All and Everything, an elephantine allegory of the meaning of life and the purpose of man’s existence, a book difficult for the uninitiated to penetrate, but described by one critic as a veritable flying cathedral of a book, and by another as a true source of knowledge unparalleled in the twentieth century.

He was to leave an impression, well nigh indelible, on hundreds, if not thousands, of men and women who had come under his influence. Many of these continue their lives centered in the principle of Gurdjieff’s teaching. That is to say, they live by what they learned from him.

The only final instructions I know of that he gave to those around him occurred two days before he died. He summoned to his bedside Jeanne de Salzmann who, with her husband (by then no longer living), had been part of his inner circle ever since they first met in Tiflis in 1918. Much of what she has sustained and accomplished in the ensuing twenty-some years since his death has followed the line he laid out that Thursday afternoon in the American Hospital in Paris.

I shall not try to describe the actual moment of his death, for although I was present, and the events that occurred were unique in my experience, I do not know their significance and have no way of expressing them in a proper context.

This is not to say that the moonshine that rises so readily in the minds of the gullible when a revered man dies, and in Gurdjieff’s case also began inevitably to appear, is in any way based in fact.

I have heard, for example, and have even seen in print, that his body was still warm many hours after his death, that his eyelids were raised and he stared back with seeing eyes. In fact, his body was embalmed within a few hours of his death and was removed to the little chapel in the back garden of the hospital, where it lay in state, after the Russian custom, for several days before the actual funeral services in the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in the Rue Daru. From there the body was taken for burial to Fontainebleau outside Paris, near the chateau in Avon, which had housed his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

It is true that several hundred people stood silent and immobile for the better part of an hour in the vaulted cathedral, waiting for the body to arrive, and the priests were moved by the unusual spectacle of so many people in a state of such containment.

The delay came about because of technical problems with getting the coffin there in time and was not “planned.” It is also true that precisely at the end of the ceremony the lights in that quarter of Paris abruptly went out, which many took as considerably more than an accidental power failure and still consider as an omen.

More has been made of such occurrences than is, in my opinion, justifiable. The stature of Gurdjieff, the man and his life, was of sufficient magnitude in itself not to require superstitious embellishments. For myself, what I must acknowledge is that the death of Gurdjieff was the death of a man “not in quotation marks.” And I have seen many men die. It left me, as I may suppose he wished, with an undying image of what a man could be, and with an undying question.

The widening impact of his world view on both the West and the East begins to be evident, but that is not the subject of these recollections.

I am not aware that Gurdjieff made many serious promises to those who worked in his orbit, but two of them I heard him repeat many times. One was that those who undertook the work he proposed would never again “sleep” as peacefully as before in the so-called waking state of their ordinary life; and the other was that those who followed his mode of self-study and inner discipline would at least have the possibility of dying an honorable death, and not simply perish—as he put it—“like a dirty dog.”

What he meant by an honorable death was not, I think, as simple as it sounds. Nor did he necessarily refer only to physical death, but to that death in life, the demise of the lord fool in each of us, whose vanity and self-illusion must die in order that a new life may begin, the rebirth of which religions speak.

~ • ~

This excerpt is taken from Dr. Welch’s autobiography, What Happened in Between: A Doctor’s Story, New York: George Braziller, 1972, pp. 132–142. Copies of the book are available from Olana Gallery, 2 Carillon Road, Brewster, NY 10509, 845-279-8077, email:

Copyright © 2004 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2004 Issue, Vol. VIII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2004