G.I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

First Account of an Evening with Gurdjieff

An Evening in the Early Thirties

by Edwin Wolfe

[Edwin Wolfe’s account of a 1931 reading from Beelzebub’s Tales is taken from his Episodes with Gurdjieff, San Francisco: Far West Press, 1974. His vignettes—beginning at the Prieuré but mostly in New York City—provide a vivid sense of Gurdjieff. Wolfe was a frequent member of Gurdjieff’s close entourage for over two decades. This excerpt is from the chapter titled “An Evening in the Early Thirties,” pp. 13–18.]

My wife, Dorothy, and I heard that Mr. Gurdjieff was having some very special people come to an apartment he now used for all meetings. Apartment Q, an inside apartment that looked out on a narrow areaway. Mr. Gurdjieff was to meet late in the evening with a group of American intelligentsia. They were being invited chiefly by William Seabrook. He was an American writer who had had a quite sudden success with a book on voodoo in Haiti and later a second book on witchcraft.

No one in the group that Dorothy and I belonged to was to come to this special evening. It was absolutely and strictly forbidden. So Dorothy and I went.

When we arrived about eleven-thirty in the evening, we found a young girl, a member of Mr. Gurdjieff’s Tail, sweeping the well-worn floor covering with a carpet sweeper. Two other people were setting steel-framed folding chairs in rows. They faced a shabby brown covered couch with sagging cushions. This is where Mr. Gurdjieff always sat whenever we met with him in this apartment Q.

An open arch separated the living room of the apartment from a small bedroom that was rarely used. Dorothy and I went into this room and kept out of sight.

Before long people began to arrive. Two women in their fifties came in. They were rather grande dame, dressed elegantly in evening gowns under mink coats. Soon after them a few men wearing black ties came in. The room was not yet completely arranged; furniture was being moved and a table dusted. All these richly dressed visitors stood looking at each other and at the apartment as though they felt they must surely be in the wrong building.

In about twenty minutes the room was filled with men and women, many in their thirties, some older. Probably the oldest man in the room had soft white hair and was in full evening dress. A red ribbon was stretched across his stiff white shirt front. He came in alone.

Most of these invited guests, American intelligentsia, were writers, musicians, philanthropists, painters and journalists. Among them was William Seabrook himself, somewhat fortified for the evening ahead. Sitting in the front row directly opposite the couch was John B. Watson. His book on behaviorism had made him and his group of researchers in this newest psychological science really famous in this country. Behaviorism was the burning question with the intelligentsia.

At last Mr. Gurdjieff came in. He walked slowly to the brown couch and with a sigh sat down. He smiled at his guests as he toyed with a heavy gold watch chain strung halfway across his abdomen from a buttonhole to a vest pocket.

By this time many of his guests were rather uncomfortable in those wobbly folding chairs with hard seats. Many were obviously puzzled. Some were frowning. It is possible that Seabrook to induce them to come had assured them that they would meet a “Master,” in an apartment breathtakingly beautiful in its oriental splendor.

“So,” Mr. Gurdjieff began, “who will read my book? I write book, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. But who here can read?”

Cautiously I stuck my head around a corner of the arch.

He saw me.

“Ah, you maybe,” he said. “Come. Maybe you be so kind, read.”

I walked to a chair near the end of the couch and sat down. One of the Tail came from the rear of the room and handed me the manuscript.

“Now, read America Chapter from beginning,” Mr. Gurdjieff said. “Slowly and loudly. Read.”

“Chapter 42, ‘Beelzebub in America,’” I began. I read for at least a full hour when Mr. Gurdjieff stopped me. “Enough, enough. We rest.”

From the kitchen several members of the Tail came in to serve the guests. They were offered Spanish melon on cheap white plates with a small fork beside the melon. Coffee was served.

John B. Watson moved from the front row to sit alongside Mr. Gurdjieff. “I enjoyed very much hearing your book read, Mr. Gurdjieff,” he said. “And by way of appreciation I wish to send you a copy of my book, On Behaviorism.”

Mr. Gurdjieff smiled and nodded pleasantly. Then he waved a hand toward the grand piano. The top was closed and spread out on it was a formidable array of glasses and liquor in a variety of bottles.

People began at once to gather around the piano. The party became more relaxed, and far more animated. A few of the guests stayed in their seats but most of them grouped around the piano.

After a fairly long “rest” Mr. Gurdjieff spoke. “Now we read some more.”

Someone told the people near the piano and they hushed their laughter and talking. Some hastily poured a final drink and went to their chairs with it. When all were silent, Mr. Gurdjieff said, “We read more America Chapter from where stop.”

I resumed reading. I read and read and read. By this time it must have been at least three o’clock in the morning. At last almost in a whisper Mr. Gurdjieff said, “Enough, enough.”

I stopped reading.

“Oh, no, please,” said the elderly man with the red ribbon across his shirt front. He stood up. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.

“Please let him go on,” he pleaded. “That part about bread, Prosphoro you called it, is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Please let him read. Please.”

“No, no,” Mr. Gurdjieff said quietly. “We stop.”

Before long Seabrook, Watson and all the others were gone. Some said goodbye to Mr. Gurdjieff, others simply left without a word.

When they were all gone he told his Tail to come and sit down. Dorothy came out of the bedroom and sat with the others. I moved from the chair where I had read to a folding chair in front of Mr. Gurdjieff.

“You see,” he said, “what called intelligentsia in America. Can you imagine? Such empty thing. Intelligentsia they called. Such nonentities.”

No one said a word.

“Go, go,” he said softly, “all kinds.”

As we moved toward the kitchen to do the wash-up, Mr. Gurdjieff got up, walked to the door, opened it, and went out closing it quietly behind him.

Second Account of an Evening with Gurdjieff

Our Modern Cagliostros

by William Seabrook

[William Seabrook’s account stands in sharp contrast to Wolfe’s description of the same evening, and was first published in his Witchcraft: Its Power in the World Today. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1940. His book is a journalistic inquiry into supernatural powers. He contends that witchcraft is not demonic but “a specific, real and dangerous force.” In the chapter titled “Our Modern Cagliostros” Seabrook treats Gurdjieff then Aleister Crowley. He concludes a ten-page section on Gurdjieff with the following account (pp. 187–188).]

Mr. Gurdjieff came back to New York in January, 1931, rented a number of luxurious apartments at 204 West 59th Street, and telephoned me one day that he had written a book. He knew that I liked him. He had not only written a book, but as amateur authors so frequently do, he craved to have it read aloud to a group of people who might be capable of appreciating its beauty and wisdom. He always did things in the grand manner. He asked me to invite as many selected friends as I chose, to his apartments on a certain evening, for the reading, and to enjoy an Arabian Nights collation afterward. I knew the supper would be marvelous and felt it my duty to choose only intelligent friends to hear the reading. I was accused afterward of having chosen individuals whose intelligence was distinctly in the nine-minute-egg category. If I did, it was as a compliment to Mr. Gurdjieff. Among those who came, I recall particularly behaviorist John Watson of Johns Hopkins, the late Lincoln Steffens, William Pepperell Montague and a couple more of the Columbia pragmatists, George Seldes (I had also invited Gilbert and it seems to me he dropped in for a while), Carl Helm of the Sun, two Harvard psychologists, etc. Among the ladies were Irita van Doren, Claire Spencer, Virginia Hirsch, and Blair Niles.

The evening—apart from the superb Algerian melons, stuffed eggplant, stuffed grape leaves, great cook pots of stewed goat or whatever it was, all in true Baghdad splendor—was a complete, if always polite and amiable, fiasco.

Disciples and secretaries read us long portions of an opus provisionally entitled A Criticism of the Life of Man; or Beelzebub’s Tale to His Grandson.

Late in the evening, Mr. Steffens and John Watson began whispering. Presently Mr. Watson said, “Either this is an elaborate and subtle joke whose point is completely over our heads, or it’s piffle. In either event, I don’t see much that can be gained by hearing more of it. I propose, if Mr. Gurdjieff is agreeable, that we now converse for a while.”

So we all relaxed, and conversed, and presently supped, with equal amiability on the part of both host and guests. Mr. Gurdjieff was more brilliant, and more witty, than the manuscript had been. He was so agreeable, so keen, and so affable, that Steffens, Watson, Montague, and all the rest of them took him into their complete confidence and explained unanimously their conviction that—unless he was trying to put over a cosmic joke of some sort whose point had not yet become manifest—his future did not lie in the field of authorship. Gurdjieff suggested that his purport might be too deep for our limited comprehension.

There was a difference or opinion among my friends after we had left, as to whether I had deliberately played a joke on Mr. Gurdjieff in selecting his auditors—or whether Gurdjieff and I had been in collusion to make monkeys out of them for an amusing evening—or whether Mr. Gurdjieff was spoofing all of us. I’m not quite sure myself. So far as I know, Beelzebub’s Tale has not yet had a publisher. Gurdjieff is a great man, but I doubt that his field lies in belles lettres.

This webpage © 2001 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Spring 2001 Issue, Vol. IV (2)
Revision: April 1, 2001