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Franklin Farms: 1942-47

The purchase of Franklin Farms and the installation of the Ouspenskys were completed in 1942, The imposing three-storey granite house, a former residence of the Governor of New Jersey, stood on a hilltop in 400 acres of agricultural land, with numerous out-buildings. Ouspensky had separate quarters from Mme Ouspensky and was chauffeured to his regular New York lectures by his most intimate disciple Rodney Collin-Smith. Against the grand back-cloth of Franklin Farms, Ouspensky was able slowly to increase his American following to approximately 150. Nevertheless his first priority from 1942 onwards was to defend his international reputation and self-styled ‘leadership of the Work’.


Here the news from England was mixed: Dr Walker’s latest books Diagnosis of Man and The Circle of Life handled their System insights discreetly and signalled no challenge; altogether more alarming were reports of J. G. Bennett’s unlicensed lectures and of his intention to produce an explicit book on the ideas. In May 1942 Ouspensky wrote pressing Bennett to desist but received an evasive reply which further disturbed his equilibrium. When in New York the publisher’s blurb on an imprint of New Model erroneously asserted that its author was ‘working with Gurdjieff in London’, Ouspensky’s reaction was disproportionately vehement.


Ironically his assiduously promulgated image, as the only true custodian of a deeply valued teaching, was no longer mirrored in his private reflections. Pressed by Marie Seton – who had grown concerned over his gourmet life-style and explosive temper – he shocked her by confiding his contempt for his pupils, his conviction that neither they nor he had gained anything from the System, and his intention, nevertheless, to maintain the role of teacher, because of the comfort and luxury it afforded. She urged him to give up the lectures until he had found his way again; when he refused, she left the Work.

Marie Seton

Marie Seton

Photo courtesy of Rama Chandran

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Though – by his own admission – Ouspensky was in a painfully false situation in America, he did not deceive himself; nor perhaps was his unwillingness to undeceive his pupils wholly egotistical. His attention was attracted increasingly to England where, at least by contrast, his work had had a shining integrity. He had long since identified the chief threat to his legacy there as J. G. Bennett, with his headstrong initiatives and dubious esotericism. Now even Bennett’s mathematics were capable of disturbing him: as an author whose lifelong reputation turned on his interpretation of the ‘Fourth Dimension’, he construed Bennett’s preoccupation with a fifth dimension as a futile provocation. His last personal letter to Bennett, just before Christmas 1943, curtly dismissed the latter’s substantial paper on this subject. Worse was to come: early in 1944 Ouspensky was shocked to learn that Bennett had gone to Lyne and canvassed his own ideas for developing the System, as against Ouspensky’s principle of conserving it; he immediately issued instructions further curtailing Bennett’s authority.


Ouspensky’s last three years in America invite compassion: he was trapped in a moral cul-de-sac; his only writing was a two-page introduction to his formal and repetitious lectures; his health finally collapsed – his kidneys irreparably damaged by drink, and his general functioning almost suggesting he had had a stroke. At Mendham he was troubled and bewildered by his wife’s acerbic vehemence; in New York he found the moral and material support of so-to-say the ‘Orageans’ progressively withdrawn, as Gurdjieff re-emerged after the liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944. More and more Ouspensky began to shun human contact outside a small circle of intimates, which included Lord Pentland (appointed to Washington by the British authorities in 1944) and the melodramatic Rodney Collin-Smith. He continued to brood darkly on J. G. Bennett, first ordering all members of the Historico-Psychological Society to ostracise him, and later (in spring 1945) instructing his London solicitor to demand from that ‘charlatan and thief’ the return of ‘all Mr Ouspensky’s material’.


From V.E. Day on 8 May 1945, Ouspensky’s English nucleus at Lyne Place – strangely ill-informed of his ruined health and oblivious of his altered disposition – awaited his return with almost Messianic expectation. Ouspensky procrastinated. Ostensibly he was consumed with impatience for Colet Gardens to be de-requisitioned from the Admiralty and prepared to receive him. More probably he was waiting stoically for the final crisis in his health: the precise psychological moment when he could enact with deathbed candour the long-planned dénouement of his life (which entailed nothing less than the simultaneous sacrifice of his own reputation and his pupils’ hopes).

Ouspensky gave his last (and subjectively meretricious) lecture on the benefits of the System in New York in the summer of 1946. On 18 January 1947 at the Grand Ballroom of Steinway Hall, he suddenly announced to his demoralised group of sixty that he was leaving for England the next day: Mme Ouspensky would remain at Franklin Farms, and those under her direction could continue; the rest must shift for themselves. He sailed from New York on the RMS Queen Elizabeth on 19 January 1947 (his considerable entourage including Aubrey Wolton, Basil Tilley, and his newly acquired secretary Miss Quinn). Mme Ouspensky, now incapacitated with Parkinson’s disease, did not see her husband off, and they never met again.

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