Gurdjieff International Review

Thomas Forman

Mary Rothschild

T

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.

One morning at breakfast, he said that there would be theater that night after dinner. Several people became quite stimulated over the question of who would be chosen to participate, whispering throughout the day about whether they would have a role. After dinner, Mr. Forman and a guest who was sitting next to him had a long conversation about the men from the local Fire Department who had done an inspection that day, and the alcohol, hidden in the basement, which might have been given them in hospitality. It went on and on. Those most interested in the theater and their possible place in it were impatient for the play to begin. It was only when we rose as usual to do the dishes that the realization struck: this conversation itself was the theater he had meant. It showed us our place.

At times in the evening, when materials for the crafts were brought into the Movements hall with its massive fireplace and we worked together in silence, there could be a palpable sense of community among us. As we prepared for sleep, we would often hear Mr. Forman playing the swarmandal (an Indian, zitherlike instrument), the sounds drifting down the slope into our sometimes-damp tents: an experience of physical discomfort combined with supportive energy.

Each of the groups Tom Forman led took on challenges. Cleveland transformed their large property with the addition of a beautiful Movements hall, craft spaces, two large herb gardens, and a “garage” for the children’s work. Philadelphia renovated several ramshackle buildings rented on a large piece of land within a public park, and the New York group worked together as a puppet troupe for eight years. Though Mr. Forman was very much present for these efforts, he allowed each group to find its own way, while providing guidance and nourishment for the fundamental underlying work.

Children—babies through teens—were always welcome at work periods in Cleveland and Philadelphia. It allowed us parents to be included, and I was grateful to be “in between”—difficult as that was—many of the ordinary demands of having a young child and the opportunities for an intense work.

Some who were children at work periods during those years remember their impressions of the difficulty of the adult work and the various ways we worked together. They recall the depth and quality of Mr. Forman’s voice, the sense of his presence and care for their safety; that he would sometimes appear at just the right moment to prevent a potentially dangerous situation, and that he was their faithful advocate in problematic situations, even when it meant potential difficulties for him with his own contemporaries.

And, there was the humor. One year, the children performed a skit imitating the adults. Mr. Forman was given the full treatment—they dramatized his mannerisms in vivid detail. He laughed hardest of all. For myself, it is ironic that some of the most useful advice I ever received as a parent, “the best thing you can do for your child is to stay in your own shoes,” came from a man who had no children.

Mr. Forman had a lifelong interest in music and would sometimes answer a stranger’s question: “What do you do?” with, “I’m a musicologist.” He wanted to preserve some recordings (made surreptitiously in the 1950s) of Thomas de Hartmann playing the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music. He gathered the recordings and edited them, both at his small apartment and at the New York Foundation. Mme. de Salzmann worked with him on the order and with other details. A member of the group built a cart for all the equipment, which had to be wheeled out of a closet every day and then put away for evening meetings. The editing was painstaking and difficult work, especially for one who had experienced severe hearing loss from early childhood. Mr. Forman paid little heed when the recordings were produced and there was no acknowledgment of his role. As one group member notes in an article in Telos magazine after his death,[4] “The work itself was reward for him.” Because of this selfless service, Nathalie de Salzmann called him “The man who saved the music.” Mr. Forman would then point out that he was but one of several.

His ability to shed the trappings of his particular personality—which at times included a tendency to pontificate—and to serve as a conduit for higher energy was a model for us. We, too, might come closer to our true selves. He had used the difficulties Gurdjieff had put in his own way in the early days and his many responsibilities in the Work through the years to strengthen his own work.

He always warned us against pettiness in the inevitable tensions and misunderstandings within the group and with others, that friction is necessary for energy. It was striking that even on his deathbed, he still wished to reconcile differences and help wherever he could. In the last days of his life, those of us who were with him witnessed how he worked with awareness and sensing of the body, and with relaxation “even now” as essential for opening to the action of the Work.

His memorial service was in an Episcopal church near the New York Foundation about two months after his death, on what would have been his ninety-first birthday. The approximately two hundred people who attended heard, not tributes or mundane facts of his life, but the simple rite from the Book of Common Prayer, along with scripture readings and the Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music. That service, which he had requested, reflected his own focus on the sacramental action of attention and impartial divine love, the “Balm in Gilead” that can heal and refresh. It was the emphasis on that action throughout his life, a life in service to the Work, that caused Michel de Salzmann to call him a “Saint of the Work.”

Even as I write that, I can hear him caution against a care for status. With a gleam in his eye and a sloping motion of his hand, he told us: “Don’t rest on your laurels—they will become toboggans!”

~ • ~

Mary L. Rothschild worked in a group led by Thomas V. Forman from 1978 until his death in 2001. She taught “Children and Media” at Fordham and Adelphi Universities and heads the non-profit, Healthy Media Choices. She now lives in Northern California. Members of the Forman Group are preparing some notes from his lectures and group meetings. If interested in possibly receiving that material, please email: ThomasFormanArchives@gmail.com.


[1] The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language is an American dictionary of English published by the Boston publisher Houghton Mifflin, the first edition of which appeared in 1969. Its creation was spurred by the controversy over the perceived permissiveness of Webster's Third New International Dictionary.

[2] Gentry Magazine, William Segal’s innovative style magazine broke new ground with its graphic design and men’s fashions, 22 issues from Winter 1951 to Spring 1957.

[3] The New School is a private non-profit research university centered in Manhattan, New York.

[4] The Gurdjieff Journal (formerly Telos), Arete Communications, Vol. 7 Issue 2, p. 19.

 

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