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On the Death of Gurdjieff
(October 29, 1949)
by Solita Solano

October 30, 1949

He is lying on a divan, covered to the throat with a pale brocade couverture which is piled with red roses, pink orchids, white flowers; on either side of his head are two enormous bouquets of violets. The chapel is lighted with candles. He is dressed in his best gray suit. His face is like a statue's. Yesterday he looked alive still, a slight smile made him seem so; his skin had a most curious lavender tinge. Today he is darker, the smile has gone, he's already far away, the eyes have begun to sink, the lips are in a grave line, though not quite stern. Perhaps it was the taking of the death mask that changed him, but I think not. He looks as if he had just said, "Now I go away with all my secrets and my mystery. My work is finished here." All day for two days and all night last night and still tonight, the people stream to the hospital, stand in line to go in to see him. They stand in the most complete silence I ever have known and just stare at him. Nearly all are crying; yesterday when Bennett came, he burst ion such sobbing that he had to leave and go outside, where we could still hear him in the distance.

He died at half past ten in the morning yesterday; I had just been telephoning for his news at ten and was told that he was the same. (I had been out at the hospital Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, sitting for hours in the salon). I was in the hotel with Janet yesterday, Katie having gone shopping, when Russell rang up to say he was dead. As soon as I could move, I went to Neuilly. Vera, Mme. de Salzmann, Gabo, Valya and many others were there. Vera then told me that he was in he process of being embalmed, and that we could see him as soon as he had been taken to the chapel. While waiting, she disclosed that the cause of his death was cancer of the liver; that although he had seemed to be sleeping for hours before he died, the doctor had raised his eyelids and had said G. looked back at him and was conscious. A most curious phenomenon:
four hours after his death, his forehead and neck were still very warm; the doctor said he couldn't understand it. On Friday Mme. de Salzmann had spoken to him in Russian. He did not reply but lifted his hand and held it out to her to take. She has been absolutely superb. At the service yesterday, she sat near his head with white face, closed eyes from which the tears slowly flowed. Her son Michel stood by her side. She wasn't there today at the service. A Russian priest intones the prayers, his assistant sings the responses, we all hold a lighted taper in our right hands and just gaze and gaze. The chapel is too small to hold all the people; we crowd together to make room until we are touching the funeral couch. Those who cannot enter stand outside and listen. Then when the service is finished and we go out, the crowds who are waiting pass in. Of course he is never alone, several people volunteer each night to watch; Katie has gone with Russell tonight; I shall go tomorrow or Tuesday night. On Wednesday afternoon, he will be taken to the Russian church and at eleven on Thursday will be the high requiem mass. At twelve we all go to Fontainebleau for the interment. In the meantime, there will be a mass every afternoon, for the people who heard late of his death, especially for the English who will come. Louise March flew from Vienna, where she was editing his German edition. I hear Jane Heap is ill, so perhaps she will not be able to travel. I think he would be proud of the behavior of all his people. The grief's terrible, silent (except Bennett) and has a really objective quality of dignity. Janet was so moved that she took a taxicab out to the hospital after I left and went into the chapel to join me--and Russell and Katie, who fortunately came in from her shopping and rushed out in time for the mass. It is very painful for her to leave tomorrow night for Germany and not attend his funeral and burial. But impossible to arrange, as she's now responsible--since four days ago--for all the German sector. Of my own grief, I shall not speak; it is a small part of the common catastrophe. The cable from Martie and Dorothy was perfect. I shall always be grateful for those powers that allowed me to be here to see him before he went away from the planet Earth.

Thank you, Lib, for telephoning. It was a comfort. All future details will be written as they occur and I will tell even more when I return. But I shall never be able to describe the noble beauty of his dead face.


This is Thursday night, midnight, and at six o'clock we left him six feet deep in the cold, cold ground at sunset, the coffin still uncovered; the last of him I saw, and it was not he, was a long, pale brown box, with a golden cross at the head, a few roses some desperate person had thrown in with the handsful of earth each of the hundreds had dropped, in accordance with the Russian custom.


The previous notes I had sent to Lib, to be copied by Margaret. In the meantime, Lib had gone to Boston for her son's operation and the letter is waiting at Morristown to be sent to Margaret to copy, as I was too overwhelmed to remember the carbon.

So Monday, at the chapel of the American Hospital. He had turned to gray stone and looked even more "at peace." His suit was navy blue, not gray, as I thought. His tie was blue and crooked. Carnations had replaced the violets and roses. The brown and gray icon of St. George (his saint) and the Dragon which Gabo had brought from his (G.'s) apartment was placed at his feet. As Katie and I were sitting, with many others, at his side (the conditions were intimate) waiting for the priest to come, we looked up and saw Jane Heap standing at the door. Gabo rose and gave her his place next to us for the service which began in a few minutes. Katie had "watched" (fait la veille) the night before until half-past four in the morning. She saw the English group arrive in the night, direct from the gare with their little rugs and bags; they sat along the walk outside between the chapel and the hospital, on the ground "like Mexicans." Alfred also came from London, looking like alabaster. At four A.M., the French delegation took over. Streams of people came and went all night, as they did all day. Can't imagine what the American Hospital thought of all this, the hundreds of peculiar pilgrims who came and stayed and went away, all through the icy, frosty night....(one day he said to Russell, "I wish I were REAL man, who needed to sleep only one hour each night..."). Forgive incoherency, must put things down as I think of them, or you'll never hear them. Lillian Whitcomb was in N.Y.C. when she heard the news, as was Lord Pentland. Both flew at once. Where am I? Still Monday. I waited for Jane in the hospital salon. She looked pale, but well; beige cape, good English hat, since discarded, sad to say. She kissed me tenderly and said, "And Martie went away!" I said no one could have imagined a fatal termination, no one believed it until it happened. I couldn't really talk with her, nor have I been able to since, as individuals of her group constantly engage her attention more than I, and call her from me. We are still in the salon, as of Monday afternoon. Katie went back to the chapel to say goodbye to him again. She told me she knelt by him in prayer and then she dared to kiss him on the forehead, "cold as marble," she said. I tried to dare, but could not. She left that same night in tears for Germany. During the days she was here, she waited in vain for some word of sorrow or sympathy from Alice, as I have; not one word has come from her, so I suppose her cable was not delivered; nor has anyone in the Gurdjieff family had a message from Alice. Of course, she must have sent something, so tell her that she must reproach the Western Union. What Katie really hoped was that Alice would fly to be with her--us--and go to the funeral. Mme. de Salzmann, who has been a marvel of behavior through all this, is going to America in November, she says.


I'm just back from the chapel. I sat by his side, near his face (by the way, I've ordered a photograph of his dead face for all of you) for two hours. His sister, Sonya, sat beside me. Luba came from England, where she has a job with one of Jane's pupils, repeat pupils. Russell and G.'s nephew, Valya, spent the day in Fontainebleau in the cemetery, cleaning up the family plot, which has of course been neglected for years. Jane unfortunately did not wear her chic hat, but appeared nearly shaved. Today is her birthday, and Russell's too. A small choir came from the Russian church and sang the responses. The chief priest in the old tradition--robes, silver cross and chain, long black hair and beard, liquid black eyes and honey-voice. There were new flowers over the tilleul silk brocade. Someone had made tiny bouquets of red roses and lake yellow daisies. G.'s face today is grayer and the skin is tighter over the immense intelligence of his skull. Vera said, "Today is his birthday, where he has gone." (You know that three days are needed to shed the body and today they were completed. Saturday to Tuesday.) How I wanted to kiss him goodbye like Katie and the Russians but I didn't quite have the courage....Jane said, "He doesn't look dead." But indeed he does, since two days. Martie: When Jane and I left the chapel together, we clasped hands desperately and walked like that, exchanging memories in silence for five minutes--no need for words. All her great gift for emotions was in her hand.


Un froid de loup. Went in the morning to order our flowers. I thought one enormous piece would be better than six oddments. I spent ten dollars apiece for us__Dorothy, Martie, Alice, Katie, Lib, and S.S. "De la part de ses amies americaines--then Dorothy's name first. Hope everyone agrees. I had no instructions, so acted on my own responsibility. Oh, God, never to see that smile again, hear him say--well, no matter what--especially for me--"Kanari." Janet wrote about him in her New Yorker article; will they print it? She finished working at midnight, just as Katie telephoned she had arrived in Germany....

Now for the LAST DAY. No, Wednesday. So worn out I don't know what I'm writing. Wednesday, yesterday, the mise en biere. I couldn't quite go to hospital to see him put into box, and as I found out later, I wouldn't have been allowed to--only the men of the family. I went to the Russian church at four and waited there, debout, till nearly six before he was brought. Six men carried him in--Russell, Valya, Gabo, Michel (his son by Salzmann), etc. Dim lovely lights, many flowers which had arrived early, vested priests and small choir for the service. Church was crowded even for that small ceremony, all golden under the incense-smoky high dome. The catafalque was covered with large black cloth, embroidered with silver. Not a sound ever issues from any gathering of his people--neither a footstep, a cough, a rustle or a breath. A remarkable quality of silence which is so rare as to be noted as unique. (Martie, thanks for the clippings and don't believe in those "last word" records, as no one thought he would die until he was so weak that he never spoke again, only held out his hand to Jeanne when she spoke to him. But shall inquire when I see her in two days, as she has asked me to).


Janet went with me this morning at 11:30 to the high requiem mass at the Russian cathedral. There had been no veille permitted last night, so he had been alone till the church opened. Entirely candles, flowers, the voices of five white-and-gold robed priests, a cantor with a divine breaking voice. How beautiful is the Russian language! The church was packed--not only with those we know, but by hundreds of his followers whom we never saw, whom I had never seen in all my years near him. After all the chanting and prayers and singing were finished, for an hour everyone passed by his coffin, one by one, from the right. Each mourner, streaming with tears, made a genuflection at his head, stepped up to the icon at his feet, kissed it, and walked to the left. Each, un-self-conscious, took his and her private and sorrowful farewell to him with a ceremonious simplicity that tore one's heart open even wider than before, if possible. Then everyone went away to breathe, have a drink or coffee and at two o'clock, we came back to the church. The crowds stood along the street to watch HIM brought out and put in the great funeral carriage, his flowers placed on the top. The family rode with him. The hundreds of others rode behind in the cortege in many private cars and four enormous autobuses. The streets were jammed, closed to traffic for blocks, around the Russian church and other crowds gathered to watch the spectacle. The drive to Fountainebleau took an hour and a half. I went with Lillian and some very rich silent chic tiresome English, old followers of Ouspensky. Through the old familiar roads, streets, towns, turnings, forest, to Avon. In a cruel sunny icy wind, we walked by the hundreds through the cemetery gates, following HIM to the family plot. I saw the grave torn open in the rocky watery ground, deep, deep, horribly deep. ... The porters let him down into it. A great sigh came from the people--the only sound they had made since he died, when they were together. The priest came to the rescue with his chanting. Later everyone passed by the terrible hole, cast a pinch of earth down onto the box. knelt, made the sign of the cross, passed on. It was over. He had disappeared from us forever.

Back in Paris--I don't remember coming back--we were all asked to come to the rue des Colonels Renard for supper, as usual after a Russian funeral. The family received us, gave us--what? I don't know. You will all know how impossible it was to walk up those stairs and enter the sacred place. But it was done. Then I came here to write you, as is my duty. Done now.

Will send or bring a photograph of him as he looked in death--and if I can, a death mask (copy, of course.)

Your loving, more dead than alive,

Copyright 1949 Solita Solano

Copyright Status*: Copyright in the unpublished writings of Janet Flanner and Solita Solano in these papers has been dedicated to the public.
(*Reference: Janet Flanner and Solita Solano - A Register of Their Papers in the Library of Congress, page 3)

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