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The World of Franyo, Part 44: A Swami from Brooklyn

Nicole Jeffords 4 months ago

We returned to New York later that summer. By now I was operating on two tracks – the good girl wife, and the artful schemer with her own misty agenda. Not a good feeling, but I had rationalized my behavior and was determined. So far I’d had no luck, but things shifted when we went to visit our larger-than-life friend Rudi’s retreat in upstate New York. I didn’t know it then, but spiritually this was the beginning of my pregnancy.



I’d met Rudi a few years before when I wandered into his shop, Rudi Oriental Antiques, on Park Avenue South. His real name was Albert Rudolph, though no one ever called him that. He was also known as Swami Rudrananda, though I never heard anyone call him that either. At the time, he was probably one of the biggest Asian art dealers in the country. As he put it, he’d order crates and crates of stuff, mostly from India, and in the hundreds of junky items there’d always be two or three treasures that made the haul worth it. Born in Brooklyn in 1928, he had his first spiritual experience at age six, when two Tibetan lamas appeared out of thin air and told him they were going to transfer the energy and wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism into his being. Sounds like bullshit, right? But Rudi had something – strength of character, determination, intuition, a boundless sense of humor – that made him a gifted leader.

Every so often I’d go to the ashram situated in his brownstone home in the East Village. Maybe twenty-five or thirty students would be seated cross-legged on the floor. The minute Rudi entered in his saffron robe the atmosphere became electric. Some of the students would start spinning their heads and upper bodies and inevitably one or two would fall prostrate as Rudi passed on his way to the dais. From there, in a thick Brooklyn accent, he would give a dharma talk, always mixed with gems of homespun wisdom. He taught “double breathing,” a practice where you let the breath out slightly, breathed it back in and held it at the top and bottom, somewhat like smoking a joint. I have used that technique ever since and, even without the addition of sacred substance, it has never failed to reground and calm me.

Rudi adored Werner. By the time we knew him he had a vast organization – fourteen ashrams in the US and three in Europe, not to mention his extremely successful antiques business. He claimed Werner was the only person he could really trust, and wanted him to become his second in command. I had no idea how much infighting and controversy surrounded him. To me he was just a fun, folksy person who enjoyed coming over to Franyo’s for dinner and hanging out. He was constantly after Werner to work for him. One Sunday at the end of July, we drove Rudi up to his retreat in the Catskills in my parents’ Mercedes Benz. Rudi, who was very large, sat cross-legged in the passenger seat. Werner was at the wheel, while I lay pretty much doubled over in pain from menstrual cramps in the back. Rudi talked the entire way. That was the thing about him: he could talk for hours and you’d never get bored. The mark of a good teacher.


Werner’s Proofs

When we arrived at the retreat in Big Indian, not far from Woodstock, NY, I was surprised at how large and busy it was. There was a big old former Borsht Belt hotel used to house visitors, guests, students. There were ponds, fields, woods, streams. There was a restaurant at the beginning of the grounds, a good mile from the main house, on Route 28.

It was an extremely hot, sunny day. I was bummed because I knew I was getting my period. I had that heaviness and feeling of desolation in the womb. But somehow I didn’t mind because I was with Rudi, a personage whom one sensed had his feet planted firmly on the ground but also had the ear of the gods. He just knew shit, and that day, walking around the property, seeing his army of followers and students – many of them junkies there to get clean and sober as they worked the fields and gardens – I was filled with the deepest awe, a presentiment that everything was going to be ok.


**An episode from this memoir is published every Tuesday & Thursday for those following!

**Need to start at the beginning? Find Part 1 here!


  1. Leigh June 27, 2019

    Great story!


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