American Mensaís Early Years

Mary W. Matthews

Mensa was born in England on November 1, 1946, the brainchild (so to speak) of Roland Berrill, Lancelot Lionel Ware, and Sir Cyril Burt. None of the three envisioned a large organization; Berrill thought that 600 would be the ideal number of members.

Late in 1949, when he was newly out of the army, a 27-year-old named Victor Serebriakoff [pr. Sarah brie ACHE off] took the home test, and based on his score (in the top one percent), was invited to join Mensa. The brochure that Berrill sent him promised that he was now one of an “aristocracy of the intellect” whose opinions and advice might be useful to the Powers That Be.

It was several months before VVS actually attended a Mensa event. “The first encounter of the tyro member with Mensa colleagues remains traumatic, even today. Mensans are recruited largely by post and every member [who] actually joins in our activities (usually a minority) has to pass this hurdle of anticipated embarrassment. What is one to expect from such a concentrated group of advanced intelligences? Can one possibly be up to this high standard or will one encounter compassionate smiles of embarrassment whenever one opens oneís foolish mouth?” he wrote in 1985.

His first Mensa meeting, he said, was “absolutely splendid.” He quickly became “hooked on the addictive drug, Mensa.” He seems to have loved Berrill.

In the first few halcyon years, Berrill, who was independently wealthy, supported Mensa financially and did virtually all the work. But Berrill was an autocrat whose eccentric beliefs included astrology, phrenology, Scientology, palmistry, and clothing for men so flamboyant it would make Louis XIV blush. Late in 1951, a cadre of leaders attempted to introduce democracy to Mensa. Feeling betrayed, Roland Berrill became completely demoralized. He stopped caring, stopped paying for everything, and stopped virtually all the work he had been doing. A few weeks later he resigned as Secretary. Membership dropped from about 300 to about 120 — 60 percent.

On October 5, 1953, Victor Serebriakoff, who couldnít forget the exhilaration of his first few experiences with Mensa, took over and became de facto Secretary, Chief Executive, and Principal Officer of Mensa. It is VVSís untiring volunteer work that saved Mensa and made it what it is today. He was 31 years old.

In the late 1950s, Mensa went through a period of exponential growth. From 120 members in fall 1953, membership climbed to 600 in May 1959 — Berrillís ideal stopping-point.

Naturally, everyone who worked for Mensa did so as a volunteer, in his or her spare time. Serebriakoff delegated responsibilities to a Committee that included an editor for The Mensa Correspondence, an RG coordinator (called by another title), and an FM named Joyce Mumford, a young mother of three who handled all of Mensaís recruitment and office functions from her home, including using a duplicating machine to produce the Correspondence.

In 1960, the Village Voice published an article about Mensa. The result was a flood of inquiries from New York and many other states — much to the surprise of Serebriakoff, who appears to have thought of the Voice as a sort of free throwaway.

One of those inquiries was from Peter Sturgeon, whose IQ had already been rated in the top one percent. Peter Sturgeon, the older brother of renowned fantasy writer Theodore Sturgeon (who went from the fifth grade at age 11 to the ninth grade at age 12 — and whose stepfather still called him and his brother stupid), was a chemist and medical writer who lived in Brooklyn. Sturgeon asked Joyce Mumford for the names of other New York Ms and called the first Mensa meeting held outside England. On September 30, 1960, American Mensa, the first national Mensa outside England, was born, with six members. (However, AML did not become an official corporation until 1965.)

By September 1961, Mensa had 1,550 members worldwide — 13 times the number in October 1953. Its leadership discovered that trying to handle recruitment in the United States from a young motherís kitchen in Chessingham, England — with international mail spending months aboard ship each way — was not exactly a speedy process. Peter Sturgeon persuaded Victor Serebriakoff to persuade his Committee to send him to the U.S. to help set up American Mensa. It was an outrageous idea, especially considering that in November 1953 Mensaís entire treasury had consisted of 25 pounds. It worked.

Early in 1961, a young public-relations genius named John Codella joined Mensa. He and VVS spent the summer corresponding in anticipation of VVSís fall visit, designed to come just before Englandís AG, at which time VVS would report on his trip. It was a roaring success.

In Serebriakoffís opinion, the most important factor in replicating Mensaís structure was having the recruitment and office functions based in someoneís home, preferably an FM like Joyce Mumford. The ideal candidate for the job turned out to be Margot Seitelman — a young mother of three, who was hired on the spot. American Mensaís office was based in Margotís apartment (and ultimately an office suite in her apartment building) from 1961 until after her death in 1990 — at which time the much-loved Margot was belatedly made an honorary member of Mensa.

In November 1962, a year after VVS visited the U.S., American Mensa had 641 members. The American Activities Bulletin consisted of a few pages published inside the Mensa International Journal, the magazine that went to everyone in Mensa.

AMLís first AG was held on June 15, 1963. “It was a huge, unexpected, and heartening success,” VVS wrote. AMLís first AMC was “democratically accepted,” with John Codella as our first Chair — Peter Sturgeon being occupied with his duties as LocSec of New York Mensa. Codella served as Chair from 1961 to 1966, during which time AML went from 100 to 9,000 members. The History of Mensa says that Codella was “the man [who was] most instrumental in the skyrocketing of American Mensaís membership.”

All was not wholly peaches and cream in AMLís first years. In Mensa: The Society for the Highly Intelligent, VVS describes what has become a familiar process over the decades:

† † †† † (1) A group of Mensans does good volunteer work and has some initial success.

† † †† † (2) An out-group forms, consisting primarily of “misfits and under-achievers” (p.89), whose raison díêtre appears to be to carp, criticize, and harass, later to slander, then to libel, the workers.

† † †† † (3) The workers are eventually harassed into saying, “I do not need this <bleep>!” and resigning, leaving a vacuum at the top that their assailants usually rush in to fill.

 † †† † (4) The demolishers, left in charge, discover that their principal talents are destructive. “More usually it is found that what the new clique is good at and interested in, is criticism tout court. As managers and organizers they usually turn out to be supine and their talent for complaint is used upon each other” (p. 42). A period of “squabbling decline” sets in, and members either become apathetic or inactive or let their memberships lapse.

† † †† † (5) “Some new set of active enthusiasts come [sic] forward,” and the cycle starts again.

This first happened to American Mensa in the middle 1960s, through the agency of a group of men whom VVS called the Three Musketeers. They formed an organization called SIGRIM, the Special Interest Group for Reform in Mensa, that portrayed VVS as a vicious, unscrupulous, profiteering tyrant and John Codella as an autocratic elitist. They made both menís lives miserable with libelous accusations of arrogance, suppression of political opposition, and worse. The libelers even accused VVS of embezzling from his employer, and spread the falsehoods that his son was a delinquent and his 13-year-old daughter had had several abortions.

VVS wrote, “The most effective and able Mensa builder in North America and the first American Chairman [was] John Codella.” (The History of Mensa agrees, saying that “Sturgeon could not praise Codella highly enough.”) VVS continued that Codella after many months “[was] driven to resignation . . . by this long campaign of energetic and unscrupulous harassment.”

In a 1971 article in The Mensa Journal, Sander Rubin wrote that Codella “could not brook opposition to his views and surrounded himself with weaker people, keeping tight control over the policies of the organization.” Rubin talked about Codellaís “dogmatic elitism” and claimed that Codella, an “autocrat” as well as Rubinís “opposition,” abandoned reason and principle and indulged in “incrimination by personal innuendo, speculation, and sheer false accusation and name-calling.”

Sander Rubin became Chair of AML three years after John Codella was harassed into resigning his office.

The ouster of John Codella for the crime of being outstanding even among Ms was the first time that Mensaís dramatic growth in membership was slowed by the efforts of “misfits and underachievers.” It was by no means the last; Serebriakoff himself was forced to the periphery of Mensa for several years by the Three Musketeers, and AML went through another period of turmoil in the 1970s.† The cycle that VVS described has happened at all levels of Mensa, from the international to the local.

Serebriakoff was right when he noted that Mensans are turned off by this sort of nonsense, and react by becoming apathetic or by letting their memberships lapse. In the late 1980s, AMLís membership was well over 50,000; at the end of August 2002, it stood at 45,035. Naturally there are other factors involved — wars, political and economic crises, and so on all have their reverberations. When oneís retirement fund loses 40 percent of its value virtually overnight, Mensaís dues suddenly seem much steeper.

Nevertheless, whenever sniping starts, Mensans should always look carefully at both the quality of the leadership, international, national, or local, that is being criticized, and at the motives and records of their critics. (And I intend no implications about Mensaís current leadership, which I admire.) In more than 50 years, Mensa has had to expel only four members for “acts inimical” to our association, and it is always a step taken with the deepest reluctance. It is always difficult to accept that high intelligence does not necessarily walk hand in hand with noble aspirations.

Unlike gardens, Mensa does not need manure for fertilization. We need the kind of exhilaration and enthusiasm that Victor Serebriakoff showed when he brought Mensa back from the verge of death.



Fred Davis, “A Madcap History of Mensa, Part 1,Ē”Bushwhacker, May 1976

Ted Elzinga, editor, The History of Mensa, New York: American Mensa, Ltd., 1990

Sander Rubin, “The Beginnings of American Mensa,” The Mensa Journal, No. 151, Nov. 1971

Victor Serebriakoff, Mensa: The Society for the Highly Intelligent. New York: Stein & Day, Publishers, 1985

Theodore Sturgeon, Argyll: A Memoir, Pullman, WA: The Sturgeon Project, 1993