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The Beginnings of American Mensa

By Sander Rubin

The Mensa Journal, No. 151, 25th Anniversary Edition, Nov. 1971

Twenty-five years of Mensa is approximately coincident with ten years of Mensa in America. Apart from a few émigrés, Mensa's American presence began in the late fifies with a column by John Wilcock in The Village Voice and a minor article in The New York Times describing an odd British society of high-IQ people. A few Americans wrote to London, were tested by mail, and became foreign members of the club. The first American meeting was called by Peter Sturgeon, a medical writer then living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The first steps in the development of an American Mensa identity were taken in 1961 when Victor Serebriakoff, the the General Secretary of an unincorporated body without a constitution or even a set of written rules, came briefly to the United States.

Victor found Margot Seitelman through an advertisement and set up the American Mensa Selection Agency under her administrative hand. Victor also found a member, John Codella, who was then a principal in a public relations agency and who was intensely dedicated to Mensa. Codella's influence in American Mensa lasted some five years during which time the organization grew from a few hundred New Yorkers to over ten-thousand in the United States and Canada. The growth came in three spurts associated with tours through America by Victor with extensive publicity arranged by John.

Codella was, in many ways, a tragic figure. The roots of the tragedy lay in the disparity between his own concept of Mensa and the image being ‘sold’ to the public. Codella saw Mensa not as a round table society but as an institution to support research. He could not brook opposition to his views and surrounded himself with weaker people, keeping tight control over the policies of the organization. The situation was epitomized by the fact that meetings of the American Mensa Committee were closed to ‘ordinary’ members. There was real substance to charges that the ‘round table’ society was being managed by a remote, elite clique.

Yet the organized and vocal opposition to Codella was largely no better than he. For Codella’s dogmatic elitism, a dogmatic populism was substituted. On both sides, argument on principles was abandoned for incrimination by personal innuendo, speculation, and sheer false accusantion and name-calling. For both, the ends justified the means. Codella, at least, took on responsibilities on behalf of the society; the vocal opposition never accepted, much less fulfilled, any responsible rôles. Codella and his group have passed from the scene and deserve a place in American Mensa history for the groundwork they laid in building the organization. Most of the defects they left have since been remedied. A few members of the opposition remain [as of 1971], trying to stir up the excited indignation of the old days in a new environment.

The story of how direction of American Mensa fell to a group of pragmatic, open-minded, and coöperative people must be told on another occasion. The lessons from the early days, however, are:

Lack of space impels the terse, fragmentary style. The historical facts inspire the rather personal conclusions. May I be forgiven both sins.

Copied from The Mensa Journal, #151 (Nov. '71) 12 June 1995
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