The Saturday Evening Post
By Baz Edmeades
In the summer of 1935 two men
managed to cast off the chains of their alcohol addiction. The
fellowship they found has saved the lives of millions.
The March I, 1941, Saturday Evening
Post (adorned with an appealing Norman Rockwell cover and costing
five cents) is a historic issue. It contains a Jack Alexander
story that turned Alcoholics Anonymous, an obscure self-help
organization, into an American institution.
AA's growth has not leveled off in
the intervening years. The fellowship now has more than one
million members, and its message of spiritual renewal is felt
This July in Montreal, Canada, some
50,000 people from around the world will meet to celebrate AA's
50th birthday. They will gather without hoopla or hype, for AA has
a firm policy against promotion. The meeting, nonetheless, will be
one of celebration, an expression of "sheer joy" by
recovered alcoholics and their families. Among the honored guests
will be the surviving relatives of two strong-willed men without
whom Alcoholics Anonymous would never have been founded. This is
their incredible story:
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in
1935 after a New York stockbroker, William Griffith Wilson, met a
fellow alcoholic, Dr. Robert Holbrook Smith, in Akron, Ohio. The
fellowship is reckoned to have started on June 10 of that year,
the day that Dr. Smith took his last drink, a beer accompanied by
a tranquilizer. Dr. Smith needed to steady his nerves; he was
about to perform an operation.
The whole story starts a few years
earlier. A pebble from the Alps had started the avalanche of
recovery that was to become Alcoholics Anonymous. In 1931 the
Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was treating an American named
Rowland H. for a drinking problem. No sooner had therapy ended,
however, than Rowland lapsed back into drunkenness. Refusing to
take him back as a patient, Jung told Rowland bluntly that further
psychiatric measures were pointless. His only hope of recovery,
said Jung, lay in a "vital" spiritual experience.
Returning to the United States,
Rowland found spirituality and sobriety with the Oxford Group, an
evangelistic organization founded by a Lutheran minister, Dr.
Frank Buchman. Rowland shared Jung's message, and his own
experience, with other problem drinkers whom he met through the
As a result of Rowland's efforts,
at least one member, Ebby T., was able to stop drinking for a
time. Near the end of 1934, Ebby, then about six months sober,
went to Brooklyn to see his old friend Bill Wilson, who had fallen
upon hard times.
Bill, a tall, good-looking man, had
been one of the first, and best, security analysts on the New York
Stock Exchange. He had conceived the notion that investors would
do well to take a closer look at the businesses whose stocks they
were buying. He and his wife, Lois, had quit their jobs and taken
to the road to do just that.
His breakthrough was to discover
the great investment potential of the General Electric Company at
the advent of radio. Other coups followed and brought Bill
prestige and success. The crash of 1929 hurt Bill, but he made no
less than two financial recoveries in the early '30s. Alcohol (in
the heart of Prohibition!) finally reduced him to poverty. A
friend remembered how things were during this period:
"Nearly half a century has
passed, but I can still see Bill coming into Ye Olde Illegal Bar
on a freezing afternoon with a slow stride he never hurried and
looking over with lofty dignity at the stack of bottles back of
the bar, containing those rare imported beverages straight off the
liner from Hoboken. One time at Whitehall subway station, not far
from Busto's [a speak-easy] he took a tumble down the steps. The
old brown hat stayed on; but, wrapped up in that long overcoat, he
looked like a collapsed sailboat on the subway platform. I recall
how his face lit up when he fished out of the heap of clothes an
unbroken bottle of gin, he reminisced.
At the time of Ebby's visit, Bill
was becoming violent and increasingly abusive; his doctor
suspected brain damage. For Bill, self-hate was the daily
companion to the terror that he and Lois felt. Ebby, on the other
hand, looked and felt good. Rather hesitantly, he explained how he
had stopped drinking. He didn't really expect to get through, but
as Bill was to confess later, "In no waking moment could I
get that man or his message out of my head."
Bill continued, however, to drink.
A month later, he was back in Charles B. Towns hospital, an
alcoholic rehabilitation center, for the fourth time. Ebby paid
him another visit there. Bill asked him to repeat the neat little
formula that had enabled him to stop drinking; Ebby did so in
perfectly good humor. The process involved admitting that you were
beaten, getting honest with yourself, talking it out with somebody
else, making restitution to the people you had harmed and praying
to your own conception of a God.
Bill was, to say the least,
uncomfortable with the idea of a higher power, but he was in the
grip of a terrible depression-his pride could no longer hold out
against the danger and disgrace drinking had brought upon him.
Suddenly he found himself prepared to do anything, anything at
all. Without faith or hope he cried, If there be a God, let Him
Then came the event that would
change everything. Suddenly the room lit up with a great white
light. I was caught up in an ecstasy that there are no words to
describe. It seemed to me, in the mind's eye, that I was on a
mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing. And
then it burst upon me that I was a free man.
In later years Bill was to downplay
this event. With cheerful iconoclasm, he would refer to it as his
hot flash experience. He insisted that his real battle with
ignorance and arrogance lay ahead. But he never took another
Ever the skeptical Yankee, Bill
suspected initially that his hot flash might have been nothing
more than a hallucination associated with the d.t.'s. He discussed
this fear with the hospital's chief of staff, Dr. William D.
Silkworth. Silkworth, a neurologist, had already introduced Bill
to the idea, unorthodox at the time, that alcoholism was a disease
rather than a moral weakness. Now he affirmed that Bill had
undergone some great psychic occurrence and advised him to hold on
Life began anew for the Wilsons.
They attended Oxford Group meetings and lived off the small wages
Lois was earning as a salesclerk in a Brooklyn department store.
Bill yearned to become the family's breadwinner once again, but he
had always been the slave of his own enthusiasm. Caught up in
something, he would give it all his considerable energies.
Now Bill was consumed by the idea
of a movement of recovered alcoholics who would help their
still-suffering fellows. He was convinced the message from Dr.
Silkworth and from Ebby T. could work for other alcoholics, too.
Ebby's message had been particularly effective. Ebby knew the
hopelessness and blindness of alcoholism from the inside; surely
his empathy had enabled him to get through to Bill when nobody
else not even Lois could. The first six months of Bill's sobriety
were spent in enthusiastic but fruitless attempts to help other
alcoholics. Bill's approach was almost exclusively spiritual.
Finally, Dr. Silkworth, who was permitting him to speak to
patients at Towns, suggested bluntly that he stop preaching at
drunks and concentrate on the medical facts instead. If an
alcoholic could be told by another alcoholic that he had a serious
illness, that might do the trick....
Bill did not put this advice into
practice immediately. A business opportunity intervened. He went
to Akron to take part in a proxy voting battle for the control of
the National Rubber Machinery Company. The prize would be a
position as an officer in the company and a new career. He was,
after all, only 39, and great things still seemed possible. For a
while, the proxy solicitations went well, and victory appeared to
be in Bill's grasp. Abruptly, however, the tide turned in favor of
the opposition. Bill's past offered them an excellent weapon they
did not hesitate to use. The battle was lost. Bill's associates
returned to New York and left him alone in Akron to salvage the
It was Friday afternoon, and Bill
faced a weekend alone in a strange city. Lonely, and resentful
over his defeat, he paced up and down in the lobby of his hotel.
At one end of his beat was a bar, where the familiar buzz of a
drinking crowd offered comfort and conversation. Bill was gripped
by fear. He thought of his work with other alcoholics during the
past six months. Unsuccessful as it had been from their point of
view, the work had certainly kept him sober. Now he needed another
alcoholic as much as that person needed him.
He called an Episcopal clergyman
listed on the church directory displayed in the lobby and
explained his situation as frankly as he could. One call led to
another, and by Sunday he found himself in the home of a young
woman member of the Oxford Group. She wanted him to speak to her
friend, Dr. Robert Smith, who had recently confessed to being a
drinker. Dr. Smith arrived at five that afternoon with his wife
and teen-age son in tow. Hung over, he explained he could only
stay 15 minutes. He stayed six hours.
Bob Smith's drinking had been a
serious problem since he had been at medical school. The suffering
involved in maintaining a facade through the subsequent years had
been considerable. Fifty-five years old, he had by all accounts
been an excellent doctor. Now, however, his career was in ruins,
and his financial position desperate.
At the invitation of Bob's wife,
Anne, Bill stayed with the Smiths for the rest of his time in
Akron. A month later, Bob took his last drink. Only weeks later
Bob and Bill carried the message to another man, Bill D., a lawyer
who had had to be tied to his hospital bed after he had blackened
the eyes of two nurses. Bill D. found permanent sobriety.
Through Bob and Bill's efforts the
self-help society began to grow. Bill was the pioneer, the
promoter and the organizer, but Bob was unsurpassed at working
personally with alcoholics. In the next few years, he would treat
thousands without charge in addition to rebuilding his career as a
surgeon. It is difficult, wrote a priest who worked with Bob, to
speak of Dr. Smith without going into eulogistic superlatives.
While he lived, he laughed them off, and now, though [he is] dead,
I feel he still laughs them off. A classmate from medical school
recalls a day near the end of Bob's life in l 950. One of the
outstanding incidents of my life is the Sunday we spent with him
at his home in Akron. It was something like people coming to
Lourdes---people he'd never seen or heard of. One was a dean of a
large college in Ohio. Two people who stand out in my memory were
a lawyer and his wife. They had driven all the way from Detroit to
tell him what he'd done for them through AA."
Two years after their first
meeting, Bill and Bob could count at least 40 sober alcoholics,
some of them very grim, last gasp cases that had been sober a
couple of years. They realized the chain reaction they had started
could spread throughout the world. What a tremendous realization
that was! Bill wrote. At last we were sure. There would be no more
flying totally blind.
While Bob continued to build the
fellowship in Akron, Bill began writing a book (Alcoholics
Anonymous; AA members call it The Big Book) about its methods and
philosophy. Until then AA's message had been transmitted
exclusively face-to-face. For a while, it seemed that the potent
magic of that message had been lost in print the book simply
didn't sell. Local newspapers and word-of-
Then Jack Alexander began working
on an article about AA for The Saturday Evening Post. Initially
prepared to debunk the fellowship, Alexander, after an exhaustive
investigation, became an enthusiastic believer. No sooner had his
article appeared in the March 1, 1941, Post than the group's small
office in New York was swamped with orders for the book and
letters asking for assistance. Somehow, the staff (a young woman,
Ruth Hock) and volunteers (everybody else) managed to send a
personal reply to each inquiry. Throughout North America (and
indeed, the world) the Big Book took the place of the personal
sponsorship that had brought sobriety to pre-1941 members.
AA almost burst upon the world too
soon. At the time of the Post explosion, it had just begun to
develop its unique corporate poverty policy without which it could
not have attained its present power and importance.
Money had been a problem for Bill
and Bob from the start. Both had spent their early years of
sobriety in straitened circumstances. When AA was three years old,
Bill was offered an office, a decent drawing account and a very
healthy slice of the profits of Towns hospital in exchange for
moving his work into that institution. Initially he was delighted,
but other members of the New York group persuaded him to refuse.
(Today, many AA members work as paid alcoholism counselors-Ñ but
in the fellowship's formative years salaries might have been too
heavy a strain on AA's all-important tradition of free and
voluntary assistance.) Shortly after deciding to keep his AA work
nonprofessional, Bill lost his home. For the next two years he and
Lois lived with friends and moved more than 50 times before they
could afford their own home.
Renouncing personal gain, Bill,
however, clung to the idea that AA itself should be liberally
funded. He believed that AA should build a chain of hospitals and
mount a public education campaign. With these aims in mind, he and
his associates approached John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for financial
assistance. Rockefeller dispatched an investigator to Akron. The
report he received made him a lifelong supporter of the group and
a firm believer that money would spoil it. In 1940, he gave a
dinner for AA and invited the leading members of New York's
financial community. At this dinner, he asked his son Nelson to
announce that he (John D.) was donating only $1,000 and to explain
that AA required little more in the way of financial assistance.
The other guests followed suit one banker sent a check for $10!
Likewise, some members of the
fellowship now began questioning whether they really wanted a
well-funded organization with a powerful executive. AA had, after
all, been founded on the power and enthusiasm of the individual.
While the group debated this issue, the steady growth of the first
years was suddenly overtaken by waves of new members in the wake
of the Post article. AA began to realize it enjoyed a fabulous
amount of good will. It did not need Rockefeller.
The issue of funding came to a head
when one well wisher left AA a legacy of $10, 000. After a lively
discussion, the group made a unique decision they would not accept
it. ...At the slightest intimation to the general public from our
Trustees that we needed money, we could become immensely rich.
Compared to this prospect the $10,000 was not much, but like the
alcoholic's first drink, it would, if taken, inevitably set up a
disastrous chain reaction. Where would that land us? Whoever pays
the piper calls the tune, and if the AA foundation obtained money
from outside sources, its Trustees might be tempted to run things
without reference to the wishes of AA as a whole. Every alcoholic
feeling relieved of responsibility would shrug and say, Oh the
foundation is wealthy! Why should I bother? The pressure of that
fat treasury would surely tempt the Board to do good with such
funds, and so divert AA from its primary purpose. As the result of
this decision, AA neither solicits nor accepts any outside
contributions. Only members may contribute, and even they are
asked not to donate more than $500 per year.
So Bill had avoided becoming the
president of yet another wealthy New York charitable foundation
and became, instead, the greatest social architect of the century,
in Aldous Huxley's words. He died in relative obscurity in 1971.
In the last part of his life, he avoided fame as assiduously as he
had sought it earlier; he refused publicity and awards a Time
cover portrait, an honorary doctorate from Yale.
Bill in particular was no stranger
to the lure of fame and wealth, but he had come to believe that
seeking personal gain including prestige from his connection with
AA would be shortsighted. This belief lies at the heart of AA's
all-important 12th tradition, which reads: Anonymity is the
spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to
place principles before personalities.
Appropriately enough, the Akron
meeting of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith had its origins in the
consulting rooms of Carl Jung, that great believer in
synchronicity significant coincidences. Today, 50 years after that
meeting, more than one million people have found sobriety in AA.
That any single one of them is staying sober is in itself so
unlikely, one must conclude that the lives of each one of those
men and women have been the product of synchronicity, or what some
might call a miracle.
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