Northwest Arkansas Alcoholics Anonymous – AA History And How The Big Book Was Put Together
“AA History And How The Big Book Was Put Together”
A Talk By Bill Wilson
Fort Worth, Texas – 1954
I think I’m on the bill for tonight’s show with a talk on the 12 Traditions of A.A. But you know drunks, like women, have the prerogative, or at least seize the prerogative of changing their minds – I’m not going to make any such damn talk! For something very festive I think the Traditions 1-12 would be a little too grim, might bore you a little. As a matter of fact, speaking of Traditions, when they were first written back there in 1945 or 1946 as tentative guides to help us hang together and function, nobody paid any attention except a few “againers” who wrote me and asked what the hell are they about?
Nobody paid the slightest attention. But, little by little as these Traditions got around we had our clubhouse squabbles, our little rifts, this difficulty and that, it was found that the Traditions indeed did reflect experience and were guiding principles. So, they took hold a little more and a little more and a little more so that today the average A.A. coming in the door learns at once what they’re about, about what kind of an outfit he really has landed in and by what principles his group and A.A. as a whole are governed.
But, as I say, the dickens with all that. I would like to just spin some yarn and they will be a series of yarns which cluster around the preparation of the good old A.A. bible and when I hear that it always makes me shudder because the guys who put it together weren’t a damn bit biblical. I think sometimes some of the drunks have an idea that these old timers went around with almost visible halos and long gowns and they were full of sweetness and light. Oh boy, how inspired they were, oh yes. But wait till I tell you. I suppose the book yarn really started in the living room of Doc and Annie Smith.
As you know, I landed there in the summer of ’35, a little group caught hold. I helped Smithy briefly with it and he went on to found the first A.A. group in the world. And, as with all new groups, it was nearly all failure, but now and then, somebody saw the light and there was progress. Pampered, I got back to New York, a little more experienced group started there, and by the time we got around to 1937, this thing had leaped over into Cleveland, and began to move south from New York. But, it was still, we thought in those years, flying blind, a flickering candle indeed, that might at any moment be snuffed out.
So, on this late fall afternoon in 1937, Smithy and I were talking together in his living room, Anne sitting there, when we began to count noses. How many people had stayed dry; in Akron, in New York, maybe a few in Cleveland? How many had stayed dry and for how long? And when we added up the total, it sure was a handful of, I don’t know, 35 to 40 maybe. But enough time had elapsed on enough really fatal cases of alcoholism, so that we grasped the importance of these small statistics.
Bob and I saw for the first time that this thing was going to succeed. That God in his providence and mercy had thrown a new light into the dark caves where we and our kind had been and were still by the millions dwelling. I can never forget the elation and ecstasy that seized us both. And when we sat happily talking and reflecting, we reflected, that well, a couple of score of drunks were sober but this had taken three long years. There had been an immense amount of failure and a long time had been taken just to sober up the handful. How could this handful carry its’ message to all those who still didn’t know? Not all the drunks in the world could come to Akron or New York. But how could we transmit our message to them, and by what means? Maybe we could go to the old timers in each group, but that meant nearly everybody, to find the sum of money – somebody else’s money, of course – and say to them “Well now, take a sabbatical year off your job if you have one, and you go to Kentucky, Omaha, Chicago, San Francisco and Los Angeles and wherever it may be and you give this thing a year and get a group started.”
It had already become evident by then that we were just about to be moved out of the City Hospital in Akron to make room for people with broken legs and ailing livers; that the hospitals were not too happy with us. We tried to run their business perhaps too much, and besides, drunks were apt to be noisy in the night and there were other inconveniences, which were all tremendous. So, it was obvious that because of drunks being such unlovely creatures, we would have to have a great chain of hospitals. And as that dream burst upon me, it sounded good, because you see, I’d been down in Wall Street in the promotion business and I remember the great sums of money that were made as soon as people got this chain idea. You know, chain drug stores, chain grocery stores, chain dry good stores. That evening Bob and I told them that we were within sight of success and that we thought this thing might go on and on and on, that a new light indeed was shining in our dark world. But how could this light be a reflection and transmitted without being distorted and garbled? At this point, they turned the meeting over to me, and being a salesman, I set right to work on the drunk tanks and subsidies for the missionaries. I was pretty poor then.
We touched on the book. The group conscience consisted of 18 men good and true … and the good and true men, you could see right away, were dammed skeptical about it all. Almost with one voice, they chorused “let’s keep it simple, this is going to bring money into this thing, this is going to create a professional class. We’ll all be ruined.” “Well,” I countered, “That’s a pretty good argument. Lots to what you say … but even within gunshot of this very house, alcoholics are dying like flies. And if this thing doesn’t move any faster than it has in the last three years, it may be another 10 before it gets to the outskirts of Akron. How in God’s name are we going to carry this message to others? We’ve got to take some kind of chance. We can’t keep it so simple it becomes an anarchy and gets complicated. We can’t keep it so simple that it won’t propagate itself, and we’ve got to have a lot of money to do these things.”
So, exerting myself to the utmost, which was considerable in those days, we finally got a vote in that little meeting and it was a mighty close vote by just a majority of maybe 2 or 3. The meeting said with some reluctance, “Well Bill, if we need a lot of dough, you better go back to New York where there’s plenty of it and you raise it.” Well, boy, that was the word that I’d been waiting for. So I scrammed back to the great city and I began to approach some people of means describing this tremendous thing that had happened. And it didn’t seem so tremendous to the people of means at all. What? 35 or 40 drunks sober up? They have sobered them up before now, you know. And besides, Mr. Wilson, don’t you think it’s kind of sweeping up the shavings? I mean, wouldn’t this be something for the Red Cross be better?
In other words, with all of my ardent solicitations, I got one hell of a freeze from the gentlemen of wealth. Well, I began to get blue and when I begin to get blue my stomach kicks up as well as other things.
I was lying in the bed one night with an imaginary ulcer attack (this used to happen all the time – I had one the time the 12 steps were written) and I said, “My God, we’re starving to death here on Clinton Street” By this time the house was full of drunks. They were eating us out of house and home. In those days we never believed in charging anybody anything – so Lois was earning the money, I was being the missionary and the drunks were eating the meals “This can’t go on. We’ve got to have those drunk tanks, we’ve got to have those missionaries, and we’ve got to have a book. That’s for sure.”
The next morning I crawled into my clothes and I called on my brother-in-law. He’s a doctor and he is about the last person who followed my trip way down. The only one, save of course, the Lord. “Well, I said, “I’ll go up and see Leonard.” So I went up to see my brother-in-law Leonard and he pried out a little time between patients coming in there. I started my awful bellyache about these rich guys who wouldn’t give us any dough for this great and glorious enterprise.
It seemed to me he knew a girl and I think she had an uncle that somehow tied up with the Rockefeller offices. I asked him to call and see if there was such a man and if there was, would he see us. On what slender threads our destiny sometimes hangs. So, the call was made.
Instantly there came onto the other end of the wire the voice of dear Willard Richardson – one of the loveliest Christian gentlemen I have ever known. And the moment he recognized my brother-in-law he said, “Why Leonard, where have you been all these years?” Well, my brother-in-law, unlike me, is a man of very few words, so he quickly said to dear old Uncle Willard, he had a brother-in-law who had apparently some success sobering up drunks and could the two of us come over there and see him. “Why certainly,” said dear Willard. “Come right over.” So we go over to Rockefeller Plaza. We go up that elevator – 54 flights or 58 I guess it was and we walk promptly into Mr. Rockefeller’s personal offices, and ask to see Mr. Richardson. Here sits this lovely, benign old gentleman, who nevertheless had a kind of shrewd twinkle in his eye.
So I set down and told him about our exciting discovery, this terrific cure for alcoholics that had just hit the world, how it worked and what we have done for them. And, boy, this was the first receptive man with money or access to money – remember we were in Mr. Rockefeller’s personal offices at this point – and by now, we had learned that this was Mr. Rockefeller’s closest personal friend.
So he said, “I’m very interested. Would you like to have lunch with me, Mr. Wilson?”
Well, now you know, for a rising promoter, that sounded pretty good – going to have lunch with the best friends of John D. Things were looking up. My ulcer attack disappeared. So I had lunch with the old gentleman and we went over this thing again and again and, boy, he’s so warm and kindly and friendly.
Right at the close of the lunch he said, “Well now Mr. Wilson or Bill, if I can call you that, wouldn’t you like to have a luncheon meeting with some of my friends? There’s Frank Amos, he’s in the advertising business but he was on a committee that recommended that Mr. Rockefeller drop the prohibition business. And there’s Leroy Chipmen, he looks after Mr. Rockefeller’s real estate. And there’s Mr. Scotty, Chairman of the Board of the Riverside Church and a number of other people like that I believe they’d like to hear this story.”
So a meeting was arranged and it fell upon a winter’s night in 1937. And the meeting was held at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. We called in, posthaste, a couple of drunks from Akron – Smithy included, of course – heading the procession. I came in with the New York contingent of four or five. And to our astonishment we were ushered into Mr., Rockefeller’s personal boardroom right next to his office. I thought to myself “Well, now this is really getting hot.” And indeed I felt very much warmed when I was told by Mr. Richardson that I was sitting in a chair just vacated by Mr. Rockefeller. I said “Well, now, we really are getting close to the bankroll.”
Old Doc Silkworth was there that night too, and he testified what he had seen happen to these new friends of ours, and each drunk, thinking of nothing better to say, told their stories of drinking and recovering and these folk listened. They seemed very definitely impressed. I could see that the moment for the big touch was coming. So, I gingerly brought up the subject of the drunk tanks, the subsidized missionaries, and the big question of a book or literature.
Well, God moves in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform. It didn’t look like a wonder to me when Mr. Scott, head of a large engineering firm and Chairman of the Riverside Church, looked at us and said “Gentlemen, up to this point, this has been the work of goodwill only. No plan, no property, no paid people, just one carrying the good news to the next. Isn’t that true? And may it not be that that is where the great power of this society lies? Now, if we subsidize it, might it not alter its’ whole character? We want to do all we can, we’re gathered for that, but would it be wise?”
Well then, the salesmen all gave Mr. Scott the rush and we said, “Why, Mr. Scott, there’re only 40 of us. It’s taken 3 years. Why millions, Mr. Scott, will rot before this thing ever gets to them unless we have money and lots of it.” And we made our case at last with these gentlemen for the missionaries, the drunk tanks and the book. So one of them volunteered to investigate us very carefully, and since poor old Dr. Bob was harder up than I was, and since the first group and the reciprocal community was in Akron, we directed their attention out there.
Frank Amos, still a trustee in the Foundation, at his own expense, got on a train, went out to Akron and made all sorts of preliminary inquiries around town about Dr. Bob. All the reports were good except that he was a drunk that recently got sober. He visited the little meeting out there. He went to the Smith house and he came back with what he thought was a very modest proposal. He recommended to these friends of ours that we should have at least a token amount of money at first, say $50,000, something like that. That would clear up the mortgage on Smith’s place. It would get us a little rehabilitation place. We could put Dr. Smith in charge. We could subsidize a few of these people briefly, until we got some more money. We could start the chain of hospitals. We’d have a few missionaries. We could get busy on the book, all for a mere $50,000 bucks.
Well, considering the kind of money we were backed up against, that did sound a little small, but, you know, one thing leads to another and it sounded real good. We were real glad. Mr. Willard Richardson, our original contact, then took that report into John D. Jr. as everybody recalls. And I’ve since heard what went on in there. Mr. Rockefeller read the report, called Willard Richardson and thanked him and said: “Somehow I am strangely stirred by all this. This interests me immensely.” And then looking at his friend Willard, he said, “But isn’t money going to spoil this thing? I’m terribly afraid that it would. And yet I am so strangely stirred by it.”
Then came another turning point in our destiny. When that man whose business is giving away money said to Willard Richardson, “No,” he said, “I won’t be the one to spoil this thing with money. You say these two men who are heading it are a little ‘stressed’, I’ll put $5,000 dollars in the Riverside Church treasury. Those folks can form themselves into a committee and draw on it, as they like. I want to hear what goes on. But, please don’t ask me for any more money.”
Well, with 50 thousand that then was shrunk to five, we raised the mortgage on Smithy’s house for about three grand. That left two and Smith and I commenced chewing on that too. Well, that was a long way from a string of drunk tanks and books. What in thunder would we do?
Well, we had more meetings with our newfound friends, Amos, Richardson, Scott, Chipman and those fellows who stuck with us to this day, some of them now gone. And, in spite of Mr. Rockefeller’s advice, we again convinced these folks that this thing needed a lot of money. What could we do without it? So, one of them proposed, “Well, why don’t we form a foundation, something like the Rockefeller Foundation?” I said, “I hope it will be like that with respect to money.” And then one of them got a free lawyer from a firm who was interested in the thing. And we all asked him to draw up an agreement of trust, a charter for something to be called the Alcoholic Foundation. Why we picked that one, I don’t know. I don’t know whether the Foundation was alcoholic, it was the Alcoholic Foundation, not the Alcoholics Foundation.
And the lawyer was very much confused because in the meeting, which formed the Foundation, we made it very plain that we did not wish to be in the majority. We felt that there should be non-alcoholics on the board and they ought to be in a majority of one. “Well, indeed,” said the lawyer, “What is the difference between an alcoholic and a non-alcoholic?” And one of our smart drunks said, “That’s a cinch, a non-alcoholic is a guy who can drink and an alcoholic is a guy who can’t drink.”
“Well,” said the lawyer, “how do we state that legally?” We didn’t know. So at length, we have a foundation and a board which I think then was about seven, consisting of four of these new friends, including my brother-in-law, Mr. Richardson, Chipman, Amos and some of us drunks. I think Smithy went on the board but I kind of coyly stayed off it thinking it would be more convenient later on.
So we had this wonderful new foundation. These friends, unlike Mr. Rockefeller, were sold on the idea that we needed a lot of dough, and so our salesmen around New York started to solicit some money, again, from the very rich. We had a list of them and we had credentials from friends of Mr. John D. Rockefeller. “How could you miss, I ask you, salesmen?” The Foundation had been formed in the spring of 1938 and all summer we solicited the rich. Well, they were either in Florida or they preferred the Red Cross, or some of them thought that drunks were disgusting and we didn’t get one damn cent in the whole summer of 1938, praise God! Well, meantime, we began to hold trustee meetings and they were commiseration sessions on getting no dough. What with the mortgage and with me and Smithy eating away at it, the five grand had gone up with the flue, and we were all stone-broke again. Smithy couldn’t get his practice back either because he was a surgeon and nobody likes to be carved up by an alcoholic surgeon – even if he was three years sober. So things were tough all around, no fooling. Well, what would we do?
One day, probably in August 1938, I produced at a Foundation meeting, a couple of chapters of a proposed book along with some recommendations of a couple of doctors down at John Hopkins to try to put the bite on the rich. And we still had these two book chapters kicking around.
Frank Amos said, “Well now, I know the religious editor down there at Harpers, an old friend of mine, Gene Exman.” He said, “Why don’t you take these two book chapters, your story and the introduction to the book, down there and show them to Gene and see what he thinks about them.” So I took the chapters down. To my great surprise, Gene, who was to become a great friend of ours, looked at the chapters and said, “Why Mr. Wilson, could you write a whole book like this?”
“Well,” I said, “Sure, sure.” There was more talk about it. I guess he went in and showed it to Mr. Canfield, the big boss, and another meeting was had. The upshot was that Harpers intimated that they would pay me as the budding author, 15 hundred in advance royalties, bringing enough money in to enable me to finish the book. I felt awful good about that. It made me feel like I was an author or something.
I felt real good about it but after awhile, not so good. Because I began to reason, and so did the other boys, if this guy Wilson eats up the 15 hundred bucks while he’s doing this book, after the book gets out, it will take a long time to catch up. And if this thing gets him publicity, what are we going to do with the inquiries? And, after all, what’s a lousy 10% royalty anyway? The 15 hundred still looked pretty big to me. Then we thought too, now here’s a fine publisher like Harpers, but if this book if and when done, should prove to be the main textbook for A.A., why would we want our main means of propagation in the hands of somebody else? Shouldn’t we control this thing? At this point, the book project really began.
I had a guy helping me on this thing who had red hair and ten times my energy and he was some promoter. He said, “Bill, this is something, come on with me.” We walk into a stationary store, we buy a pad of blank stock certificates and we write across the top of them ‘Works Publishing Company’- Par Value 25 Dollars. So we take the pad of these stock certificates, (of course we didn’t bother to incorporate it, that didn’t happen for several more years) we took this pad of stock certificates to the first A.A. meeting where you shouldn’t mix money with spirituality. We said to the drunks “look, this thing is gonna be a cinch. Parkhurst will take a third of this thing for services rendered. I, the author will take a third for services rendered, and you can have a third of these stock certificates par 25 if you’ll just start paying up on your stock. If you only want one share, it’s only five dollars a month, 5 months, see?”
And the drunks all gave us this stony look that said, “What the hell, you mean to say you’re only asking us to buy stock in a book that you ain’t written yet?” “Why sure,” we said “If Harpers will put money in this thing why shouldn’t you? Harpers said it’s gonna be a good book.” But the drunks still gave us this stony stare. We had to think up some more arguments.
“We’ve been looking at pricing costs of the books, boys. We get a book here, ya know, 400 or 450 pages, it ought to sell for about $3.50.” Now back in those days we found on inquiry from the printers that that $3.50 book could be printed for 35 cents making a 1,000% profit, of course, we didn’t mention the other expenses, just the printing costs. “So boys, just think on it, when these books move out by the carload we will be printing them for 35 cents and we’ll be selling them direct mail for $3.50. How can you lose?” The drunks still gave us this stony stare. No salt. Well, we figured we had to have a better argument than that. Harpers said it was a good book, you can print them for 35¢ and sell them for $3.50, but how are we going to convince the drunks that we could move carload lots of them? Millions of dollars.
So we get the idea we’ll go up to the Readers Digest, and we got an appointment with Mr. Kenneth Paine, thee managing editor there. Gee, I never forget the day we got off the train up at Pleasantville and were ushered into his office. We excitedly told him the story of this wonderful budding society. We dwelled upon the friendship of Mr. Rockefeller and Harry Emerson Fosdick. You know we were traveling in good company with Paine. The society, by the way, was about to publish a textbook, then in the process of being written and we were wondering, Mr. Paine, if this wouldn’t be a matter of tremendous interest to the Reader’s Digest? Having in mind of course that the Reader’s Digest has a circulation of 12 million readers and if we could only get a free ad of this coming book in the Digest we really would move something, ya see?
“Well,” Mr. Paine said, “this sounds extremely interesting, I like this idea, why I think it’ll be an absolutely ideal piece for the Digest. How soon do you think this new book will be out Mr. Wilson?” I said, “We’ve got a couple of chapters written, ahem, if we can get right at it, Mr. Paine, uh, you know, uh, probably uh, this being October, we ought to get this thing out by April or next May.
“Why,” Mr. Paine said, “I’m sure the Digest would like a thing like this. Mr. Wilson, I’ll take it up with the editorial board, and when the time is right and you get already to shoot, come up and we’ll put a special feature writer on this thing and we’ll tell all about your society.” And then my promoter friend said, “But Mr. Paine, will you mention the new book in the piece?” “Yes,” said Mr. Paine, “we will mention the book.” Well, that was all we needed, we went back to the drunks and said, “now look, boys, there are positively millions in this – how can you miss? Harpers says it’s going to be a good book. We buy them for 35¢ from the printer, we sell them for $3.50 and the Reader’s Digest is going to give us a free ad in its’ piece and boys, those books will move out by the carload. How can you miss? And after all, we only need 4 or 5 thousand bucks.”
So we began to sell the shares of Works Publishing, not yet incorporated, par value $25 and at $5 per month to the poor people. Some people bought as little as one and one guy bought 10 shares. We sold a few shares to non-alcoholics and my promoter friend who was to get one-third interest was a very important man in this transaction because he went out and kept collecting the money from the drunks so that little Ruthie Hock and I could keep working on the book and Lois could have some groceries (even though she was still working in that department store).
So, the preparation started and some more chapters were done and we went to A.A. meetings in New York with these chapters in the rough. It wasn’t like chicken-in-the-rough; the boys didn’t eat those chapters up at all. I suddenly discovered that I was in this terrific whirlpool of arguments. I was just the umpire – I finally had to stipulate. “Well boys, over here you got the Holly Rollers who say we need all the good old-fashioned stuff in the book, and over here you tell me we’ve got to have a psychological book, and that never cured anybody, and they didn’t do very much with us in the missions, so I guess you will have to leave me just to be the umpire. I’ll scribble out some roughs here and show them to you and let’s get the comments in.” So we fought, bled and died our way through one chapter after another. We sent them out to Akron and they were peddled around and there were terrific hassles about what should go in this book and what should not. Meanwhile, we set drunks up to write their stories or we had newspaper people to write the stories for them to go in the back of the book. We had an idea that we’d have a text and all and then we’d have stories all about the drunks who were staying sober.
Then came that night when we were up around Chapter 5. As you know I’d gone on about myself, which was natural after all. And then the little introductory chapter and we dealt with the agnostic and we described alcoholism, but, boy, we finally got to the point where we really had to say what the book was all about and how this deal works. As I told you this was a six-step program then. On this particular evening, I was lying in bed on Clinton Street wondering what the deuce this next chapter would be about. The idea came to me, well, we need a definite statement of concrete principles that these drunks can’t wiggle out of. Can’t be any wiggling out of this deal at all. And this six-step program had two big gaps in-between they’ll wiggle out of. Moreover if this book goes out to distant readers, they have to have, got to have, an absolutely explicit program by which to go. This was while I was thinking these thoughts, while my imaginary ulcer was paining me and while I was mad as hell at these drunks because the money was coming in too slow. Some had the stock and weren’t paying up. A couple of guys came in and they gave me a big argument and we yelled and shouted and I finally went down and laid on the bed with my ulcer and I said, “poor me.”
There was a pad of paper by the bed and I reached for that and said “You’ve got to break this program up into small pieces so they can’t wiggle out. So I started writing, trying to bust it up into little pieces. And when I got the pieces set down on that piece of yellow paper, I put numbers on them and was rather agreeably surprised when it came out to twelve. I said, “That’s a good significant figure in Christianity and mystic lore. “Then I noticed that instead of leaving the God idea to the last, I’d got it up front but I didn’t pay much attention to that, it looked pretty good. Well, the next meeting comes along; I’d gone on beyond the steps trying to amplify them in the rest of that chapter to the meeting and boy, pandemonium broke loose. “What do you mean by changing the program, what about this, what about that, this thing is overloaded with God. We don’t like this, you’ve got these guys on their knees – stand them up!” A lot of these drunks are scared to death of being Godly, “Let’s take God out of it entirely.” Such were the arguments that we had. Out of that terrific hassle came the Twelve Steps. That argument caused the introduction of the phrase that has been a lifesaver to thousands; it was certainly none of my doing. I was on the pious side then, you see, still suffering from this big hot flash of mine. The idea of “God as you understand Him” came out of that perfectly ferocious argument and we put that in.
Well, little by little things ground on, little by little the drunks put in money and we kept an office open in Newark, which was the office of a defunct business which I tried to establish with my friend. The money ran low at times and Ruthie Hock worked for no pay. We gave her plenty of stock in the Works Publishing of course. All you had to do is tear it off the pad, par 25, have a week’s salary, dear. So, we got around to about January 1939. Somebody said “Hadn’t we better test this thing out; hadn’t we better make a pre-publication copy, a multilith or mimeographed copy of this text and a few of the personal stories that had come in – try it out on the preacher, on the doctor, the Catholic Committee on Publications, psychiatrists, policemen, fishwives, housewives, drunks, everybody. Just to see if we’ve got anything that goes against the grain anyplace and also to find out if we can’t get some better ideas here?” So at considerable expense, we got this pre-publication copy made; we peddled it around and comments came back, some of them very helpful. It went, among other places, to the Catholic Committee on Publications in New York and at that time we had only one Catholic member to take it there and he had just gotten out of the asylum and hadn’t had anything to do with preparing the book.
The book passed inspection and the stories came in. Somehow we got them edited; somehow we got the galleys together. We got up to the printing time. Meanwhile, the drunks had been kind of slow on those subscription payments, and a little further on I was able to go up to Charlie Towns where old Doc Silkworth held forth. Charlie believed in us so we put the slug on to Charlie for $2,500 bucks. Charlie didn’t want any stocks; he wanted a promissory note on the book not yet written. So, we got the $2,500 from Charlie routed around through the Alcoholic Foundation so that it could be tax exempt. Also, we had blown $6,000 in these 9 months in supporting the 3 of us in an office and the till was getting low. We still had to get this book printed. So, we go up to Cornwall Press, which is the largest printer in the world, where we’d made previous inquiries and we asked about printing and they said they’d be glad to do it and how many books would we like? We said that was hard to estimate. Of course our membership is very small at the present time and we wouldn’t sell many to the membership but after all, the Readers Digest is going to print a plug about it to its’ 2 million readers. This book should go out in carloads when it’s printed.
The printer was none other than dear old Mr. Blackwell, one of our Christian friends and Mr. Blackwell said, “How much of a down payment are you going to make? How many books would you like printed?” “Well,” we said, “we’ll be conservative, let’s print 5,000 just to start with.” Mr. Blackwell asked us what we were going to use for money. We said that we wouldn’t need much; just a few hundred dollars on account would be all right. I told you; after all, we’re traveling in very good company, friends of Mr. Rockefeller and all that.
So, Blackwell started printing the 5,000 books [Editor — 4730 books were actually printed]; the plates were made and the galleys were read. Gee, all of a sudden we thought of the Reader’s Digest, so we go up to there, walk in on Mr. Kenneth Paine and say, “We’re all ready to shoot.” And Mr. Paine replies “Shoot what – Oh yes, I remember you two, Mr. Marcus and Mr. Wilson. You gentlemen were here last fall, I told you the Reader’s Digest would be interested in this new work and in your book. Well, right after you were here, I consulted our editorial board and to my great surprise they didn’t like the idea at all and I forgot to tell you!” Oh boy, we had the drunks with $5,000 bucks in it, Charlie Towns hooked for $2,500 bucks and $2,500 on the cuff with the printer. There was $500 left in the bank, what in the deuce would we do?
Morgan Ryan, the good-looking Irishman who had taken the book over to the Catholic Committee on Publication, had been in an earlier time a good ad man. He said that he knew Gabriel Heatter. “Gabriel is putting on these 3 minute heart to heart programs on the radio. I’ll get an interview with him and maybe he’ll interview me on the radio about all this,” said Ryan.
So, our spirits rose once again. Then all of a sudden we had a big chill, suppose this Irishman got drunk before Heatter interviewed him? So, we went to see Heatter and lo and behold, Heatter said he would interview him and then we got still more scared. So, we rented a room in the downtown Athletic Club and we put Ryan in there with a day and night guard for ten days.
Meanwhile, our spirits rose again. We could see those books just going out in carloads. Then my promoter friend said, “Look, there should be a follow-up on a big thing like this here interview. It’ll be heard all over the country…. national network. I think folks that are the market for this book are the doctors, the physicians. I suggest that we pitch the last $500 that we have in the treasury on a postal card shower, which will go to every physician east of the Rocky Mountains. On this postal card we’ll say “Hear all about Alcoholics Anonymous on Gabriel Heatter’s Program – spend $3.50 for the book Alcoholics Anonymous, sure-cure for alcoholism.” So, we spent the last $500 on the postal card shower and mailed them out.
They managed to keep Ryan sober although he since hasn’t made it. All the drunks had their ears glued to the radio. The group market in Alcoholics Anonymous was already saturated because you see, we had 49 stockholders and they’d all gotten a book free, then we had 28 guys with stories and they all got a free book. So we had run out of the A.A. books. But we could see the book moving out in carloads to these doctors and their patients. Sure enough, Ryan is interviewed. Heatter pulled out the old tremolo stop and we could see the book orders coming back in carloads.
Well, we just couldn’t wait to go down to old Post Office Box 658, Church Street Annex, the address printed in the back of the old books. We hung at it for about three days and then my friends Hank and Ruthie Hock and I went over and we looked in Box 658. It wasn’t a locked box; you just looked through the glass. We could see that there were a few of these postal cards. I had a terrible sinking sensation. But my friend the promoter said “Bill, they can’t put all those cards in the box, they’ve got bags full of it out there.” We go to the clerk and he brings out 12 lousy postal cards, 10 of them were completely illegible, written by doctors, druggists, and monkeys? We had exactly two orders for the book Alcoholics Anonymous and we were absolutely and utterly stone-broke.
The Sheriff then moved in on the office, poor Mr. Blackwell wondered what to do for money and felt like taking the book over at that very opportune moment, the house which Lois and I lived in was foreclosed and we and our furniture were set out on the street. Such was the state of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and the state of grace the Wilson’s were in the summer of 1939. Moreover, a great cry went up from the drunks, “What about our $4,500?” Even Charlie (Towns) who was pretty well off was a little uneasy about the note for $2,500. What would we do? What could we do? We put our goods in storage on the cuff; we couldn’t even pay the drayman. An A.A. lent us his summer camp, another A.A. lent us his car, and the folks around New York began to pass the hat for groceries for the Wilson’s and supplied us with $50 per month. So, we had a lot of discontented stockholders, $50 bucks a month, a summer camp and an automobile with which to revive the failing fortunes of the book Alcoholics Anonymous.
We began to shop around from one magazine to another asking if they would give us some publicity, nobody bit and it looked like the whole dump was going to be foreclosed; book, office, Wilson’s, everything.
One of the boys in New York happened to be a little bit prosperous at the time and he had a fashionable clothing business on Fifth Avenue, which we learned was mostly on mortgage, having drunk nearly all of it up. His name was Bert Taylor. I went up to Bert one day and I said “Bert, there is a promise of an article in Liberty Magazine, I just got it today but it won’t come out until next September. It’s going to be called ‘Alcoholics and God’ and will be printed by Fulton Oursler the editor of Liberty Magazine. Bert, when that piece is printed, these books will go out in carload lots. We need $1,000 bucks to get us through the summer.” Bert asked, “Well, are you sure that the article is going to be printed?” “Oh yes,” I said, “that’s final.” He said, “O.K., I haven’t got the dough but there’s this man down in Baltimore, Mr. Cochran, he’s a customer of mine, he buys his pants in here. Let me call him up.”
Bert gets on long-distance with Mr. Cochran in Baltimore, a very wealthy man, and says to him “Mr. Cochran, from time to time I mentioned this alcoholic fellowship to which I belong. Our fellowship has just come out with a magnificent new textbook, a sure cure for alcoholism. Mr. Cochran, this is something we think every public library in America should have, and Mr. Cochran, the retail price of the book is $2.50. Mr. Cochran, if you’ll just buy a couple of thousand of those books and put them in the large libraries, of course we would sell them for that purpose at a considerable discount.” Mr. Cochran, some publicity will come out next fall about this new book Alcoholics Anonymous, but in the meantime, these books are moving slowly and we need, say, $1,000 to tide us over. Would you loan the Works Publishing Company this?” Mr. Cochran asked what the balance sheet of the Works Publishing Company looked like and after he learned what it looked like he said “no thanks.”
So Bert then said, “Now Mr. Cochran, you know me. Would you loan the money to me on the credit of my business?” “Why certainly,” Mr. Cochran said, “send me down your note.” So Bert hocked the business that a year or two later was to go broke anyway and saved the book Alcoholics Anonymous. The thousand dollars lasted until the Liberty article came out. 800 inquiries came in as a result of that, we moved a few books and we barely squeaked through the year 1939.
In all this period we heard nothing from John D. Rockefeller when all of a sudden, in about February 1940, Mr. Richardson came to a trustees meeting of the Foundation and announced that he had great news. We were told that Mr. Rockefeller, whom we had not heard from since 1937, had been watching us all this time with immense interest. Moreover, Mr. Rockefeller wanted to give this fellowship a dinner to which he would invite his friends to see the beginnings of this new and promising start.
Mr. Richardson produced the invitation list. Listed were the President of Chase Bank, Wendell Wilkie, and all kinds of very prominent people, many of them extremely rich. I mean, after a quick look at the list I figured it would add up to a couple of billion dollars. So, we felt maybe at least, you know, there would be some money in sight. So, the dinner came, and we got Harry Emerson Fosdick who had reviewed the A.A. book and he gave us a wonderful plug. Dr. Kennedy came and spoke on the medical attitudes. He’d seen a patient of his, a very hopeless gal (Marty Mann) recover. I got up, talked about life among the “anonymie,” and the bankers assembled 75 strong and in great wealth, sat at the tables with the alcoholics. The bankers had come probably for some sort of command performance and they were a little suspicious that perhaps this was another prohibition deal, but they warmed up under the influence of the alcoholics.
Mr. Ryan, the hero of the Heatter episode and still sober, was asked at his table by a distinguished banker, “Why, Mr. Ryan, we presumed you were in the banking business.” Ryan says, “Not at all sir, I just got out of Great Stone Asylum.” Well, that intrigued the bankers and they were all warming up. Unfortunately, Mr. Rockefeller couldn’t get to the dinner. He was quite sick that night so he sent his son, a wonderful gent, Nelson Rockefeller, in his place instead. After the show was over and everyone was in fine form, we were all ready again for the big touch. Nelson Rockefeller got up and speaking for his father said, “My father sends word that he is so sorry that he cannot be here tonight, but is so glad that so many of his friends can see the beginnings of this great and wonderful thing. Something that affected his life more than almost anything that had crossed his path.” A stupendous plug that was! Then Nelson said,”Gentlemen, this is a work that proceeds on good will. It requires no money.” Whereupon, the 2 billion dollars got up and walked out. That was a terrific letdown, but we weren’t let down for too long.
Again, the hand of Providence had intervened. Right after dinner, Mr. Rockefeller asked that the talks and pamphlets be published. He approached the rather defunct Works Publishing Company and said he would like to buy 400 books to send to all of the bankers who had come to the dinner and to those who had not. Seeing that this was for a good purpose, we let him have the books cheap. He bought them cheaper than anybody has since. We sold 400 books to John D. Rockefeller Jr. for one buck apiece to send to his banker friends. He sent out the books and pamphlets and with it, he wrote a personal letter and signed every doggone one of them.
In this letter he stated how glad he was that his friends had been able to see the great beginning of what he thought would be a wonderful thing, how deeply it had affected him and then he added (unfortunately) “Gentlemen, this is a work of goodwill. It needs little, if any, money. I am giving these good people $1,000.” So, the bankers all received Mr. Rockefeller’s letter and counted it up on the cuff. Well, if John D. is giving $1,000, me with only a few million should send these boys about $10! One who had an alcoholic relative in tow sent us $300. So, with Mr. Rockefeller’s $1,000 plus the solicitation of all the rest of these bankers, we got together the princely sum of $3,000 which was the first outside contribution of the Alcoholic Foundation.
The $3,000 was divided equally between Smithy and me so that we could keep going somehow. We solicited that dinner list for 5 years and got about $3,000 a year for 5 years. At the end of that time, we were able to say to Mr. Rockefeller, “We don’t need any more money. The book income is helping to support our office, the groups are contributing to fill in and the royalties are taking care of Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson.”
Now you see Mr. Rockefeller’s decision not to give us money was a blessing. He gave of himself. He gave of himself when he was under public ridicule for his views about alcohol. He said to the whole world “this is good.” The story went out on the wires all over the world. People ran into the bookstores to get the new book and boy, we really began to get some book orders. An awful lot of inquiries came into the little office at Veasey Street. The book money began to pay Ruth. We hired one more to help. There was Ruthie, another gal and I. And then came Jack Alexander with his terrific article in the Saturday Evening Post. Then an immense lot of inquiries … 6,000 or 7,000 of them. Alcoholics Anonymous had become a national institution.
Such is the story of the preparation of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”, and, of its subsequent effect, you all have some notion. The proceeds of that book have repeatedly saved the office in New York. But, it isn’t the money that has come out of it that matters; it is the message that it carried. That transcended the mountains and the sea and is even at this moment, lighting candles in dark caverns and on distant beaches.