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W.'s Talk to the Manhattan Group
York City, N.Y., 1955
the history of AA is being lost in the mists of its twenty-one
years of antiquity. I venture that very few people here
could recount in any consecutive way the steps on the road
that led from the kitchen table to where we are tonight
in this Manhattan Group.
is especially fitting that we recount the history, because
at St. Louis this summer, a great event occurred. This Society
declared that it had come of age and it took full possession
of its Legacies of Recovery, Unity and Service. It marked
the time when Lois and I, being parents of a family now
become responsible, declare you to be of age and on your
lets start on our story.
of all, there was the kitchen table which stood in a brownstone
house which still bears the number 182, Clinton Street,
Brooklyn. There, Lois saw me go into the depths. There,
over the kitchen table, Ebby brought me these simple principles
now enshrined in our Twelve Steps. In those days, there
were but six steps: We admitted we couldn't run our lives;
we got honest with ourselves; we made a self-survey; we
made restitution to the people we had harmed; we tried to
carry this story one to the next; and we asked God to help
us to do those things. That was the essence of the message
over the kitchen table. In those days, we were associated
with the Oxford Group. One of its founders was Sam Shoemaker,
and this Group has just left Calvary House to come over
to these larger quarters, I understand.
debt to the Oxford Group is simply immense. We might have
found these principles elsewhere, but they did give them
to us, and I want to again record our undying gratitude.
We also learned from them, so far as alcoholics are concerned,
what not to dosomething equally important. Father
Ed Dowling, a great Jesuit friend of ours, once said to
me, "Bill, it isn't what you people put into AA that
makes it so goodit's what you left out."
got both sets of notions from our Oxford Group friends,
and it was through them that Ebby had sobered up and became
my sponsor, the carrier of this message to me.
began to go to Oxford Group meetings right over in Calvary
House, where you've just been gathering, and it was there,
fresh out of Towns Hospital, that I made my first pitch,
telling about my strange experience, which did not impress
the alcoholic who was listening. But something else did
impress him. When I began to talk about the nature of this
sickness, this malady, he pricked up his ears. He was a
professor of chemistry, an agnostic, and he came up and
talked afterward. Soon, he was invited over to Clinton Street
- our very first customer.
worked very hard with Freddy for three years, but alas,
he remained drunk for eleven years afterward.
people came to us out of those Oxford Group audiences. We
began to go down to Calvary Mission, an adjunct of the church
in those days, and there we found a bountiful supply of
real tough nuts to crack. We began to invite them to Clinton
Street, and at this point the Groupers felt that we were
overdoing the drunk business. It seemed they had the idea
of saving the world; besides, they'd had a bad time with
us. Sam and his associates he now laughingly tells me, were
very much put out that they had gathered a big batch of
drunks in Calvary House, hoping for a miracle. They'd put
them upstairs in those nice apartments and had completely
surrounded them with sweetness and light. But the drunks
soon imported a flock of bottles, and one of them pitched
a shoe out the apartment window right through one of those
stained glass affairs of the church. So the drunks weren't
exactly popular when the Wilson's showed up.
any rate we began to be with alcoholics all the time, but
nothing happened for six months. Like the Groupers, we nursed
them. In fact, over in Clinton Street, we developed in the
next two or three years something like a boiler factory,
a sort of clinic, a hospital, and a free boardinghouse,
from which practically no one issued sober, but we had a
pile of experience.
began to learn the game, and after our withdrawing from
the Oxford Groupoh, a year and a half from the time
I sobered, in '34we began to hold meetings of the
few who had sobered up. I suppose that was really the first
AA meeting. The book hadn't yet been written. We didn't
even call it Alcoholics Anonymous; people asked us who we
were, and we said, "Well, we're a nameless bunch of
alcoholics." I suppose the use of that word "nameless"
sort of led us to the idea of anonymity, which was later
clapped on the book at the time it was titled.
were great doings in Clinton Street. I remember those meetings
down in the parlor so well. Our eager discussion, our hopes,
our fearsand our fears were very great. When anyone
in those days had been sober a few months and slipped, it
was a terrific calamity. I'll never forget the day, a year
and a half after he came to stay with us, that Ebby fell
over, and we all said, "Perhaps this is going to happen
to all of us." Then, we began to ask ourselves why
it was, and some of us pushed on.
Clinton Street, I did most of the talking, but Lois did
most of the work, and the cooking, and the loving of those
my! The episodes that there were! I was away once on a business
trip. (I'd briefly got back to business.) One of the drunks
was sleeping on the lounge in the parlor. Lois woke up in
the middle of the night, hearing a great commotion. He'd
got a bottle; he'd also got into the kitchen and had drunk
a bottle of maple syrup.
he had fallen naked into the coal hod. When Lois opened
the door, he asked for a towel to cover up his nakedness.
She once led this same gentleman through the streets late
at night looking for a doctor, and not finding a doctor,
then looking for a drink, because, as he said, he could
not fly on one wing!
one occasion, a pair of them were drunk. We had five, and
on another occasion, they were all drunk at the same time!
was the time that two of them began to belabor each other
with two-by-fours down in the basement. And then, poor Ebby,
after repeated trials and failures, was finally locked out
one night. But low and behold, he appeared anyway. He had
come through the coal chute and up the stairs, very much
you see, Clinton Street was a kind of blacksmith shop, in
which we were hammering away at these principles. For Lois
and me, all roads lead back to Clinton Street.
1937, while we were still there, we got an idea that to
spread AA we would have to have some sort of literature,
guide rails for it to run on so it couldn't get garbled.
We were still toying with the idea that we had to have paid
workers who would be sent to other communities. We thought
we'd have to go into the hospital business. Out in Akron,
where we had started the first group, they had a meeting
and nominated me to come to New York and do all these things.
solicited Mr. [John D.] Rockefeller [Jr.] and some of his
friends, who gave us their friendship but, luckily, not
much of their money. They gave Smithy [Dr. Bob] and me a
little boost during the year of 1938, and that was all;
they forced us to stand on our own.
1938, Clinton Street saw the beginning of the preparation
of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. The early chapters were
writtenoh, I should thinkabout May 1938. Then,
we tried to raise money to get the thing published, and
we actually sold stock to the local drunks in this book,
not yet written. An all-time high for promotions!
Street also saw, on its second floor, in the bedroom, the
writing of the Twelve Steps. We had got to Chapter Five
in the book, and it looked like we would have to say at
some point what the book was all about. So I remember lying
there on the bed one night, and I was in one of my typical
depressive snits, and I had an imaginary ulcer attack. The
drunks who were supposed to be contributing, so that we
could eat while the book was being written, were slow on
the contributions, and I was in a damn bad frame of mind.
lay there with a pad and pencil, and I began to think over
these six steps that I've just recited to you, and said
I to myself, "Well, if we put down these six steps,
the chunks are too big. They'll have to digest too much
all at once. Besides, they can wiggle out from in between,
and if we're going to do a book, we ought to break those
up into smaller pieces."
I began to write, and in about a half an hour, I think,
I had busted them up into smaller pieces. I was rather pleasantly
surprised that, when numbered, they added up to twelvethat's
significant. Very nice.
that point, a couple of drunks sailed in. I showed them
the proposed Twelve Steps, and I caught fits. Why did we
need them when six were doing fine? And what did I mean
by dragging God from the bottom of the list up to the top?
the meetings in the front parlor had largely turned into
hassles over the chapters of the book. The roughs were submitted
and read at every meeting, so that when the Twelve Steps
were proposed, there was a still greater hassle.
I'd had this very sudden experience and was on the pious
side, I'd lauded these Steps very heavily with the word
"God." Other people began to say, "This won't
do at all. The reader at a distance is just going to get
scared off. And what about agnostic folks like us?"
There was another terrific hassle, which resulted in this
terrific ten-strike we had: calling God (as you understand
Him) "the Higher Power," making a hoop big enough
so that the whole world of alcoholics can walk through it.
actually, those people who suppose that the elders of AA
were going around in white robes surrounded by a blue light,
full of virtue, are quite mistaken. I merely became the
umpire of the immense amount of hassling that went into
the preparation of the AA book, and that took place at Clinton
of course, the book was the summit of all our hopes at the
time; along with the hassling, there was an immense enthusiasm.
We tried to envision distant readers picking it up and perhaps
writing in, perhaps getting sober. Could they do it on the
of those things we speculated on very happily. Finally,
in the spring of 1939, the book was ready. We'd made a prepublication
copy of it; it had got by the Catholic Committee on Publications;
we'd shown it to all sorts of people; we had made corrections.
We had 5,000 copies printed, thinking that would be just
a mere triflethat the book would soon be selling millions
we were very enthusiastic, us promoters. The Reader's Digest
had promised to print a piece about the book, and we just
saw those books going out in carloads.
of the sort happened. The Digest turned us down flat; the
drunks had thrown their money into all this; there were
hardly a hundred members in AA. And here the thing had utterly
this juncture, the meetingthe first meeting of the
Manhattan Group, which really took place in Brooklynstopped,
and it stopped for a very good reason.
was that the landlord set Lois and me out into the street,
and we didn't even have money to move our stuff into storage.
Even that and the moving vanthat was done on the cuff.
it was then the spring of 1939. Temporarily, the Manhattan
Group moved to Jersey. It hadn't got to Manhattan yet. A
great friend, Horace C., let Lois and me have a camp belonging
to himself and his mother, out at Green Pond. My partner
in the book enterprise, old Hank P., now gone, lived at
used to come down to 75 William Street, where we had the
little office in which a good deal of the book was actually
done. Sundays that summer, we'd come down to Hank's house,
where we had meetings which old-timersjust a handful
now in Jerseycan remember.
Alcoholic Foundation, still completely empty of money, did
have one small account called the "Lois B. W. Improvement
Fund." This improvement fund was fortified every month
by a passing of the hat, so that we had the summer camp,
we had fifty bucks a month, and someone else lent us a car
to try to revive the book Alcoholics Anonymous and the flagging
the fall of that year, when it got cold up there at the
summer camp, we moved down to Bob V.'s. Many of you remember
him and Mag. We were close by the Rockland asylum. Bob and
I and others went in there, and we started the first institutional
group, and several wonderful characters were pried out of
there. I hope old Tom M. is here tonightTom came over
to the V's, where he had holed up with Lois and me, then
put in a room called Siberia, because it was so cold.
bought a coal stove for four dollars and kept ourselves
warm there during the winter.
did a wonderful alcoholic by the name of Jimmy. He never
made good. Jimmy was one of the devious types, and one of
our first remarkable experiences with Jimmy was this. When
we moved from Green Pond, we brought Marty with us, who
had been visiting, and she suddenly developed terrible pains
in her stomach.
gentleman, Jimmy, called himself a doctor. In fact, he had
persuaded the authorities at Rockland that he was a wonderful
physician. They gave him full access to the place. He had
keys to all the surgical instruments and incidentally, I
think he had keys to all the pill closets over there.
was suffering awful agonies, and he said, "Well, there's
nothing to it, my dear. You've got gallstones." So
he goes over to Rockland. He gets himself some kind of fishing
gadget that they put down gullets to fish around in there,
and he fishes around and yanks up a flock of gallstones,
and she hasn't had a bit of trouble since. And, dear people,
it was only years later that we learned the guy wasn't a
doctor at all.
the Manhattan Group moved to Manhattan for the first time.
The folks over here started a meeting in Bert T.'s tailor
shop. Good old Bert is the guy who hocked his then-failing
business to save the book Alcoholics Anonymous in 1939.
the fall, he still had the shop, and we began to hold meetings
there. Little by little, things began to grow. We went from
there to a room in Steinway Hall, and we felt we were in
very classic and good company that gave us an aura of respectability.
some of the boysnotably Bert and Horacesaid,
"A.A. should have a home. We really ought to have a
club." And so the old 24th Street Club, which had belonged
to the artists and illustrators and before that was a barn
going back to Revolutionary times, was taken over. I think
Bert and Horace signed the first lease. They soon incorporated
it, though, lest somebody slip on a banana peel outside.
Lois and I, who had moved from the V's to live with another
A.A., then decided we wanted a home for ourselves, and we
found a single room down in a basement on Barrow Street
in Greenwich Village.
remember Lois and me going through Grand Central wondering
where we'd light next, just before the Greenwich Village
move. We were very tired that day, and we walked off the
main floor there and sat on one of those gorgeous marble
stairways leading up to the balcony, and we both began to
cry and say, "Where will we ever light? Will we ever
have a home?"
we had one for a while in Barrow Street. And when the club
was opened up, we moved into one of those rooms there. Tom
M. came over from the V's, and right then and there a Tradition
of Alcoholics Anonymous was generated. It seemed that volunteers
had been sweeping the club; it seemed that many of the alcoholics
had keys to the club; and they came and went and sometimes
stayed; and sometimes they got very drunk and acted very
badlydoing we know not what. There had to be somebody
there to really look after the place. So we thought we'd
approach old Tom, who had a pension as a fireman. We said,
"Tom, how would you like to come and live at the club?"
says, "What's on your mind?"
we said, "we really need somebody here all the time,
you know, to make the coffee and see that the place is heated
and throw some coal on that furnace over there and lead
the drunks outside if they're too bad."
ya gonna pay me?" Tom says.
no," we said. "This is Alcoholics Anonymous. We
can't have any professionals."
says, "I do my Twelfth Step work, I don't charge 'em
nothing. But what you guys want is a janitor, and if you're
going to get me, you're going to pay, see?"
we were very much disturbed about our own situation. We
weren't exactly paidthey were just passing the hat
for us, you understand. I think that we went for seven years
of the history of this Society with an average income of
seventeen hundred bucks a year, which, for a former stockbroker,
is not too big.
this question of who is a professional and who isn't bore
very heavily at the time on Tom and me. And Tom began to
get it settled. He began to show that if a special service
was asked from anybody full-time, we'd have to pay or not
finally, we haggled Tom down on the theory that he already
had a pension, and he came to live there, and meetings began
in that old club.
old club saw many a terrific development, and from that
club sprang all the groups in this area. The club saw the
passage of the Rockefeller dinner, when we thought we'd
all be rich as a movement, and Mr. Rockefeller saved us
by not giving us money.
club saw the Saturday Evening Post article published. In
fact, the Post at that time said, "No pictures, no
article." If you will look up the March 1, 1941, issue
of the Saturday Post, you will see a picture of the interior
of the club, and a flock of us sitting before the fire.
They didn't use our names, but they insisted on pictures.
wasn't then quite what it is today. And with the advent
of that piece, there was a prodigious rush of inquiriesabout
6,000 of them.
this time, we'd moved the little office from Newark, New
Jersey, over to Vesey Street. You will find in the old edition
of the book [Alcoholics Anonymous] "Box 58, Church
Street Annex." And that was the box into which the
first inquiries came. We picked out that location because
Lois and I were drifters, and we picked it because it was
the center of the geographical area here. We didn't know
whether we'd light in Long Island, New Jersey, or Westchester,
so the first A.A. post office box was down there with a
little office alongside of it.
volunteers couldn't cope with this tremendous flock of inquiriesheartbreakers,
but 6,000 of them! We simply had to hire some help. At that
point, we asked you people if you'd send the foundation
a buck apiece a year, so we wouldn't have to throw that
stuff in the wastebasket. And that was the beginning of
the service office and the book company.
club saw all those things transpire. But there was a beginning
in that club at that time that none of us noticed very much.
It was just a germ of an idea. It often looked, in after
years, as though it might die out. Yet within the last three
years, it has become what I think is one of the greatest
developments that we shall ever know, and here I'm going
to break into my little tale to introduce my partner in
all this, who stayed with me when things were bad and when
things have been good, and she'll tell you what began upstairs
in that club, and what has eventuated from it. Lois."
then spoke about the formation and the early days of Al-Anon
you see, it was in the confines of the Manhattan Group of
those very, very early days that this germ of an idea came
to life. Lois might have added that since the St. Louis
conference, one new family group has started every single
day of the week since, someplace in the world.
think the deeper meaning of all this is that AA is something
more than a quest for sobriety, because we cannot have sobriety
unless we solve the problem of life, which is essentially
the problem of living and working together. And the family
groups are straightening out the enormous twist that has
been put on our domestic relations by our drinking. I think
it's one of the greatest things that's happened in years.
let's cut back to old 24th Street. One more thing happened
Tradition was generated. It had to do with money. You know
how slow I was on coming up with that dollar bill tonight?
I suppose I was thinking backsome sort of unconscious
had a deuce of a time getting that club supported, just
passing the hat, no fees, no dues, just the way it should
be. But the no fee and dues business was construed into
no money at alllet George do it.
been, on this particular day, down to the foundation office,
and we'd just put out this dollar-a-year measuring stick
for the alcoholics to send us some money if they felt like
it. Not too many were feeling like it, and I remember that
I was walking up and down the office damning these drunks.
evening, still feeling sore about the stinginess of the
drunks, I sat on the stairs at the old 24th Street Club,
talking to some would-be convert. Tom B. was leading the
meeting that night, and at the intermission he put on a
real plug for money, the first one that I'd ever heard.
At that time, money and spirituality couldn't mix, even
in the hat. I mean, you mustn't talk about money! Very reluctantly,
we'd gone into the subject with Tom M. and the landlord.
We were behind in the rent.
Tom put on that heavy pitch, and I went on talking to my
prospect, and as the hat came along, I fished in my pocket
and pulled out half a buck.
very day, I think, Ebby had come in the office a little
the worse for wear, and with a very big heart, I had handed
him five dollars. Our total income at that time was thirty
bucks a week, which had come out of the Rockefeller dinner
affair; so I'd given him five bucks of the thirty and felt
very generous, you see.
now comes the hat to pay for the light and heat and so forthrentand
I pull out this half dollar and I look absent-mindedly at
it, and I put my hand in the other pocket and pull out a
dime and put it in the hat.
I have never once railed at alcoholics for not getting up
the money. There, you see, was the beginning of two A.A.
Traditionsthings that had to do with professionalism
1941, this thing just mushroomed. Groups began to break
off out into the suburbs. But a lot of us still wanted a
club, and the 24th Street Club just couldn't do the trick.
We got an offer from Norman Vincent Peale to take over a
church at 41st Street. The church was in a neighborhood
that had deteriorated badlyover around Ninth Avenue
and 41st. In fact, it was said to be a rather sinful neighborhood,
if you gather what I mean. The last young preacher that
Peale had sent there seemed very much against drinking and
smoking and other even more popular forms of sin; therefore,
he had no parishioners.
was this tremendous church, and all that we could see was
a bigger and bigger club in New York City. So we moved in.
The body of the church would hold 1,000 people, and we had
a hall upstairs that would hold another 800, and we visioned
this as soon full. Then there were bowling alleys downstairs,
and we figured the drunks would soon be getting a lot of
exercise. After they warmed up down there, they could go
upstairs in the gymnasium.
we had cooking apparatus for a restaurant. This was to be
our home, and we moved in. Well, sure enough, the place
filled up just like mad! Then, questions of administration,
questions of morals, questions of meetings, questions of
which was the Manhattan Group and which was the club and
which was the Intergroup (the secretary of the club was
also the Intergroup secretary) began to get this seething
mass into terrific tangles, and we learned a whole lot about
all this was going on, the AA groups were spreading throughout
America and to foreign shores, and each group, like our
own, was having its terrific headaches. In that violent
period, nobody could say whether this thing would hang together
or not. Would it simply explode and fly all to pieces? On
thousands of anvils of experience, of which the Manhattan
Group was certainly one (down in that 41st Street club,
more sparks came off that anvil than any I ever saw), we
hammered out the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous, which
were first published in 1946 [April Grapevine]. We hammered
out the rudiments of an Intergroup, which now has become
one of the best there is anywhere, right here in New York.
however, the club got so big that it bust. The Intergroup
moved. So did the Manhattan Group, with $5,000its
part of the take, which it hung on to. And from the Manhattan
Group's experience, we learned thatalthough the foundation
needs a reservefor God's sake, don't have any money
in a group treasury!
hassles about that $5,000 lasted until they got rid of it
you all moved down to dear old Sam Shoemaker's Calvary,
the very place of our beginning. Now, we've made another
so we grow, and such has been the road that leads back to
the kitchen table at Clinton Street.