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Anonymous history in your area
of AA in Northern New Jersey, 1939 - 1944
Greg T., Saturday,
Workshop Presentation at the Northeast Regional Convention
in Northern New Jersey, 1939 - 1944” by Greg T.
remarks: State sobriety date, home group, service position.
Formative service experience with the South Orange Sunday
Night Group 50th Anniversary in 1989.
note on the sources: In addition to A.A. Comes
of Age and Pass It On, two of our General Service
Conference-approved books, I was fortunate to gain access
to the archives housed in our Northern New Jersey Intergroup
Office and in the General Service Office in New York.
Special thanks to Judit Santon, GSO Archivist, her assistant,
Erin Lang, and Bob C., Chair of the Joint Intergroup-Area
44 History and Archives Committee, for their help and support.
I should also like to thank our Area Committee Chair, Debbie
H., for asking me to present this information this morning.
stories of the A.A. members and A.A. groups of Northern
New Jersey are typical, garden-variety experiences that
illustrate what we alcoholics were like, what happened,
and in a very real sense tell us why we are what
we are like now. We can look back and see the early
struggles and doubts, the comraderie and fellowship and
willingness to go to any length to stay sober and to help
other alcoholics. We see the strength of the home
group and the fractures that occur over personality, money,
style, and geography.
What a time it was! From mid-1939 through the end
of 1944, which is the focus of my presentation, Alcoholics
Anonymous as a concept and a loosely connected confederacy
of groups from Akron, Ohio, to New York City, was being
born and stumbling through its first nine years - those
awkward, pre-double-digit years that all of us are very
familiar with. The Twelve Steps were developed, that
is, were lived and utilized by hundreds of
men and women to help them get and stay sober. The
Twelve Traditions were still a decade away from codification,
but were also being experienced, through the trial-and-error
process that we alcoholics find so necessary in our stubborn
self-centeredness. (Oops, perhaps I should speak of
myself, rather than “we.”)
The first A.A. meeting in New Jersey was held at the Montclair
home of Hank P., in the summer of 1939. Hank had been
referred to Bill W. by Dr. William Silkworth in 1937.
Pass It On describes the relationship in this way:
“Hank was full of ideas, and Bill now became associated
with Hank on one of his many entrepreneurial ventures.
This was a plan to organize gasoline dealers in northern
New Jersey to form a cooperative buying organization.
It had a name - Honor Dealers; an address - 17 William Street,
Newark; and a secretary - Ruth Hock.” [p. 191]
Bill W., a co-founder of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement
and primary author of the Big Book, its basic text, had
begun writing the book in March or April 1938, and the process
continued throughout that year, until January 1939.
Newark office became not only our first service office but
the headquarters of a “spiritually entrepeneurial”
venture called Works Publishing, Inc., which offered shares
in the publication of the book. Manuscript pages were
carried or mailed from Newark to the groups in Akron and
New York for their critique, which was not long in coming,
nor particularly gentle. In Pass It On we learn
that Bill drafted the Twelve Steps, he claimed, “while
lying in bed at 182 Clinton Street [Brooklyn] with pencil
in hand and a pad of yellow scratch paper on his knee.”
[p. 197] Then he brought the nearly complete step-program
to Ruth in the Newark office and shared it with local members.
The well-known “God arguments” ensued.
By April 1939, the first edition of the Big Book, Alcoholics
Anonymous, was published. By October 1939 the
first A.A. group in New Jersey had begun to meet on a regular
basis, at Hank P.’s home in Montclair, on Sunday nights.
Bill and Lois W. had by this time lost their home and had
temporarily relocated to Green Pond, New Jersey, from where
they ventured to meetings in Montclair and South Orange,
where the “Jersey Group” then relocated for
its regularly scheduled 5:30 p.m. Sunday meeting in the
rambling wooden structure known as the South Orange Community
One of the most interesting documents in the General Service
Office Archives in New York City, is one titled “Survey
of Jersey Group Made by G.M. - Jan. 1st 1940.”
This survey, likely the very first “membership survey”
in Alcoholics Anonymous, lists the current group membership
as “Total no. contacted,” which is 41 members.
Of these, 19 had taken no drink since joining the group,
and 7 had had “only 1 slip” since joining.
Those failing to get sober but “still members”
were 6, and those who had failed to get sober and “dropped
out” were also 6. The percentage of so-called
“complete success” was 46.3%! Percentage
of just plain “success” (one slip or none) was
63.4%, leaving the failure rate at 36.6% Unscientific,
More tidbits from this group survey include the “total
sober time achieved by Jersey Group as a whole,” 21
years. Henry P. is listed as a group member with the
longest continuous sobriety of five years (living in East
Orange at this time). There were only four women,
by my count (based on the names) of the total 41 names.
The growth rate was put at 400%, that is “from 10
to 40 in the last 9 months.” And membership
was spread over twenty-three Northern Jersey towns, including
East Orange, Montclair, Roselle, Hackettstown, Plainfield,
West Orange, Morristown, Irvington, Hoboken, Ridgewood,
Verona, Caldwell, Glen Ridge, Millburn, Bogota, Congers
(N.Y.), Westwood, Belleville, Newark, Bloomfield, Monsey
(N.Y.), Jersey City, and Orange.
This last statistic in particular shows how quickly and
widely the A.A. message of recovery was spread by enthusiastic
members who thrilled in “recruiting” others.
Also, Bill W. and Lois were living in Monsey, New York,
just over the New Jersey border, at this time, so one can
assume that he brought in that prospect himself on his visits
to the meeting.
year and a half later, on September 25, 1941, another listing
of members by name, telephone number, and address, was sent
to the service office, which was now established at 30 Vesey
Street in New York. There were eighty-two names on
the list, but no sobriety dates. Some significant
comparisons between the two lists: there are a dozen
names that appear on both, including Charles S. (sober since
June 1939), Gordon M. (sober since April 1939, and compiler
of the original “survey”), and Helen P. of Bloomfield
(sober since November 1939), who had served as the group’s
corresponding secretary since at least February 1941.
There was much to correspond about. There are numerous
letters between the Jersey Group and the New York office,
almost from the very beginning. Information, copies
of the Big Book (and later pamphlets), and, most importantly,
referrals of need and interest were exchanged. Here
is an example, a letter from Ruth Hock to George S. of Montclair,
sober about eighteen months (based on the “survey”
listing) at the time. The letter is dated December
remember we talked about an alcoholic suspect in Ridgewood,
New Jersey when you were in the office the other day.
He is Mr. name , address ,
As I told you, he has a book which Bill agreed to loan
[sic] him for a while but which he said he would
pay for within a month. He did come to one New
York meeting but has not been heard of since, so I would
appreciate it if you would have one of the boys look
him up and as you said, “at least we can get the
Thanks a lot.
often than “suspects,” the drunks were called
“prospects,” as in correspondence between one
William R. of Hackettstown, also in December 1940, and others.
Also, the letters shared information about new groups within
the movement: A meeting in Camden, New Jersey was
begun in May 1940, sponsored by the Northern New Jersey
members, with help from A.A.s in Philadelphia, as well.
At about this time, the Jersey Group also began twice yearly
contributions to the service office in the amount of $75,
each of which was promptly and gratefully acknowledged with
a letter. And another name, Margaret R. “Bobbie”
Burger began to appear on the correspondence as the New
York office secretary.
The year 1941 was a significant one for the Jersey Group,
beginning on the high note of growth and ending with the
devastating surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that signaled
the U.S. involvement in World War II. Frictions and
fractures also began to appear within the Jersey Group,
but it would remain more-or-less unified and retained that
name until 1941, but not beyond.
On March 18, 1941, Dr. Malcolm T. had written to express
his desire to start a group in Morristown. By November
14, the Bergen County group had been formed; a group roster
was submitted to the New York office by Dorothy M., listing
fourteen members, one of them cross-registered with the
South Orange-based group. For each potential group,
the office helped by forwarding literature to the group
secretary, and the groups paid for books and pamphlets and
contributed to cover office overhead. There is a spirit
of cooperation and closeness much evident between the lines
in these letters, one can even say deep affection.
Perhaps the watershed event of 1941, which affected the
New Jersey movement, as well as A.A. as a whole, was the
article by Jack Alexander in the March 1 issue of the
Saturday Evening Post. (An interesting side note
for us: Pass It On calls Jack Alexander a “hard-nosed”
reporter who had “just completed a major expose of
the New Jersey rackets.” [p. 245] I don’t
think that refers to the Jersey Group.) For months
thereafter, there was a steady stream of inquiries and referrals
stemming directly from the article.
In the extant correspondence in GSO Archives, there are
scores of such referrals, reflecting thousands nationwide.
It is clear that the office had difficulty keeping up with
the volume, but the workers there and the group secretaries
kept in frequent touch, with local members responsible for
the follow-up contacts with drunks and family members who
had written to New York about this phenomenon now called
Alcoholics Anonymous. The Northern New Jersey groups remained
in close and frequent contact with the New York office throughout
the war period, ’41-’45.
Let us continue our march, through 1942 and ’43, years
of continued growth in membership and testing of the spiritual
principles that are the foundation of the A.A. home group
as we know it today.
The Montclair Group was founded at this time. It may
be worthwhile to present the announcement from the group
secretary, addressed “To All A.A. Members in New Jersey,”
dated April 10, 1942. In the words, and between the
lines, you will hear very clearly, I believe, an expression
of the very real tensions and aspirations of these members
of the time:
As you may know, there is in the process of formation
another A.A. group which met for the first time in Montclair
on Sunday March 28. This letter is written to
you for the purpose of making known our aims and to
cordially invite your co-operation and understanding.
This will probably be known as a Montclair group but
has not as yet located a central meeting place.
For the present, we are meeting at the homes of members,
whose addresses are in Montclair, Verona, Glen Ridge,
Caldwell and surrounding Essex County, as well as in
Morris County. A central meeting place convenient
to these territories is to be obtained as quickly as
possible and our group expects to embrace this general
region. However, AAs from any other territory
will be sincerely welcomed either as guests or as members
of this group.
We are in no sense a rival group of any other group
or groups; we offer our support and cooperation to all
in A.A. Our group is being established on the
basis of fundamental principles as set forth in the
book ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS and to function in accordance
with the Twelve Steps as outlined therein, without modification,
addition or subtraction.
There are to be no executives or other officers with
the exception of a secretary and a treasurer.
Meetings will be kept informal and friendly in the true
A.A. tradition, our belief being that individual work
with individuals, as set forth in the book, having succeeded
best in the past, will always succeed. We believe
that all AAs were created free and equal and that if
the principles of honest, humility, sincerity, brotherly
love, and the reliance on a Higher Power are adhered
to we can not help but progress in the freedom from
our common trouble and in that sense of happiness and
tranquility which accrues to all who work together in
harmony for the common good.
We have no quarrel with anyone excepting John Barleycorn.
We grant to all the right to their own opinions as we
believe we have the right to ours. Our opinions
are as set forth in this letter. We are for A.A.,
pure and simple and undiluted, with no malice or rancour
and with only good thoughts and wishes for all AAs everywhere.
THE MONTCLAIR AAs
think we may delineate some familiar themes from this announcement
to the A.A. members of New Jersey. The home
group ought not to be over-organized or “top-heavy”
with officers. The group ought to focus on the one-to-one
work with the still-suffering alcoholic as much as possible.
One group should not compete with another group, but cooperate.
And, perhaps, one group ought not to become so large as
to lose touch with its primary purpose of welcoming and
helping the drunk who might find his way in. Further,
the Twelve Steps are the basis for recovery and unity within
a group, as long as they are fully followed.
There are some negative vibes, as well, perhaps some simmering
resentments and interminable arguments that led to the split
from the original “Jersey Group” now meeting
in South Orange. The mention of A.A. “pure and
simple and undiluted,” and the Twelve Steps “without
modification, addition or subtraction” leads one to
think there were debates and divisions within the first
group about these very issues, which were not resolved to
the satisfaction of all.
Sound familiar? Perhaps to those of you not from Northern
New Jersey, these contentions will seem strange and foreign!
Before that first organizational meeting in Montclair, an
anniversary dinner was held on March 14 in East Orange at
a cost of $2.50 per person. And some of the correspondence
with the service office tells us of other matters of concern
in the Garden State. Herman G., the secretary-treasurer
of “Alcoholics Anonymous of N.J.,” which in
itself is telling, writes on April 18, 1942 to report on
three meetings, listing South Orange on Sunday at 5:30 p.m.,
Newark on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m., and Bloomfield on Thursday
at 8:30 p.m. No mention of Montclair . . .
Gas rationing and other travel difficulties sometimes made
it problematic for A.A. members to visit each other and
to call on prospects, as reflected in some of the correspondence
from this period. And the war itself loomed large
in the minds and hearts of everyone on the home front.
Bobbie Burger gave some reassurance to New Jersey members
in her note from May 21, in which she writes, “We
have listed Pvt. M.’s name in our ‘service’
file and thanks for giving it to us. So far he is
the first one of our members at Fort Bragg and when there
are more we will see that they have a chance to get together.”
October 1, 1942 letter from Herman G. to Bill W. in New
York demonstrates how North Jerseyites held a somewhat proprietary
attitude about Bill’s proximity and availability.
There are numerous letters inviting, begging Bill to come
back for meetings and social gatherings, and, of course,
he did. Herman concludes his scrawled note:
“God has been good to me. Sometimes it’s
unbelievable but facts are facts. I hope you can come out
to Orange very soon. We need you once in a while.
It’s a great way of seeing friends [who] would like
to see you. Try and [make] some kind of arrangements
to come out someday or Sunday. I would love to have
you as my guest. We have a nice home and you could
come for dinner and then to meeting.”
Dinner and a meeting with the co-founder, talk about a nice
A.A. evening . . .
Based on the volume and intensity of material in both archives,
1943 saw roiling activity in North Jersey in A.A. circles.
The first meetings of the “several groups of Alcoholics
Anonymous in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut areas”
- you might call it the first regional gathering - was held
on September 28 in Manhattan: one of the first stirrings
of what would eventually become General Service activity.
The busy secretary, Bobbie Burger, wrote to Harold S. of
the Montclair Group on July 14, 1943, specifically in reply
to his question about gas rationing and whether the office
was able to help with special requests from A.A. groups.
(It wasn’t.) She noted that there were now eight
thousand “listed membership” in A.A., putting
the worldwide scope of the movement in perspective.
And there is this interesting and important P.S.:
“Understand that all is sweetness and light now between
Montclair and South Orange. Are you going to the joint
meeting?” That brought a smile to my lips when
I read it.
Three more significant pieces of correspondence from this
period: First, from Miss Burger to Hugh T. on November
luncheon yesterday with Herman G. of your Group and
was so happy to se him looking better. He gave
me much first-hand information about the wonderful South
Orange Group and its growth. Less than four years
ago, all the Jersey people as well as those from Long
Island and Westchester were meeting in one small room
with the New York crowd at Steinway Hall. Hardly seems
possible that there were only a handful of us in this
whole area such a few years ago.
A lengthy, handwritten letter from John S. (known as “Jack”)
of South Orange - a member of that “wonderful”
group - details yet another split among the original membership
based in South Orange, by this time the acknowledged “mother
group” of New Jersey.
November 27, 1943
general, perhaps universal, recognition by its membership
that the group that has been holding Sunday meetings
in the South Orange Community House has far outgrown
its quarters and also that the time has come for the
formation of small groups that will meet separately
on frequent occasions and jointly, at stated intervals,
at an adequate and more central place to be agreed upon.
At this point views diverge.
those who want a club house, most of them a specific
building which can be had only by purchase.
numerical superiority, have misgivings about any club
house for this group or this club house for any group.
Most of these seem to favor a Newark hall which, it
seems likely, can be acquired through political connections,
in a public building at a nominal rental. This
plan contemplates also a business office with a paid
secretary and an arrangement for medical and psychiatric
Each of these plans presupposes a continuance of the
present group as the parent body and the formation of
the small groups as subsidiaries.
A third point of view has been advanced by those who
believe that continuance of the present organization
as a parent body will perpetuate the rivalry for domination
that already has distracted attention and diverted energy
from the main purpose of A.A. Those holding this
view see the solution in the spontaneous formation of
autonomous small roups joined together in a federation
which shall have a place for regular joint meetings
and, in due course, a business office under the control
of a committee composed of delegates from member groups,
membership in such federation, however, being open to
any New Jersey group.
At the last business meeting it became regrettably manifest
to several of us quite independently that as one group
there was little likelihood that we would get anywhere
but it was also apparent that as a number of less cumbersome
bodies we could progress.
It seemed to each of us that someone should take the
initiative. Those of us holding this view, or
some of us, gravitated together and, finding ourselves
in agreement with the federation idea, have formed a
small group in the hope that others may be stimulated
to do likewise.
We disclaim exclusiveness. We shall welcome members
from any source but we shall not solicit them from any
other group. We have no intention of attempting
to build ourselves up by pulling others down.
Our aim is to cooperate with any other group or groups
in the advancement of A.A. with all that that entails.
We shall hold meetings at the South Orange Community
House on Wednesday evenings at 8:30 and on Sundays at
5:30 at quarters that have been but experimentally selected.
Our motives will be impugned by some but while we disclaim
any indifference to unjust imputations we are prepared
to face them tolerantly because we are acting only at
the dictates of our conviction that if the formation
of other well-motivated groups results from our move
the benefits inherent in A.A. will become more readily
available not only to those who are not yet members
but also to those who already are.
the reply from the office, dated December 1:
much for writing fully on what has been going on in
the South Orange Group. I feel sure, and I know
Bill will have the same reaction when he knows of it,
that everything is going to come out right. After
all if we keep fairly close to the A.A. principles we
can’t go very wrong.
I presume that there will be some centralization developed
in the future so that new people coming in will not
be confused. And also if possible it will be god
to ave a central clearing place to receive inquiries.
Are you going under the name of the South Orange Group?
or how will you be discriminated from the regular crowd
who meet on Wednesdays and Sundays in the Community
Keep your eyes on the “12 steps” and your
sense of humor well oiled. With this combination,
how can you do anything but get along fine, not only
among yourselves but also among the other groups.
sense, even today . . .
The following year shows voluminous contact between the
New Jersey groups and the office and reflects unceasing
activity here in the northern section of the state.
There was a booming expansion in numbers and size of groups
in Northern New Jersey. By the end of the year there
were active groups in Passaic, Elizabeth, Orange, Livingston,
Kearney, Plainfield, East Orange, Irvington, Paterson, Jersey
City, among others, in addition to longer-established groups
in South Orange, Newark, Montclair, and Bergen County.
A year later there was to be a group started at the V.A.
Hospital in Lyons.
The A.A. Grapevine is a source for some good news about
growth on this side of the Hudson River. From the
June 1944 inaugural issue of the Grapevine:
N.J. The group is one of many that started in
South Orange. Captain Gus Steffens of the Elizabeth
Police Dept. started trying to rehabilitate some local
drunks known as the “Bottle Gang.”
Then A.A. stepped in. Result: a growing
group. The Mayor and other officials furnished
a perfect meeting place gratis. Now there is also
the PLAINFIELD, N.J. group - an outgrowth of Elizabeth.
So A.A. grows.
same GV issue notes early corrections work in the area:
an A.A. group among the inmates of the State Reformatory
for Women at Clinton was sponsored by the Morristown Group.
Bill W. himself had addressed corrections officers there
in February 1944. Similarly, there was a meeting at
the “experimental stage” at the men’s
State Prison at Trenton. Later in the
There is also evidence of early public information work
in a Newark News article from January 29, 1944. It
is headlined, “A Plan for Drunkards.”
The final paragraph reads as follows:
Magistrate] Masini declared AA rehabilitates habitual
drinkers, returning them to a useful place in society.
Its work is economical to the nation, he added, in that
thousands of dollars are spent yearly for maintenance
of persons confined to institutions as drunkards.
publicity was mother’s milk to the groups. I
can’t help but quote this letter in its entirety,
from the following year (October 12, 1945), from Henry R.
of Jersey City:
Bobbie and Bill,
you will find a writeup that was in our local newspaper.
This is the first good article about our organization
that these papers have given us. Bobbie and Bill,
the first drink never gave us in Jersey City the kick
this writeup gave us. Our job in Jersey City is
now starting. We are soon going to open a few
more groups. In Union City and Bayonne.
I’m sure this writeup will make you as happy as
it did me. See you at your dinner, folks.
Back to 1944 - the indefatigable Herman G. also noted that
the non-alcoholic trustee, the editor and author Fulton
Oursler, had spoken at a special meeting in his November
14 letter, noting, “and Fulton Oursler’s talk
was one of the greatest [that] I ever have heard.”
And that was on the same platform as Bill himself.
Were the Jersey people tiring of hearing his story?
Fast forward again to end of the year and the end of this
presentation. A.A. not only survived into 1945 and beyond,
but thrived in Northern New Jersey, as it has throughout
the United States and Canada and virtually the entire world.
Our experience in this little piece of geography, where
this convention is being held, was typical of the experience
documented elsewhere - and it helped to clarify the need
for the Twelve Traditions and, eventually, the Twelve Concepts
for World Service, which govern our world service structure
and General Service Conference.
So, these cursory reflections only scratch the surface of
a rich and varied history in our own backyard. When
was your home group founded? From what other group
or groups did the original members come? Has your
group grown or declined, multiplied or gone defunct in the
intervening years? It is held by the members of the
South Orange Group, my home group, that we have not missed
having a meeting on Sunday night for sixty-two years.
Our attendance these days ranges from twenty-five to fifty,
at 7:15, in the third venue after the original Community
House location. From the very first time I walked
into that meeting, more than fifteen years ago, I was made
to feel welcome and a part of A.A. as a whole. I hope
you can say the same of your home group, wherever it is.
If not, there currently exist more than a thousand registered
groups in Northern New Jersey to choose from.