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An interview with Nell Wing
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., June 1994
years after the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous began
in Akron, Ohio, the Grapevine magazine published its first
issue in June 1944. Three years after that, Nell Wing arrived
in New York. A young woman in her late twenties, Nell had
decided to go to Mexico to pursue a career in sculpture.
In the meantime, she wanted a temporary job to earn a little
more money for the journey. The agency where she applied
for a temporary job told her about an opening at the headquarters
office of Alcoholics Anonymous. Nell knew about AA, having
read Morris Markey's article "Alcoholics and God"
in the September 1939 Liberty magazine, and through other
magazine articles in the early forties, as well.
1947, she started working in the office of the Alcoholic
Foundation (now the General Service Office), and in 1950
became Bill W.'s secretary. Within a few years, she became
close friends with Bill and his wife, Lois, and on weekends
she regularly went up to Stepping Stones, their home in
Bedford Hills, New York, to help Bill with correspondence
or research, or just to keep him and Lois company.
Bill died in 1971, Nell continued her close association
with the General Service Office and with Lois. She organized
the AA Archives, and in 1993 published a memoir called Grateful
to Have Been There. Nell never got to Mexico, but she worked
for AA for thirty-six years. She still travels frequently
around the country, speaking to groups about AA history.
Two Grapevine staff members interviewed Nell Wing at the
Grapevine office in New York.
You've described the Grapevine as having an "improbable
history." What did you mean?
Wing: It's miraculous that the Grapevine is still in existence
fifty years later. The Grapevine doesn't have what a lot
of magazines have, like ads or a sales force. It has to
stick to its primary purpose and basically that's to ask
members to write articles and to share their stories. But
the Grapevine has kept going because there are many, many
people who understand and appreciate it. There are always
enough members who find it useful and helpful in maintaining
sobriety and keep it going. Some even read it long before
becoming members of AA.
What was it about the Grapevine that Bill W. found so appealing?
Wing: He quickly saw it as a means of carrying the message.
And since he couldn't connect personally with all groups
and areas in AA on a regular basis, he used it as a primary
source of sharing and explaining the important issues that
he wanted accepted by the Fellowship. It took several years,
as we know, before there was a steady and enthusiastic growth
of Grapevine readers. But Bill thought that sharing his
ideas in print this way was important. It was there - you
could read it, you could think about it, you could refer
to it later.
That was one of the reasons for writing the Big Book - so
the program wouldn't get "garbled" in transmission.
Wing: Exactly. If it's in print, it's a matter of record.
And the fact is, Bill was perhaps his own worst enemy in
trying to get his ideas across. He could pound you into
a corner, so to speak, because of his frustration when his
ideas were not understood and accepted by the trustees and
the membership at large. So the Grapevine was an effective
way for him to reach people - without the pounding!
The Grapevine is now fifty years old, and we're considering
what our role for the future will be. Do you have any thoughts
about where the Grapevine fits in?
Wing: Preserving the experience - to my mind that's what
you do in the Grapevine. The Grapevine's purpose is similar
to the purpose of archives in general: to preserve the past,
understand the present, and discuss the future. So many
young people are coming in today and they need to know about
the history of AA.
What was your first acquaintance with alcoholics or AA?
Wing: My dad was a teacher and a justice of the peace in
our small town. I knew about alcoholics very early on because
the state police would often drag guys over at three in
the morning, rapping on our door. And many of these drunks
were professional people in our town or nearby towns, and
perhaps good friends of my dad's. Occasionally he'd pay
their fines for them - when you've been out drinking until
three A.M., who has any money left to pay fines with?
read about AA in the September Liberty magazine - sitting
in my college dorm - in 1939. So when I first came to work
at AA, I knew about it, and I also knew that a drunk was
not always a Bowery bum.
You worked with Bill W. for twenty years. Tell us more about
Wing: As I said, he could be adamant about what he knew
had to be accomplished. He had the vision to see what was
needed in order to preserve the Fellowship. But everybody
liked to argue with Bill, and he liked to argue, too!
to Bill was some experience. When Bill would be talking,
say at a banquet, many in the audience would be very moved
and even weeping at what and how he shared. He could touch
you in ways that were really remarkable.
he could learn from experience. Like for example when he
was advised to set the tone and tense for the text of the
Big Book: don't say, you must do it this way. Just say,
Look, this is what we do. He was a teacher but not a preacher!
What's amazing is that he listened.
Wing: I always think how Bill was so much like the philosopher
and writer William James. Both Bill and James were spiritual,
though not necessarily deeply religious; they were also
both pragmatic New Englanders. Bill had a way of talking
about a deep faith inside himself the way James did. Bill
liked to read about different interpretations of what God
was like. He was very philosophical, and James's The Varieties
of Religious Experience was very meaningful to him, as it
was to many AAs both in those early years and since.
How were Bill and Dr. Bob different from each other? Was
Bill the greater risk-taker?
Wing: I think so. Dr. Bob, as a doctor, believed in being
cautious and advising people how to evaluate ideas and solutions,
to weigh them carefully - have everyone in agreement before
taking action. Bill believed in putting the goal forward
and aiming for it. No matter who liked it or who didn't
like it: aim for that goal. Bill always thought way ahead.
Dr. Bob was the monitor, evaluator, the ground level, the
supporter of Bill's ideas, even perhaps not always agreeing
with the timing of an idea. Another miracle! A perfect match!
A wonderful partnership, indeed. Yes, Dr. Bob was the right
person to balance Bill. His view was, Keep it simple. Bill
had vision; that was one of his gifts - he could see the
Where do you think he got this?
Wing: I don't know. He simply was of that character. He
had a need to think ahead to the next step, a sense of direction,
an ability to judge what the needs were, and a great ability
to bring different streams of thought together. But he took
time to think things through. People said that up at Stepping
Stones, Lois was the one who did the yardwork, the plumbing,
and the daily things that husbands usually do. It was true.
Bill would be walking a lot, contemplating, just thinking
Did Bill have a sense of humor?
Wing: Yes, he'd knock us off our chairs sometimes. He'd
tell Lois and me something funny that happened to somebody
he'd heard about, and the way he told it, we would just
absolutely go into hysterics. He could tell a naughty story,
too. It wasn't that he was always pristine about everything.
In the office, Bill and I used to share a big room; I was
at one end and he was at the other end. So I saw the "passing
parade," as it were - people coming in to see him.
Occasionally somebody would say, "Hey, Bill, I just
heard this," and then tell a joke currently making
the rounds. And Bill would look at him as if the guy was
crazy. If he didn't relate to a story or it didn't have
a spark, he'd just kind of look at you. The poor guy would
be standing there, so disappointed that he was telling Bill
a joke and Bill wasn't laughing.
Lois and Bill never had children. Do you think they wanted
Wing: Lois did, certainly. She always wanted children but
she had three ectopic pregnancies back in the twenties.
She and Bill tried to adopt but the adoption facility said
they needed a friend who could recommend them, and the friend
they asked - an old friend of Lois's - said that quite frankly
she didn't think it was the right thing to do, because of
Bill's drinking. So they never got the go-ahead to adopt.
Lois loved children. Up at Stepping Stones, young kids would
come running over to visit with her. She didn't treat them
like silly children but would talk to them as if they were
adults. And even years later, the grown-up children would
come back and see her. At Halloween time especially there
were always lots of neighborhood kids - I never think of
Halloween without remembering Bill and Lois. Lois always
had the table full of pumpkins and treats. When the children
knocked at the door she'd be there to give them a little
something. Then the kids would pull straws to see who got
the biggest pumpkin.
You mentioned before about Bill reading. Did he like to
Wing: He read a lot in earlier years. One of Bill's great
attributes was that he could listen and learn. And a lot
of very well-informed people came to visit Stepping Stones
over the years. A lot of ideas were expressed there and
Did Bill imagine that AA was going to be as big as it is
Wing: I remember in the late 1940s I said, "Bill, this
Fellowship is going to go all over the world." He laughed
and said, "Nell, you can say that - I can't."
But the growth was phenomenal. After the war, many servicemen
in AA were stationed overseas and were responsible for getting
AA started in Japan in the late forties and in Frankfurt,
Germany. Actually, in Japan, the program started out with
thirteen steps, not Twelve. And do you know what the wives
were called in Japan? The Chrysanthemums. Wives were invited
to open meetings - well, not invited, but tolerated, and
they definitely did participate!
Any thought on what made AA so successful?
Wing: You know, one reason is that Bill wanted to avoid
the mistakes of the past. He paid great attention to what
made the Washingtonians and other similar movements fail
back in the nineteenth century.
That's true, especially in a Grapevine article in 1948 -
"Modesty One Plank for Good Public Relations."
[In this article, Bill discusses how the Washingtonians
veered from their initial singleness of purpose - which
was helping alcoholics - and how they didn't have a national
public relations policy - a Tradition, as AA does.]
Wing: Yes, that was a marvelous article. But there were
also plenty of things going on in the present that helped
shape AA policy and Traditions, too.
Wing: Well, for one thing, when Marty M. was soliciting
for the new National Committee for Education on Alcoholism
(later the National Council on Alcoholism), she made a big
error in 1946. She said that whoever contributed to the
NCEA would also be contributing to AA, or that AA would
benefit from it. Well, that created some explosion! Bill
was traveling and speaking out West and AAs were bombarding
him with questions: "What's going on? What is this
woman saying?" The trustees of the Alcoholic Foundation
had their first press conference because of this, explaining
that what Marty said was not endorsed by AA, and that the
trustees had nothing to do with the solicitation announcement.
Bill and Dr. Bob had earlier let their names be put on the
NCEA letterhead because Bill was very supportive of what
Marty was doing in the field of alcoholism. Bill never believed
that AA had all the answers for every alcoholic. He always
said that whatever worked for the individual
was what was needed. Anyway, the Marty M. controversy lasted
four years - it was a fast and furious business at the time.
But it helped galvanize acceptance of the short form of
the Traditions, which were later accepted in 1950 at the
While Bill was clearly one of the Fellowship's old-timers,
it seems he was often at loggerheads with other members
about a variety of things.
Wing: Well, when he wrote the Twelve Concepts in 1959, most
of the Fellowship wasn't interested at all. And in the early
fifties he proposed a change in the ratio of alcoholics
to nonalcoholics on the Board of Trustees. And nobody wanted
to hear about that proposal, either. Nevertheless, both
the Concepts and the ratio proposal were eventually accepted
by both the Board of Trustees and the Fellowship as a whole.
These are more examples of how Bill looked ahead.
Wing: Absolutely. That's why he was so concerned about establishing
the General Service Conference in 1951. By the late 1940s,
it was no secret that Dr. Bob probably didn't have long
to live. [Dr. Bob died in 1950.] And Bill was wondering
how much time he himself might have. He wanted and expected
the Fellowship to be able to go on without him and Dr. Bob.
But nobody wanted to face the fact that he was going to
die some day.
Weren't there a number of projects Bill wanted to get to
in the years following Dr. Bob's death?
Wing: In 1954, Bill had the idea of creating a writing and
research team to help him with, among other things, a major
history of AA. Bill's depression was still with
him and he knew that if he could give a lot of time to doing
something specific and keep at it, that would help the depression.
He wanted to do a good, thorough history and also put together
a new edition of the Big Book. The scope of the history
project proved to be too much, though, and had to be scaled
back. Nevertheless, the result was AA Comes of Age. The
new edition of the Big Book finally did get completed, and
Bill was also eager to do a summing up of what he had learned,
the wisdom that had come up through the Fellowship. He had
a very precise idea of the kind of book he wanted to write,
but he wasn't able to do it. In the end, what took its place
was As Bill Sees It - not a bad substitute!
What were Bill's depressions like ?
Wing: Most times you didn't know he was going through it.
His depressions came and went. Sometimes, not often, but
occasionally, when he was dictating to me in the office,
he would just put his head in his hands and weep for a bit.
The worst of these depressive bouts were between 1945 and
he accomplished, AA-wise, despite his depressions, is a
miracle. So many people wanted Bill's advice - not just
AA and Al-Anon friends, but nearby neighbors at Bedford
Hills. They'd ask if they could come over to Stepping Stones,
and Bill always said yes to everyone.
get away from the phone ringing and all the people, Bill
and Lois would often go away in the middle of the week -
to their "hideaway," they called it, a small rented
cottage ten or fifteen miles away. Lois would write and
work on Al-Anon matters and Bill would catch up on correspondence
and memos regarding current AA projects.
once a year they often took an overseas trip, usually in
the fall, and in the spring they would take a trip around
the United States and Canada, visiting AA friends and discussing
AA matters. Harriet, the housekeeper, would pick up their
mail, and I'd go through it to see what needed to be answered
right away and what could wait for their return.
Bill seems to have taken every opportunity possible to communicate
- through memos, letters, Grapevine articles, the Big Book,
the "Twelve and Twelve," traveling around, talking
Wing: Yes, he was a terrific communicator! And he felt intensely
the need to share his plans for AA's future and to receive
endorsement of them - despite the often feisty opposition
here, I would like to mention the Grapevine book, The Language
of the Heart, for I think it's a most valuable book. If
you want to know what Bill W. was all about, read that book!
Tell us about working in the Archives of the General Service
Wing: I wanted the Archives started, as did Bill. My father,
who valued history, had a huge library at home, and after
college I took a course in library science and liked it.
I always thought that it was very important to preserve
AA history, preserve how it started and how it grew - to
remember the mistakes in order to avoid future ones. It
certainly was important to Bill, but it was hard to get
others to understand the need for setting up an Archives.
In Europe, in the fifties, archives were thought to be very
important, but were not generally so considered here in
the United States. We're a "now" people; we don't
always think about the future in terms of preserving the
1954, a fellow named Ed B. was hired to help Bill with his
writing projects. Ed was a wonderful guy - a writer, a criminologist,
and just newly sober - but he didn't think it was important
to preserve all the material we had collected and researched.
Our desks were opposite each other and I'd watch him going
through pamphlets and letters, throwing many of them in
the wastebasket. I'd say, "Hey, Ed, we can't throw
all this away." I knew from experience that each of
Bill's letters contained at least five different ideas!
Ed had had a laryngectomy - so he'd write out a note, "No,
that's not important any more." I didn't argue, but
after he left work at four o'clock, I'd take everything
out of the wastebasket and put it all safely away in storage
boxes until I could sort it out.
especially grateful that Bill so strongly believed in preserving
AA's experience. He knew the importance of getting things
done, and had a special gift for timing. I often think,
suppose he hadn't possessed certain leadership abilities
- where would AA be now? Maybe some little sect, who knows?
I think it was destined. I think the Higher Power set this
up, I really do. The fantastic success of AA is like a big
puzzle and there are pieces that you know fit in, but you
just don't know where until you look back into the past.
How has being so close to the Fellowship affected you?
Wing: Well, I always like to say I'm on the outside looking
in. About a week after I first came to the office, I attended
an open AA meeting at a meeting hall on Forty-First Street.
I remember a gentleman sharing his story and I found myself
weeping - while everyone else was laughing! Right from the
start, I was spellbound by AA. One person helping another
who had a similar problem - that is still a stunning idea
the years, I've gained some spiritual gifts myself. Most
nonalcoholics who are familiar with AA feel the same sense
Hanging around with a bunch of drunks for this long - it
can only go up from here!
Wing: I'll tell you something, I don't know people who have
lived and learned and reacted to life like AA members. I've
been taught - and I'm grateful. Every morning when I wake
up, I express gratitude for what's happened to me.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., June 1994
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