The Life of Bill Wilson
In 1939 the first five thousand copies of the newly published Big Book of Alcoholics
Anonymous lay stacked and gathering dust in a New Jersey warehouse. Bill Wilson’s dream of fame and fortune coming through the sale of his book was now being sorely tested. He and his wife Lois were living on her meager salary from work in a New York department store. They had been living in her brother’s house in Brooklyn only to become hopelessly behind in paying the mortgage. The bank finally foreclosed and the couple sent their furniture into storage. They moved some forty-four times during the next two years, staying with friends and newly sober members of their slowly growing fellowship. When the first AA clubhouse opened in lower Manhattan, Bill and Lois were given a small upstairs room. Ever the promoter, Wilson believed the world would beat a path to his door if only his book’s transforming message could somehow be spread across the land to the millions waiting in need. The slow “program of attraction” they were practicing was taking too long to sell the books that would get Wilson out of debt; Bill thought a “program of promotion” was clearly called for.
A new AA member named Morgan M. came up with the solution. He was an advertising man and a chronic alcoholic, recently released from an up-state New York asylum. Morgan was acquainted with Gabriel Heatter, a famous radio personality who hosted a popular talk show called “We the People.” The show consisted of a three-minute interview spotlighting interesting new ideas or personalities. Morgan managed to get himself scheduled for an up-coming show. He and Wilson then purchased a lengthy list of East Coast physicians, sending each a post card with the date and time of the show. They advertised that a man would describe how he had recovered from a near hopeless addiction to alcohol. Bill expected book orders to flood in after the interview and excitement was running high. As was his custom, Morgan celebrated his latest achievement with a few drinks and Wilson quickly panicked. He sobered the ad man up and kept Morgan under lock and key at the New York Athletic Club for several days before the show, posting AA bodyguards round the clock. Morgan managed to stay sober and actually performed well on the broadcast. The show produced orders for two books.
Later that year, an article entitled “Alcoholics and God” appeared in Liberty Magazine and soon the Cleveland Plain Dealer began running a series of newspaper articles on the young fellowship. Though heartened by the welcomed publicity, book sales remained dismally slow. Creditors were impatient for a return on their investment in the new book and both Dr. Bob and Bill were deep in debt. Bob, just like his friend before, now faced foreclosure on his home in Akron. Both men thought their prayers had been answered and their troubles over, when in February of 1940 John D. Rockefeller, Jr. offered to host a dinner party to help promote AA. Rockefeller sent four hundred invitations to his friends and 75 of New York’s wealthiest financiers and industrialists attended the swank dinner given at the prestigious Union Club on Park Avenue. Along with several other AA members, Morgan R. came to attend the dinner. When asked by a wealthy guest which bank or institution he was connected with, Morgan responded that he was not presently connected with any institution, but had recently been released from one operated by the state! Following that remark, the guests knew they were in for an unusual evening.
An eminent neurologist spoke in support of the “allergy theory” advocated by Dr. Silkworth, while an equally renowned clergyman endorsed the spiritual concepts of the new program. Dr. Bob recounted his story of drinking and recovery and Bill shared with the group how AA was steadily growing throughout the country. Bill was a keen observer of human emotions and he knew he had the wealthy audience right in the palm of his soon to be outstretched hand.
But at the conclusion of the dinner, Rockefeller’s son Nelson addressed the group on behalf of his father. All that was needed now was a hearty endorsement and a request for money. Bill’s dreams for instant wealth and fame fizzled before him when he heard what came next. “Gentlemen,” Rockefeller said, “you can all see that this is a work of good will. Its power lies in the fact that one member carries the good message to the next, without any thought of financial income or reward. Therefore, it is our belief that Alcoholics Anonymous should be self-supporting so far as money is concerned. It needs only our good will.”
Wilson later wrote that “the guests clapped lustily, and after cordial handshakes and good-bys all around, the billion dollars’ worth of them walked out the door.” The Seventh Tradition was written that night and Bill Wilson didn’t like it one bit.
But Wilson’s time in the Oxford Group had taught him that God doesn’t close one door without opening another. A skeptical reporter named Jack Alexander was assigned by his editor at the Saturday Evening Post to look into the strange group honored at Rockefeller’s dinner. Alexander was an investigative reporter who didn’t much like the assignment that he thought should have been given to someone from the society page. He put his investigative talents to work and examined the fellowship from top to bottom. He traveled to the mid-west and interviewed scores of recovering AA’s in Akron, Cleveland, and Chicago as well as many in New York. While he may have come to scoff, he came away a believer. His article appeared in the March 1941 issue. He wrote, “To an outsider who is mystified, as most of us are, by the antics of problem drinking friends, the results which have been achieved (by AA) are amazing.” He entitled his story, “Alcoholics Anonymous: Freed Slaves of Drink, Now They Free Others.”
As soon as the magazine hit the stands, book orders and cries for help began pouring into New York’s Central Office. That year, AA membership shot from 1,500 up to 8,000. By 1946 membership swelled to over 30,000. Wilson’s darkest financial days were now behind him, but depression still lay ahead.