Essay by Bill Wilson
How we ever got the book and our office through that summer of 1939 I shall never quite know. Had it not been for a truly sacrificial act on the part of Bert T., an early New York AA, I’m sure we couldn’t have survived. Bert loaned the defunct Works Publishing Company $1,000, obtained by signing a note secured by his own business. This act of faith was followed by two more pieces of good fortune, which barely got us through the year. In the fall of 1939 Liberty magazine published a piece about us. This produced a flood of inquiries and some orders for the AA Book. Those few book receipts kept our little Central Office going. Then came a burst of articles in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. This started a prodigious growth of AA out there and created a little more demand for the AA book.
Nor were out friends at Rockefeller Center idle. One day in February 1940, Dick Richardson reported the Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. had been following our progress with intense interest; that he would like, for the inspiration of his guests and for the benefit of Alcoholics Anonymous, to give a dinner. We regarded this as a ten strike.
In March 1940, the dinner came off. Mr. R.’s friends turned out in force. An AA member was placed at each guest table. Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had superbly reviewed out book, spoke of AA from the spiritual viewpoint. Dr. Foster Kennedy, noted neurologist, gave his hearers the medical outlook. We alcoholics were asked to talk also. At the conclusion of the evening, Mr. Nelson Rockefeller, explained that his father had not been able to come because of illness, went on to say that few things more deeply affecting or promising than Alcoholics Anonymous had ever touched his father’s life; tht he wished his friends to share this experience with him.
Thought great wealth was present at the dinner meeting that night, little was said about money. Hope was expressed that AA might soon become self-supporting. But the suggestion was made that until AA became self-supporting a little financial help might be needed. Following the dinner meeting Mr. Rockefeller wrote a personal letter to each guest, expressing his feeling about AA, and concluding with the observation that he was making us a modest gift. Accompanying each letter was a reprint of the talks given at the dinner and a copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. On receipt of Mr. Rockefeller’s letter, many of his guests responded with donations to the Alcoholic Foundation.
The so-called “Rockefeller dinner list” has since been almost the only source of “outside” money gifts to the Alcoholic Foundation. These donations averaged around $3,000 annually and they were continued for about five years – 1940 to 1945. This income the Foundation divided between Dr. Bob and me to enable us to give AA a good part of our time during that critical period. Not long since, the Foundation trustees were able to write the original dinner contributors, with great thanks, that their help would no longer be needed; that the Alcoholics Foundation had become adequately supported by the AA groups and by the income from the book Alcoholics Anonymous; that the personal needs of Dr. Bob and myself were being met out of book royalties.
The significant thing about Mr. Rockefeller’s dinner, of course, was not only the money it raised. What we did need then, even as much, was favorable public recognition; we needed someone who would stand up and say what he thought and felt about Alcoholics Anonymous. Considering the fact that we were then few in number; that we were none too sure of ourselves; that not long since society had known us as common drunkards, I think Mr. Rockefeller’s wisdom and courage were great indeed.
The effect of that dinner meeting was instantaneous; the news press wires all carried the story. Hundreds of alcoholics and their families rushed to buy the book. Our little Central Office was flooded with please for help. It soon had to be moved from New Jersey to Vesey Street, New York. Ruth Hock got her back pay and forthwith became our first national secretary. Enough books were sold to keep the office going. So passed 1940. Alcoholics Anonymous had made its national debut.
Just a year later, the Saturday Evening Post assigned Jack Alexander to do a story about us. Under the impetus of Mr. Rockefeller’s dinner and the Cleveland Plain Dealer pieces, our membership had shot up to about 2,000. Our Clevelanders had just proved that even a small group could, if it must, successfully absorb great numbers of newcomers in a hurry. They had exploded the myth that AA must always grow slowly. From the Akron-Cleveland area we had begun to spread into other places – Chicago and Detroit in the Midwest. In the east, Philadelphia had taken fire. Washington and Baltimore were smoldering. Further west, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco were taking spark. Growth continued at Akron and New York. We took special pride in Little Rock, Arkansas, which had sprung up with no personal contact with AA, having caught on through books and letters from the Central Office. Little Rock was the first of the so-called “mail order” groups now commonplace all over the world. Even then, we had started correspondence with many isolated alcoholics who were to form groups later on.
Despite this progress, the approaching Saturday Evening Post piece worried us. While our Cleveland experience had given assurance that our few established groups would survive the impact of heavy publicity, what could we possibly do with the thousands of burning appeals that would now swamp our little New York office, then staffed by Ruth Hock, a typist, and myself? How could three people handle the thousands of frantic inquiries we expected? The Post article would bring more book sales, but not enough to handle this emergency. We needed more office help – and quickly – or we must be prepared to throw heartbreaking appeals into the wastebasket.
We realized we must, for the first time, ask the AA groups for assistance. The Alcoholics Foundation still had no money save the $3,000 a year “dinner fund” which was helping to keep Dr. Bob and me afloat. Besides, some of the creditors and cash subscribers of Works Publishing (the AA book company) were getting anxious again.
Two of the alcoholic members of our Foundation traveled out among the AA groups to explain the need. They presented their listeners with these ideas: that support of our Central Office was a definite responsibility of the AA groups; that answering written inquiries was a necessary assistance to our Twelfth Step work; that we AAs ought to pay these office expenses ourselves and rely no further upon outside charity or insufficient book sales. The two trustees also suggested that the Alcoholic Foundation be mad a regular depository for group funds; that the Foundation would earmark all group monies for Central Office expenses only; that each month the Central Office would bill the Foundation for the straight AA expenses of the place; that all group contributions ought to be entirely voluntary; that every AA group would receive equal service from the New York office, whether it contributed or not. It was estimated that if each group sent the Foundation a sum equal to $1 per member per year, this might eventually carry our office, without other assistance. Under this arrangement the office would ask the groups twice yearly for funds and render, at the same time, a statement of its expenses for the previous period.
Our two trustees, Horace C. and Bert T., did not come back empty handed. Now clearly understanding the situation, most groups began contributing to the Alcoholic Foundation for Central Office expenses, and have continued to do so ever since. In this practice the AA Tradition of self-support had a firm beginning. Thus we handled the Saturday Evening Post article for which thousands of AAs are today so grateful.
The enormous inpouring of fresh member quickly laid the foundation for hundreds of new AA groups, and they soon began to consult the Central Office about growing pains, thus confronting our service Headquarters with group problems as well as personal inquiries. The office then began to publish a list of all AA groups, and it furnished traveling AAs with lists of prospects in cities which had none. Out-of-towners we had never seen before began to visit us, so starting what is today the huge network of personal contact between our Central Service Office staff at New York and AA groups throughout the world.
The year 1941 was a great one for the growing AA. It was the beginning of the huge development to follow. Our Central Office got solid group backing; we began to abandon the idea of outside charitable help in favor of self-support. Last but not least, our Alcoholic Foundation really commenced to function. By this time linked to the AA Central Office because of its responsibility for the group funds being spent there, and to Works Publishing (the book Alcoholics Anonymous) by partial ownership, the trustees of our Alcoholic Foundation had already become, thought they did not realize it, the custodians for Alcoholics Anonymous – both of money and of Tradition. Alcoholics Anonymous had become a national institution.
Quietly but effectively, the evolution of our Foundation has since continued. Several years ago the trustees had a certified audit made of the Alcoholic Foundation and Works Publishing from their very beginnings. A good bookkeeping system was installed and regular audits became an established custom.
About 1942 it became evident that the Foundation ought to complete its ownership of Works Publishing by calling in the stock of the outstanding cash subscribes of Works. Several thousand dollars were required to do this and, of course, group funds could not be used for this purpose.
So the trustees, spearheaded this time by our old friend Chip, turned again to Mr. Rockefeller and his “dinner list.” These original donors most gladly made the Foundation the necessary loan which enabled the Foundation to acquire full ownership of our AA Book (Works Publishing, Inc.). Meanwhile, Works Publishing, being now partly relieved of supporting the Central Office, had been able to pay its own creditors in full. Later on, when out of AA Book income the trustees offered to pay off the Foundation debt, several of the lenders would take only a part payment – some none at all. At last we were in the clear. This event marked the end of our financial troubles.
The last few years of AA have been phenomenal. Nearly everybody in America knows about AA. Seemingly, the rest of the globe will soon learn as AA travelers go abroad and our literature is translated into other tongues. Today our general service Headquarters has a staff of twelve. Because of our prodigious growth and the continuous entry of AA into more foreign countries, the Headquarters will presently need twenty. Popularly known to thousands as “Bobbie,” our AA general secretary now serves world AA. On the board of the Alcoholics Foundation three of the early trustees, whose contribution to AA in incalculable, remain. New faces area seen at the quarterly meetings, each as anxious to serve as the original group. The AA Grapevine, our national monthly periodical, which made its appearance three years ago, is now taking its place among our general Headquarters’ services and is almost paying its own way already. Out of its Works Publishing income, the Foundation has accumulated a prudent financial reserve for the future. That reserve now stands at more than a full year’s Headquarters expense, which still remains not much above the very low figure of $1 per AA member per year. Two years ago the trustees set aside, out of AA Book funds, a sum which enabled my wife and me to pay off the mortgage on our home and make some needed improvements. The Foundation also granted Dr. Bob and me each a royalty of 10 percent on the book Alcoholics Anonymous, our only income from AA sources. We are both very comfortable and deeply grateful.
This account of the stewardship of Alcoholics Anonymous during its infancy brings us to the present – the year 1947 – with continued AA growth and AA service the future’s promise.
Wilson, William. The Language of the Heart. New York: AA Grapevine, Inc., 1988. Print.