The remarkable story of A.A. co-founder Bill Wilson
For true self-remembering is the consciousness of one’s relation with another in the presence of a higher power.
— Rodney Collin, The Theory of Conscious Harmony
Tucked anonymously on a non-descript road winding its way through the suburban Westchester town of Bedford Hills, about thirty miles north of New York City, rests a modest, seven-room, Dutch Colonial home called Stepping Stones. It’s a museum of sorts, a National Historic Landmark, a living mausoleum tended to by volunteers more than happy to share the experience, strength, and hope that flows from the lives of the two people who once lived there: Bill and Lois Wilson—he, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous; she, the long-suffering wife and founder of Al-Anon.1
Among the many hundreds of artifacts at Stepping Stones is at least one photo of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron, Ohio. First opened in 1931, the Mayflower is a stately, art-deco, sixteen-story building. It is also a National Historic Site, and both Stepping Stones and the Mayflower owe their fame, at least in part, to Bill, once a hopeless drunk.
Millions of recovering addicts the world over can trace their spiritual lineage back to the Mayflower Hotel. Back to the exact moment when the psyche of the Western world slipped a cog, to the sliver of a choice of one man, when inevitable destruction, despair, and eventual death enveloping the world of alcoholics jumped into what Bill Wilson would come to describe as a “fourth dimension.” Back to when the desperation of powerlessness exploded into hope.
On the wall of one of the alcoves in the Mayflower’s unique octagonal entrance lobby hangs an old-fashioned phone. Next to it is a church directory. Across the way is a bar, once seductively alive with men and women riding high on a road of wealth built from Akron’s tire giants: Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich.
On a Saturday in May 1935, Bill Wilson, barely six months sober, found himself alone in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel. He had $10 in his pocket, enough to make him “King for a Day in Akron, Ohio.” He was a close-to-washed-up, former stockbroker; tall, lanky, loud, with a salesman’s voice sounding like Groucho Marx on You Bet Your Life.2
Bill Wilson was at a crossroads, and he knew it. The presence of the moment was about to descend on him.
How He Got There
For many recovering addicts, “Bill’s Story”3 is authentic gospel. It’s the archetype of all A.A. stories—capturing in a few words, “What it was like. What happened. What it’s like today.”
He grew up in Vermont. His parents divorced when he was eleven. He was devoted to his father, and the news stunned him. He refused to talk to anyone, even his sister, about it. Divorce in a small, rural town in Vermont in 1906 was anathema. Bill began to see himself as an outcast. He battled with a deep sense of social and personal inferiority for the rest of his life.
Bill was raised by his grandparents. His grandfather instilled in him a drive to be “number one.” Despite his inner fears, Bill set out to do just that. His grandfather once told him only Aborigines of Australia could build boomerangs. At the age of twelve Bill spent six months crafting a boomerang that actually worked. He built wireless radios, became the best baseball player at his school, first violinist in the orchestra, and president of the senior class. And he found the ecstasy of young love in the arms of his high-school sweetheart, Bertha Bamford.
But Bill’s world of success in all he put his mind to crashed in his senior year, when Bertha, suddenly and unexpectedly, died from complications from an operation. Bill fell deep into depression. His malaise was so severe that the “number one man” failed German and was denied a high-school diploma.
Bertha’s passing brought him face-to-face with the one force Bill Wilson could not overcome. “I could not be anybody at all. I could not win, because the adversary was death.”
A year later, however, Bill met Lois Burnham, daughter of a well-to-do Brooklyn family who vacationed each summer at Emerald Lake near Bill’s home. She was four years older, beautiful, and sophisticated. Lois found Bill to be one of the most interesting men she had ever met, even though he was only eighteen. Despite the age difference and the social gulf, Bill and Lois were soon engaged.
Bill enrolled in Norwich College, then a military school, and set out to become an engineer. When the United States entered the Great War, Bill, commissioned a first lieutenant, prepared to go overseas. He was both thrilled at the idea of battle and terrified that he would not be courageous in the face of danger.
Because of his officer training and skill at leading, Bill was put in command of others. He was stationed at Fort Rodman, near Bedford, Massachusetts. One evening he and others were invited to a high-society dinner. Once again, his sense of inadequacy crippled him.
“A great rush of fear, ineptitude, and self-consciousness swept over me.”
What It Was Like
And then he discovered an antidote: booze. Bill Wilson was twenty-two, and he drank for the first time.
“So I took it and another one, and then, lo, the miracle! That strange barrier that had existed between me and all the men and women seemed to instantly go down. I felt I belonged where I was, belonged to life….”
Bill said that he was never a moderate drinker; he drank to get drunk from the very beginning. Indeed, that evening he passed out. And many evenings after, his Fort Rodman buddies had to carry him home.
Because he and his comrades were soon to be shipped to Europe, Lois and he moved up their wedding date. On January 24, 1918, they were married.
At the end of the war, Bill turned to Wall Street. With the same self-will that drove him to be number one, he set out to conquer the world of finance. According to friends, he had a brilliant mind, an uncanny ability to analyze stocks, and a drive to gather and organize needed information for investors. In 1925 he and Lois set out on a motorcycle with an army pup tent, a change of clothes, $1,000.00 they had saved, and Moody’s Manuals. They motored up and down the East Coast, sending back reports on businesses. His analysis caught the attention of his friend Frank Shaw. Within a year, Bill had landed himself a secure position, expense account, and sumptuous New York City apartment.
“For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way. I had arrived. My judgments and ideas were followed by many to the tune of paper millions. Drink was taking an important and exhilarating part in my life. There was loud talk in the jazz places uptown. Everyone spent in the thousands and chattered in the millions.”
But life for the Wilsons was far from idyllic. Drinking was taking its toll. Lois had hoped that the motorcycle trip would be the cure Bill needed. But he found a way to get drunk even while motoring through the country. Now back in New York City, surrounded by money and success, the booze flowed freely, despite Prohibition.
Lois kept a collection of notes like this one in the family Bible: “October 20, 1928. To my beloved wife that has endured so much, let this stand as evidence of my pledge to you that I have finished with drink forever.” But eight more years of drinking lay ahead. Warnings from bosses. Jobs lost. Fights. Remorse. More vows to stop. And more betrayals of promises.
Then came the crash of 1929, and Bill tells us, “The papers reported men jumping to death from the towers of High Finance. That disgusted me. I would not jump. I went back to the bar.”
They moved in with Lois’s parents. They were $60,000 in debt. For the next five years, Bill, the self-made, number-one-man, would be unable to hold a job.
The desperation is captured in these words that Lois wrote: “What is one to think or do after so many failures? Is my theory of the importance of love and faith nothing but bunk? Is it best to recognize life as it seems—a series of failures—and that my husband is a weak, spineless creature who is never going to get over his drinking?”
Numerous trips to sanitariums and hospitals followed. But at the Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York City, Bill met Dr, William Silkworth, who had worked with thousands of alcoholics over the years. Dr. Silkworth told Bill about a theory he had: The alcoholic suffered from a disease, and, over time, the alcoholic’s body developed an allergy to the very drug the body craved.
On Bill’s fourth visit to Towns Hospital, however, Dr. Silkworth told Lois that Bill had passed the point of being helped, and that she should commit him to Rockland State Hospital for the Insane. Bill begged Lois not to do it. To give him one more chance. Equipped with Dr. Silkworth’s knowledge and a fear of being locked up, he was determined to stay sober. In a chilling example of alcoholic insanity, Bill recounts his experience on Armistice Day, 1934: It was beautiful day in September. “I felt like a million bucks.” He convinced Lois to give him a few dollars to go golfing on Staten Island. After taking the ferry from Brooklyn he got on a bus when he spied a man carrying a rifle.
“Now I don’t know about you,” he said, “but in New York, if I see somebody with a gun, I want to keep a good eye on him. So I decided the best thing to do was to sit along side of him.”
Bill and the stranger struck up a conversation about guns and hunting. Bill, always trying to be number one, regaled him with his stories about artillery in World War I. Suddenly, the bus was rear-ended. It was a minor accident, but the bus driver had to fill out a report and a replacement bus had to be sent. So Bill and the new friend went to a nearby bar.
The man ordered a whiskey and ginger ale. Bill ordered ginger ale. For some reason Bill decided to tell this complete stranger about his battle with alcohol. They had lunch. The stranger drank another whiskey and ginger ale. Yet again, Bill had ginger ale. As they were getting ready to leave, the bartender came over and put down two mixed drinks in front of them: On the house, he told them, in honor of Armistice Day.
And without a thought, Bill picked up the drink and gulped it down.
The man looked at him incredulously. “After all that alcohol has done to you, for you to take that drink, you must be insane!”
Bill never went golfing that day. Lois found him passed out in the doorway. He had fallen and cut his head.
“I knew I was alcoholic and I would be one for the rest of my life…. But I’d be damned if I would die in some insane asylum. I would drink myself to death or find the best courage I could to take my own life.”
The End Is Near
One day in late November 1934, “with enough gin concealed about the house to carry me through the night and the next day,” Bill received a phone call from an old high-school friend, Ebby Thatcher. Ebby was notorious for his drinking escapades. In fact, Bill had heard that Ebby had recently driven his car into someone’s living room near Albany. When confronted by the owner, he calmly asked for a cup of coffee.
But Ebby was sober and asked if he could stop by. Bill actually hated to drink alone, so he welcomed the visit. The minute he saw Ebby, Bill knew something was different.
“The door opened and he stood there, fresh skinned and glowing. There was something about his eyes.”
Bill asked his friend what had happened to him. “He looked straight at me. Simply, but smilingly, he said, ‘I’ve got religion.’”
It turned out that Ebby was in court for the incident in upstate New York, and some members of the Oxford Group4 asked the judge to turn him over to their care. The judge agreed. Ebby began attending Oxford Group meetings and trying to help others. Hence, his visit with Bill.
Bill had little use for religion. He acknowledged the existence of a Higher Power, but he gagged on the idea of a personal God. He wished Ebby well, and was secretly pleased that he would have more gin to himself. But Ebby’s visit nagged at him: “I couldn’t get the sight of Ebby out of my mind.” As he said later, “I should be the one talking to the likes of Ebby. Should have been me visiting him, not the other way around.” He couldn’t deny that Ebby was a changed man.
Bill decided to analyze the Oxford Group the way he had assessed stocks. But his experiment went awry when he got drunk on the way to a meeting at a mission in Manhattan. He decided to check himself into Towns Hospital one last time, carrying a bottle of beer with him to ease the transition.
It was December 11, 1934. A couple of days later, Ebby came to see him.
“I heard the staff saying how cold it was that day,” recalled Bill. “And I thought to myself, here was a man who practiced what he preached.”
Before he left, Bill asked Ebby what that formula was that had gotten him sober. Ebby told him: Get honest with yourself. List your mistakes. Talk them over in confidence with someone. Help others. Ask God for help.
Still, Bill couldn’t get past the idea of a personal God. And then he said he fell into one of the deepest depressions he had ever experienced.
“The terrifying darkness had become complete,” he said. “I was no stranger to depression, but this was the worst. Down and down to a bottomless pit. I had never experienced anything like this.” In his agony Bill cried out, “I’ll do anything, anything at all. If there be a God, let Himself show Himself.”
What happened next is hard to capture in words.
“Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light. I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had experienced was pale by comparison. The light, the ecstasy— I was conscious of nothing else for a time.”
Bill referred to it as being “rocketed into a fourth dimension.” As the experience dimmed, he slipped back into his rational mind. He thought that he might be going crazy. He asked to see Dr. Silkworth. Told him what had happened. Asked him if he was insane.
The doctor reassured him that he was not insane. He said that had heard of such experiences but had never seen one. “You are already a different individual. So, my boy, whatever you’ve got now, you’d better hold on to. It’s so much better than what had you only a couple of hours ago.”
Ebby returned and brought with him a copy of William James’ Varieties of Religious Experiences. “It was the toughest book I ever read,” Bill said, “But I devoured it.”
As James writes in his chapter “The Sick Soul,” “— desperation, absolute and complete, the whole universe coagulating about the sufferer into a material of overwhelming horror, surrounding him without opening or end…. How irrelevantly remote seem all our usual refined optimisms and intellectual and moral consolations in the presence of a need for help like this! Here is the real core of the religious problem: Help! help! No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of the victims such as these.”5
Bill Wilson had faced his sick soul: “And then came the blazing thought,” he wrote, “‘You are free man.’”
Lois saw it clearly: “I knew something overwhelming had happened. His eyes were filled with light. His whole being expressed hope and joy. From that moment on, I shared his confidence in the future.”led Bill. “And I thought to myself, here was a man who practiced what he preached.”
What Would the Future Bring?
Even while still lying in bed at Towns Hospital, Bill Wilson knew he had to share this experience with alcoholics still suffering. He set out to talk to drunks whether they wanted to hear or not. He failed miserably. “I talked to thousands of drunks, but nobody, I mean nobody, was listening to what I had to say.”
He confided his lack of success to Dr. Silkworth.
“I’ve listened to you talking to our patients here in the hospital,” the doctor told him. “You’ve got to lay off the God stuff. Talk drunk to a drunk. Make the connection first.” Bill followed the doctor’s suggestion. “I still wasn’t getting anyone sober, but at least they weren’t running away.”
Though he wasn’t drinking, Bill was still without a job. And then came an opportunity to get in on a deal in Akron, Ohio. He and some associates saw a chance to take over a machine company supplying the big three tire giants. Though he had no money, Bill’s analytic mind was still respected in the business. The deal went sour. His associates headed back to New York. Bill found himself alone and with a little money in the Mayflower Hotel.
There was the bar. And he knew what that meant.
There was the phone, with a church directory next to it.
“It was working with other drunks that was keeping me sober…. I need him more than he needs me.
“At the bottom of the directory one name at the bottom of that list that leapt out at me: the reverend Walter Tunks…. When we went for walks in the woods in Vermont, we called them ‘tunks.’ That was hunch enough for me.”
Bill explained his situation to the minister. Told him about his connection with the Oxford Group. As it turned out, the Reverend Tunks had a strong relationship with members of the Oxford Group. He gave Bill ten names. Some said that they couldn’t help, others didn’t know of anyone, and some simply hung up. He called the last name: Norman Sheppard, who suggested he call Henrietta Seiberling.
Bill knew the name. He assumed she was the wife of Frank Seiberling, a very wealthy and powerful tire magnate in the Midwest. Bill had actually met him in years past. He dreaded the idea of calling Frank Seiberling, introducing himself as a drunk, and asking to speak to his wife. “If I didn’t call, I would get drunk.”
As it turned out, Henrietta Seiberling was the soon-to-be ex-daughter-in-law of Frank Seiberling. The sorrow, fear, and humiliation of divorce had brought her to the Oxford Group. Through meetings Henrietta had become friends with Ann Smith, whose husband, Dr. Bob Smith, was was on the verge of losing his medical practice because of his drinking. Henrietta had been praying for her friends. She said that Bill’s out-of-the-blue phone call “was manna from heaven.” She told Bill to come right over.
Bill recalled that Dr. Bob was a mess. “He was shaking so bad.” Bill offered him a drink to settle his nerves. He suggested they skip dinner. “I said, ‘Let’s go in and have a chat.’” Dr. Bob had told his wife to come and get him in fifteen minutes.
Bill recalled: “I started off by telling him, I need your help…. If I don’t talk to you, I’ll get drunk. And I told Bob my story, and he listened to every word I said, shook his head, nodding…. That fifteen minutes lasted for five hours.
“When it was over, we came outside to the ladies. He put his arm around my shoulder and he said to his wife, ‘Honey, can this fellow come home with us? I think he can help me.’”
In the pantheon of nations, the United States is still new. There are not a great number of historical sites considered sacred in our land: Gettysburg, Appomattox, Wounded Knee, the U.S.S. Arizona, the Two Towers. Most are saturated with sacrifice and death. But the addicts who make the pilgrimage to Stepping Stones or the Mayflower Hotel do so to honor hope. They walk the grounds near the Wilsons’ house or touch the phone that Bill Wilson called from in homage to a simple choice to do the next right thing.
Bill’s decision is their decision. It isn’t similar. It is one and the same. It happened eighty-five years ago in Akron, Ohio, and it happens every day since in the lives of millions of addicts throughout the world.
It has to. To stay sober. To embrace sanity.
It is the presence of a moment when essence becomes action.
This piece is featured in the Summer issue of Parabola © 2020 , PRESENCE.
1 In the fall of 2019, my wife and I visited Stepping Stones. Many years earlier, we had the pleasure of meeting Lois Wilson. The three of us chatted privately for about half an hour one evening. I don’t recall what we talked about, except that Lois was very sweet and seemed far more interested in us than in talking about herself.
2 In listening to Bill’s talk, I searched my mind for who his voice reminded me of. It came to me: Bill Wilson sounds just like Groucho Marx. I checked out some YouTube videos of You Bet Your Life, and, indeed, not only are the voices similar, but so too the cadences and the dry, ironic wit.
3 The information about Bill Wilson’s story is taken from: Pass It On: The Story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. New York, New York, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: 1984. (Pp. 24-145); Alcoholics Anonymous: “The Big Book”, Fourth Edition. New York City, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: October 2017. (Pp. 1-16); and Bill Wilson Eulogy for Dr. Bob Smith, Kip’s Bay Group’s First Year Anniversary, 1950.
4 The Oxford Group (though originally not named that) was started by Frank Buchman in 1921. Its core beliefs are summed up in the group’s Four Absolutes: Honesty, Purity, Unselfishness, and Love. Many books and articles have been written about the Oxford Group and its founder. For a basic introduction readers can look at On the Tail of a Comet, Garth Lean (Helmers and Howard, 1988).
5 James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience. New York: Random House, Inc., 1902. First Modern Library Edition, 1936. (Page 159).
The brief excerpts from Alcoholics Anonymous and Pass It On are reprinted with permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.
In keeping with the 12th Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities,” the author wishes to remain anonymous.