History Detectives Episode 7, 2006: Alcoholics Anonymous Letter
Gwen: Our next story investigates a strange letter that takes us to the early days of one of the 20th century's most significant social movements. From colonial times to the present day, drinking has often been an accepted and even celebrated part of American culture. But the social and economic toll from compulsive or so-called alcoholic drinking has always been a painful reality, too.
In the mid-1930s, a new approach to alcoholism was advanced by a small
band of recovering drunks. Led by a failed Wall Street broker, Bill
Wilson, Alcoholics Anonymous made the controversial claim that
compulsive drinking was a medical and spiritual disease, not a moral
Today, with an estimated 2 million members in 150 countries, A.A. is the
most well-known recovery program in the world.
Almost 60 years after the birth of A.A., a man from Laurel, Maryland,
has a letter that might shed light on a moment when the very existence
of the organization hung in the balance.
Guy Miler: my mother had told us as young kids my grandfather had some
involvement in the beginnings of A.A., but being young kids, we really
thought that was -- okay, that's kind of neat, but didn't think
too much about it.
Gwendolyn Wright: I'm Gwendolyn Wright, and I'm meeting Guy
Miler to get the story behind this mysterious letter.
Okay, "The Alcoholic Foundation, 1942. Dear Mrs. Wallace, we of the A.A.
group have never had a better friend, nor a stauncher one, than Herb
when the going was hard."
Guy tells me that Herb Wallace was a well-to-do customs attorney in New
Guy: You'll see it's a very nice letter of condolence to my
grandmother upon my grandfather's death, Herbert Wallace. It's
signed by Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of A.A., and the language
there suggests he's just very grateful for whatever my
grandfather's support was.
Gwen: Tell me exactly what you'd like for me to find out.
Guy: Well, I'd love for you to find out what my grandfather's
involvement was with A.A. that would prompt such a nice letter from Bill
Gwen: well, I have to ask the question: do you think he was an
alcoholic? Was he a member of A.A.?
Guy: I don't think so. My mother never mentioned that to us, and
it's not something that I think she would have kept secret. She did
say that his connection may have been through a group called the Oxford
Group. My grandmother, I think, at the time, thought it was some weird
Gwen: Hmm, well, I'm curious. Your grandfather may tell us something
about the beginnings of this organization that is now so powerful.
The letter's authenticity doesn't seem to be an issue. This
stationery looks period, and it's been in Guy's family since
1942. But why would a supposedly sober well-to-do customs lawyer have
been involved with down-and-out alcoholics and the beginnings of A.A.?
Okay, thanks very much. Bye.
Researching an anonymous organization is going to be quite a challenge.
I just got off the phone with the A.A. offices, and they couldn't
give me anything on Wallace, but they did have the names of a few
experts on the early history of the organization.
I'm at Rutgers University's Center of Alcohol Studies.
Hi, you're Barbara?
Clinical psychologist Dr. Barbara McCrady tells me that before
Alcoholics Anonymous came along, so-called problem drinkers were often
viewed as weak-willed or as sinners. Some zealots saw banning alcohol as
the only solution.
Barbara MccCrady: In the Temperance Movement, people talk about demon
rum. So the -- you know, the push really became, more and more over
time, to get rid of the substance rather than trying to help the
individuals, and that's when the 18th amendment, which was
prohibition, came into effect.
Gwen: In 1935, a failed Wall Street stockbroker Bill Wilson, and an Ohio
physician, Dr. Bob Smith, started what would eventually become known as
Alcoholics Anonymous. Both had been fall-down drunks who couldn't
get sober no matter how hard they tried.
Talking with each other, the two men came to believe that alcoholics
weren't sinners of weak will, but had an illness that could be
controlled if they supported each other.
Barbara: The big shift in terms of what A.A. does is shift from saying
it's the substance, the evil drug to saying people who are alcoholic
have problems within themselves.
Gwen: Wilson and Smith stayed sober for the rest of their lives. Wilson
wrote A.A.'s famous 12 steps, which are outlined in the
organization's main text, known as the Big Book. The steps start
with admitting one is powerless over alcohol and asking God or some
higher power for help.
Barbara: But the program itself is very clear that your higher power can
be anything. It can be Buddha. It can be
Gwen: It can be the A.A.
Barbara: Yeah, it can be the power of the group. It can be the
photograph on your mantle. But the core is to say, "I couldn't do it
on my own. I need to rely on more than myself in order to recover."
Gwen: Barbara's description of A.A.'s spiritual approach reminds
me that Guy said his grandfather may have belonged to a religious
organization called the Oxford Group.
Was there a religious orientation at the very beginning of A.A.?
Barbara: Well, Bill Wilson, as I understand it, got sober through the
Oxford Groups, a nondenominational but Christian evangelical
Gwen: That's fascinating, because the person I'm trying to find
the link into the A.A. about is a man named Herbert Wallace, who was a
member of the Oxford Group.
I want to find out more about this Oxford Group and its possible links
Mel Barger is the author of several books on A.A. history. He tells me
the Oxford Group had begun at Oxford University in the 1910s and became
popular in England and the United States between the world wars.
Mel Barger: They had four absolutes that they believed in: absolute
love, purity, honesty, and unselfishness, but they prided themselves on
not being tied to any denomination or any political party or anything
Gwen: But the group became controversial after its founder, Frank
Buckman, praised Adolf Hitler in 1936, and Mel says that the group was
also criticized as a social club for the upper classes. Meetings often
In posh hotels or country estates were sometimes called "dinner-jacket
Mel: Frank Buckman had a reputation of being drawn to wealthy people.
When he was accused of not reaching the down-and-outers, we would say
that there were up-and-outers that he had to reach.
Gwen: It sounds as if guy's grandfather, Herbert Wallace, who was a
successful lawyer, would have been a typical Oxford Group member.
But by the end of his drinking days, Bill Wilson was a different story.
Mel: By the early 1930s, Bill Wilson had become a hopeless drunk, mainly
supported by his wife, who had a job in a department store, and the
turning point came when an old friend called on him in late 1934.
Gwen: That friend, a former drinking buddy, had finally gotten sober by
finding religion with the Oxford Group. Looking down the barrel of an
almost certain alcoholic death, Bill Wilson drank up the story of his
Mel: And this made a profound impression upon Wilson and he had this
illumination, spiritual experience, whatever you want to call it. But
whatever it was, it changed his life. He never drank again.
Gwen: Mel says Bill Wilson and his wife, Lois, joined the Oxford Group
and embraced its spiritual ideals.
Mel: Their principles were what became the 12 steps of A.A.: seeking
guidance from a higher power, helping others, admitting your faults. It
all came from the Oxford Group.
I'd like to show you something that's pretty important in A.A.
Mel: This is 182 Clinton Street here in Brooklyn, and this is where Bill
and Lois lived for nine years from 1930 to 1939.
Gwen: In the fall of 1935, Bill laid the unlikely foundations for a
modern medical success story. He discovered that by inviting helpless
alcoholics home, while occasionally he could help them, most importantly
his selfless effort somehow kept him sober, too.
Mel: So in this house, they had some of their first meetings, the
meetings that eventually became A.A.
Gwen: But how does Guy's grandfather fit into the story?
Let me show you that letter that I told you about. I'd like you to
take a look. It's a letter of condolence from Bill Wilson to the
wife of Herbert Wallace written in 1942.
Mel: Well, this is a very warm letter, and Bill was pretty good at this
sort of thing.
Gwen: So have you ever heard of Herbert Wallace?
Mel: No, I never heard of him. I recognize two of the names here as
early A.A. members.
Gwen: So you know all the other names?
Gwen: But you don't know Herbert Wallace.
Gwen: I'm researching some early histories of A.A. and the Oxford
Group, but I'm not finding any mention of Wallace.
Ha! Here's one: page 173. It simply mentions that Wallace caused
Bill Wilson to take some public-speaking classes at the downtown
athletic club. I'm not sure what to make of that. Let me see if
Wilson's wife, Lois, has any clues in her memoir.
Huh! She mentions having taken a Dale Carnegie course on public
speaking. She only refers to a Herbert W. In A.A. parlance, but
the same person, especially since it's also in reference to a
public-speaking class. I'll see what I can find out.
I show Guy's letter to William Borchert, author of the Lois Wilson
You ever heard of Wallace? He's never heard of Wallace either, but
he's intrigued by the references to A.A.'s founder taking Dale
William Borchet: It wouldn't surprise me. I guess he thought this
could help him win friends and influence people, which is what he really
wanted to do.
Gwen: Bill also tells me something that makes Wilson's friendship
with Wallace even more of a mystery.
As Wilson reached into the gutter to help fellow alcoholics, the
snobbish Oxford Group turned its nose up at Wilson and his lowbrow
William: After a while, the Oxford Group didn't like Bill bringing
his drunks along with him to Oxford Group meetings.
Gwen: Bill and Lois soon felt unwelcome. Would it be fair, then, to say,
that the Oxford Group froze Bill and Lois out?
William: Oh, absolutely, people weren't talking to them anymore, you
Gwen: Wilson left the Oxford Group in 1937. The fledgling A.A. was
barely surviving, and Wilson was courting the poorhouse.
William: Well, he didn't have a job. He was trying to build this
organization of, you know, ragtag drunks. They couldn't exactly go
to the Bank of America for a loan, and they were living hand-to-mouth.
Gwen: Bill and Lois were no longer able to pay the mortgage on their
William: They lost the house in 1939, and for the next two years, they
moved 52 times living on the largess of their friends in A.A. it was a
Gwen: It's fascinating to see how -- how fragile it was in those
early years. It could have not happened.
William: Absolutely, it could have fallen apart anytime.
Gwen: WasBill trying to approach people who had wealth because this
Wallace did have money?
William: Absolutely, Bill, in the beginning, felt that they -- they
needed money to grow.
Gwen: Bill tells me that in these early years, A.A. got a small amount
of financial support from some influential people, including John D.
Rockefeller. But Wallace was an Oxford Group man and Wilson had been
kicked out of that organization. So I'm not sure what to make of it
William: Well, Bill Wilson's papers are all in the archives at
stepping stones, which is the home where they lived from 1941 on. So you
might find something there.
Gwen: After years of hardship, the Wilsons finally found stability at
the stepping stones farm outside New York. A wealthy benefactor helped
them buy the property in the early 1940s. It's now a museum and
houses Wilson's personal papers.
At first, I don't find anything connecting Wallace to A.A. then I
make a discovery that may explain Guy's mystery letter.
Well, Guy, this has been a fascinating journey for me through this early
history. And I can tell you that, that hunch you had that there may be
some connection between the Oxford Group and the A.A. is absolutely
correct. I have a letter to show you. It's from your grandfather to
Bill Wilson. This letter, it's short, but it tells us a lot.
It's from Wallace --
"cordially yours, Herbert Wallace" -- toBill.
He's lending him some money, but the most important thing is the
date, February 3, 1938. He's continuing his support of Wilson and of
what Wilson is doing at a point after the break with the Oxford Group.
Herb Wallace is indeed being the staunchest of friends at a very hard
Guy: Well, this is fabulous.
Gwen: I tell Guy that just as many believe A.A. offers hope to
alcoholics when they are at their lowest ebb, his grandfather had
provided support to Wilson at a critical time.
What I really want to underline is it's not just that he's
giving him the money, which is critical at that time, but he's
giving him the friendship that Wilson then talks about in his letter of
condolence to your grandmother. We could say that without your
grandfather and other people like him, the A.A. might never have
Guy: Oh, wow. Now that's going some. [ laughs ] That's
Gwen: That make you feel proud?
Guy: Yeah, and I'm not even sure if my mother knows that he had that
much influence. It also makes me think about that condolence letter a
little differently. Actually, much differently know knowing what it was
based on. I'm going to treasure it even more than I have and not
just keep it in a drawer somewhere. I think I'm going to frame it
and hang it on the wall. I'm proud. [ chuckles ]
Gwen: That's good.
In keeping with A.A.'s tenet of anonymity, Wilson would not allow
his full name or image to appear in the media, but upon his death in
1971, the New York Times published his obituary on the front page.
Many believe Bill Wilson influenced modern perceptions of alcoholism
more than any other individual
--- In AAHistoryLovers@yahoogroups.com, "Doug Hart" <dhart1@...> wrote:
> The History Detectives episode described is on at 9 p.m. Monday night in Tampa also, repeating on Aug 1 and 3, so the 9 p.m. time on Monday may be fairly universal, at least for the Eastern time zone.
> ----- Original Message -----
> From: Mel Barger
> To: AAHistoryLovers@yahoogroups.com
> Sent: Thursday, July 27, 2006 5:19 AM
> Subject: Re: [AAHistoryLovers] Herbert Wallace
> Hi Mitch,
> Herb Wallace was an export lawyer in New York. The letter in question was actually a letter of condolence to Herb's wife, as Herb had just passed on.
> He appears to have been an Oxford Grouper who remained on good terms
with Bill and the other alcoholics who had left that fellowship. I believe Herb's grandson found the letter and must have submitted it to History Detectives.
> The show is scheduled to appear here in Toledo at 9 p.m. Monday, July 31st. It may be on different times in other places. I was interviewed for the program, though not as an AA member. (I checked with GSO prior to accepting the assignment.) The interviewer was Gwen Wright, who appears regularly on this show. Much of the interview is in front of Bill's former home at 182 Clinton Street in Brooklyn. It will probably be obvious to AA members that I'm in the fellowship, but I was told that this was okay if I wasn't identified as a member.
> I didn't know anything about History Detectives until this came up and I've seen only two programs. But it is an interesting show and brings in a lot of good history with it. They do three segments during the hour, and this one is titled "Alcoholics Anonymous Letter." I hope our History Lovers will watch it and send me their comments.
> Mel Barger
----- Original Message -----
> From: "Mitchell K." mitchell_k_archivist@...
> To: AAHistoryLovers@yahoogroups.com
> Sent: Wednesday, July 26, 2006 12:18 AM
> Subject: [AAHistoryLovers] Herbert Wallace
> >I recently heard that there was a PBS television show called History Detectives airing a show about a letter from Bill Wilson to a
Herbert Wallace of Maryland thanking him for his staunch support of AA. It was written in 1942 and is on Alcoholic Foundation letterhead. I haven't seen the show but they are repeated now and again.
> > Anyone have any information on Mr Wallace?