Alcoholics Anonymous History In Your Area
Washington D.C. and Virginia
Early A.A. History in Virginia/DC*
The Boys of ’39
The term “boys of 39” first appears in the records of the Washington Group in the spring of 1948. At that time Henry S., a member of the Chevy Chase Group, was interested in writing a history of A.A. in Washington. The term appears in correspondence with the New York office regarding the history. According to Henry S. and Hardin C., both of whom were present during the first few months, the “boys of 39” were Fitz M., Ned F., George S., Bill E., Steve M., and Hardin C.
Fitz M., 1897 – 1943
Fitz M. has traditionally been regarded as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous in the Washington area. He, along with Ned F., brought the A.A. experience they had gained in the established New York Group to this area. During that first year their efforts and those of a number of other alcoholics shaped the group into what it would become. But more important than who-did-what, are the principles of the program, for they are what have really shaped this group as well as all the other groups in the fellowship.
Although Fitz died an untimely death in 1943, his story is preserved in A.A. publications and correspondence and in the memories of a few old timers. In the Big Book his story, “Our Southern Friend”, describes his early life, how he came to find Alcoholics Anonymous, and his return to his small town home in Maryland.
Fitz grew up in the country home of his father, a clergyman. Just before the first World War he graduated from college where he had begun his drinking career. The next fifteen years of his life were dominated by the progression of alcoholism, and landed him, in the fall of 1935, in the alcohol ward of a new York hospital. There he met Bill Wilson. His story tells how he came to find the A.A. way of life. In his simple question, “Who am I to say there is no God,” is expressed the humility and spirituality that became the theme of his life.
We know from Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers that Fitz was one of the earliest members of Alcoholics Anonymous and that he sobered up with the help of Bill W. over the fall and winter of 1935. We know from the GSO correspondence that by the fall of 1939 he had taken up residence in Washington. What he did during the period 1936 – 1939 is, however, sketchy.
His story in the Big Book tells of returning to his country house and there he describes periods of depression, doubt in God, and bouts with an overpowering compulsion to drink. During this part of his story he was one of the A.A. “loners.”
He tells of an unbearable isolation and a need to work with others, “I am blue again. I want to sell the place and move away. I want to get where I can find some alcoholics to help and where I can find some fellowship.” He tells of traveling to distant cities and of spiritual lessons to be learned during these years. A man asks him to work with a young alcoholic. He writes, “Soon I have others who are alcoholics and some who have other problems. I begin to play God. I feel that I can fix them all. I do not fix anyone, but I am getting part of a tremendous education and I have made some new friends.”
Fitz’s home was on the western shore of the Chesapeake and it is possible that some of the lessons he learned during these years were3 learned in Washington. This lends some credence to the 1937 stories, but is merely speculation, for no further evidence exists of his activities in this area.
During these years he kept contact with fellow alcoholics in the New York and Akron areas where there were established A.A. groups. In Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age Bill W. describes the contributions Fitz made to the debate over the tone of the forthcoming book, Alcoholics Anonymous. Bill remembers:
Fitz M., one of the most lovable people that A.A. will ever know, … fell at once into hot argument with Henry [F] about the religious content of the coming volume. A newcomer named Jimmy B., who like Henry was an ex-salesman and former atheist, also got into the hassles. Fitz wanted a powerfully religious document. Henry and Jimmy would have none of it. They wanted a psychological book, which would lure the reader in; when he finally arrived among us, there would be enough time to tip him off about the spiritual character of our society. As he worked feverishly on this project Fitz made trip after trip to New York from his Maryland home to insist on raising the spiritual pitch of the A.A. book. Out of this debate came the spiritual form and substance of the document, notably the expression, ‘God as we understand Him,’ which proved to be a ten strike. As umpire of these disputes, I was obliged to go pretty much down the middle, writing in spiritual rather than religious or entirely psychological terms.
Fitz and Jimmy were equally ardent to carry the A.A. message. Jimmy started the Philadelphia group in 1940 while Fitz took the good news to Washington.
Jimmy B. and Fitz are said to have been friends since boyhood. Jimmy’s name will appear periodically in the Washington Group story as well as the Philadelphia and Baltimore stories.
During these years Fitz made trips to other areas also. In a letter dated November 23, 1940, he reminisces about a trip some three years previous, in which he and Bill W. had visited the group in Akron.
His reply to the Alcoholic Foundation’s letter of October 26 (1939) gives us reason to believe that he had established personal relationships in Washington and that there were people staying sober â€” even before 1939. In most of the early correspondence with the Foundation members used full names, disregarding anonymity within the fellowship. Fitz’s first letter contains lots of names and it is difficult to tell who are alcoholics and who are non-alcoholic friends. Therefore, the pertinent passage is quoted in full below.
Fitz opens his letter by saying that Hardin C., the fine fellow referred to him in the October 26 letter, had contacted him and offered his home as a meeting place. This was an answer to a prayer, for the little group of alkies could hold their Tuesday night meeting there. He mentions that he has met a retired Navy Commander living in D.C. who had gotten his A.A. in California two years previous and who was working with alkies here. He goes on to say, “We are getting sort of solid now with Comdr. Congre, Goldsmith, Dillard and myself getting together. Then we have Hardin C., the Magills, the Waters, the Andrews all very interested. Also George E. One woman â€” Florence â€” is not in evidence. She is in love with a hellion 15 years younger than she who feeds her beer, â€” poor woman â€” I hope she finds the way out. I don’t think she will around here. You know how the people chatter, especially the ‘gals’ about the leader who slips.”
This is a curious letter for although Fitz writes to Ruth Hock, secretary of the Alcoholic Foundation, as if she would recognize the names, and writes as though these people form a group, most of the names do not reappear in the later records of the Washington Group. Of the original “Boys of 39”, only Fitz and Hardin were included in the ten names mentioned in his letter. There are a number of possible explanations; some of these people may have been non-alcoholic friends of Fitz’s, some may have moved from the area, some may never have really gotten sober, and some of them may have been members of the group but were not mentioned in the correspondence. This may have been a group similar to the Oxford Groups â€” not restricted to alkies.
Things were happening and all of his letters reflect a buoyancy and enthusiasm that seems to reflect a faith that God is in Heaven and ‘the world’ is unfolding as it should. This is even in the letters where he discusses his unhappy financial condition. In a letter dated Wednesday, which must have been in late October or early November, Fitz talks about his new contacts, Dr. Klein of the Green Hill Institute, and someone at St. Elizabeth’s, and the new recruit, George S.
Fitz then goes on to explain that, “After trying various expedients to get what man calls a ‘job’, I find that nothing has happened. But I find that there is plenty to do here â€” so to hell with that other stuff â€” I may have to sleep in the dog house … but it’s O.K. with me … If I’m supposed to have that kind I’ll get it. I find plenty to do as is … I am paid up at Gatewood until Sunday.” By Monday Fitz was staying with another alky, George E., and using his sister Agnes’ apartment as an office. “I have been living as circumstances direct and provide,” Fitz writes, and his main concern at this time is acquiring a general headquarters for A.A. in the District, a “room with a phone as headquarters. And get some permanency in it, we are rather nebulous to the general public … When we get the G.H.Q. I will get some publicity on it.”
Financial insecurity is a theme that seems to run throughout Fitz’s life. Through these problems he is able to see his salvation. “Nothing is right,” he writes in “Our Southern Friend”. “Finances are in bad shape. I must find a way to make some money.” And he is tempted to drink over the problems. “I cannot see the cause of this temptation now. But I am later to learn that it began with my desire for material success becoming greater than my interest in my fellow man.”
The deeply spiritual nature of Fitz is remembered by those who knew him, and it precluded his involvement in such worldly activities as working for money and the accumulation of material possessions. Fitz was a man with a mission, maybe a dreamer.
In his last letter of 1939, November 25, Fitz mentions that he had received a grand letter from Clarence S. of Cleveland (the Brewmeister of the Big Book) and requests copies of endorsements of A.A. to show his new friends, two ministers and a priest. “Can you get me a copy of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s letter about the A.A.’s? Also just a few of Dr. Silkworth’s articles? Has any Catholic ever written any kind of endorsement of A.A.,” he writes.
From what we have seen of Fitz’s study we can be fairly confident that something did happen before the fall of 1939 in Washington concerning alcoholics, but the beginnings of what was to become the Washington Group occurred at this time. Fitz had arrived in town and worked with Hardin C. on referral from New York. Several days later they found George S. in the Green Hill Institute undergoing “Samaritan Treatment” and brought him into the group. And about this time Ned F., the second New York Group member arrived in town and began to work with referrals from the Foundation. Events began to occur rapidly. The publication of the Big Book had increased the calls for help from all over the country and referrals from the Washington area increased proportionately. The steady stream of referrals from New York produced new recruits and the small group’s twelve step work reached drunks in the city who would otherwise have simply gone by the boards. One example of this is the story of Dick T., the man who panhandled Fitz in a downtown park and ended up getting twelve stepped into the program.
Ned F. had become a member of Alcoholics Anonymous during the spring of 1939. Prior to this time he had tried all the known cures for his alcoholism. He had spent the summer of 1938 in the expensive Bloomingdale Institute only to end up drunk and in trouble two weeks after hiss release. His next stop was the Westchester Hospital for the Insane where he met the man who introduced him to Alcoholics Anonymous and took him to his first meeting. At that meeting two things stuck in his mind. Dr. Bob S. described how he had been drunk from 1898 until he met Bill in 1934. Bill W. spoke of the hope that is the spiritual base of the fellowship, “Can you admit to the barest possibility of a power greater than yourself,” he asked.
Later, as he approached a neighborhood bar, Ned contemplated the threatening reality implied by Bob’s thirty-five year drunk, and he began to see that in Bill’s question was the hope of salvation.
During that summer and fall Ned remained in New York where he attended meetings and worked with still practicing drunks. A lawyer by profession, but unemployed, he survived on $22.50 a week supplied by his mother in Cleveland.
A happy coincidence occurred when Dr. Sam Crocker, who had been treating Ned, was visited by a friend from Washington. The friend had come to New York to visit a potential employee who was also a patent of Sam’s. Unfortunately the man was an alcoholic and was, at that time, the inmate of a mental institution, unable to accept the position. Sam had been impressed by Ned’s recovery in A.A. and recommended him to fill the legal assistant position in the government agency.
Ned accepted and made preparation to leave for the Nation’s capital. His first assignment in Washington was a referral from Bill W., who suggested that he talk to an ex-Army Sergeant who needed and might even want the program. When he arrived in town he was greeted by Ruth H. in her customary manner. “Bill Wilson advised me that you are now in Washington and would be glad to do what you could,” she writes, “I have a few inquiries which I will send along shortly. Meanwhile, we have an urgent and sincere letter from Mr. Louis M. of Baltimore …” Ned had just been officially initiated into the Washington contingent.
The Indigenous Drunks
Of the native Washington Drunks who comprised four of the six “boys of 39” very little is known. We know that Hardin C. had contacted the Foundation office and was referred to Fitz. We know that he and his wife offered their home as a meeting place for the group.
George S., the third member, held a rather prestigious position in the federal government. At the time Fitz found him he was in the Greenhill Institute undergoing “Samaritan Treatment” for his alcoholism. This was probably early in November. Shortly after his release from Greenhill he became an active member of the group and returned to his job with a New Deal agency. George was influential in acquiring the Veteran’s of Foreign Wars Hall for the regular public meeting in the spring.
Bill E. was a well to do Washingtonian who worked in the publishing business. Before finding the Washington Group he had remained sober by attending the meetings of an area Oxford Group. Although he was an active member of the group, and in later years worked toward the opening of a Washington office of the National Council on Alcoholism, very little is recorded about his first year work.
Steve M. was an ex-Army Sergeant and may have been the man Bill W. had sent Ned to contact. While he was a member of the group he worked in one of the area correctional institutions. After joining the group in late 1939, he remained a member until the summer of 1941, when he moved to Atlanta and was central to the beginning of the group there.
One question that may arise is how did these men come together to form a group? Although there is no information among the records, the unverified stories that have been handed down may provide some insight. There are several versions of the YWCA story. Another holds that around Thanksgiving of 1939 Marty Mann appeared at a public meeting at the YWCA on behalf of the National Council on Alcoholism. Marty was also an AA member and this meeting may have alerted some members of the community to the presence of AA members in the area. Several other sources indicate that the Washington Group held a public meeting in a rented hall in 1939.
All the stories mentioned in this paper have come from reliable sources: members who were a part of the group at the time, AA publications, and newspaper articles. Some of the stories were, however, either remembered or written many years after the event. Memories fade and exact dates, even years, tend to merge over time. Therefore, in this history, only events that were documented at the time they happened are treated as hard facts. All else, including after-the-fact accounts, are cited here as “stories”. This policy has been particularly adhered to concerning public events such as meetings, locations, and dates. Some of the stories are certainly true, and probably most of them are based in some degree on fact. The reader may decide that for himself.
It will also become evident that many important names have been omitted from this story. That is because these names did not appear in the correspondence or publications available for research. Oral history may eventually fill in some of these gaps, but it is hoped that further work collecting archival documents will provide the missing information.
Bill A., a northern Virginia businessman, for example, was very active during this first year, but his story does not appear among the records. Bill may have been introduced to A.A. prior to 1940 and is remembered for his trips by train to New York where he learned, directly from the source, how A.A. works. He was active in organizing the group there during that first year, and continued his work in the southern states after leaving Washington in 1945. The activities of other members such as Paul K., the alcoholic Dutch plumber, Eddie K., Paul H., Kev S., and Len H. are not documented in the records available at this time.
But names and who-did-what are not what is important. These were the “boys of 39” and perhaps a few of the “boys of 40”, and they formed the nucleus of a group that would multiply tenfold over the next ten months. Who-did-what is not so important as that something was done.
* This was forwarded to me via a friend in Canada. It is short early history of AA in the Washington, DC area circa1939/40. Chris R