Today, club life for ex-drunks-to supply their needs
for companionship and fun-is A.A.’s second miracle
by FOWLER HILL
Two years ago, an old actor, whose name used to appear on Broadway marquees (call him Lionel Sloane), got drunk again in Hollywood, muffed a final chance for a comeback, and awoke, broke and totally without friends, in a down-at-the-heels New York hotel.
As a man who was opposed to preachments, he had tried most of the popular cures known to medicine and psychiatry. Now he turned to Alcoholics Anonymous for help, but he had little hope that the well-known miracle would work. And it didn’t.
Days later, hung over from another binge and tormented by feeling of guilt, he called on his A.A. mentor and blurted out the complaint of most lonesome alcoholics on the mend in large cities: ”Life just isn’t any fun on the wagon.” He paused, then went on dramatically: ”What can A.A. do about the displaced persons of drunkdom?”
“Come on, Lionel, old bay,” said the A.A. man. “It’s not as bad as that. Put on that beat-up Homburg of yours. We’re going out to have fun.”
Ten minutes later, a taxi pulled up to the side entrance of the old Madison Square Hotel. Lionel and the A.A. man got out and entered the hotel, by-passing a bar, off the foyer, that was filled with glum-looking drinkers. They climbed a short flight of stairs and walked into a little hole-in-the-wall known as the Twenty-Four-Hour Club, in the midst of one of its Saturday night shindigs.
In a large room that looked like a old-fashioned speakeasy, they joined a group of ex-drunks who were firmly convinced that they were having more uninhibited fun on coffee, milk and soft drinks than they’d ever enjoyed in the days when they were lapping up beer, wine, and liquor. And there was some evidence to support this view.
A four piece orchestra was pounding out down-beat. And about fifty men and women, who appeared to be as high as normal drinkers usually get on a few Martinis, were tearing the roof down-jitterbugging, singing, and laughing. Their gaiety was so infectious that, though Lionel drank nothing stronger than Coke, he felt lit up. His hangover miraculously disappeared. And, for three hours, he forgot his troubles.
Today his worries are few. He’s solved most of his alcohol-caused troubles; he’s made his comeback on a television program. And on his way to and from the Twenty-Four-Hour Club, where he practically lives, he passes the hotel bar without batting an eye.
In Los Angeles, a judge who faced removal from the bench because of his repeated drunken behavior in court came to his A.A. helper with an excuse for his latest lapse: “I took up with nondrinkers,” he said, “and they bored me right off the wagon. Got a bellyful of museums, concerts, and lectures. Wanted to be with human beings again.”
“I know where you’ll find them,” said the spiritual guide. And he led the jurist to the 6,300 Club, at that number on Wilshire Boulevard. This club, too, was a fraternity for ex-drunks, so the judge joined it. And though he had a few off-bench slips, he’s been riding the wagon hand-somely for a year and a half. And a higher court has forgotten his drunken escapades.
During the past twelve years, ex-drunks in 150 hangouts, all the way from San Francisco to Bangor, Maine, have been having similar experiences.
In 1940, a group of whisky-steeped A.A.’s in Akron, Ohio, organized the appropriately named Arid Club in the belief that, as fine as the A.A. philosophy was, the dozens of so-called clubhouses in which its Twelve Steps were taught, while coffee was sandwiches were served on the side, were no proper substitute for much needed club life.
Seven years later, in New York, an even more booze-wracked group of A.A.’s laid to rest forever an old drunk’s tale to the effect that old sots inevitably die if they take the cold-turkey treatment. These men and women called their organization the Twenty-Four-Hour Club because they believed that going just twenty-four hours at a time without a helpful snort would be a monumentally ambitious program. It was, but they survived the grim ordeal and lost their own grimness.
Word of these two outstanding successes spread abroad. And clubs for alcoholics dedicated to hedonistic pleasures, as well as total abstinence, sprang up all over the country, until there are now 115 of them in the United States and one, the Alano Club, in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Club life for ex-drunks is A.A.’s second miracle. It speeds the cure and social readjustment of ordinary case-hardened alcoholics; and it transforms many of A.A.’s black sheep into shining examples of its evangelical philosophy.
The moment Lionel Sloane entered the Twenty-Four-Hour Club, the A.A. strategists knew that the old actor was going to be a pushover for the miracle. His A.A. mentor had a whispered conversation with the orchestra leader and the music stopped. The leader announced that a star of silent film days would sing a few numbers. Lionel sang. He wowed ’em, and held the spotlight for the rest of the evening.
When the club closed at midnight, Lionel and his host went to a Third Avenue bar for stirrup cups of ginger ale. A red-faced exponent of the Fair Deal was offering to beat the daylights out of anyone who didn’t love good old Harry Truman. A MacArthurite fell asleep at the bar. Two strangers found a bond in their admiration of the late F.D.R. and repeated, again, again, and again, vows of lasting friendship. And off-key singing came from three frustrated tenors and a bass.
“Now would you call this fun?” asked the A.A. man.
“All right you double-crossing so-and-so,” said Lionel. “How do you get to be a member of that drunk trap of yours?”
After Lionel joined the club he discovered that its amenities, on a somewhat reduced scale, were comparable to those of The Players, to which he once belonged. The latest editions of newspapers lay within a handy reach on a long table. Best sellers were stacked on shelves in a reading nook. The bulletin board was a hodgepodge of club announcements, relayed telephone messages, and notices of items lost and found. The cuisine was not as good as The Players’, but it was passable. And it could be enjoyed by guests. For all these conveniences, Lionel paid dues of only three dollars a month.
But it was the good company of 300 temperamental convivials, who were facing and, most of the time, solving the problem of what they called their illness, that brought to Lionel an inner experience that most club members have to go through before they recover lost human dignity and have real fun.
One of these reformed Sybarites was an advertising man who’d been an alcoholic ever since his wife divorced him in 1942. One morning, after a prolonged drinking bout with a client, he’d seen snakes rise up from a grass island in the middle of Park Avenue and bow to him. He took the A.A. treatment with negative results. A year later, after joining the club, he took another stroll down the Avenue. He observed the snake phenomenon all over again. Upon investigation, the snakes turned out to be ivy vines. The island of green had a grillwork built over the New York Central’s tracks, and every time a train whooshed by, the vines rose in the air.
“I’m probably the only member of the club who owes his cure to false delirium tremens,” he said. “But false or real, they made me lay off the stuff. If my agency offered to make me vice-president on condition that I keep up with drinking clients, I’d tell them to go to hell. Incidentally, the agency seems pretty pleased with my work now. I’m chairman of the planning board.”
Reformed drunks of this alcoholic fraternity constantly amaze friends, who knew them in the old days, by turning down the hard stuff on the rather unusual ground that there’s never any real pleasure in it for an alcoholic.
A member of the 4,021 Club on Walnut Street, Philadelphia, thinks he knows why this pleasure is missing. As a doctor who cured himself through medical, as well as spiritual, insight, he may have discovered an important truth.
“Alcoholism,” he recently said, “is not only an allergy disease (the medical profession has known this for some time now), but it’s a disease that produces an illusion of pleasure. One of our club members,” he went on, “used to be a Moscow correspondent who went around with a bunch of Vodka gulpers. They’d all pass out in a snowdrift. Next morning they’d talk about what a hell of a fine time they’d had, but none of them remembered what happened after the sixth big gulp.”
As yet, no medical or psychiatric theory can fully explain A.A.’s second miracle. Until the learned men agree on what makes it tick, an explanation offered by the old actor may be as good as any other. The other day an old drinking but nonalcoholic friend invited him to The Players for lunch.
“What’s the gimmick of club life that did it?” he asked Lionel, as he sipped a very dry Martini and smacked his lips.
“Well,” said Lionel, pausing to down his tomato juice aperitif. “We alkies drink for the same reason you fellows do. Only we don’t know what the reason is until we reform.” He paused again. “I spent thirty years of my life chasing a will-o’-the-wisp through swinging doors. Didn’t find it until I joined the club.”
“Well, what was it?” asked his friend.
“Just companionship,” said Lionel. “And fun. Fun’s just the spice of companionship. And reformed alkies have to have it.”
(Source: Your Life, January 1953)