The Value of Friends and Sponsors at Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings

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Marty Mann, executive director of the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism, proved a valuable mentor for many early women of AA.

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Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series from Amanda Smith about the drinking life of Countess Felicia Gizycka, daughter of famed newspaper editor Cissy Patterson, and the other women involved in the early Alcoholics Anonymous movement.

"I've got a dame here with a name I can't pronounce," Bill W. told someone whose number he dialed on Felicia G.'s behalf at the end of the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting she ever attended, in Hell's Kitchen in 1943. When he hung up, he told her he had arranged for her to meet someone named Marty. "Aha, he's passing the buck," Felicia, who had come largely to humor her psychiatrist, suspected inwardly. "Now comes the questionnaire."

"I felt like a gangster's moll about to be interviewed by the Salvation Army," Countess Felicia Gizycka later remembered of her arrival at the address Bill W. had given her. To her surprise, however, she found herself welcomed into what turned out to be a tasteful Midtown Manhattan apartment filled with books and artwork, by a woman named Priscilla who told her that the Marty whom Bill W. had put her in touch with was on her way. Although Felicia's father had been a Polish count, and her mother was a Chicago Tribune heiress and the publisher of Washington Times-Herald, the most widely read newspaper in the nation's capital, her life had been derailed by alcohol. Over the previous decade she had demolished almost all of her personal relationships. By 1943, she was twice divorced. She had lost custody of her daughter. Several months earlier, she had (to use her own phrase) "divorced" her mercurial mother, and renounced the substantial tax-free allowance she had accepted from her family throughout her adulthood. Now, in reduced circumstances, smelling of "booze and ancient sweat," with her matted hair and threadbare clothing, her leg crudely bandaged after a recent fall, Felicia was surprised to find that like Priscilla, Marty, once she arrived, was welcoming, genteel, and well-groomed:

"She was attractive; she was like the friends I once had. Indeed, she had known my cousin in Chicago." Without asking Felicia to explain herself or account for her condition, without asking anything at all, Marty "went right into her own story, which was much worse than mine. I couldn't believe my ears. I tried to interrupt. She wouldn't let me."

If this new acquaintance reminded Felicia of former friends who had fallen away, she had even more in common with Felicia herself. A native of Chicago the same age as Felicia, Mrs. Marty Mann was a "tall, smart-looking blonde" who had married briefly and unsuitably in the late 1920s. Though her marriage had ended within a year, her incipient alcoholism had progressed unchecked long afterwards. "Years of drinking and general hijinks had cut her off from old friends. She too had gone to cheap bars to drink," Felicia learned, amazed; "With more physical courage than I had possessed, she had twice tried to take her life." Marty only began to consider seeking help after learning that she had been heaved bodily down the gangplank of the Queen Mary upon docking in New York Harbor in December 1936; her only hazy memory of the four-day transatlantic crossing had been of Edward VIII's abdication speech. Unable to control her drinking, she had been unemployed for three years in the late 1930s during which she began the detoxification process, first on the locked-down neurological ward of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and later at Blythewood Sanitarium in Greenwich, Connecticut. Returning to Manhattan in 1939 after more than a year of in-patient treatment, she became Alcoholics Anonymous' first woman member when she began attending small meetings on Sutton Place. Then Marty took up her life in recovery.

In 1944, the year after she met Felicia, Marty Mann became executive director of the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism, which was sponsored by the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies and headquartered in Manhattan. An "intense exhorter for the cause," she maintained a feverish lecture schedule for much of the rest of her life, imparting to audiences at medical conferences, PTA meetings, VFW halls, lodges, churches, and town meetings nationwide the radical news that "alcoholism is a disease and the alcoholic is a sick person; the alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping and this is a public health problem." The iconoclasm of her message was not simply clinical. Beginning her talks with the startling opening line, "My name is Marty Mann, and I am an alcoholic," she dispensed with her own anonymity in the interest of public health, admitting freely to her own struggle with dependence to audiences utterly unaccustomed to intimate public self-revelation; "I made a speech to the Maine PTA and the gasps shook the walls." Felicia had found not only a sponsor, but a committed lifelong friend. "A load weighing a thousand pounds came off my back. I wasn't insane. Nor was I the 'worst woman who ever lived,'" she remembered after her introduction to Marty Mann and the latter's roommate and fellow recovering-alcoholic, Priscilla Peck. "I was an alcoholic, with a recognizable behavior pattern."

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Amanda Smith is the editor of Hostage to Fortune: The Letters of Joseph P. Kennedy and the author of Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson.

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