The Women Behind the Early Alcoholics Anonymous Movement

Just a few years after Bill Wilson founded the fellowship in 1939, Felicia Gizycka, daughter of editor Cissy Patterson, stumbled into a meeting.

main cissy-and-fg-1.jpg

Editor's Note: This is the first 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.

In 1943, at the age of 38, Countess Felicia Gizycka "divorced" her mother, the notorious Washington, D.C., newspaper publisher and Chicago Tribune heiress, Cissy Patterson. Falling into old habits on that decisive wartime evening during one of Felicia's rare visits home, mother and daughter left the dinner table "in the middle of the night, both of us drunk as skunks," to continue drinking and bickering in the living room. When Cissy began toying with Felicia by proposing to favor others in her will, and taunting her daughter for her personal failings as she had done many times over the years, Felicia finally exploded: "God damn you and may you roast in Hell. If there is a Hell. You've already made my life one long Hell from the time I was a baby, you stupid bitch! ... And you can take all your Goddamn fucking money and stuff it!"

Felicia had lived in luxury up to that point, but in other regards her life had not been an easy one. As a toddler, she had become a pawn in the sensational international custody battle that followed the violent end of her parents' marriage in 1908. Her father, a volatile, hard-drinking Polish aristocrat, kidnapped her and held her for ransom when she was two; only after President Taft and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia intervened did Count Gizycki finally return Felicia, then almost four, to her mother. Although Cissy had fought hard to bring her child safely home to the United States, she was a critical, unpredictable mother. One particularly nasty mother-daughter "knock-down drag-out fight, which included hair pulling and clothing tearing" persuaded Felicia to run away from home in 1924, at the age of 18.

tzar2.jpg To outward appearances, Felicia and Cissy reconciled six months later, but only after Felicia allowed herself to be corralled into a loveless marriage she hoped would end her mother's authority over her. But marriage and motherhood held little interest for her, particularly after she began to realize her dreams of becoming a writer -- and discovered, at the height of Prohibition, that "if I had a drink or two, I could relax and dance, laugh, joke. And feel popular. Feel accepted." Following her first divorce, a failed love affair prompted Felicia to "get dead drunk that very night, and stay drunk for a month." Instead, the binge would last a decade. "I think I had the physical allergy right away," she reflected later of the growing reliance on alcohol she developed over the course of the 1920s and '30s. "A drink never gave me a normal, pleasant glow. Instead it was like a tap on the head with a small mallet. I was a little bit knocked out. Just what I wanted. I lost my shyness. Five or six drinks and I was terrific. Men danced with me at parties. I was full of careless chatter. I was so amusing! I had friends."

The opulent, heedless way of life Felicia led throughout the Depression (along with the substantial, tax-free allowance from Cissy that supported it) came to a tumultuous end when she and her mother had that "one last drunken row" in 1943. When Felicia staggered out of Cissy's home for the last time that night, she was conscious only that a strange, white patch of welts had arisen on her left arm ("the stigmata of the Devil?") and that she was reliving "the same feelings I had had when I'd run away when I was 18." After a lifetime's experience of maternal volatility and spite, any regret at what she had done or fear of what might result evaporated in elation and relief: "Now I was 38 years old, and free! Free!"

Felicia's growing alcohol consumption soon made a hollow victory of her newfound freedom, however. She lost partial custody of her daughter. Most of her friends fell away, alienated and confused by her immoderation, her unreliability, her raucous "naughtiness" and hilarity on inappropriate occasions, and her general disregard for those around her. Her "drunken and abusive rows" with fellow volunteers cut short her work for the war effort. Eventually, drinking consumed even her productive, daytime writing hours. "Now came the black and endless dismal night," as Felicia remembered it. But in spite of everything, she had managed to retain one source of support. "My dearest friend, whom I'd grown up with, stuck by me when nobody else did. Louise Ireland almost helped to save my life, because she got me to a psychiatrist...."

Presented by

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.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Health

Just In