How Sexual Deviance Could Have Crippled Alcoholics Anonymous
Instead of fight for her mother's inheritance—and risk exposing her sexuality—Felicia Gizycka dropped a lawsuit to protect a developing AA.
Editor's Note: This is the third 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, Countess Felicia Gizycka severed relations with her mother, the notorious Washington, D.C., newspaper publisher and Chicago Tribune heiress, Cissy Patterson, in what would prove to be the last of the many vicious "drunken rows" they had engaged in over the previous 20 years. Several months later, through her psychiatrist, Dr. Florence Powerdermaker, Felicia was introduced to "Bill W." and his small, but growing fellowship, Alcoholics Anonymous, in New York City. For the first time in her life Felicia experienced a sense of community and belonging. In her sponsor, Marty Mann, Felicia had found a stalwart lifelong friend. By the end of the Second World War, Felicia had committed herself to a life in recovery.
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After their mother-daughter "divorce," there had been almost no communication between Felicia Gizycka and Cissy Patterson, a Chicago Tribune heiress and the publisher of Washington Times-Herald, the most widely read newspaper in the nation's capital. As a result, the telegram Cissy received from her estranged daughter in the spring of 1947 sparked more surprise -- and suspicion -- than it kindled any hope of reconciliation. In light of Mrs. Marty Mann's upcoming lecture engagements in Washington, Felicia wondered, could her close friend and A.A. sponsor stay at Cissy's mansion on Dupont Circle? "Marty Mann was for a time the head of the Women's Division of Alcoholics Anonymous and the only person I ever knew who had great influence on Felicia," Cissy explained shortly afterward in a letter to her reactionary cousin, Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune. "Well, that would be all right, too," she continued, betraying her anxiety as to the exact nature and extent of the proposed guest's sway over her daughter, "if Marty were not a notorious lesbian, and that is rather hard to swallow."
Perhaps honoring the many efforts that friends had made to reconcile mother and daughter over the years, perhaps for other reasons, Cissy Patterson did invite Marty Mann to stay at her home on Dupont Circle, graciously placing her household staff as well as her personal secretary at her guest's disposal. For reasons that go unrecorded, however, the hostess was absent while the friend and mentor who had so profoundly changed her daughter's life was in town.
On her rigorous national lecture tours, Mrs. Marty Mann repeated what would become a familiar refrain: "We must overcome the stigma of sin that has been fastened upon the alcoholic if we are to get anywhere." But while she and her colleagues made sweeping headway in dissociating alcoholism from venality in the popular mindset, Mann was deeply aware that the blossoming organizations to which she had devoted her life stood to be irrevocably blighted by any taint of what was considered at the time to be "sexual deviance."
As a result, already burdened with the public-relations encumbrances of being a recovering alcoholic and a woman, she took careful steps to prevent her sexual orientation from becoming known outside of her circle of close friends, or publicly associated either with her work for the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism or with the Alcoholics Anonymous movement generally. Indeed, as her biographers Sally and David R. Brown put it, in her distinguished professional life "Marty's use of the title Mrs. served the purpose of blurring her real orientation." Within the necessarily insular gay and lesbian communities of Manhattan and Fire Island, Mann and Priscilla Peck were known as a committed couple. To outsiders, they were "friends" and "roommates." They did nothing to hide the fact that they lived together; indeed, their unmarried, heterosexual counterparts did so customarily for the sake of economy and safety. By the early 1950s the couple would sell the cottage at Cherry Grove where Felicia had been a constant presence over the preceding decade. As Fire Island developed a reputation as a gay and lesbian summer retreat during those same years, Marty arrived at the conclusion that she could not risk the exposure that her continued presence there might occasion. Such fears were legitimate inasmuch as she and her circle appear to have been threatened with exposure, directly or indirectly, during Felicia Gizycka's internationally sensationalized efforts to break her mother's will in the autumn and winter of 1948-49.
By the end of the Second World War Felicia's mother had lost much of her characteristic vitality. Friends and staff members observed that the mercurial publisher's alcohol consumption continued to rise; in like fashion, the capital was rife with wisecracks not only about Patterson's erratic behavior and increasingly outlandish and bizarre editorial decisions, but with whisperings of her intravenous drug use as well. By the late 1940s Cissy, then in her late 60s, had grown unusually anxious about her health, about the state of her soul, about her estrangement from Felicia, about her belief that the Federal Bureau of Investigation had her under surveillance, about the imminence of her death. Most of all, she expressed distress about what would become of her newspaper -- the great (indeed, in some regards the only) success of her life and the single largest asset in her estate -- after she was gone.
As her fears for her safety mounted, Cissy maintained to indulgent, if surprised, friends and associates that if she were to die an untimely and peculiar death, they should suspect foul play. As mortality preyed upon her mind, her wishes for her posterity became a frequent topic of conversation. She regaled flabbergasted dinner guests with insistent talk of the terms of her current will, its provisions and bequests, its heirs and legatees, as well as any possible thoughts she had of changing it and why. Whisperings of the proposed changes, in turn, only intensified the toadyism, backbiting, bootlicking, and resentment among those who surrounded her. As one friend (and eventual legatee) put it, Cissy Patterson's open talk of her legacy and the changes she considered making to it, allowed the members of her circle to "know when they were being favored and when they were cut out." Determined finally to act, the notorious publisher arranged for her lawyer to begin discussing the changes she proposed making to her will, over dinner on Sunday, July 25, 1948.
As it happened, some time during the night of July 24, 1948, Cissy met exactly the sort of untimely and peculiar end that she had feared. She would miss by fewer than 24 hours the dinner meeting she had scheduled with her lawyer; the new will she had spoken about so often to so many -- including those who had most to lose by the changes she proposed -- would never be drafted or signed. Her death, and her daughter Felicia's subsequent legal challenge to the testament presented for probate, set in motion an uncanny series of events that left Washington and the rest of the nation spellbound. The legal snarl over the estate would drag on from the early fall of 1948 into the winter of 1949 and entangle a broad and colorful cast of characters in skullduggery and misadventure of many sorts -- among them warrantless surveillance, intimidation, family feuds, burglary, destruction of evidence, and the deaths (themselves untimely and peculiar) of two witnesses who were to attest under oath to the unsoundness of Cissy Patterson's mind and the coercion to which she had been subjected at the time she made the will in question.
Felicia submitted herself for questioning in Washington, D.C., on November 29, 1948. Although no transcript of this pre-trial deposition appears to have survived, her own and others' accounts recorded that she was examined on the charged subjects of her mother; her mother's mental health, their painful (occasionally violent) relationship, and her own failings. When Felicia finished her exhaustive testimony three days later, her attorneys filed a motion to seal her deposition in the interest of privacy. Although counsel for the opposing side had individually or severally fought almost every motion Felicia's legal team had submitted thus far, this request to seal her testimony went forward conspicuously unopposed. Given the longstanding resentments, jealousies, and suspicions that fueled the Patterson will fight, it is unlikely that the opposition hoped to spare her feelings or reputation. Felicia's own belief (seconded by many, including her ex-husband, the muckraking political columnist Drew Pearson) was that that the closely observed chronicle she delivered of maternal volatility, dependency, and loneliness had "scared" the opposing side into realizing that, on the stand in open court Felicia had a credible chance of persuading a jury of not only of the unsoundness of Cissy Patterson's mind, but of her mother's susceptibility to undue influence at the time she made the will in question.
Despite her post-deposition optimism, in the course of the Christmas season of 1948 Felicia Gizycka's calculus of the relative benefits -- and costs -- of winning her suit (scheduled to start in January 1949) brought about a radical change of heart. After the New Year, Felicia informed her legal team -- to their utter amazement -- that after five months of legal struggle and investigation, interviews with thousands of potential witnesses, suicides, burglaries, wiretapping, and surveillance, she had decided to drop the case. "I didn't want to go to court," she maintained, "I didn't want to show up Cissy as drunk and crazy." To further justify her decision, Felicia pointed to her lawyers' recent "discovery" that the Patterson Estate, now estimated "conservatively" at some $17,900,000, stood to pay some $10,500,000 in "Federal taxes alone." And yet, the fact that the estate would be heavily taxed had never been a secret. Moreover, it would be taxed at the same rate, whoever stood to inherit.
Even to her own counsel, Felicia's stated reasons for dropping the case seemed at best "very specious." One of her lawyers, Harold Kertz, suspected that his client was "more concerned with her own future and reputation" than with preserving her mother's good name. Indeed, was it possible to further tarnish the reputation of the woman Collier's Weekly magazine described as "probably the most powerful woman in America. And perhaps the most hated" only two years earlier? Although the press had been barred from Felicia's depositions and the transcripts had been sealed, were she to go forward with her suit she would be reexamined on the same matters -- many of them painful, salacious, and compromising. Further, her testimony would be heard in open court before a gallery of local spectators and a throng of national and international correspondents, eagerly anticipating what was widely expected to be "the juiciest, most lurid trial in generations," as one Time reporter put it. What was it then, that Felicia Gizycka was willing to keep hidden in exchange for a fortune and her birthright?
According to lawyer Harold Kertz, opposing counsel had subjected his client to a barrage of questions relating not simply to her mother's alleged "perversions," but to her own as well. "Felicia never categorically admitted to anything about lesbianism, but they had circumstantial evidence.... She admitted to sharing apartments with these people, but denied engaging in any acts of lesbianism.... Yes, under oath. Well I would, too. No, the lesbians never testified," Kertz maintained.
Although Felicia admitted freely that she loved and admired Marty Mann and Priscilla Peck, and credited them with saving her health, if not her life, she did not share her friends' sexual orientation. Twice divorced, bohemian, and, for the time, uncommonly forthright about her personal troubles, Felicia was unusually -- but not entirely -- impervious to the sting of public censure. The threat of exposure as a homosexual -- or simply as an associate of known homosexuals -- was a grave, indeed in the District of Columbia and many other jurisdictions, a criminal matter in the late 1940s. Whether the opposing party in the Patterson will case explicitly threatened Felicia and her closest friends with public exposure as lesbians if she failed to drop her suit is unclear. Nevertheless, in the six weeks following her pretrial questioning she appears to have apprehended the extent to which her testimony in open court stood to compromise not only her late mother (as she insisted to her lawyers), but herself, her closest friends and, potentially, the nascent Alcoholics Anonymous movement. "My friends and my sponsors in the outfit begged me to desist," Felicia recalled in the memoir she drafted toward the end of her life. She had always and would always maintain that she had little interest in her mother's money. Whatever her unstated reason, by abandoning her suit to break the will she left intact her friends' public reputations and privacy and allowed both them and herself to continue contributing to the growth and fruition of an organization that would salvage countless lives, as it had theirs already.
This article originally appeared on Points, an Atlantic partner site.