Sylvia K. – First Lady of Chicago AA
By bob k
AA’s earliest efforts to rehabilitate women had not gone well. The ink was barely dry on the newly printed “Big Book,” when Florence Rankin, author of A Feminine Victory (BB, 1st Edition), returned to the bottle. Shortly thereafter, and still in the Spring of 1939, Dorothy Snyder reported to Dr. Bob that her sister in Chicago was sending a woman down to Akron for “the cure.” This was done with some, not unwarranted, trepidation.
“Dr. Bob threw up his hands and said, ‘We have NEVER had a woman and will NOT work on a woman.’ But by that time, Caroline was on her way with Sylvia K.” (Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, p. 180) “Dr. Bob showed somewhat less assurance upon first confronting the most troublesome and, in some ways, the most unwelcome minority in AA’s olden days – women!” (Good Oldtimers, p. 241)
The Chicago socialite needed help. “I was thirty-three years old and my life was spent. I was caught in a cycle of alcohol and sedation that was proving inescapable, and consciousness had become intolerable.” (The Keys of the Kingdom, BB, 4th Edition, p. 268)
Sylvia could not blame her “dilemma” on childhood environment. “I was given every advantage in a well-ordered home. I had the best schools, summer camps, resort vacations, and travel… I was strong and healthy and quite athletic.” (Keys, pp. 268-269)
She drank for the first time at sixteen, and “I definitely liked everything about alcohol – the taste, the effects; and I realize now that a drink did something for me or to me that was different from the way it affected others. It wasn’t long before any party without drinks was a dud for me.” (Keys, p. 269)
This was the era of the Roaring Twenties – speakeasies, flappers, the Charleston, hip flasks, and bootlegged hooch. This was the time of F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Held Jr., and drugstore cowboys. The American economy was booming, and hard partying was “de rigueur.” Sylvia noticed later that “most everyone else I knew had emerged from it with both feet on the ground and a fair amount of adult maturity.” (Keys, p. 268)
In a 1985 interview, Earl Treat’s widow, Katie, remembers Sylvia as being originally from the nation’s capital.
Sylvia was one of the first members in the group, and a very beautiful gal. She lived in Washington, DC, and was married to one of the owners of a newspaper. She was the only one in the group that had any money. (Laugh.) She was divorced from him, and he paid her alimony. So whenever we needed coffee or cream, Sylvia would bring it, because she had the money.
Anyway, she was an eager beaver, and a spark plug. (Katie Treat Interview, AA History Lovers)
Her husband was very likely to have been one of the heirs of Samuel Hay Kauffmann, President, and one of three owners of the Washington (Evening) Star. At the time of his death in 1906, Kauffmann’s residence housed one of the city’s most impressive collections of art. For decades, the Star was DC’s preeminent newspaper.
At twenty, Sylvia was married, and by twenty-three, she was a divorcee with two children.
The self-pity from a broken home and broken heart provided reasons for increased drinking. Alimony of about $700 per month (about $10,000 in 2014 dollars) may not have healed her emotional pain, but she was able to suffer “in style.” (Her monthly income was approximately five times that of Towns physician, William Silkworth).
By the age of twenty-five, she had an alcohol problem, and “accumulating ailments” sufficient to seek out medical attention.
“Of course the doctors found nothing. Just an unstable woman, undisciplined, poorly adjusted, and filled with nameless fears. Most of them prescribed sedatives and advised rest and moderation. Between the ages of twenty-five and thirty, I tried everything… Nothing worked. My drinking habits increased in spite of my struggle for control. I tried the beer diet, the wine diet, timing, measuring, and spacing of drinks.” (Keys, p. 269)
By thirty, Sylvia was being driven by a compulsion to drink that was beyond her control. The consequences of drinking continued to multiply.
The days of pleasurable drinking were over. Instead there were nurses, doctors, hospitals, and sanitariums. A ten-day coma nearly ended it all.
“By now I wanted to die but had lost the courage even to take my life. I was trapped, and for the life of me I did not know how or why this had happened to me… I had heartsickness, shame, and fear bordering on panic, and no complete escape any longer except in oblivion.” (Keys, p. 270)
A Special Physician
For the last year, one of her doctors had a particular tenacity. He had Sylvia attending 6 a.m. mass daily, and performing “the most menial labor for his charity patients. This doctor apparently had the intuitive knowledge that spirituality and helping others might be the answer. In 1939, this doctor heard of the book Alcoholics Anonymous and wrote to New York for a copy. After reading it, he tucked it under his arm and called on Sylvia.” (Sylvia K. – Barefoot’s World)
The physician then gave her the cold, hard facts about alcoholism. Previously, “I had never been told I was an alcoholic… He further explained that alcohol was no respecter of sex or background.” (Keys, pp. 271-272)
He then put her in touch with a man who had been experiencing success by using this plan. The man was Earl Treat, who would later author He Sold Himself Short (BB, 4th Edition, p. 258).
“I don’t know what sort of person I was expecting, but I was very agreeably surprised to find Mr. T. a poised, intelligent, well-groomed, and well-mannered gentleman… He thought it would be helpful for me to visit Akron and meet many like himself… So I went to Akron… and I met more recovered alcoholics.” (Keys, pp. 273-274)
Sylvia stayed two weeks at Clarence (Clarence S., “The Home Brewmeister”) and Dorothy S.’s home in Cleveland. She met Dr. Bob, who brought other A.A. men to meet her. Dorothy S. said that the men “were only too willing to talk to her after they saw her.” Sylvia was a glamorous divorcee, extremely good looking, and rich. But these attractions probably did not help her with the wives of the alcoholics, who were known on occasion to run women out.
“After meeting Dr. Bob she wanted to move to Akron, but this caused great consternation, since her presence threatened to disrupt the whole group. Someone told her it would mean a great deal more if she could go back and help in Chicago.” (Sylvia K. – Barefoot’s World)
The little white pills she was gobbling rendered her “rubber-legged,” and were clearly not saccharin, as claimed.
There was some relief when the very “medicated” divorcee, and her nurse, boarded the Chicago-bound train, and headed immediately for the dining car.
Sweet Home, Chicago
Back in Chicago, Sylvia got sober. “According to member list index cards kept by the Chicago group, Sylvia’s date of sobriety was Sept. 13, 1939. Sylvia was probably the first woman to achieve long term permanent sobriety from then until her death.” (Sylvia K. – Barefoot’s World)
Marty Mann had shown up earlier in 1939, in New York, and her early relapses seem to have been ignored in order to favor her with the “first woman” accolade. Her friendship with Bill Wilson, and her later very public role as spokesperson for the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (NCEA), may have been contributing factors in the commonly held perception that graced her with this distinction.
“On September 20, 1939, Chicago had what is known as the first group meeting. Held in Evanston in Earl’s apartment, there were eight present.” (The History of the Chicago Group, p. 1) These included Dick R., Ken A., Earl, Sylvia, and a non-alcoholic Grace Cultice, who was Sylvia’s secretary, and went on to serve as secretary to the Chicago Intergroup, which set up its first office in Sylvia’s apartment.
AA’s rapid growth in the Midwest became explosive with the publication of the Jack Alexander article in the Saturday Evening Post. It is well-known that the skeptical newsman visited New York, Akron and Cleveland, but “he next visited the Chicago group and met several members who were newspaper people, and he said these guys talked my language. He then went to the group in St. Louis, where he had grown up, and met some people he had actually known who were now A.A. members. This convinced him; he wrote an excellent article, which was published March 1, 1941. This article opened the flood gates.” (History of the Chicago Group, p. 3)
Sylvia wrote a retrospective for the AA Grapevine that appeared in January, 1969.
The first ten years of AA in the Chicago area were years filled with much activity. During the first four or five years, the activity was at times even feverish. Early national publicity produced a “flood of requests that poured in from all over the Midwest.” This tremendous activity… provided me with everything I most desperately needed to save my life – quite literally.
As I look back, I realize this was the most exciting period of my life, filled with great humor, incredible thrills, and revelatory happenings.
By 1955, when I wrote my story for the revised edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, our membership in the Chicago area had grown from six to six thousand.
I now live in Florida with my husband (Dr. Ed S.)… He is an alky, too, and our lives have been enriched by our mutual faith and perseverance in the AA way of life. Through it we have found a quality of happiness and security that, we believe, could not have been realized any other way.
Small wonder our gratitude knows no bounds.
AA, at least in theory, has no icons. Nonetheless, in many geographical areas, there are special people who are very fondly remembered, usually for their pioneering efforts and diligence of service to their fellows. Chicago AA retains a unique fondness for two of its earliest trusted servants, Earl T., and Sylvia K.
Sylvia passed away on October 31, 1974, thirty-five years sober and her memory is honored by the very large number of people she was able to help.
A paperback version of Key Players in AA History is available at Amazon USA.