Bill Wilson and Other Women
By bob k
In “Bill’s Story,” the protagonist lets us know that among his problems as a drinker, there were assignations with “other women,” leading to remonstrations from his aggrieved wife.
”There were many unhappy scenes in our sumptuous apartment. There had been no real infidelity, for loyalty to my wife, helped at times by extreme drunkenness, kept me out of those scrapes.” (Big Book, p. 3)
“Despite his technical innocence, something at least imaginably adulterous did occur, and more than once.” (Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew Raphael, p. 53)
Decades later, a non-inhaling U.S. President would sound much the same – “I did NOT have sex with that woman!” And, of course, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”
Innocence, by way of technicality. Or, in the case of the AA founder, possibly a white lie for the protection of Lois Wilson.
It is worth remembering that this was a different era, an age in which many wives of the men of power or prestige, wealth or genius, turned a blind eye to a certain amount of sexual philandering, if they were able to “keep up appearances.”
In one of the many films about JFK, Jacqueline becomes enraged, not by her husband’s infidelity, but by his lack of discretion.
Pass It On
“Pass It On,” first published in 1984, documents some bizarre, and possibly embarrassing scenarios involving clinical depression, Ouiga boards, séances, vitamin therapy, and LSD experimentation, but there are no accounts of marital infidelity. That there is not the barest mention of Bill’s most serious lover, Helen Wynn, belies any attempts to present “Pass It On” as less than sanitized.
Helen Wynn was bequeathed ten percent of Wilson’s book royalties. This was both in his will, and in an agreement with GSO.
It is likely that AA’s “official” account, “Pass It On” would have been further redacted if not for an injudicious granting of full archives access to Ernest Kurtz in the late 70s, when he was researching the incomparable chronicle of AA history, “Not-God.” The “cat was out of the bag” on LSD, etc. in 1979.
Of all the Wilson biographers, no one had greater direct access to the founder than Robert Thomsen. He worked directly alongside Bill for twelve years, from 1959 to 1971. Published in 1975, the Thomsen biography, “Bill W.” as would be the case with the “Conference Approved” “Pass It On”, was “authorized.” “Lois read and approved (it).” (Bill W., Susan Cheever, p. 224)
Under such scrutiny, Thomsen was a co-conspirator in the “code of silence” and was able only to include one small hint at matters sexual. “…Fitz, Hank and Bill were three extraordinarily healthy males… men who had meant to live life passionately…” (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 226)
In spite of being undeniably “sanitized,” the Thomsen effort is worth reading, although not above legitimate criticism. “That the book contains neither documentation nor index reinforces the notion that Bill W. is more of a biographical novel than a biography.” (Raphael, p. 19)
His description of a Clinton St. meeting of the 1930s is particularly heartening for non-believer AA members, decades later.
“There were agnostics in the Tuesday night group, and several hardcore atheists who objected to any mention of God. On many evenings Bill had to remember his first meeting with Ebby. He’d been told to ask for help from anything he believed in. These men, he could see, believed in each other and in the strength of the group. At some time each of them had been totally unable to stop drinking on his own, yet when two of them had worked at it together, somehow they had become more powerful and they had finally been able to stop. This, then – whatever it was that occurred between them – was what they could accept as a power greater than themselves.” (Thomsen, p. 230)
Pulitzer Prize winner, “Nan Robertson in her 1988 book, ‘Getting Better,’… briefly discusses Bill’s sex life.” (Cheever, p. 227)
“She (Lois) believed in him fiercely and tended his flame. Yet, particularly during his sober decades in AA in the forties, fifties and sixties, Bill Wilson was a compulsive womanizer. His flirtations and his adulterous behavior filled him with guilt, according to old-timers close to him, but he continued to stray off the reservation.” (Getting Better, Nan Robertson, p. 36)
These peccadilloes received an even greater airing in the 2000 Francis Hartigan bio, once again titled “Bill W.” Hartigan was Lois’ secretary in the 1980s, and was given access to her voluminous supply of records and letters relating to her husband, and to AA itself.
“Bill Wilson’s personal popularity in AA circles was enormous. People would wait in line at large AA gatherings just to touch his sleeve. Many treated him like the Messiah or, in today’s world, a rock star… Wilson also had his enemies, many of them people who were previously among his staunchest allies. They accused him of betrayal, of power mongering, of lacking principle… of personal immorality, and even of insanity… With the exception of the womanizing, none of those charges were true.” (Hartigan, p. 1)
Clearly, Hartigan was not out to do a hatchet job, but to present a picture of Bill Wilson without the customary air-brushing.
James Houck, an old Oxford Grouper who has been brought to some notoriety by “Back To Basics” founder, Wally P., “recalls that he (Bill) often regaled its (Oxford Group’s) male members with tales of his exploits… Bill was frequently ‘checked’ for his smoking and womanizing, but he simply ignored these admonitions.” (Hartigan, pp. 68-69)
Hartigan also interviewed Tom Powers Sr., Bill’s writing partner on the “Twelve & Twelve,” who stated that “Bill was frequently overwhelmed by the guilt and remorse he felt as a consequence of his infidelities and the turmoil his affairs were causing within the Fellowship.” (Hartigan, p. 170) Powers insisted that Wilson’s guilt over his infidelities was responsible for his depression. No argument was returned. “You’re right… But I can’t give it up.” (Hartigan, p. 171)
“While other people I spoke with insisted that Lois never knew about Bill’s affairs, Tom insisted that ‘Lois knew everything and she didn’t have to guess about it, either. A lot of people tried to protect her, but there were others who would run to Stepping Stones to tell Lois all about it when they saw Bill with another woman.” (Hartigan, p. 171)
Sexual fidelity does not seem to be something of which Bill Wilson was capable.
“His father was not faithful, and it was not something he had been brought up to consider a value… Barry Leach, a longtime AA member who was a close friend of Bill’s for more than twenty-five years, Jack Norris, and Nell Wing all said that Bill had let them know how badly he felt about his unfaithfulness to Lois.” (Hartigan, p. 172-173)
Two Wynns, No Losses
Bill met Helen Wynn at an AA meeting, when he was about sixty. Eighteen years his junior, the former actress was by all accounts a very attractive woman with tremendous charisma. “Of all the women Bill was close to outside his marriage, none had as much impact as Helen Wynn.” (Cheever, p. 229) This one was different, and the liaison was to continue for fifteen years.
“Soon after the affair began (in the mid 1950s), Bill got Helen, who had been sober only a short time, a job at AA Grapevine… (where) she worked her way up over a period of years to become the managing editor. After Helen left the Grapevine in 1962, Bill contributed to her support, though when he wanted to direct a portion of his royalty income to her, the AA trustees refused to do it. Bill was furious.” (Hartigan, p. 192)
In the end, she inherited a royalty share but lived on only a few years beyond Bill’s death. This relationship went way beyond any previous involvements. This was a “soul-mate” situation, and it seems that Bill had to be talked out of “divorcing Lois so that he could marry Helen. A number of people thought that, given the strength of his feelings for Wynn, only his sense of obligation toward Lois kept him from going through with it.” (Hartigan, p. 195)
Some years earlier, there had been another Wynn.
“Another alleged mistress has been outed by novelist Carolyn See in a memoir of her familial drinking life. It seems that Wynn C., See’s father’s second wife, had once ‘come within a hair’s breadth of becoming the First Lady of AA.’ For a while during the late 1940’s or early 1950’s, ‘she and Bill had been a mighty item.’ A tall and buxom beauty…Wynn ‘was a knockout, and she knew it, and dressed like a chorus girl.’” (Raphael, p. 130)
Bill wouldn’t, and couldn’t, marry her, but he put her story in the book, the second edition of Alcoholics Anonymous. In her tale, “Freedom From Bondage,” she takes a self-deprecatory jab at her succession of relationships. “I had always been a cinch for the program, for I had always been interested in mankind – I was just taking them one man at a time.” (BB, p. 548)
Bill sometimes went to AA events alone.
“When Bill wasn’t accompanied by Lois (or later, Helen) he could often be observed engaged in animated conversation with an attractive young newcomer. His interest in younger women seemed to grow more intense with age. Barry Leach… told me that in the 1960s he and other friends of Bill’s formed what they came to refer to as the ‘Founder’s Watch’ committee.” (Hartigan, p. 192)
This group had the specific mission of short-circuiting these flirtations before they could become potentially inappropriate involvements.
Of the Bill W. biographers, Susan Cheever is the most controversial, while at the same time, perhaps the finest writer. Her descriptions of the Vermont mining town of Wilson’s youth are outstanding, and we are treated to a sense of history in tales of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.
Cheever, herself an “un-anonymous” AA member, also delves into Bill’s sexuality, and the code of silence surrounding it. “Bill sex life is still a secret, something AA members buzz about over coffee after meetings, but something which has been excised from the official literature and – for the most part from the official AA archives.” (Cheever, p. 224)
According to Cheever, there are letters from Bill to Lois, in which he tries desperately to explain away a flirtation and kissing incident with Lois’ younger sister, Barb. To prove his straightforwardness Bill offers full disclosure of his sexual history, which began when he was young. “His first sexual experience occurred when he was thirteen, and it was with an older girl who worked at the hotel.” (Cheever, p. 68)
And, there were more.
In getting past the incident with Barb, ”…they set the pattern for their long marriage. Bill was passionate, and abashed by his behavior; Lois was forgiving and comforting.” (Cheever, p. 68)
Bill’s writing reflects an inner acquaintance with immoderation. “In Step Six (of the Twelve and Twelve), he notes that ‘since most of us are born an abundance of natural desires, it isn’t strange that we often let those far exceed their intended purpose.’” (Cheever, p. 233)
“I can resist anything but temptation.”- Oscar Wilde
The Big Book
“We all have sex problems. We’d hardly be human if we didn’t.” (BB, p. 69) Ideally, in AA, sex can be treated like any other problem, but it’s clear that “sex is not just ‘any other problem’ for Wilson”. (Raphael, pp. 127-128)
“We want to stay out of this controversy. We do not want to be the arbiter of anyone’s sex conduct… God alone can judge our sex situation… We earnestly pray for the right ideal… If sex is very troublesome, we throw ourselves the harder into helping others… It quiets the imperious urge…” (BB, p. 69-70)
AA’s fifth step is a confession, but Wilson warns that “we cannot disclose anything to our wives…which will hurt them and make them unhappy.” (BB, p. 74) And what if, (in sobriety): “Perhaps we are mixed up with women in a fashion we wouldn’t care to have advertised… If we are sure our wife does not know, should we tell her? Not always, we think… If we can forget, so can she. It is better, however, that one does not needlessly name a person upon whom she can vent jealousy.” (BB, p. 81-82)
Biographer, Matthew Raphael (a pseudonym), himself an AA member, finds this whole approach astonishingly convenient. “In its scrupulous desire to protect the ‘innocent’ third party, such a passage seems remarkably self-serving, exculpatory of the husband’s ‘wild’ behavior, but admonishing the wife’s ‘natural’ (but potentially hysterical) ‘jealousy.’ If we choose to forget the offense, then why shouldn’t she?”
“What’s truly incredible in Wilson’s handling of adultery is his impersonation of a woman’s point of view in the chapter he would not permit Lois to write.” (Raphael, p. 129)
”He will tell you he is misunderstood. This may lead to lonely evenings for you. He may even seek someone else to console him – not always another man.” (BB, p. 111) “The menacing coyness of this threat is calculated to put any uppity wife in her place, which is to be seen, perhaps, but definitely not to be heard.” (Raphael, p. 129)
“His preoccupation with infidelity, however likely sprang from his own history of philandering, no trace of which, unsurprisingly, is to be found in official AA publications.” (Raphael, p. 130)
There are many men of achievement who have exhibited a preoccupation with sex. Are their accomplishments diminished by this? For some, a great deal. For others, not at all. Some undoubtedly see a level of hypocrisy separating AA’s spiritual “code of conduct,” and the actions and attitudes of its founder.
“It is worth remembering that Bill was raised almost a century ago (written in 2000), and while he could justifiably be accused of possessing sexist attitudes, he was also capable of treating the women who worked with him with dignity and respect. When Bill wrote the literature now being objected to as sexist, he was reflecting the prevailing attitude of his time.” (Hartigan, p. 197)
In 1964, shortly after the assassination, Arthur Crock, the grand old conservative columnist of “The New York Times” wrote of President John F. Kennedy, “The truth explains what the gathering myth obscures – that he was endearingly and admirably human.”
The same could be as easily be said of William Griffith Wilson.
The featured image at the top of this article is a picture of Bill and Lois Wilson, taken after the funeral of Dr. Bob.
Well, I don’t compare Bill W. to Kennedy for anything other than flawed men can still be capable of good things. I believe Bill was. If I based everything solely on personalities or a moral compass, I would have to throw out the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and many other otherwise good things that were contributed to by men who cheated on their wives, owned slaves, were drunks or anything else undesireable.
I think that that is the EXACT comparison that was made.
I was in one of the first Alateen groups on this misbegotten planet. Met the unloving couple at Lois Al-Anon picnic in May of 1958. Instantly disliked the emotionally uninterested Bill W. Went to a few college course with the then closeted Barry Leach who ghost wrote the Al-Anon basic text. He and Lois had a verbal contract stated he would be remunerated for his work – it never happened. So much for “honest programs”.
I heard that Barry had been stiffed for writing, I think, Living Sober, but this other is news to me.
Where does your information come from?
Another thought provoking article and discussion. So refreshing. Thank you to the author and everyone who has commented. Being able to step out beyond the confining walls of Big Book worshiping AA and into rational and realistic discussion is literally saving my life! Thank you!!
Thanks for a well written article. I was reminded, when reading it, of a group bus trip I took to Akron, Ohio for a Founder’s Day weekend many years ago.
Our bus stopped at a restaurant for dinner and we had a private room with a huge table. One of the members threw a topic (amid much laughter) on the table when he said:
“We’re all alkies here. I think we should talk about the other five addictions underlying our primary one.”
It was a most wonderful couple of hours as everyone shared honestly from the heart.
And yes, all 50 of us there shared the “sex addiction” gene whether straying from committed relationships or not.
I remember the overwhelming sense of relief as we all hugged before climbing back on the bus.
So yeah, Bill W., you’d have enjoyed that informal meeting.
In the pages covering the 4th step, the BB states, “..we treat sex as we would any other problem,” and I have treated the sex essay as I would any other essay. I have reviewed the histories and biographies and provided an overview of what has been written. The words in the piece are mostly not mine.
Of course, there is a lot of speculation involved. A lot of the evidence is “hearsay.” Individual accusations could be dismissed. It’s the accumulation that builds the case.
Thanks to Bill White for the opening words from Sir Winston. There is no video to be reviewed, nor stained dress to be DNA-tested.
Here’s an interesting quote that I missed from Bill’s autobiography. Starting in about 1955, Bill began recording recollections of his life. These tapes were used to posthumously publish “My First Forty Years.” The following is in the AFTERWORD.
“There will be future historical revelations about Bill’s character and behavior in recovery that will be interpreted, by some, as direct attacks on the very foundation of AA. Bill often wished he could be just another AA member with no trace of notoriety. But such revelations will, in the end, only reinforce Bill’s humanness and, most important, the extent to which Bill acted to the best of his ability to protect AA from himself.”
Well said, Bob. In my reading of and about Bill throughout my recovery, I am heartened and encouraged by his human frailties. When I read about some of his less-than-noble attributes and characteristics — the reality of his humanness — it comforts me as I continue to struggle with mine, making perhaps some progress but never perfection. He remains for me a powerful example of an addicted alcoholic, who continues to recover despite his notable character flaws.
None of us experience miracle cures; instead, we experience “daily reprieves contingent upon the maintenance of our spiritual condition,” however such “spiritual condition” may manifests itself in our humanness . . .
A good read is “After the Ecstasy, the Laundry” by Jack Kornfield. There are no saints. Even Gandhi may have had some serious problems with sexual repression, influenced by the British Victorian era. He was determined to destroy some ancient Hindu temples because of depictions of Trantric sex. He was stopped thankfully. This is no more enlightened than the Taliban destroying ancient Buddhist monuments. It doesn’t take away from all that he accomplished. Bill W’s imperfections do not take away from his accomplishments. It’s good to know the truth and if it prevents people from anointing Bill W. a saint, all the better. I’m still grateful for what he did. AA may be flawed but I don’t think Bill W’s personal life should be used as evidence. The literature stands alone, imperfect and a reflection of a sexist era for sure. Thankfully Al-Anon and many other programs have grown from the AA model. A tribute to the founders of AA. Many wives and husbands of alcoholics have turned to these programs to receive the help they need.
Even apart from the philandering, Wilson didn’t exactly treat Lois with the respect she deserved. Even though she knew a thing or two about being married to an alcoholic both drunk and sober and would later become the founder of Al-Anon, not only did Bill not ask her to write the BB chapter “To Wives,” he even asked Dr Bob’s wife to write it, according to DR. BOB and the Good Oldtimers,:
One of the ironies, and a delicious fragment of AA trivia is that at the time the Big Book was being written, one of the Wilsons had been published, and it wasn’t Bill. Lois had an article or two on decorating published in a national magazine.
If anything gets changed in the book (Don’t hold your breath, folks), it won’t be the “God stuff;” it will be TO WIVES.
Thomsen wrote that Aldous Huxley claimed Bill W was “the greatest social architect of the 20th century”, but gives no provenance for that remark. I doubt that Thomsen made it up, but where/when did Huxley write/say it?
Robert Lefever, founder of the PROMIS addicitions treatment center in Kent, England, suggested that nowadays Bill would probably have joined other fellowships for his addictions to nicotine and lust. Fact remains that our co-founder stayed abstinent from alcohol from the day of his last drink till the day he died 36 years later (though Cheever records that he cried out for whisky on his deathbed; once an alcoholic always an alcoholic).
She also wrote:
May the guy rest in peace.
I’m not the man I want to be either, but still pretty content with what I have achieved and/or been blessed with.
Delighted to see further debunking of the Bill Wilson sainthood fairy tale that has been floating around AA for too many years. Great post!
Bill’s personal faults are not an issue for me. What concerns me far more is that he established a structure based on crypto-christian principles, and that so many AAers treat his dogma as divinely revealed truth.
This has led to an anti-intellectual bent in our fellowship that ignores or denounces any questioning of the ‘the principles’. We spout nostrums based on convictions that are not supported by anything but anecdotal evidence. I ran into an example of this a couple of days ago at post-meeting coffee. A chap at table with a good deal of time in AA orated on what keeps people sober – regular attendance at meetings, sponsorship, service work, working the steps. This all based on nothing but personal observation no more valid than my own over the decades. The only common characteristic I have seen among those who stay sober is that they don’t drink.
Well, perhaps what he was sharing is what people do in order to not drink.
Very well said, Lech.
You last sentence sums it up.
Thankyou for the perspective, Bob K. You have presented further evidence that Bill Wilson’s lack of trust in himself permeated his Big Book and 12 & 12 writings, caused him to ultimately be distrustful of others, and strongly informed his behavior, even while dry from alcohol. That’s seemingly where the “preachy” and shameful language comes from. The travesty in this is that the Big Book’s Official title is: “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” suggesting that the Big Book was written by and/or about an amalgamation of AA successes. From what I can see, the entire book is Bill’s Story. One man’s experience makes a great narrative, not a longitudinal study or sacred text. As a result, it cannot, for me, represent an all-inclusive playbook for recovery from alcoholism. Of course, that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.
Indeed. To point out what should be otherwise obvious, is the challenge for most thinking people today.
Thanks Bob – Shit slingin’ is one of my favorite pastimes, in fact I think it pre-eminates baseball. Love the fact or fiction that ol’ Willie is just as human as me. AA needs no deities, clay-footed or otherwise.
I do believe there are historians who think Hartigan is naive to take Powers at his word without any substantiation.
In the last ten years or so, I have seen opinions expressed that Wynn was depressive or could connect with Wilson on his depression, something Lois was incapable of doing.
We really don’t know what was going on and are using late 20th/early 21st century thinking to analyze what was going on in a different age. That doesn’t add up in my book.
Good article. Really opens up some discussion.
Wilson was no saint.
Great article, though I think it goes too far towards dismissing Bill W.’s hypocrisy and charlatanism in its comparison of Bill W. to Kennedy.
Here is another memorable posting on my favorite recovery web site. It is very important to me that we in recovery do not deify our founders, rewrite our program’s history, or in any way create a religion of AA recovery. Recognition of our humanity reminds us that we are each accountable for our personal recovery, and that our program, warts and all, is a wonderful mechanism to drive a full life, free of alcohol, and of course, free of any mythology.
All I know is that Bill was an alcoholic and that I did not have a great track record.
If it was not for Bill, Bob and the others I would not be here today living a different life. I’m very grateful.
Wonderful article, Bob !~!~! Such an important piece of history gathering together from the wide variety of sources in one place a truthful picture of the reality of who Bill was — to my male mind, his humanness regarding sexuality in no way detracts from what he was able to manifest during a decidedly different time with different mores and customs.
Shortly after Nan Robertson’s book, Getting Better: Inside Alcoholics Anonymous was published, which was the first to openly touch upon his infidelities, I interviewed Lois with Margaret McPike as part of research we were doing about Ebby Thatcher, who spent the last couple of year’s of his life sober at Margaret’s McPikes Farm near Ballston Spa, New York. I was impertinent enough to pose a question to Lois about Bill’s infidelities. I watched a steel curtain of her personality close down on her face as she curtly replied, “Bill was never unfaithful to me in his entire life.”
I compassionately realized how crucial it was for her to protect not only Bill’s, but her own reputation as well. Such is the power of sex in our faux god-fearing puritanical, which simultaneously spends billions of dollars yearly supporting the porn industry.
Bill W helped to organize and lead AA, which are perhaps good points, but I can’t say I admire him. His irrationality (belief in spirits and god) made him posit a nonexistent god as the force which causes people to get sober. To me, this is pretty stupid. And his persistent socially unacceptable behavior with women makes me wonder why he thought moral improvement was the route to sobriety, for, after all, he was staying sober while cheating on his wife. His hypocrisy makes me think of big-time preachers threatening hellfire for sinners even as they themselves are cheating on their spouses and on their taxes. All in all, Bill had a lot in common with many AAs, in that he sobered up, prayed to his make-believe god, and smoked himself to death.
Thanks for another great history lesson.
I hardly ever open the BB any more. Not only is it written amateurishly in the style of the30’s, it’s preachy and often sheer nonsense. I did re-read the chapter to wives, which I haven’t done in 30+ years, and was disgusted. Once again, his whole solution is to turn your cheating husband and your honest reactions over to his “God”. Didn’t work for him and Lois.
I don’t think I’ve heard sexuality as a topic in discussion meetings more than once, and I think that’s regrettable. We talk about addiction, mental illness, all kinds of criminal behavior, etc., but never discuss this central aspect of our humanity and its entanglement with our sober growth. I think it’s taboo status stems from the hypocritical Christianity of middle-class America in the 30’s reflected in Bill’s writing.
Initially I thought that such articles just perpetuate the Cult of Personality mythologizing the founders, but having sat through one too many readings of “To Wives”, it really is important to understand the “imperfections” and hypocrisy that motivated his writing. It is not just archaic and sexist, it is just plain BAD ADVICE. Long before I became an alcoholic, I was married to one. In desperation, I brought home The BB. My rageholic husband stayed up reading it, and announced that he would just wait for the lightening bolt, but I better learn to “never criticize, condemn,or be angry.” And “cheerfully see him through more sprees.” BAD ADVICE to Wives, from a very flawed, very selfish, very needy and demanding man. Apparently it worked on Lois, but I eventually saved my own life and got the hell out of there. Now when a meeting reads that, I say what I can about that truth before leaving. Johanna O
Those who have canonized Bill W. will never admit anything was wrong, especially the Big Book. We are all human; adding drugs and alcohol makes the ugly side of our human-ess even more prevalent. Live and Let Live. You really need to read between the lines of his writings to truly see what was going on. 25 years ago I stepped into AA, with their help I’m still sober without any interruptions in my sobriety. With that said, there is other ways to recover and stay recovered. AA is but one tool in the toolbox that fix the problem.
Progress, not perfection is our goal. Stagnation is ever present. What is the next right step, in this moment? Take a deep breath, and maybe another. Take action.