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.
A paperback version of Key Players in AA History is available at Amazon USA.