Lois Wilson

Lois Wilson

By bob k

There are few people who better epitomize the sentiments of  the Tammy Wynette country classic “Stand By Your Man”, than Lois Wilson. As the founder of Al-Anon, she is lovingly remembered by hundreds of thousands, or more, who have seen loved ones recover, or have, at least, been comforted, and guided, in their times of struggle. The preponderance of the afore-mentioned see her as heroic, but an equally compelling case can be made by others who view her as the pathetic quintessence of a female subservience that is, thankfully, a distant memory.

Had Lois enjoyed the strength and independent spirit of her mother-in-law, Emily, she well might have, in saving herself, adversely affected millions to come. Without her persistence and seemingly limitless devotion, it is unlikely that her husband would have gotten and stayed sober. Devoid of her financial and moral support, he would surely have been unable to dedicate himself to the cause of saving others, and to pursue with single-minded dedication his far-reaching dreams.

Although certainly more saint than sinner, it is difficult to overlook an underlying desperation and codependence in Lois Wilson that is the antithesis of what is counselled in the Al-Anon brochures.

In fairness to Lois, it was a very different time. Born in 1891, Lois would not have been able to vote until she was nearly thirty. It’s entirely possible that she may have consulted her drunken spouse as to whom she should vote for.

The Burnhams

Lois’s “father, Clark, was a prominent physician in Brooklyn Heights, New York, and her father’s father had been a physician, a lawyer, and a minister in the Swedenborgian Church… Her mother, Matilda Hoyt Spelman was from an old aristocratic family… The Burnhams had a cook, a maid, and a man to tend to the fires, make the repairs, and take care of the horses and carriage. In the spring, the whole household would follow his patients to Manchester, Vermont”. (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 13)

The Robert Todd Lincoln family lived in Manchester, and were social acquaintances of the Burnhams. “Bill loved Manchester Village, which seemed as far from East Dorset as Mars with its wide-open greens and two golf courses… Manchester Village was ‘old’ money.” (My Name Is Bill, Susan Cheever, pp. 39-40) “Lois’ father was a champion golfer and a founder of the exclusive Ekwanok Country Club.” (Hartigan, p. 13) Lois went to Packer Collegiate, a prestigious girls’ school in Brooklyn. Her siblings also attended private schools, and her brothers went on to become physicians like their father.

It was all quite grand, but their life had a marginal quality, as well. The Brooklyn Heights house was on Clinton Street, which marked the easternmost boundary of the exclusive Heights neighborhood… Throughout Lois’s childhood, it was rented, not owned. Some of the family furnishings were other people’s discards… Lois’s childhood was marked by steadily diminishing expectations… During the six months a year the family spent in Vermont, her father’s income seems to have been meager, at best. (Hartigan, pp. 13-14)

In the struggle to keep up appearances, and to make ends meet, the family began to rent out the grand Spelman home in Manchester, and a few years later they sold it. A more modest camp was acquired on Emerald Lake, very near the East Dorset home of Bill Wilson.


Bill W and Mr Wilson“In her memoirs, Lois Burnham Wilson recalls how a nodding acquaintance with Bill Wilson, who was four years her junior, blossomed into love during the summer of 1914.”  (Bill W. And Mr. Wilson, Matthew Raphael, p. 36) Lois was one of the “summer people”.

“She had social graces of which I knew nothing… so her encouragement of me and her interest in me did a tremendous amount to back me up.” (Pass It On, p. 39) There may have been various elements at play in sparking Bill’s interest in the older woman. “Winning the hand of the rich doctor’s daughter would be one more way to prove himself a Number One man.” (Raphael, p. 37) There was also the lure of “the nurturing family he was lacking… not a brilliant prospect as a son-in-law… But they liked him.” (Lois Remembers, Lois Wilson, p. 16) His competitive juices may have been fired by a competing suitor, Norman Schneider, of the Canadian meat-packing entrepreneurs, who wanted Lois to marry him and move to Kitchener, Ontario. Perhaps the effectively parentless Bill couldn’t stand another desertion so recently after losing the love-of-his-life, Bertha Bamford, to a minor surgery gone tragically wrong.

So, the “boating buddies” of 1914 became secretly engaged in 1915.

There was a complication. Bill had had a “flirtation” with Lois’s seventeen year old sister, Barb, that seems to have overlapped his romance with Lois. In a series of rueful letters, he confessed his full sexual history, presumably to attach credibility to his story that “he had been continuing to flirt with Barb… so that she wouldn’t guess that he was secretly engaged to Lois”. (Cheever, p. 68) Lois’s forgiveness and comforting set a pattern for their long marriage.

“Bill later suggested… that a maternal element lay at the heart of his relationship with Lois.” (Raphael, p. 42) “At the unconscious level, I have no doubt she was already becoming my mother… I think Lois came along and picked me up as tenderly as a mother does a child.” (PIO, p. 40)

An odd comment to pass regarding one’s wife or lover.

War fever ran high

Bill was soon at Plattsburgh training for the Great War and discovering the wealthy patriots who feted the boys in uniform and were quick to excuse any over-indulgence by the brave lads.

“Here was love, applause, war; moments sublime with intervals hilarious. I was part of life at last, and in the midst of the excitement I discovered liquor. I forgot the strong warnings of my people concerning drink. In time we sailed for ‘Over There.’ I was very lonely and again turned to alcohol.” (AA Big Book, p. 1) Before going off to an uncertain fate, Bill married Lois in Brooklyn Heights on January 24, 1918.


The conquering hero remained in Europe for an extended victory celebration, returning to the States in May, 1919, a full six months after the cessation of hostilities. He then “moved with Lois to her parent’s brick row house at 184 Clinton St.” By the fall of the same year, his bride was taking him on a “geographical cure”, a hiking trip from Maine to Vermont, a month in the woods. Preceding this trip, Bill and Rogers Burnham had gotten very drunk together and caused some havoc, but the returned servicemen were readily forgiven.

Lois RemembersBack in New York, it was time to get jobs, and Bill began a pattern of inconsistent employment. “Wilson got a job decoding cablegrams for an export company. He then worked for a time for… the insurance department of the New York Central Railroad. At another point, he again worked for the New York Central, this time driving spikes on one of its piers. No matter what the job, he either quit or got fired… Many of these jobs were acquired through the good graces of his wife’s family and friends.” (Hartigan, p. 29)

The young couple  moved out to a furnished room, a humble dwelling, and upgraded to a three room flat only “when Lois found a better-paying job in the women’s psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital”. (Raphael, p. 44)

There were three ectopic pregnancies between 1921 and 1923 which led, ultimately, to radical surgery. “It seemed that after all hope of having children had died, his bouts with alcohol became more frequent… He never hit me, but I hit him.” (Lois Remembers, p. 35) The bride was becoming increasingly frustrated with her recalcitrant husband. As 1923 neared its close, “his Christmas present to Lois that year was a pledge – ‘no liquor will pass my lips for one year’”. (Bill W., Robert Thomsen) This was to be the first of several oaths.

The motorcycle maintenance program

“Sometimes it’s a little better to travel than to arrive.” (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig)

Bill had a theory about the value of investigating companies as a valuable tool for investors, and Lois had a theory that removed from temptation her husband would drink less.

We gave up our positions and off we roared on a motorcycle, the sidecar stuffed with tent, blankets, a change of clothes, and three huge volumes of a financial reference service. Our friends thought a lunacy commission should be appointed. Perhaps they were right. I had had some success at speculation, so we had a little money, but we once worked on a farm for a month to avoid drawing on our small capital. That was the last honest manual labor on my part for many a day. We covered the whole eastern United States in a year. At the end of it, my reports to Wall Street procured me a position there and the use of a large expense account. The exercise of an option brought in more money, leaving us with a profit of several thousand dollars for that year. (BB, pp. 2-3)

The trip in 1925 ignited Wilson’s career in the stock market, but it also marked the further attempt of a frustrated wife to “fix” her husband by separating him from his unsavory New York haunts and associates. This was somewhat successful, until they returned. “The great boom of the late twenties was seething and swelling.” (BB, p. 3) These were conditions in which a clever drunk could thrive. The American stock market was on a steady upward climb. “For the next few years fortune threw money and applause my way. I had arrived.” (BB, p. 3)

His home life was not as successful, as his drinking had further escalated. Bill did not respond well to the “remonstrances of my friends… I became a lone wolf. There were many unhappy scenes in our sumptuous apartment”. (BB, p. 3)

The crash

Notwithstanding a dissatisfied spouse, “he believed he was winning and during this time it never occurred to him that success and happiness were not the same… In fact, at the start of 1929, Bill Wilson was living in what many would call an alcoholic’s paradise”. (Thomsen, p. 150)

By Halloween, it would all be very different.

The stock market crash of late October, 1929, abruptly ended any lingering pretense that Bill Wilson was managing, that he “had it together”. When “Black Tuesday” closed, Bill’s prized stock, Pennick and Ford, had fallen from $52 a share to $32. This was a loss of 40%, but owing to margin-buying, he and his associates had lost everything, and more. Bill W. went from prosperous drunk to a $60,000 debtor in a matter of hours. The ruin of his clients was devastating to his “guru” status, and all of his attempted comebacks were short-lived.

Lois Wilson revived her earlier role as principal breadwinner, a role that was to continue for more than an additional decade. “Lois got a job at Macy’s… in the furniture department demonstrating folding card tables, and she brought home $19 a week.” They were back living with her parents.

Lois’s mother was battling cancer. She was a woman who had treated Bill like a son, “yet when she died on Christmas Day, Bill had been drunk for days, and on the day of her funeral, he was too drunk to attend”. (Hartigan, p. 46)

There were periods of sobriety for Bill that sparked hope for Lois, particularly following the Towns Hospital treatments that began in 1933. Each ended in “insane” returns to drinking. The bleakest of prognoses offered by Dr. Silkworth produced a sobering terror, but no lasting abstinence.

In 1934, Lois moved from Macy’s to Loeser’s department store “in order to be closer to home and deal with any emergencies that might arise there”. (Raphael, p. 94)

Pioneering times

The events of December, 1934 are well-known, and do not need to be recounted here. The Wilsons launched a consuming campaign of helping others, as a means of keeping Bill sober, that was at times tragic, at times comic. For the “alcoholic husband-focused” Lois, there were to be some moments of self-discovery.

Bill’s summer in Akron provided the critical starting point of Alcoholics Anonymous, but  “‘I thought Bill would never come home from Akron,’ his wife, Lois, said. ‘I nagged and nagged him to return.’… The long-suffering Lois was losing her temper more frequently. She was resentful… that her husband didn’t have time for her anymore”. (Getting Better Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, Nan Robertson, p. 64)

Lois tirelessly lodged and fed the succession of drunks that her husband was trying to rescue. Hamilton lawyer and bridge hustler, Bill C., committed suicide in their home.


Lois Wilson

Bill and Lois had taken over the Clinton Street property after her father had remarried, and left New York. In April of 1939, they celebrated the new book, but were finally evicted from the old Burnham family home.

To Wives

Lois wanted to write both of the chapters in the Big Book “To Wives” and “The Family Afterward” and for decades following felt the hurt that came from her husband’s refusal. After offering the task to Anne Smith, Bill decided to do it himself. Committing one of the most egregious of errors, he wrote “To Wives” while fraudulently representing that the chapter was penned by a woman.

Biographer Matthew Raphael is particularly harsh on Bill Wilson, the reputed womanizer, for his handling of sex issues in the book. “What’s truly incredible in Wilson’s handling of adultery is his impersonation of a woman’s point of view in the chapter that he would not permit Lois to write… Later… he seems to hold women accountable if their men should stray. ‘The first principle of success is that you should never be angry.’” (Raphael, p. 129)

“He will tell you he is misunderstood. This may lead to lonely evenings for you. He may 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… His preoccupation with infidelity… likely sprang from his own history of philandering, no trace of which, unsurprisingly, is to be found in official AA publications. (Raphael, pp. 129-130)

An understanding?

There is a bio-pic on JFK, where Jacqueline goes into a rage, not about her husband’s infidelity, but over his breaking of a promise to be discreet. We are left to speculate on the attitude of Lois Wilson regarding her spouse’s behavior with other women. “Wilson’s marriage to Lois Burnham in 1918 lasted until his death at the age of seventy-five in 1971. She believed in him fiercely and tended his flame. Yet, particularly during his sober decades… Bill Wilson was a compulsive womanizer. His flirtations filled him with guilt… but he continued to stray off the reservation. His last and most serious love affair… began when he was in his sixties.” (Robertson, p. 36) That woman was Helen Wynn, who he considered marrying, and to whom he bequeathed a book royalty.


For the first twenty-five years of the Wilsons’ marriage, Lois was the principal wage-earner, save for Bill’s “glory days” in the booming market of the late twenties. For a goodly portion of that time, they lacked even a home of their own, and shuffled about in and out of the homes of relatives and AA members.

Eventually, book revenues made them “comfortable.” In one of life’s ironies, Lois eventually became wealthy as her inherited royalties rose well into six figures annually, and approached a million dollars in her last year. The ambitious Bill Wilson’s greatest financial triumphs came after his death.

A second irony came when the childless Lois Wilson sought to leave a substantial portion of her estate to Alcoholics Anonymous, but the Traditions precluded AA’s acceptance.

On October 5th, 1988, Lois Burnham Wilson died at 97 years of age. Her limitless tolerance of her husband’s peccadilloes is difficult to understand in the context of our twenty-first century culture. Perhaps, she was simply a creature of a different time.

Years after Bill’s death, she continued to proclaim, “My husband was a great man”, and indeed, he was.


18 Responses

  1. Juliet A. says:

    “To Wives” is an example of Bill W’s dishonesty well after he was purported to be working the AA program himself – a program which demands rigorous honesty. Lois stuck by a womanizer and I as a woman feel this advice is ill-advised to any woman today. Perhaps, were she to stick by him today, they’d label their marriage an “open relationship.” I think it’s good though that more people in AA are honestly examining Bill W’s flaws… was he a “great man” though… my opinion is no. Does that mean there are not great men in AA today having said that? No, of course not. But AA would do well to revise their literature and correct these “errors.” It’s 2015.

    • bobk says:

      Anyone’s “greatness” is debatable, of course. Martin Luther King, John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Bill Clinton and many others committed adultery without that annulling their other deeds.

      Bill Wilson created an organization, and a 12 Step process, that has rehabilitated millions of lives. In that he is remarkable, notwithstanding personal failings.

  2. bob k says:

    I am pleased to report that the “Lois Wilson” essay has gone a bit “viral,” getting reposted in a variety of places. Thanks to Roger for the immaculate timing of the article’s release on the anniversary of Lois’s passing, and to Tommy H. for getting it onto AAHistoryLovers. That’s where the big fish swim.

    Thanks, folks.

  3. Penny A. says:

    Exactly the way I have always seen Bill and Lois. I had the rare honor of meeting Lois at Seattle convention in 1971. I am certain that was my HP working in my life to keep me from falling into the bramble bush of worshipping either Lois or Bill. I am eternally grateful that I had the experience of knowing they were perfectly flawed humans whose lifes happened exactly the way they were supposed too. For Al-Anonners. I think there is an answer between staying or going. I don’t even think that is the best question. For me the question was to grow spiritually or not. Thanks Bob….excellente!

    • Jen says:

      “Lives happened exactly the way they were supposed to” ?? According to what preordained plan ?

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Bob, an excellent companion piece to your Wednesday’s article about Bill’s “Other Women.”

    Realities today are so radically different from the time when Bill and Lois TOGETHER with Dr. Bob and Ann & the others struggling with addiction in Akron and New York forged the core of the 12-step methodology that has dominated addiction rehabilitation for the past 79 years. Yes, we have learned so much more, but from our perspective, it’s difficult to put ourselves into their shoes, flat or high-heeled, or truly understand those “quaint folks” of the first-third of the 20th century.

    Nevertheless, with all their shortcomings and limited perspectives, I remain forever grateful for the legacy of recovery, both for the alcoholic/addict and their family members, which they were largely responsible for bringing to humanity’s consciousness…

  5. larry k says:

    As always Bob, you have allowed me to keep stimulated on a Sunday with your concise construction of history.

    It is an engaging story from a major player who spent her life in the wings only to appear “as needed” for the Bill Wilson story. I am coming to understand her as the true backbone and perhaps the first lady of AA was modeled after the strength and gentleness of Eleanor Roosevelt.

  6. JHG says:

    Al-Anon is baffling to those who stand on the outside and try to figure out what it’s about. I suspect the same could be said of Lois Wilson’s life. She deserves full credit for the fruit that her decisions produced (without which neither AA nor Al-Anon would have come about) even if it might be hard to understand what she was thinking at the time. There is no lack of strength and independence in her determined resistance to what might have been easier conceivable paths. Maybe divorce was not the option that it has become since, but that doesn’t take away from her internal resolve to pursue a course that proved to be profoundly wise in the end.

  7. steve b says:

    bob k suggests that Bill W wouldn’t have gotten sober without his wife’s help, which may or may not be true, and how are we supposed to determine that? But if it’s true, this means that Bill could not have gotten sober only by working the vaunted 12 steps.

    And, if Lois had left Bill, and Bill had not stayed sober, would this have resulted in millions to come being adversely affected? Again, who knows? Perhaps we would have wound up with a better AA founded by someone else, and bob k would be writing an article today, contemplating with a shiver, how hopeless things would be today if Bill W had remained sober.

    • bob k says:

      The point is taken that once we wander, with Robert Frost, down “The Road Not Taken,” we enter a very nebulous world of speculation. AA began when Bill, in order to help himself, sought out Bob Smith. Bill ended up staying the entire summer. Long-suffering Lois was back in New York paying the bills.

      It’s fair to say that Bill Wilson was never really gainfully employed outside of AA, for the rest of his life. It was years before the AA work brought any real income into the Wilson household. Lois’s financial support in some very real sense contributed to the development of AA.

      If some quirky genius inventor spent six years in his basement exclusively dedicated to developing some product, his wife deserves some credit for working outside the home, paying the bills, and ENABLING the inventor to focus on his projects. Lois performed a similar supportive role. With no AA, the people who have been helped by AA would not have been helped by AA.

      Would they have been helped by something else? Some would have certainly, but that there is an AA has not stopped others from trying to develop other methods of recovery. Personally, I think in fifty years, perhaps twenty, alcoholism will be treated by entirely different means.

      In the meanwhile, AA is like the democracy in the Churchill quote, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all of the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

    • Elaine B. says:

      There were no twelve steps for Bill to work when he got sober?

      • Roger says:

        Bill got sober at the end of 1934. The 12 Steps were written by Bill in 1938 and published in Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered From Alcoholism in April, 1939.

  8. kyodee says:

    Lois was a product of her generation. Women were quite oppressed in many ways. Stand by your man, you made your bed, etc. were societal mores that trapped women in dysfunctional sometimes violent marriages. Had she been married present day I can’t help but hope she would have taken care of herself by also attending CoDa meetings, divorced Bill and moved on.

  9. Joe C says:

    Bill W. by Francis Hartigan, is a fair and fitting tribute to both of these people. We can all “coulda’, shoulda’ woulda'” when we think with hindsight about the lives of others. I guess it may be more true of bar-stool philosophers like us than anyone. Bill was just a man and Lois just a woman. They just happened to both be responsible for so much of what has become of the addiction/treatment culture since.

    I can only imagine Bob, that the trouble was with what to leave out. You really are as schooled as anyone on AA history. There is a great story about Lois that inspires me. I think it was before Bill met Bob S. He was trying to sober drunks and had nothing but failure. Bill was discouraged and confessed his hopelessness to Lois, saying, “Not one has stayed sober, Lois.” Lois offered some perspective by saying something to the effect of, “I beg your pardon, Bill; you have stayed sober.”

    For all the “The Steps are in an order for a reason” wisdom, who knows how many have stayed sober doing the two-step with Step One and Twelve.

    As always, Bob, thank you.

  10. Tommy H says:

    Well balanced and very interesting. With references, yet.

    Good job, Bob

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