Part 2: “Stars Don’t Fall”: Felicia G., Marty Mann, and Other Women of the Early Alcoholics Anonymous Movement
Posted on: Friday October 28, 2011
“I’ve got a dame here with a name I can’t pronounce,” Bill W. told someone whose number he dialed on Felicia G.’s behalf at the end of the first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting she ever attended, in Hell’s Kitchen in 1943. When he hung up, he told her he had arranged for her to meet someone named Marty. “Aha, he’s passing the buck,” Felicia, who had come largely to humor her psychiatrist, suspected inwardly. “Now comes the questionnaire.”
“I felt like a gangster’s moll about to be interviewed by the Salvation Army,” Countess Felicia Gizycka later remembered of her arrival at the address Bill W. had given her. To her surprise, however, she found herself welcomed into what turned out to be a tasteful Midtown Manhattan apartment filled with books and artwork, by a woman named Priscilla who told her that the Marty whom Bill W. had put her in touch with was on her way. Although Felicia’s father had been a Polish count, and her mother was a Chicago Tribune heiress and the publisher of Washington Times-Herald, the most widely read newspaper in the nation’s capital, her life had been derailed by alcohol. Over the previous decade she had demolished almost all of her personal relationships. By 1943, she was twice divorced. She had lost custody of her daughter. Several months earlier, she had (to use her own phrase) “divorced” her mercurial mother, and renounced the substantial tax-free allowance she had accepted from her family throughout her adulthood. Now, in reduced circumstances, smelling of “booze and ancient sweat,” with her matted hair and threadbare clothing, her leg crudely bandaged after a recent fall, Felicia was surprised to find that like Priscilla, Marty, once she arrived, was welcoming, genteel and well-groomed:
“She was attractive; she was like the friends I once had. Indeed, she had known my cousin in Chicago.” Without asking Felicia to explain herself or account for her condition, without asking anything at all, Marty “went right into her own story, which was much worse than mine. I couldn’t believe my ears. I tried to interrupt. She wouldn’t let me.”
If this new acquaintance reminded Felicia of former friends who had fallen away, she had even more in common with Felicia herself. A native of Chicago the same age as Felicia, Mrs. Marty Mann was a “tall, smart-looking blonde” who had married briefly and unsuitably in the late 1920s. Though her marriage had ended within a year, her incipient alcoholism had progressed unchecked long afterwards. “Years of drinking and general hijinks had cut her off from old friends. She too had gone to cheap bars to drink,” Felicia learned, amazed; “With more physical courage than I had possessed, she had twice tried to take her life.” Marty only began to consider seeking help after learning that she had been heaved bodily down the gangplank of the Queen Mary upon docking in New York Harbor in December 1936; her only hazy memory of the four-day transatlantic crossing had been of Edward VIII’s abdication speech. Unable to control her drinking, she had been unemployed for three years in the late 1930s during which she began the detoxification process, first on the locked-down neurological ward of Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan and later at Blythewood Sanitarium in Greenwich, Connecticut. Returning to Manhattan in 1939 after more than a year of in-patient treatment, she became Alcoholics Anonymous’ first woman member when she began attending small meetings on Sutton Place. Then Marty took up her life in recovery.
In 1944, the year after she met Felicia, Marty Mann became executive director of the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism, which was sponsored by the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies and headquartered in Manhattan. An “intense exhorter for the cause,” she maintained a feverish lecture schedule for much of the rest of her life, imparting to audiences at medical conferences, PTA meetings, VFW halls, lodges, churches and town meetings nationwide the radical news that “Alcoholism is a disease and the alcoholic is a sick person; the alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping and this is a public health problem.” The iconoclasm of her message was not simply clinical. Beginning her talks with the startling opening line, “My name is Marty Mann, and I am an alcoholic,” she dispensed with her own anonymity in the interest of public health, admitting freely to her own struggle with dependence to audiences utterly unaccustomed to intimate public self-revelation; “I made a speech to the Maine PTA and the gasps shook the walls.”
Felicia had found not only a sponsor, but a committed lifelong friend. “A load weighing a thousand pounds came off my back. I wasn’t insane. Nor was I the ‘worst woman who ever lived,’” she remembered after her introduction to Marty Mann and the latter’s roommate and fellow recovering-alcoholic, Priscilla Peck. “I was an alcoholic, with a recognizable behavior pattern.”
After attending her first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting with Marty and Priscilla, Felicia counted herself “sold, intellectually.” Taking the group’s steps toward sobriety would prove to be more difficult, however. Felicia found such an unaccustomed and immediate sense of community and acceptance at the growing New York group’s weekly meetings that she began to feel “lonesome” during the six nights she was forced to wait until the next one. Falling back on habit, her visits to a variety of her old Greenwich Village haunts quickly saw her passing up tea and soft drinks for harder stuff. From this, Felicia’s initial “off-again on-again” sobriety, Marty sensed that her new friend was a “stubborn case” and suggested that she would benefit from feeling a sense of responsibility for a fellow member, a newcomer named Anne. “Anne was bigger than I and strong. Her idea of fun on a bender was to hit sailors and insult cops,” Felicia remembered of her charge. Assuring that Anne, who was then on just such a bender, would safely reach A.A.’s recently opened retreat, High Watch Farm in Kent, Connecticut, would have much of the desired effect: “I was so busy keeping her out of trouble, and so scared she’d swing on me, that I had my last two drinks that night.”
Fearing that Anne would relapse immediately after their return to Manhattan, Felicia had called ahead to the New York office for advice. The two women were met at Grand Central by “a couple of normal, sober, attractive men,” who took them to dinner. John and Bud displayed no embarrassment at being seen publicly with companions clad in the same “dirty, bedraggled ski clothes” that winter cold and lack of central heating had prompted Felicia and Anne to wear night and day throughout their stay at rustic High Watch. Although strangers, the two men (who would become Felicia’s close friends) had taken “the trouble to try and help. Why? I was astonished and deeply moved.”
In the face of the death from alcoholism of a close friend eight dry months later, Felicia experienced “an angry ‘the world can’t do this to me’ reaction” and relapsed. She called Marty after downing two double brandies, expecting her new friend to demand the name and address of the bar so as to rescue her. “Not at all. My smart and wise sponsor simply said, ‘Well, Honey, what can I do about it?’”
That deflated me, but it didn’t stop me. I drank all that night. I don’t know where I went or what I did. The next morning I called John D., a wonderful old timer who had taken me to a lot of meetings. He came right over to the apartment. I greeted him at the door and said, “I just wanted to do the honesty bit. I’m telling you honestly: I’m waiting for my stomach to settle. As soon as it does, I’m going right out and tie on another one.”
John said, “All right. Go ahead. But when are you going to stop?” Marty hadn’t let me dramatize myself, and John was scaring me. I thought, “My God, maybe I can’t stop.” Somewhere in my mind I must have reached for the brakes. Marty has told me since that I kept calling from various bars down in The Village. Each time she’d say, “Call me when you’re ready to stop,” and hang up. I don’t remember any of this. John named my slip, “Custer’s Last Stand.” I spent three days and nights in the old familiar haunts, drunk as a doxy and hating every minute of it. On the fourth morning I called Marty and said, “Help!”
Shortly after, Marty appeared at Felicia’s apartment, literally spoon-feeding her until she was able to hold down solids. Though the experience would prove only to be “one short slip,” Felicia would continue to make occasional, histrionic attempts to test Marty with threats of relapse or self-inflicted injury over the coming years. Unlike Felicia’s mother, however, Marty never allowed herself to be provoked into responding with flippancy, argument or escalation. Instead, she wondered patiently, “Just what is there about this situation that a drink is going to solve,” or reminded Felicia firmly, “Just keep plodding along, put one foot in front of another.”
Having felt profoundly out-of-place for most of her life, particularly within her own family, Felicia found herself almost immediately at ease with Marty Mann and her circle. Her new friend and sponsor was well-educated, well-read, well-spoken, well-traveled, magnetic, purposeful and sympathetic. In beginning to help and counsel others new to the movement with their own struggles she discovered an unaccustomed, but nonetheless cherished sense of purpose. And, she began spending much of her free time with Marty, Priscilla and their circle, both at the apartment the women shared in Manhattan and at their summer cottage in Cherry Grove on Fire Island.