Henrietta Sieberling

By bob k

Bill Wilson was having some panicky moments in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel, in the early afternoon of the second Saturday of May, 1935. Much has been made of his “hot flash” spiritual experience of five months earlier at the Towns Hospital, but at least equally important was his theory that attempts made to reach out and help others could KEEP him sober.

Away from home, and from his sources of struggling alcoholics – the Calvary Mission and Towns Hospital, how could he possibly find someone who might embrace his new and only partially developed ideas? He was in Akron engaged in a proxy battle that, if successful, would provide him with an executive position and the opportunity to rise up from his current indignity of being a man supported by his wife. The venture was not going as well as hoped, and his colleagues returned to New York, Bill was left to make continued efforts on behalf of a cause that was most probably lost.

His associates gone, he was alone and felt the lure of the cocktail lounge, “‘God,’ he thought, ‘I am going to get drunk.’” (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, p. 27)

But, he knew already what he would write a few years later – “…when all other measures failed, work with another alcoholic would save the day.” (BB, p. 15) Lest we missed the point that this one thing surpasses all others in providing protection from relapse – “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.” (BB, p. 89)

Better even than prayer, white lights a‘flashin’, or cool winds a‘blowin’!

In the hotel lobby was a display with the names and phone numbers of various ministers. Bill called Reverend Tunks, an Oxford Group affiliate. The clergyman supplied a list of contacts which included Norman Sheppard who supplied the name of Henrietta Seiberling, who was desperately trying to bring a religious cure to a rapidly declining local physician.

Bill’s recognition of the “Seiberling” name made him timid about calling whom he presumed to be the wife of the great Akron tire magnate, F.A. Seiberling. When he eventually telephoned, he discovered that Henrietta was the daughter-in-law of the man known as the “little Napoleon” of the rubber industry. Estranged from her husband, she was living not in the 65 room mansion, Stan Hywet Hall, but in the estate’s gatehouse.

A Rum Hound and a Potted Plant

“Henrietta was bent on saving her drunken doctor friend. But she never drank much herself and did not understand his compulsion.” (Getting Better – Inside Alcoholics Anonymous, Nan Robertson, p. 32) Bill spoke directly – “‘I’m from the Oxford Group and I’m a rum hound from New York.’ Her silent reaction, she said, was: ‘This is really manna from heaven.’ Aloud, she said, ‘You come right out here.’” (Pass It On, p. 137)

Anne Smith was forced to decline Henrietta’s invitation to come over that night. Dr. Bob was as potted as the plant he had brought home as a gift for the morrow’s Mother’s Day. A meeting was arranged for the next day. Dr. Bob reluctant agreement to attend carried the stipulation that “‘I’ll give him fifteen minutes. And that’s it,’ he declared to his wife.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 81) They stayed six hours more than that.

Decades later, on December 6th, 1979, Henrietta’s New York Times obituary called her “a key figure in the founding and development of Alcoholics Anonymous.” Without her brokering of this vital encounter, history most surely would have followed a different path.

Growing Up

Henrietta McBrayer Buckler was “born in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, on March 18, 1888. She was reared in Texas where here father, Julius Augustus Buckner, was a judge… She was well-educated, graduating from Vassar College when she was only 15. She majored in music…” (Summit County Historical Society)

“She was a well-bred Kentuckian… a lifelong seeker of things of the spirit. She had married a son of Frank A. Seiberling, the founder… of the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, but her husband had abandoned her and their three adolescent children.” (Robertson, p. 32)

At the time of her marriage to J. Frederick Seiberling, in 1917, the Goodyear Co. had gross annual sales of one hundred million dollars. At the time of the Wilson/Smith meeting in her home in 1935, “she was forty-seven years old. Snubbed and condescended to by her rich and socially prominent relatives, she had found solace in the Oxford Group meetings.” (Robertson, p. 32)

First Impressions

Henrietta was a handsome woman with captivating ways and a magnolia skin who put a brave face on her struggles to survive and raise three children. She was also a bit of a snob. Despite her estrangement from her husband, the Seiberling family had allowed her to stay on in the gatehouse…

When the tall, awkward Wilson slouched over her doorstep that Saturday and proceeded to make himself too readily at home, Henrietta was appalled. She found him both vulgar and servile, with a smarmy grin; he was loud and garrulous. She disliked him on sight…’He laughed too loudly, and showed too many teeth even when talking. He had this mannerism of rubbing his hands together and a simpering smile – a regular Uriah Heep. (Robertson, pp. 32-33)

This Bud’s For You, Jesus

The so-called “First Century Christian Fellowship” had been a presence in Akron since 1924. Unlike their peers at New York’s Calvary Church, the Akronites had a zeal for the special task of helping alcoholics, a passion that arose from “the 1931 conversion of Russell “Bud” Firestone, scion of tire tycoon Harvey Firestone. Young Firestone was a notorious sot whose drinking had exasperated and mortified his prominent family.” (Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, Matthew Raphael, pp. 100-101)

The grateful paterfamilias sponsored a huge festival for the Oxford Group in January of 1933. Buchman himself appeared at the gala. Reverend Tunks was among the dignitaries who met him at the train station. Henrietta Seiberling was present at this event as was Anne Smith. Dr. Bob was not.

Though the drinking problem was not mentioned in newspaper accounts, Bud and his grateful wife were fearless in their sharing at the banquet and rally. “‘I gave my life to Jesus Christ,’ Firestone told some of the nearly two thousand people in Polsky’s auditorium…” (New Wine, Mel B., p. 67)

Shortly after the mammoth rally, Dr. Bob Smith would be dragged to Oxford Group gatherings by his increasingly impatient spouse.

“About the time of the beer experiment I was thrown in with a crowd of people who attracted me because of their seeming poise, health, and happiness…. I sensed they had something I did not have, from which I might readily profit. I learned that it was something of a spiritual nature, which did not appeal to me very much, but I thought it could do no harm. I gave the matter much time and study over the next two and a half years, but still got tight each night nevertheless.” (BB, p. 178)

On a Mission from God

“Sometime in late 1932, Delphine Webber, a friend of the Smiths, called Henrietta Seiberling… to urge that ‘something has to be done about Doctor Smith – his drinking, you know.’ Henrietta had not known.” (Not-God, p. 31) Although Anne Smith was persuaded to bring her husband to the Oxford Group meetings, the taciturn Vermonter remained what would be called in the modern AA world “walled up.”

Over time, Henrietta grew closer to the Smiths, but there was no change in the doctor’s drinking. She arranged, in the spring of 1935, a small meeting where other members bared their souls by sharing something “costly” to them. The strategy worked, and Dr. Bob confessed that he was a secret drinker.

“‘From then on,’ said Dorothy (Henrietta’s daughter), ‘that was a major concern – how to help him. No one knew anything about the problem.’” (Robertson, p. 53)

The timely arrival of Bill Wilson, loutish as she may have perceived him to be, was seen as Divine Providence.

The Portage Country Club

”Henrietta Seiberling arranged for Bill to move from the Mayflower Hotel to the Portage Country Club, Akron’s finest. The club was just down the road from the Seiberling estate, and it also put Bill closer to the Smiths. Officially, he was the guest of club member John Gammeter, a self-made man with whom Bill felt himself to have a lot in common. Bill golfed at this club throughout his stay in Akron.” (Hartigan, p. 83)

Wife Lois was less than impressed with her unemployed husband’s hobnobbing with the wealthy. “‘There didn’t seem to be very much happening in the proxy fight… And I can’t say I liked thinking about his playing golf at this fancy country club, while I was working at Loessers.” (Hartigan, p. 83)

After a couple of weeks Bill moved in with the Smiths, and stayed until the end of August. “Years later, Wilson looked fondly back on the summer of 1935 as the period in which Anne and Henrietta provided him and Dr. Bob with their ‘infusion of spirituality.’” (Not-God p. 40)

In addition, “they readily accepted the generous invitation of T. Henry and Clarace Williams to bring whatever alcoholics they could to a regular Wednesday Oxford Group meeting at the Williams home – a meeting which had had its origin largely in Henrietta Seiberling’s much earlier effort to ‘do something’ for Dr. Bob.” (Not-God, p. 40)

Henrietta was involved that summer on almost a daily basis, and “always counted herself, along with Anne Smith, Bob, and Bill, as one of the four cofounders. From her perspective… the true origin of AA lay not in faraway events in New York, or even in Wilson’s crisis in the Mayflower lobby, but rather in the Oxford Group’s prior conversion of Doctor Smith.” (Raphael, p. 106)

Not Religious Enough

Many find Alcoholics Anonymous to be religious, overly religious. From Henrietta Seiberling’s perspective, the greater danger came from a conflicting source, a creeping secularism. She reacted adversely to a couple of speakers who were more psychology than “grace of God”.

”Bob and Bill said to me, ‘Henrietta, I don’t think we should talk too much about religion or God.’ I said to them, ‘Well, we’re not out to please the alcoholics. They have been pleasing themselves all these years. We are out to please God. And if you don’t talk about what God does, and your faith, and your guidance, then you might as well be the Rotary Club or something like that. Because God is your only source of power.’” (1971 Interview with John Seiberling)

In the autumn of 1939, Clarace Williams complained to Seiberling about the alcoholics’ abuse of her home, and of the Oxford Group’s tenets. The OG folks thought that the Big Book was “commercial,” and likely were not fans of the diluted spirituality of God “as we understood Him.” October, 1939 saw the final split from the Oxforders. Cleveland had seceded six months earlier.

“‘Henrietta told Dr. Bob that it (the split) was the worst mistake he had ever made,’… ‘How could you do this? You’ll be sorry.’” (Oldtimers, p. 218) Henrietta later reunited with the AA folks, but she was not active long in Akron, as she moved to New York.

Opposing the AA Conference

Bill Wilson led a campaign in the late forties to turn over AA’s leadership to the groups. Seiberling was vehemently antagonistic to this plan. “Seiberling’s campaign against the conference system of representation included charging Bill with having taken complete leave of his senses.” (Hartigan, p. 188) Her private communications were even more strongly stated as “HS equates Wilson with ‘the devil’ come to ‘destroy’ AA.” (Not-God, p. 355)

Bill did not hold a grudge, and the two saw a great deal of each other in New York. From 1944 and on, she spent time in both New York City, and Akron. Henrietta outlived Bill Wilson, passing in 1979 at the age of 91.

Key-Players-Front-Cover1-e1422583040318About the Author, Bob K

Bob K. lives in the Metropolitan Toronto area, and has been a sober member of Alcoholics Anonymous for 24 years, and an out-of-the-closet atheist for that entire time. He has been a regular contributor to the AAAgnostica website for almost 5 years, and in January, 2015, published “Key Players in AA History” In 2013, he cofounded the Whitby Freethinkers meeting.

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1 year ago

The idea that people would judge kind Henrietta Seiberling in a negative light simply because she believed in God demonstrates intolerance and indicates that Henrietta, who was very kind, fair-minded, and tolerant—was on a better, healthier and more enlightened track than those who would put her down. Whether I believe in God or not, I would much sooner put stock in Henrietta than in those who would demean this great woman—in a manner that only demonstrates their weakness. In fact, those putdowns are a powerful argument against the very forces that would shun the idea that “God is your only… Read more »

3 years ago

MEETING WITH THE CHAIRS IN CIRCLEI’m from Brazil, member of AA, I’m wondering where he started to use this type of meeting in a circle and when it started, I’m using google translate because I do not know English, here in brazil there are very few such meetings in AA we call CALIFORNIANA MEETING, robin round please help because AAS does not have this information, thank you

steve b
steve b
5 years ago

I guess it’s interesting to some people to know about AA history, but I must admit that I have come to care less and less, and I’m now at the point that I scarcely care at all. If Bill had not met Bob, we’d probably  have some other recovery group now instead, and people would shudder to think about what might have happened if founder Mo had not met founder Shmo at that propitious moment in 1942 at the Flophouse Cafe in Upper Cut, New Jersey. And, I’m not into pilgrimages, so I have no interest in visiting AA shrines… Read more »

boyd p
boyd p
5 years ago
Reply to  steve b

Au contraire, in a friendly sort of way.  Our past informs our current choices, institutionally.  The fellowship is more likely to endure if our next steps grasp our fragile beginning.

More personally, how did my Dad get sober in AA using “unapproved 12 steps”, before they were codified?  My journey is strengthened by articles like this.  Henrietta’s role is rich with implication and part of a history that is too often male centered.  You may have been often “wrong”, but you rock girl.

Thomas Brinson
Thomas Brinson
5 years ago

A wonderful portrayal of another strong woman, Bob, who along with Anne Smith and Lois Wilson, was instrumentally essential in the founding and growth of AA. This past summer wife Jill and I again visited Akron, and, of course,  we went to the Seiberling estate Gate House where Henrietta lived with her children and where Bill and Dr. Bob had their initial meeting. I sat at a small table in the small room off the main entrance, known as the library, and listened to the tape  recording her son, John, made as Henrietta  gave her version of the founding of… Read more »

bob k
bob k
5 years ago
Reply to  Thomas Brinson


5 years ago

Bob thanks for this most enlightening article. Explains somewhat how AA wound up being so religious. Sounds like she was a real fanatic. Me, I guess I’m still an alcoholic. All along while reading your excellent article my primary thought with her picture on one screen was ‘what a waste that a good looking gal like her should turn religious’. She could have been the center of a party. Well, that’s my self centered mind. If I had been at that party I would have been too shy or too drunk or both to where it wouldn’t have mattered much… Read more »