Selling AA – Early Publicity

By bob k.

“The reminiscences available and those interviewed from early Akron and Cleveland all strongly testify that in the early days, at least in their area, ‘selling the program’ was a work of promotion rather than mere attraction.” (Not-God, Ernest Kurtz, p. 100n.)

When the co-founders “counted noses” in the Fall of 1937, the forty or so now sober, previously “incurables” encouraged the idea that what they were doing was working. While Bob Smith glanced backwards with gratitude and satisfaction, the visionary Bill Wilson’s focus was directed toward the future.

Dreams of alcoholic hospitals, a book, and paid missionaries were perhaps, simultaneously grand and grandiose. These schemes would require money, and lots of it. “If a world-wide movement was going to take millions of dollars to launch, no problem: they’d raise millions.” (Bill W., Robert Thomsen, p. 245)

These grand schemes did not materialize, the alcoholics receiving only a pittance from the “world’s wealthiest man”. A small 1938 bequest was gone in a short time.

The Reader’s Digest

There was no Rockefeller money remaining to proceed with the book, the most modest of the envisioned projects. Bill and Hank had decided to “self-publish”, and to raise the requisite financing through the sale of shares.

“They approached everyone who’d attended a meeting, every rich man they knew, and they did not sell a single share of stock…They needed some kind of inspiration and Hank P. was the man for inspirations. Their timid customers had to believe the book would sell, and a book had to have one thing in order to sell – publicity, a huge spread in some national magazine.” (Thomsen, p. 252)

Then, they reported that the Reader’s Digest was interested.

The Reader’s Digest tale sparked share sales, and full-scale work on the book writing began, the funds paying the office costs and living expenses of the two entrepreneurs. It is entirely possible that the two desperate promoters may have completely exaggerated the magazine’s level of interest. When they returned, a year later, with an actual book, the “editor seemed not to remember his earlier conversation… and no article was forthcoming.” (Hartigan, p. 126)

Another version of the tale has the Digest editor reporting that the editorial board had vetoed the plan for a piece on alcoholism.

The most cynical might suspect that the entire story had been concocted.

5,000 Books. Buyers?… Not so much.

“The 5,000 copies of the Big Book lay idle in Edward Blackwell’s warehouse. For months after their publication, it seemed, that they were a waste of the paper they were printed on.” (Pass It On, p. 207)

There were some favorable book reviews, none of which led to any significant book sales. On June 25, 1939, the New York Times review said, in part, “the general thesis of Alcoholics Anonymous is more solidly based psychologically than any other treatment of the subject I have ever come upon”. (Pass It On, p. 223) The fact that the book was not available in stores was unquestionably detrimental.

A paean from Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick appeared only in religious publications. “In February, 1940, reviews in Newsweek and Time also produced some inquiries and sales, though they remained modest.” (Bill W., Francis Hartigan, p. 128)

Some reviewers were less than kind.

“Alcoholics and God”

In the summer of 1939, the fellowship’s very good friend, Charles Towns, “told the AA story to Morris Markey, a writer, who took it to Fulton Oursler, at the time editor of Liberty Magazine, a popular national weekly. Oursler accepted an AA piece by Markey entitled ‘Alcoholics and God’”. (Pass It On, pp. 223-224)

“Most members of Alcoholics Anonymous – wary of being labeled a ‘religious’ group – winced at both the heading and the article’s content.” (Not-God, p. 90) Markey’s insistence that the root of the new fellowship was religion failed to fire the imagination of the American public.

Although generally presented as a success, historian Ernest Kurtz disagrees. “The Liberty treatment was the second failure of nationwide publicity. Earlier in the summer of 1939, the irrepressible Morgan R… remembered still another well-placed friend… the popular radio journalist Gabriel Heatter (who) was willing to interview him on his nationwide broadcast.” (Not-God, p. 90)

On the Radio

The group was ambivalent, anonymity concerns battling an honest desire to bring the benefits they were sure would result should their new solution be brought to the American consciousness. There were also, of course, the unsold books sitting idly in the Cornwall Press warehouse.

Further trepidation came in the reality that Morgan’s sobriety was inconsistent – there had been some “unfortunate incidents”. The red-headed Irishman reluctantly consented to being put under 24 hour guard, for the time leading up to the April 25th radio program.

The entrepreneurial Hank P. concocted a plan to magnify the publicity value of the “We The People” appearance. Promissory notes were issued to raise the $500.

On the fateful evening, Morgan performed brilliantly, and the expectant alcoholics waited three days before heading to their PO box, armed with suitcases, to retrieve the avalanche of reply cards. There were twelve, mostly conveying the sarcastic comments of inebriated physicians. Only two were orders for the book.

It was a crushing blow.

My Name is Elrick, and I’m an Alcoholic, Sort of

“Elrick B. Davis, a feature writer of deep understanding, was the author of a series of articles that were printed in the middle of the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer’s editorial page… In effect the Plain Dealer was saying, ‘Alcoholics Anonymous is good, and it works. Come and get it.’ The newspaper’s switchboard was deluged”. (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 2

Cleveland’s power-driving AA proselytizer, Clarence Snyder, told his fellow members that he had found Davis “on a barstool”. But, early Cleveland member Warren C. thought otherwise. “‘Clarence sneaked a Plain Dealer reporter into one of the meetings. He posed as an alcoholic. He wasn’t really. He was a writer,’ Warren said.” (Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers, p. 203)

The articles appeared in the latter part of October,1939, and were clearly one of the primary factors leading to the explosive growth of AA in Cleveland. There was an almost immediate multiplication of the city’s number of groups, “but the split had less to do with greater numbers than with the Cleveland members’ disagreement with Clarence S. over the publicity itself and so over the fellowship’s yet uncertain understanding of anonymity”. (Not-God, p. 85)

A follow-up sermon by Dilworth Lupton on November 26, 1939 – a sermon widely distributed in pamphlet form – “furnished the occasion for further favorable newspaper treatment into 1940”. (Not-God, p. 85)

AA growth in Cleveland exploded.

Rocky and Friends… Revisited

On February 8th, 1940, John D. Rockefeller gave a dinner for AA at Manhattan’s exclusive Union Club. “Bill was elated, he again started to think in millions. He assumed…that Mr. Rockefeller had changed his mind and had decided to give AA money.” (Pass It On, p. 232)

Four hundred of New York’s “prominent and wealthy” were invited. Former ad man, and star of the Gabriel Heatter broadcast, Morgan R. provided the evening’s finest line. The impeccably dressed former tosspot was asked by a gray-haired banker who was his tablemate, “‘Mr. R., what institution are you with?’ Morgan grinned and replied, ‘Well, sir, I am not with any institution at the moment. Nine months ago, however, I was a patient in the Greystone Asylum.’” (Pass It On, p. 233)

Bill was crowd-watching, and could tell that the 75 or so of New York’s elite who had come were “deeply impressed with what they were hearing… It was evident we had captured their sympathetic interest. Great influence and great wealth were soon to be at our disposal.” (Pass It On, p. 233)

The words of the substitute host, Nelson Rockefeller, were devastating.

“‘It is our belief that Alcoholics Anonymous should be self-supporting so far as money is concerned. It needs only our goodwill.’ …after cordial handshakes and good-byes all around, the whole billion dollars of them walked out the door.” (Pass It On, p. 233) There are more reliable reports that Nelson, in fact, said nothing beyond that he was not empowered to speak on behalf of his absent uncle.

In spite of a few bizarre headlines, the Rockefeller endorsement provoked some credibility – enhancing write-ups, and an increasing portion of the public came to know, at least in a general way, what Alcoholics Anonymous was.

“In the Spring of 1940… Rollie H., catcher for the Cleveland Indians, revealed that he had been sober in AA for a year. The story, when it broke, was carried in sports pages of newspapers across the country. Because his drunkenness was a matter of public record… his sobriety was very big news.” (Pass It On, p. 236)

“Rollicking Rollie” was subsequently interviewed about his rehabilitation, in all the American League cities throughout the nation. “His full name and picture, as a member of AA, were seen by millions of fans. It did us plenty of good, temporarily, because alcoholics flocked in.”(Grapevine, Jan., 1955)

For alcoholics, these forays into the alluring limelight can be fraught with perils to the individual, and to the society itself.

“We found that we had to rely on the principle of attraction rather than of promotion… Obviously, AA had to be publicized somehow, so we resorted to the idea that it would be far better to let our friends do this for us.” (12 + 12, p. 181)

Anonymity’s “deeper purpose is actually to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog wild after money and public fame at AA’s expense”. (AACOA, p.

Nevertheless, “through the summer of 1940, the wake of the Hemsley publicity proved not only unthreatening but uniquely beneficial… Hemsley’s example contributed to the sobering of a strategically located and respected Catholic priest… Later in 1940, Wilson could and would approve the use of pictures in the Jack Alexander Saturday Evening Post story, but for which concession the story might not have been carried… (T)he foundation was laid for the later breaking of anonymity ‘for the sake of the good of others’ by Marty Mann”. (Not-God, p. 87)

Founders Flounder

Bill Wilson himself was something of an anonymity breaker himself in the forties. He later told self-deprecating tales of ego inflation, but at the time, he justified these actions. “Bill granted interviews, complete with full name and pictures. When AA members criticized his seeming thirst for publicity, his answer was that, as AA founder he should be an exception. People responded to leaders.” (Hartigan, p. 156)

He also defended his own breaches based on noble motives. “He wasn’t doing it for himself, but for the greater good of the greater number. The others weren’t buying it.” (Hartigan, p. 135)

And, “he created another firestorm in 1945 when he endorsed Marty’s decision to reveal her membership in AA in order to garner publicity for the new organization (NCEA).” (Hartigan, p. 184)

The Saturday Evening Post

In the twenty-first century, it is difficult to have a full appreciation of the magnitude of the Saturday Evening Post within the American culture. In a world of limited media, newspapers, magazines, and radio had a scope defying our imagining. The biggest and most popular of these were within the awareness of a huge segment of the population.

“On March 1, 1941, an article on AA by Jack Alexander appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. The effect of the Alexander article was stunning. AA membership opened 1941 at 2,000 and closed the year at 8,000.” (Dragon, p. 178)

“Unlike the fellowship’s previous media hits, this time the response exceeded anyone’s wildest expectations. Within days, meeting attendance doubled. Within weeks, these newcomers were being sent out on Twelve Step calls to other prospects.” (Hartigan, p. 143)

“It accomplished exactly what Bill had first hoped the Gabriel Heatter broadcast would do. It put AA irrevocably on the map of national consciousness.” (Pass It On, p. 248)

At the last moment, there was a real dilemma, the editors “wanted real photographs to illustrate the article… and some of them had to be on the sensational side… We objected… Finally the Post said, ‘No pictures, no article.’ The choice was ours, and it was a hard one.” (Pass It On, p. 247)

“‘It was a crucial decision which happily turned out to be the right one – that is, for the time being.’ Bill said.” (Pass It On, p. 247)

AA was now a national institution.


By the early 1950s, Bill Wilson was able to write that regarding AA’s need for publicity, “it would be far better to let our friends do that for us. Precisely that has happened, to an unbelievable extent”. (Twelve and Twelve, p. 181) Overall, the press has been kind to Alcoholics Anonymous, and continues to be so. Alcoholics Anonymous can well afford, if it chooses, to follow its anonymity traditions.

Some individual members, especially in the new millennium, are opting for a different approach. Following the examples of celebrities who have gone public with previously hidden issues such as depression, some recovered celebrity alcoholics are “outing themselves” regarding their own battles with alcoholism. The obvious hope is the removal of the shame attached to such “failings”. Time will tell if this latest approach to publicity causes more harm, or more good.

Either way, non-anonymous publicity is not unprecedented.

About 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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Jeff Your
Jeff Your
3 years ago

Missing citation:
Anonymity’s “deeper purpose is actually to keep those fool egos of ours from running hog wild after money and public fame at AA’s expense”. (AACOA, p. 43.)

3 years ago

I wish there were a Like button, a Thanks! button and I could follow future comments without writing in.



Jackie B
Jackie B
3 years ago

The un-captioned head shot is presumably John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It looks an awful lot like him from other pictures I’ve seen.

For the record, Nelson Rockefeller is John D. Rockefeller, Jr.’s son, not his nephew. 

Have a great day!

3 years ago

Bob, thanks for this. Always a pleasure to read you. I couldn’t quite get it straight whether those early reviews saying AA was religious were actually available to you or whether they were just being referred to, but no longer around. Would be interesting to see some of those. There’s so much information out there and no way to verify it. I was looking for early membership numbers, and came across this 10 years old blog entry: – saying that at publication there were 74 members, and 41 eventually got permanently sober – some rather exact numbers to be throwing… Read more »

Jackie B
Jackie B
3 years ago
Reply to  life-j

Oops … eight sober people (with six months or more dry) divided by one hundred drunks equals 8%, not 6%. That’s better

Brad C
Brad C
3 years ago
Reply to  Bob K


What is the origin of “closed meetings”?

It has always been communicated to me it started after Rollie H came out in 1940 and reporters started appearing at meetings to see what org Bob Fellers catcher was involved with.

Pat N.
Pat N.
3 years ago

Thanks, Bob, for a great summary of pioneer days. I’ve read these details a number of times, but of course can’t keep them all straight, so I’ll file a copy of this article. I might even reread some of the old books, e.g., AACOA. If nothing else, this history teaches us the value of perseverance and the idea that we can make progress even if we’re imperfect.

Thanks again.