ROCKEFELLER FINANCES THE BIG BOOK

Posted by Michael Fitzpatrick on

In the infancy of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Pioneers had success with altruism and spiritual principles. In the fall of 1937, Bill W. and Dr. Bob Smith had a conversation about how to get their message out to more people. Bill had some ideas; a book, paid missionaries, and a for-profit hospital. Dr. Bob loved the idea of a book but was strongly against any more than that. They knew that money would be needed for the writing of a book. Neither had any money, only debt. So Bill pushed forward with ideas of ways to make enough money to support the writing of a book. It was the middle of the Great Depression, Bill struggled to find consistent work, Dr. Bob was no longer trusted in his community to perform surgical procedures for fear of a relapse and a drunken operation. They had a meeting in Akron to discuss these ideas with a group of 18 alcoholics. Bill poured on them the ideas of the book, paid missionaries, and an alcoholic hospital. Dr. Bob backed him despite his doubts, many of the Akron group were skeptical of these ideas and wanted to remain an altruistic movement. Although there were many objections, the group voted to go forward in the pursuit of all three of Bill’s ideas.

It was now time for Bill to find the financial support to make these ideas come to fruition. After several failures in finding the financial backing, Bill went to visit his brother-in-law, Dr. Leonard V. Strong, who was able to arrange a meeting between Bill and an old acquaintance, Willard Richardson, who was involved with John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s charities. More meetings took place in late 1937, resulting in a Frank Amos, a Rockefeller representative(later became a long-time Trustee for AA), doing an investigation into the un-named group of ex-drunks in Akron to determine if Rockefeller should contribute to Bill’s grandiose plans. Amos concluded that Rockefeller should contribute $50,000 to help the group get started on their plans. When Rockefeller received Amos’ report, he refused to give the large sum of money for fear that the money would ruin what they have started already. He did agree, however, to place $5,000 into the treasury of the Riverside Church to give assistance to Dr. Bob and Bill. 

Dr. Bob was on the verge of having his home foreclosed on, so a portion of the money went to paying off his mortgage. The remaining amount from the $5,000 was to be distributed to Dr. Bob and Bill in weekly allowances of $30. These weekly payments were a huge boost to what was to happen next. Dr. Bob was able to spend his time focusing on helping alcoholics and building the fellowship in Akron. Bill was afforded the time to start writing the book!

In the spring of 1938, Bill started writing the book. Also, with the help of the new connections made with people at the Rockefeller charity, The Alcoholic Foundation(now known as the General Service Board) was formed. The Foundation was formed in hopes to raise enough money to support the writing and publication of the Big Book. In the fall of 1938, still, no money was raised through the Foundation. It was then, that early New York AA member Hank Parkhurst, whose story “The Unbeliever” appears in the first edition of the Big Book, convinced Wilson they should retain control over the book by publishing it themselves.

Hank devised a plan to form Works Publishing, Inc., and raise capital by selling its shares to group members and friends. With Wilson’s knowledge as a stockbroker, Hank issued stock certificates, although the company was never incorporated and had no assets. Bill and Hank held two-thirds of 600 company shares, and Ruth Hock also received some for pay as secretary. Two hundred shares were sold for $5,000 at $25 each, and they received a loan from Charlie Towns for $2,500. This only financed writing costs and printing would be an additional 35 cents each for the original 5,000 books. Edward Blackwell at Cornwall Press agreed to print the book with an initial $500 payment, along with a promise from Bill and Hank to pay the rest later. 

April 1939 arrived, the book Alcoholics Anonymous was printed! This was followed by very few book sales until the fall of 1939 after the publication of the article “Alcoholics and God” in the national Liberty magazine. Some money and relief began to come in for the struggling AA Pioneers.

From the years of 1937 to 1940 John Rockefeller Jr. was watching the activity of Alcoholics Anonymous from afar. After seeing them persevere through their struggles to achieve success, he decided that in February 1940, he would host a dinner for AA. The dinner was presided over by his son Nelson and was attended by wealthy New Yorkers as well as members of the newly founded AA. Wilson hoped the event would raise much money for the group. Upon conclusion of the dinner, Nelson stated that Alcoholics Anonymous should be financially self-supporting and that the power of AA should lie in one man carrying the message to the next, not with financial reward but only with the goodwill of its supporters. Despite the confusion of why Rockefeller wanted to host this dinner, this became a monumental moment that led to the AA Tradition of declining outside contributions.

Their confusion was also settled shortly after the dinner, as Mr. Rockefeller purchased 400 Big Books and sent them to every person that was invited to the dinner along with a handwritten note endorsing AA. There was also much publicity as the result of Rockefeller hosting a “secret alcoholic society.”

By 1940, Wilson and the trustees of the newly established Alcoholic Foundation decided that the Big Book should belong to AA, so they issued some preferred shares, and with a loan from the Rockefellers they were able to buy back all of the original shares at par value of $25 each. This is how Alcoholics Anonymous was able to own the Big Book.

Alcoholics Anonymous will forever have gratitude for Mr. Rockefeller’s tremendous contribution of kindness, generosity, and wisdom. 


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