The Forgotten Fantastic Communicator : Bobbie B.

Many are familiar with the early beginnings of AA and the start of the little office in New York. Bill W. and Ruth Hock became the heart and soul of the AA Headquarters, which became the General Service Office (GSO) in 1950.  During this pioneering time, there was a third significant contributor in that office. Bill W. is said to have twelve-stepped her on September 24, 1940, though she claimed a March 1940 sobriety date. When she joined the small AA staff on Vesey St. isn’t clear.  Her first name was Margaret, but everybody knew her as “Bobbie.” She would later become the National Secretary after Ruth was married and resigned in late February of 1942.

Bobbie B. worked some 11-12 hour days at the AA HQ after the Jack Alexander Saturday Evening Post article was published in March 1941.  Bobbie was one of the individuals, along with Lois W., that helped Ruth Hock, and possibly others, to answer as many as 6,000 requests for help that followed that article. There is another account of where Bobbie was present at the time the Serenity Prayer was first read at the AA HQ office from a New York Herald Tribune obituary. Bobbie helped circulate that prayer throughout the fellowship in the years that followed.

Upon becoming Secretary (or National Secretary or General Secretary), she immediately began to respond to a wide variety of correspondence written by the fellowship in what Bill W. has referred to as “AA’s adolescent period.” Keep in mind that according to multiple sources, Bill was in the office at most two days of the week when he wasn’t traveling and in some periods he traveled extensively. Bobbie was left in charge of responding to the vast numbers of letters, often without any supervision, though she knew some could only be answered by Bill. Also, keep in mind that calling her a “secretary” can be misleading. She admitted to being a lousy typist, thus, she was dictating the majority of her correspondence almost from the start. Her letters were being typed by her subordinates. She might have been called a “Communications Director.” At one time, Bill considered her an “ex-officio” member of the AA Board of Trustees.

Inscription from Bill W. to Bobbie B.
Inscription from Bill W. to Margaret(Bobbie) B.

During this period of the first half of the 1940’s, of course, there were no AA Traditions. Quite a few angry and unhappy, and sometimes insulting, letters were written to Bill but replied to by Bobbie. Bill was to write later that it “was chiefly from this correspondence, and from our mounting public relations activity, that the basic ideas for the Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous came.” Bobbie practiced “restraint of tongue and pen” long before that phrase became part of the wisdom of AA. Some of these problems, according to Bill W., were “frightening beyond description.” She may not have liked the anger, frustration, and accusations made by some of the correspondents, but rarely did she ever respond in kind. She always wrote responses as if the yet-to-be-written Traditions were posted right in front of her. She knew her job was to reply to these requests by conveying the decisions already made by others. She followed a “trial and error” policy leaving local groups to decide most issues on their own. But whatever the local group would decide, she would ask to be informed so she could share the results with other groups who faced similar challenges.

Did she ever respond! No one knows how many letters she wrote for AA. The number has to be in the many thousands over seven and a quarter years. Nobody knows how many letters she might have created in a day or how many days she worked in a row to answer the voluminous number of incoming requests. She once wrote about being two weeks behind in her responses and of the pressures of attempting to live up to the responsibilities placed on her. Despite the pressures and the long hours on the job, Bill W. wrote that Bobbie never ceased to provide written examples filled with “never-failing sympathy, tolerance and understanding.”

She was at the forefront of a wide variety of issues facing the emerging fellowship in a period described by Bill W. as being a time when the continued existence of the Alcoholics Anonymous was in jeopardy. Bobbie squarely addressed the issues of race and gender as a pioneer simply by responding with what she had learned through her correspondence with the fellowship and her acquired wisdom from the co-founders. She made the announcement that due to the requirements of the War Production Board that the size and weight of the Big Book were going to be reduced. She took on the role of sponsoring many men through the exchange of letters without ever having met them – Dave B. was one of them as appears on Page 196 of the American Fourth Edition. She helped keep nearly 300 soldiers serving in the Armed Forces connected to the fellowship and begged to learn the addresses of more of them. She got Big Books to Australia and New Zealand at a time when almost the only material reaching those countries from the United States was military-related. No wonder that when one reads the history of how AA arrived in those two countries, Bobbie became the one that was considered worthy to be honored for her efforts! A large percentage of the first 180 pages of the Australian Conference Approved book One to Another is a tribute to her. By the end of her tenure at AA’s Headquarters, roughly two dozen countries had been added to the fellowship of AA.

Bobbie wrote at the end of 1945 that “doctors took Bill away from active work about a year and a half ago and he seldom comes into the office.” While Bobbie wrote or called Bill on the most important matters, there was no question that she was the one responding to most of the correspondence and functioning, as Nell Wing observed, as a “fantastic communicator.” Bobbie had informed the fellowship in May of 1945 that “Bill hopes to be with Bob [at the 10th-anniversary celebration of AA] if his health permits . . . The doctors have advised Bill not to do any traveling or Group-visiting for some time to come.”  Bobbie’s role was truly that of a trusted servant to represent Bill in such a way. No wonder Nell Wing wrote later that “I can’t tell you the number of people – all over the world who owe their sobriety to that woman.” If we might consider the sponsorship chains of all those people who Bobbie helped, her legacy may include tens of thousands of sober alcoholics that are in her debt today and probably don’t know it. Is it any wonder that the 1944 Christmas Greetings to the fellowship written by Bill was signed as being from the Trustees, Bill, Lois, and Bobbie? This honor at Christmas was repeated in 1946 and 1947 by Bill. Yes, she was held in that high of esteem.

In 1945 the budget for the AA Headquarters was around $9,000 for a six month period and there were only six full-time employees. The budget of the HQ was to quadruple in just four short years as the fellowship rapidly grew. An assistant by the name of Charlotte L. was hired in 1946 to help with the enormous amount of correspondence.  But by 1949, neither Bobbie nor Charlotte remained there.

How can it be that this devoted, hard-working contributor has been almost completely forgotten? Around May of 1948, her characteristic first and last name signature disappeared from the periodic AA Bulletins. Was this a demotion? Though a signature of her first name appeared on occasion in the bulletins that were to follow, her first name only, with no last initial, was accompanied sometimes by as many as three other signatures or by the words “The Secretarial Staff.” Can you imagine Bill W. being treated like that?

Both Bobbie and her assistant Charlotte (Nell Wing was originally hired to be Charlotte’s assistant) are rumored to have experienced “alcoholic slips.” The sole source this assertion is Bob P.’s Alcoholics Anonymous World History, which was written no less than thirty-six years after the accusations of slips took place. “According to Nell Wing and Ann M., their relapses were partly caused by the enormous workload combined with the confusion of the early office . . . that poor woman (Bobbie) was just overwhelmed. The AA staff worked long hours all week and then sometimes went out to speak or to AA weekends, where they were ‘Mrs. AA’ and people showered them with affection and admiration. That ego inflation was hard to handle when they’d been sober just a few years . . . and they were exhausted too. Bobbie and Charlotte were apparently both on pills for some time before they returned to drinking.”  Bobbie’s office was declared vacant in the July 25, 1949, Trustees meeting and she was provided with severance pay.

Note that Nell herself did not include any history of Bobbie or Charlotte having slips in Nell’s autobiography first published in 1992. The written facts reveal that Charlotte left the office 8 months before Bobbie did not because of an alcoholic slip, but because her husband got a new job in Ohio, as documented in one of Bobbie’s letters. Note that by the time Bobbie left Headquarters, her nine years of sobriety is a lot more than just “a few years.” Charlotte had five years of sobriety when hired by Bobbie in 1946. Such lengths of sobriety in the 1940’s were significant achievements and not considered to be just “a few years.” Thus, regarding the assertion of these two having had alcoholic slips, we are left with the dilemma of any single-source allegation written more than three decades after the events they are supposed to describe. According to Bill’s 1962 description of Bobbie’s June 1949 departure, Bobbie “collapsed” which is a significantly different description than “slipped.” Finally, over the years some significant shortcomings to Bill P.’s version of AA History have been revealed. His description of Bobbie and Charlotte’s departures from Headquarters likely are one more inaccuracy.

Here is what Headquarters secretary Ann L. wrote about Bobbie just after she left: “I know you will be sorry to learn that she is a sick gal – nervous exhaustion, the doctor says. And he urges a long rest, as well as medical treatment, to put her back in the pink. Of course, no one is particularly surprised, in view of the fact that she has spent long years in the center of an emotional volcano! We all hope and pray she’ll take the doctor’s advice.” The doctor was likely Dr. Tiebout.

In any case, Bobbie dropped out of view of almost all of the fellowship. Current research is revealing a much different picture about Bobbie’s last years than was previously thought. Bobbie’s death on February 17, 1953 was allegedly from “a heart ailment” though she was no older than 52. In Bill’s brief memorial written in the March 1953 AA Grapevine, he wrote, “. . . upon our traditions her devoted labor set a mark which will endure as long as God will have our society last. Her pioneering work has proved an inspiring precedent for every Intergroup and Foundation secretary, and her departure creates in the heart of each of her friends a void which can only be filled by the memory of what she left us and the assurance that her destiny is happy and secure.”

An alcoholic slip by Bobbie cannot be entirely ruled out. Others reported “a complete physical and emotional collapse,” or a “nervous breakdown.” Regardless, the many valuable contributions Bobbie made for the good of Alcoholics Anonymous appear all but forgotten today by all but the most familiar with the enigmatic and often bypassed AA history of the 1940’s. Note how slippers, such as Hank P. and Ebby T., have been remembered and honored by the fellowship despite their shortcomings.  Bobbie’s memory deserves a place of honor throughout the AA world. Her picture should be displayed today by AAs throughout the fellowship and not only at Stepping Stones.  Let us renew Bill W.’s pledge that her memory “will endure as long as God will have our society last.” Let her full story be revealed so that this huge, as of yet, almost entirely untold story can see the light of day and this forgotten fantastic communicator be remembered, as she should be, for her sacrifices so that others could live.

If her full story becomes part of the legacy of AA service, that accomplishment will fulfill the long overdue resolution of Panel 1 of the very first General Service Conference. During April 1951 they “unanimously resolved to go on formal record, by letter, declaring deep appreciation to Bobbie B for her years of faithful service as Secretary of the NY Office.” We need to fully appreciate what Panel 1 wished us to remember.

-Written by Gary N.

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