or, How Alcoholics Anonymous Came to Los Angeles
I think some SAG writer in Hollywood put these words together.
HOW A.A. CAME TO LOS ANGELES
In 1939, Genevieve Dodge had a serious drinking problem. It was not her problem. She
was not an alcoholic. The problem she had was other people’s alcoholism. She could not
understand why, time after time, persons arrested for being drunk and disorderly, persons
sentenced to 30 days in jail, persons battered and beaten up while drunk would go back
out and get drunk again. She wanted them to stop drinking, why couldn’t they stop
Genevieve Dodge was a social worker and she was employed as a probation officer in the
Superior Court of the County of Los Angeles. She was convinced that alcoholics were
not criminals. They were mentally sick. And she was convinced they could be
straightened out. She suggested to the Superior Court that alcoholics be given an
alternative to the drunk tank. Superior Court agreed. So, for the first time in this
country, an alcoholic could be admitted to the psychiatric ward of County General
Hospital. There he must attend sessions of a special class. It was an experiment.
Could the insanity of alcoholism be treated like any other severe form of mental illness?
Dodge had an equally enthusiastic partner in the experiment. He was John Howe, a
young psychologist and social worker. Howe was convinced that men and women drank
alcoholically because they had unconscious conflicts and if these could be explored and
resolved in group therapy, the desire to drink would go away. In September 1939, Dodge
and Howe started the session. It didn’t help. They drunks went to the classes which
lasted two hours and took place five times a week in the hospital. They sobered up. They
delved into their lives. They resolved to live sane and decent lives forever more.
And they went and got drunk all over again.
Yes, Genevieve Dodge had a very bad drinking problem. She didn’t give up though, and
neither did Johnny Howe. They became obsessed with the mystery of alcoholism.
In December, Dodge heard about a lady who was going around Los Angeles giving
interviews to newspapers; a crazy lady who claimed she had a book which explained why
men and women drank and which had a solution to the problem that was driving
Genevieve Dodge and Johnny Howe up the wall.
We know that Alcoholics Anonymous started in Akron, Ohio, in June 1935, when two
drunks started taking to each other: two male drunks—Bill W. and Bob S.
Alcoholics Anonymous started in Los Angeles when two women started talking to each
other—and neither on was an alcoholic! The lady with the book was Kaye Miller and
Genevieve Dodge was the lady looking for a solution to the mystery of alcoholism.
Kaye Miller’s pursuit of a treatment for alcoholism began when she married Ty Miller,
the son of an Ohio Industrialist. He was a hopeless drunk. She loved him and tried every
form of treatment known to dry him out and keep him sober. He got worse.
Ty’s lawyer had a friend in Akron who told them about Bill W. and Dr. Bob’s recovery
and the Akron Group. Kaye phoned Bill W. in New York. She said Ty was sober at the
moment and she wanted to bring him to New York. He was a periodic drinker. Bill W.
suggested that she postpone hitting him with the idea of Alcoholics Anonymous until he
was coming out of this next drunk. Well, Ty remained sober 2 years. They moved to
Los Angeles to begin life all over again and, as Kaye later said, “Ty went on a drunk here
to end all drunks. It lasted 4 months. He couldn’t get out of it this time. He was scared
and desperate. I was at the end of my rope…”
She had forgotten about Bill W., but he hadn’t forgotten her. In those days, prospects
were rare. Ruth Hock, Bill’s Secretary, kept every inquiry on file and follow-ups were
In May 1939, the first draft of the original version of “alcoholics Anonymous” was
completed. In order to raise money for its publication, 400 copies of the manuscript had
been mimeographed and were sent to interested parties who were asked to buy shares in
the Works Publishing Company which would print the book. (Bill W. and Bob S. called
it the “Works Publishing Company” because they believed they had the first program for
alcoholics that “really works.”)
Kaye received one of the first copies of the manuscript. She didn’t read the book, but
strangely enough, Ty Miller did. He said it was the first time he had ever seen something
which understood him—who he was and why he drank. He said this book was talking to
Kaye saw something in her husband’s eyes she had never seen before. She did not have
the patience to read the book, but she wanted to get her drunken husband to an A.A.
meeting. She wired the New York office and they replied, “There is no group West of
So she and Ty pulled up stakes and went to Akron and from there to New York. She
would get the answers to her husband’s problems right from the man at the top—from
Bill W. himself. She finally cornered Bill W. in the office and asked him how she could
make her husband stop drinking.
He shocked her. Instead of talking about Ty’s problems, he talked about hers. He told
her she was spiritually bankrupt. She must let go of her husband. “Bill told me,” she
recollected, “that I had been an extremely bad wife because I had broken all his falls for
him and never let him hit bottom.” She listened. For the first time this arrogant woman
had met a man who humbled her because of his own spiritual strength and unselfishness.
She went to her first A.A. meeting in New York. She said goodbye to Bill W. and told
him: “I’m going home to Los Angeles, and if Ty can stay sober on these 12 steps of yours
for 6 months, I’m going to beat the drum of Alcoholics Anonymous up and down the
state of California, I swear to God.”
Bill smiled. He handed her the hard-cover first edition of “Alcoholics Anonymous” in its
yellow and red jacket and its garish red binding.
She returned to Los Angeles by ship and now, for the first time, she read the book. She
made a decision, “I didn’t give a hoot weather Ty stayed sober or drunk—that’s his life…
my own life was just a beginning…I only knew that the most important thing was that
never again should a wife, or any non-alcoholic in the position I’d be in, have to cross the
country to find help. Yes, I could tell them in California that I had personally seen 50 or
60 people who used to be drunks, who were now sober and had been for a long time. I
could say this and say I had seen it with my own eyes. I could tell them that it was all in
this book and the very least I would do was tell them what I had found, if I did nothing
else the rest of my life.”
And it was this book which Kaye miller gave to Genevieve Dodge who gave it to Johnny
The strangest thing about the first edition was the last chapter. It was called Lone
Endeavor. It was the story of a man in, of all places, Los Angeles. Yes, the first drunk in
Los Angeles who sobered up on the 12 steps and whose story was in the book, was a
person named Peter C. So even before A.A. came to Los Angeles in the form of
meetings, it had already come to L.A. thorough the written word. Here's how that
happened. Pete C’s mother had heard about A.A.; she had written to New York. She
received a rough draft of the first 2 chapters of the book. When the manuscript was
completed, Bill W. sent Pete C’s mother a copy of the mimeographed edition. He wrote:
“We would appreciate hearing about you son’s condition and his reaction to this volume.
Won’t you please write us?”
Pete C. wrote and told the story of his recovery. It was the first time an alcoholic had
found the answer through, and only through, the book. Bill W. was so impressed by the
letter that he made it the final chapter of the book. It was not reprinted in the later
editions. Pete C.’s sobriety was a milestone in A.A. history because it proved that you did
not need direct contact to recover. This was the start of what became the Loners and
Internationals group—persons who work in lonely jobs like the shipping trades. Through
correspondence with the Loners and Internationals office at GSO in New York they
maintain a link with A.A.
Johnny Howe read the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”. He invited Kaye Miller to join
the meetings of the psycho class of alcoholics. She talked the straight A.A. program as
she had learned it from the book and her meeting with Bill W. Johnny laid out the
psychological aspects of the disease. Among the first converts was Barney H., who was
sobering up in a psychopathic ward of County General Hospital. (There was no alcoholic
ward at that time.)
Kaye Miller had not divorced Ty. She was living in a small house on Benicia Street in
Westwood. Chuck and Lee T., a couple from New York, arrived in Los Angeles. Bill
W. had given the, Kaye’s number. Kate decided it was time to have a meeting of
Alcoholics Anonymous in Los Angeles. The first meeting of A.A. in Los Angeles took
place on December 19, 1939, at her home. Nobody knew exactly how to run a meeting.
Kaye knew there had to be doughnuts and coffee. There were doughnuts and coffee.
Besides Kaye, there were Johnny Howe, three other non-alcoholic social workers, Ethel
and Barney H., Chucks and Lee T., Chauncey and Edna C., Joy S., Dwight S., Walter K.,
and Hal S.
Kaye Miller telegraphed Bill W.: Los Angeles held its first meeting tonight. Fifteen
On January 19, 1940, after Hal S. became sober for good, he started carrying the message
to Lincoln Heights jail. He attended every meeting of A.A. in the area. Hal S. was one
of the first Angelenos to get sober and remain sober.
In the Central Office Archives at 4311 Wilshire Boulevard, you can look at a torn and
faded copy of the first edition of “Alcoholics Anonymous”. This is the very book which
Bill W. gave to Kaye Miller who gave it to Genevieve Dodge who gave it to Johnny
Howe who gave it to Hal S. It was presented to the Los Angeles Central Office in 1977
by Ethel S. On the flyleaf she wrote:
“This is the original A.A. book brought to Kaye Miller in Los Angeles. I am not
certain of the exact date when Kaye gave the book to Johnny Howe. Hal entered the
County General Hospital on Friday, January 15 (1940) and left Tuesday, January 19. Hal
must have been the first person to read this (book), probably January 16 through 18.
Eventually Johnny gave the book to him.”
Kaye continued to hold meetings at her place and at other person’s homes. The meetings
were informal and were by invitation and were rather disorganized. Very few persons
maintained sobriety. Mrs. Miller became discouraged. Drunks came to a meeting or two
and retuned to their alcoholic habits. Had the experimental psycho class failed? Was
jailing drunks the only way to get them off the streets? Kaye went to Hawaii. She
returned and thought about starting another meeting. But she really had no heart for it.
Would there ever be a person like Bill W. who could light a fire of A.A. in this city?
There was. He was not in Los Angeles at that time. He was living in Denver. He was a
stockbroker. His name was Mort J., who was almost 80 years of age when he passed
away June 16, 1984. He was a violent drunk, a blackout drunk, a geographic drunk.
Mort J. wanted to change his life. He was powerless over alcohol. He attempted to treat
his condition in hospitals and sanitariums. He had been in a long treatment process with
a Denver doctor who specialized in alcoholism and drug addiction diseases. Mort J.
seemed to be incurable. He always went back and got drunk once again. Then, in 1939,
the doctor gave him a copy of the first edition of “Alcoholics Anonymous”. He showed
it to Mort J., who ordered a copy from New York. He read the opening chapters while he
was sipping whiskey. By the time he had gotten to chapter 3, “More About Alcoholism”,
he wasn’t reading it—he was living it. Well, someday, somehow, he would read this
book and sober up and live a good clean life and become a very rich Denver stockbroker.
But, meanwhile, there was still another bottle to kill and another trip to take. He went to
Los Angeles. He saw his brother in Los Angeles. He was driving drunk, of course. He
drove for weeks in a blackout. From Los Angeles he drove through California and
Arizona, and he vaguely remembered, as through a shot glass darkly, crossing the
Mexican border at Nogales and drinking in a bar at Guyamas and another one in
Hermosillo and back to Nogales and then he found himself in Palm Springs, where he did
thing he did in Hermosillo or Nogales or Denver.
One morning, in Palm Springs, Mort J. awakened and he was shaking and his nerves
were coming through his skin and he needed a drink or he would die. There were only
empty bottles in his hotel room. He didn’t even know where he was for sure. He started
ransacking his suitcases and then saw that copy of “Alcoholics Anonymous” which he
had forgotten he packed.
Instead of waiting until the liquor shops opened, he read the book. He never knew what
made him do this. He read the book from the first page to the last page, to the story about
Pete C., Lone Endeavor.
Then he fell into a deep sleep. When he awakened, he went outside and had the first
good meal he had eaten in a long time. He had bacon and eggs and coffee. Then he went
back to his room. He read “Alcoholics Anonymous” a second time.
And from that day on he never had another drink.
Now a fire burned inside him. He had to carry the message. He drove home to Denver to
start a meeting. He told his fiancée he was sober, but she did not believe him. She broke
off the engagement. (Later, much later, Frances married him.) Broken hearted but sober,
Mort J. came to Los Angeles. He telephoned A.A. in New York and Ruth Hock gave
him Kate Miller’s number, and the address where she lived and had meetings. He went
“Where’s the meeting?” He asked.
“There are no meetings here any more,” Kaye said. “I’m disgusted. I’m going to Hawaii
“Where are all the members of A.A.?” he asked.
“They’re all drunk,” she said bitterly.
“Do you have any names for me?” he asked. I want to get in touch with some alcoholics
“You’re wasting your time,” she said. She had been cleaning out her apartment. She had
thrown all of her index cards with the names of A.A. prospects and all the inquiry letters
into a waste basket. Mort J. cleaned out her waste basket. His pockets full of cards and
letters, he departed. Kaye’s last words to him were, “Don’t waste your time on them.
I’ve called on them all. They can’t stay sober.”
Mort J. started walking home. On his way, as he saw from one of the cards, was the
address of Cliff W., whose wife, Dorothe had written to A.A. in New York for help.
Dorothe had read about a group in Beatrice Fairfax’s syndicated column. (She was the
“Dear Abby” of her period.)
As Mort J. walked to the Walker home, he did not realize that the entire burden of
making A.A. live in Los Angeles had now fallen on him. He was a quiet, soft-spoken
person. He was a Harvard college man. He was dressed in a dignified way. He looked
like a bank president. He rang the bell at the home of Dorothe and Cliff W. Cliff
answered the doorbell.
“My name is Mort J. I’m a member of Alcoholics Anonymous; may I come I?”
Cliff W. started listening to Mort J.’s story. Cliff had no desire to stop drinking or go to
meetings. But he was spellbound as Mort told him the story of his last roaring drunk
from Colorado to Mexico to Palm Springs. Mort J. said that, as he understood it, he
could not remain sober, unless he carried the message to other alcoholics. Would Cliff
W. come to a meeting if he could organize a meeting?
Well, Cliff W. kind of liked this high-class gent, and more as a favor to him, more to help
Mort J. stay sober, he said he would.
Years later, Cliff W. said, “I had no desire to join Alcoholics Anonymous. But I had to
see Mort again. He attracted me. And years later when Bill W. came out with the 11th
tradition, I realized how true it was when he said A.A. is a program of attraction rather
than promotion. And I believe this attraction starts with the man who makes the 12th step
call…Always when I call on a new guy I shave and clean up, put on a tie and coat, try to
look good, even if it’s a drunk tank I’m going to or the alcoholic ward in a hospital,
because, after meeting me and if he’s attracted enough, he might come to his first A.A
meeting, just to please me, the way I went to Mort’s meeting, just to please him, because
there was something about him that drew me…”
Looking around for a meeting place, Mort J. got in touch with Dr. Ethel Leonard. She
worked with alcoholics. She happened to be house physician for the Cecil Hotel on Main
Street. Through the good offices of Dr. Leonard, Mort J. rented a large room on the
mezzanine for $5.00. This was the first public meeting of A.A. It was on Friday at 8PM
in March of 1940. It was open to all who had a desire to stop drinking, Ted LeBerthon, a
columnist on the Los Angeles Daily News, wrote about the meeting in his column. And
it was in the heart of Skid Row.
“I chose this location,” Mort J. recalls, “because the price was right and there was a good
psychological reason for holding a meeting down there because I knew it would show us
where we were headed unless we did something about it—that was our destination, Skid
Row, the drunk tank, sleeping in the alleys and under the bridges, winos, dead men…”
Present besides Mort J., were Cliff W., and about 10 men—men who had failed to sober
up at Johnny Howe’s classes and Kaye Miller’s meetings. He pleaded with them to give
A.A. one more chance.
Mort did not know how an A.A. meeting should be conducted. There was no coffee, no
doughnuts. All he had was his copy of “Alcoholics Anonymous”. Mort opened the
meeting and he told how he had not had a drink in 5 months. He asked if anybody
present would like to read a few pages. Nobody volunteered. So Mort J. opened the
book to Chapter 5 and started reading, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who…”
And that is how the practice of reading a portion of Chapter 5 started in Southern
A month later, Mort got a letter from Frank R., who was in a Phoenix, Arizona,
sanitarium. He lived in Los Angeles. He wanted to know if it was true that A.A. helped
the alcoholic at no charge. Mort J. invited him to come to the Cecil Hotel in Friday night
when he got home and find out for himself. The next meeting Frank R. arrived, together
with his attendant. He was now in Compton sanitarium and was not allowed to go out
without a guard. He was a dangerous man when he was drunk.
Mort J. remembers Frank as a fierce, rough guy. He never smiled. He looked like one of
those strong silent types who played in the Westerns, like a Gary Cooper or John Wayne
type. He had a question for Mort J. after the meeting.
“What keeps you sober, Friend?”
“To the best of my belief it is trying to practice the principles of the book.”
“Yeah? No kidding? And all these men here tonight—what the hell keeps them sober, if
they are sober, which I doubt?”
“The same thing.”
“I’d like to help you.”
“I need all the help I can get.”
Mort J. visited him in the Compton sanitarium three times. The first 2 times Frank R. had
a bottle of Gordon’s gin in his bed. The third time he was sober. Frank R. became part
of the team.
And so it was on these three rocks—Mort J., Cliff W., and Frank R. —that the house of
A.A. in Los Angeles was built. The A.A. number in Los Angeles telephone directory
was the home of Cliff and Dorothe W.
They set up a meeting at the Embassy Hotel, where they moved from the Cecil. Then to
the Elks Club, to the Regent Hotel, and to Parkview Manor, at 2200 West 7th Street.
Frank R. was a driving force in the fellowship. He had been a successful executive with
the Southern Pacific Railroad. Cliff remembered him “as the hardest looking hombre I
ever saw. He was cold and tough. He had these bulging eyes behind think glasses.” He
became one of the most passionate 12th steppers that ever lived. Cliff W. always said it
was Frank’s example and teaching which imbued him with the love of the 12th step work.
Hard as it is for those of us who remembered Cliff W. during the 1970’s when he was a
powerful and charming speaker, a smiling, loving and kindly man, that in the pioneer
days he was a ‘shy, introverted, scared’ person. He was afraid of knocking on strange
doors and talking with wet drunks. Frank R. had no fears. He was also a tough sponsor.
He founded what Norm A. liked to call the Los Angeles College of Hard Hearted
Sponsors. Frank R. was the first in a long line of uncompromising A.A. members who
lived in the conviction that their lives had been given back to them in order to be of
service to the alcoholic who was still suffering.
Once, recalled Cliff, over 100 inquires had piled up, Frank took him on the rounds for 2
weeks, all over the county. “We went into jails and we went into hospitals and insane
asylums,” Cliff said. “We went into dumps and we went into mansions and, well, all
over the place. And Frank wasn’t afraid of man or beast. I remember one time a man
wanted to give us a check for $500 and Frank refused it. He said to me that in A.A. you
don’t ever get obligated for more than a cup of coffee. A.A. has saved this man’s life.
He wanted to make a big donation. Frank showed me that love and service are not for
They fought hard to get drunks to stay sober. They treasured every new member they
got. Roy Y., who was to move to Texas subsequently, but was active in the Los Angeles
meetings of A.A. during this period, remembers that they had a Goon Squad which was
set up to corral any member who got drunk and they rode herd on him until he sobered
up. They once got a call from a member’s wife in West Los Angeles. She said her
spouse was drunk again. They sent out the Good Squad to an address they had. They
rang the doorbell. Nobody answered. They went around to the back door which was
open. They went it. They looked for a drunk. There was a man in paint-spotted overalls
sleeping in the bedroom. They picked him up and took him to a restaurant and made him
drink coffee. He kept telling them to leave him alone and he didn’t want the coffee.
Then they dragged him to a meeting. The man was definitely intoxicated. He thought
the meeting was interesting. But he was the wrong man. They had gone to the wrong
house. The man was a house painter who had gotten drunk while painting a room. He
had been taking a little siesta when the Goon Squad captured him. Roy Y., who sobered
up in Texas in February of 1940 and came to Los Angeles in August of that year, believes
that the man became sober and never had another drink.
By the time, in March 1941, when Jack Alexander’s article on Alcoholics Anonymous
appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, the Los Angeles organization was already in
position. Hundreds of inquires started coming in. They were a small band of men, these
pioneers, but they were tempered by their experiences and know-how to outwit alcoholics
at their self destructive games.
Among those who came in at this time, and who were known as the Saturday Evening
Post Class of 1941, were Al M. and Sybil C. Sybil C. phoned the A.A. number and was
given Cliff W. She was drunk when she called. She asked him to send the A.A.
ambulance. Later, he became her sponsor. Sybil C. was the first woman to get sober and
stay sober in Los Angeles. She now took all 12th step calls from women. She became a
passionate bearer of the message.
Al M. was a trombonist who played in movie studio orchestras. He was a tall, good
looking man, and, when he was infected with the spirit of sobriety, he became another
driving, impassioned A.A. worker, who was a magnetic speaker and a hard-hearted
So through these and other members, A.A. increased in numbers. By the end of 1941,
there were about 500 members in Los Angeles.
By 1943, the membership was large enough to hold a big meeting. Money was raised to
bring Lois and Bill W. here. The date was November 6, 1943. The place was the
American Legion Hall on Highland Avenue.
Reporting on his arrival, the Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1943, described Bill W. as
a “tall, lanky, Easterner, who requested that his name no be divulged nor his photograph
taken…” the article stated that there were “13 groups in Los Angeles County, each of
which meets once a week.” The membership was estimated to be 1,500. There was no
Central Office in 1943.
On a Saturday night, the hall was filled with a thousand happy, sober men and women.
From the wings, backstage, Bill W. stood beside Mort J. He pulled the curtain a little so
he could peek at the great throng. He shivered. He now knew that Alcoholics
Anonymous could cross the rivers and the deserts and come over the mountains.
And to Mort J. he murmured, “Nothing can stop us now.”
The Southern California Archives Committee originally wrote this pamphlet on August
1, 1986. The location of the Central Office was changed from Harvard Boulevard to
Wilshire Boulevard. Other than that this pamphlet is as it was written in 1986