Brides and Booze: The Alcoholic Wife in Mid-Century Pulp Fiction

“How should he handle his alcoholic wife,” asks the lurid cover of the 1960 novel Alcoholic Wife by G.G. Revelle. “Beat her? Cater to her inflamed desires? Overlook her drunken intimacies with other men? Desert her for his seductive mistress?” With a retail price of 35 cents, the volume helpfully included a list of other Beacon Book titles that readers might enjoy, such as Footloose Fraulein and Trailer Tramp. Yet Alcoholic Wife was not just entertainment, but an examination of a growing social crisis, as the back cover promised: “This novel courageously tackles the problem of the drinking wife—today more common than ever before!”

Cover of novel Alcoholic Wife
Cover of novel Alcoholic Wife

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A Genealogy of Disclosure: Alcoholism, Celebrity, Feminism

Lately I have been investigating what I call a genealogy of disclosure, asking how the tightly controlled personal narrative of Marty Mann, which she offered in service of a public health mission as she launched the organization that is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, morphed into our own cultural moment, wherein “Intervention” is a reality television show and the successive admissions of young celebrities to rehabilitation for addiction is considered newsworthy. Of course, a generation ago, First Lady Betty Ford served an important role bringing public awareness to women’s addictions, including alcoholism. Yet even though she stands as perhaps the most famous female alcoholic of the twentieth century, Ford was not the first or even the only one to step forward. Professional women, including physicians, who were alcoholic had worked to shape policy and treatment, while alcoholic actresses testified before Congress beginning in 1969 to support the bill that established the National Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. This activism has been dubbed the “women’s alcoholism movement” and it led to the official identification of women as a “special population” of alcoholics in the context of new federal funding for research and treatment. [1]

The March into the 1977 National Women's Conference (l to r): Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan (courtesy Jewish Women's Archive).
The March into the 1977 National Women’s Conference (l to r): Billy Jean King, Susan B. Anthony II, Bella Abzug, Sylvia Ortiz, Peggy Kokernot, Michele Cearcy, Betty Friedan (courtesy Jewish Women’s Archive).

An especially fascinating figure who played an important role during this period was Susan B. Anthony II.

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The Little Saloon on the Prairie

With interests in heritage tourism and addiction history, I am always looking for intersections between the two. I found one unexpectedly last summer in Alaska, visiting several brothel museums that celebrated the madams’ business acumen and bootlegging success. I learned recently that Kentucky has a Bourbon Trail with the tagline “Where the Spirit Leads You,” while the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States has its own American Whiskey Trail, starring George Washington’s own distillery at Mount Vernon. Needless to say, these sites demonstrate the power of history to make political and economic arguments in the present. A fuller discussion of them will have to await my next road trip.

Heirloom booze.
Ye olde employee of Beam Inc. (NYSE: BEAM).

Meanwhile, not all museums or cultural attractions want to highlight the role of alcohol, especially when they are cultivating a wholesome image befitting their connection with classics of children’s literature. As an example, heritage tourism is booming at the sites associated with the “Little House” books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, where visitors confront a complex mix of history, original and replica buildings, and landscapes, all viewed through the lens of well-loved texts.

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Dr. Bob’s Home, Part III: Creating a Fellowship of Historians

Last fall I described the process through which a team of graduate students from the University of Michigan researched and wrote the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home, the residence of Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne, to be a National Historic Landmark (NHL).  This week we completed the next step in the process, the formal presentation of the nomination to the Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service.   Like our trip from Ann Arbor to Akron to see Dr. Bob’s Home for ourselves, which I recounted in previous posts, this step required a literal journey, as we drove from Michigan to Washington, D.C. for the presentation.  It has been a journey in other ways as well, as we have learned even more about collaboration, about fellowship, and about the many ways that history matters.

After months of research and writing a lengthy and detailed document, the students were charged with compressing their argument about the significance of Dr. Bob’s Home into a ten-minute presentation, following the protocol of the Landmarks Committee meeting.  Dr. Bob’s Home was one of approximately a dozen properties presented there over two days.  The meeting itself was a fascinating mix of procedural formality and impassioned statements about the power of historic places.  We were joined in Washington by a representative of the Founders’ Foundation, the non-profit organization that has restored and now maintains Dr. Bob’s Home as a museum—the same person who had served as our host when we visited Akron and who has partnered with us through this process.  Sharing this experience with him and his family deepened our appreciation of the importance of fellowship and the power of history.Read More »

“They Call Them Camisoles”: The Short Life and Tragic Death of Wilma Wilson

They Call them Camisoles (Lymanhouse, 1940)

They Call Them Camisoles is a tantalizing document– Wilma Wilson’s first-person account of her 1939 commitment for alcoholism to the Camarillo State Hospital in California. Published in 1940, the book had recently been out of print.  I learned of it myself a few years ago, and discovered only yesterday that it has been republished in a volume compiled by Kirsten Anderberg, which includes material on Wilson’s death and many photographs of Camarillo State Hospital as it looks today.  The title refers to restraints that some patients had to wear, and much of the narrative recounts Wilson’s observations of the mentally ill patients around her.  Not surprisingly, the book has been understood—both at the time of its publication and now—primarily as an expose of the conditions and practices inside mental institutions.  There is no question that it is an important source of evidence in that regard.  But I am also interested in exploring what it can tell us about gender and alcoholism during the 1930s and 1940s.

Given the stigma and secrecy that often surrounds women’s drinking, I am fascinated by instances when women choose to divulge their excessive drinking.  I’m tracing what I call a genealogy of disclosure, from Marty Mann, who revealed her alcoholism during the 1940s when she founded what is now the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; through Betty Ford in the 1970s; to today’s climate of reality television and celebrity tell-all memoirs.  In some of these cases, the women were already famous for other reasons, making the acknowledgment of a drinking problem all the more shocking.  In others, the disclosure itself creates a kind of renown.Read More »

Drug Exhibitionism: Alcohol and Drug History in a Local Museum

As part of a semester-long series of events related to addiction here at the University of Michigan, a group of students researched and designed an exhibit called “Bad Habits: Drinks, Drags, and Drugs in Washtenaw County History” for a local museum.

Exhibit Flyer, Museum on Main Street, Washtenaw County Historical Society

Co-sponsored by the College of Literature, Science and the Arts and by the University of Michigan Substance Abuse Research Center (UMSARC), the Research Theme Semester, as it is known, has included seminars, visiting speakers, a film series, and more.  Those of us involved in the museum exhibit hoped that it would bring the semester’s events into the community and also encourage student involvement with the county historical society, which runs the museum.  Like many local historical societies, this one includes a number of older people on the executive board, and I assumed, mistakenly as it turned out, that they might not endorse this idea for an exhibit.  In fact, they have been enthusiastic supporters, providing many research leads for the students to explore and, in some cases at least, sharing their own memories of drinking escapades.  Since much of the semester has focused on addiction, with a very serious tone as a result, I found their good humor a welcome change of pace.Read More »

Welcome Home, Part II: Dr. Bob’s Home & “Addiction History Exceptionalism”

In a recent post, I described a trip to Dr. Bob’s Home in Akron, Ohio, with a group of graduate students in history from the University of Michigan.  The students have spent much of this fall semester writing the nomination for Dr. Bob’s Home to be designated a National Historic Landmark, a process I described in my previous post.  Here, I offer some further thoughts on how the visit has contributed to my thinking about how we conceptualize the relationship between past and present.  In teaching and research, I have been grappling with what I call, for lack of a better term, “addiction history exceptionalism”—that is, how is addiction history like and unlike other kinds of history, and how can it enrich our understanding of historical investigation more broadly?

In thinking about these issues, I found Ernie Kurtz’s post earlier this fall on types of AA history, and the comments that followed it, very helpful.  The existence of various

Historical Controversy? What Historical Controversy?

historical approaches, from academic to antiquarian and in between, surely is not unique to the addiction field or to the history of AA. (As a devoted fan of Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Little House” books, I can attest to that.)  But there does seem to be an intensity in the realm of AA history that is not evident in many other areas, due at least in part, I believe, to the existence of a large constituency for whom AA history has tremendous personal and collective significance in the present.  To the extent that this particular intensity arises from personal association with the AA fellowship, it cannot be replicated precisely in other realms of historical inquiry.  But to the extent that it comes from a more general awareness and acknowledgment of the emotional dimensions of historical investigation, I think other fields have a lot to learn from how AA history is practiced.

Although we often shy away from such things in academic writing, research, and teaching (at least in how we present our own relationship with our material), emotion and a sense of intimacy can be fundamental to historical inquiry.  In comments on Ernie Kurtz’s post, Ron Roizen noted that there is something “irreducibly familial” in how AA history is often pursued, echoed by Joe Gabriel’s observation that the same can be said about medical history as practiced by physicians.  I agree that the family metaphor can be illuminating.

As I mentioned last time, thinking about the actual Smith family in their domestic space while walking through the house ourselves also enriched our understanding of early AA.  Hearing the origin story of AA repeated with remarkable consistency by everyone we met, I found myself thinking about the role of the individual in history.   Years of training have predisposed me against any kind of “great man” theory of historical causation, and yet there was something about being in that intimate setting that made me think afresh about how particular people—especially Dr. Bob and Anne Smith, as well as Bill Wilson—made something happen through their own actions, literally making history.  I am sure that being in that house brought those figures down to life size for me and, perhaps ironically, made me better able to appreciate their accomplishments.

Analysis or Interpretation?

The house itself embodied both past and present—simultaneously museum, shrine, and home for current spiritual practice.  I found myself very moved, especially in the dining room where, we were told, alcoholics wrote out their stories on yellow legal pads, to have them typed by Sue Smith Windows, daughter of Dr. Bob and Anne Smith.   This very table, this very typewriter—such is the power of the relic that we all stood there in silence.  This was one of those moments where I felt myself both historian and antiquarian, torn between wanting to analyze the interpretation offered in the room and preferring to simply appreciate the emotional intensity attached to these objects in this place.  Later, I could not help myself from wondering why the dining room in particular had affected me that way.  I think it was because of a fusion of place, artifact, and text, the result of knowing that at least some of those stories found their way into the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.  The text can be known independently of the site, yet familiarity with the text, in turn, imparts more meaning to the site.

In the house, I was captivated with this merging of past and present, finding it both intellectually fascinating and emotionally rewarding.  As we moved to other sites in Akron, however, we realized that that blending can be unsettling, even disturbing.  I am grateful to the students in my class for their insights in our follow-up discussions of this experience.  One of our stops was the Mayflower Hotel, from where Bill Wilson made the call that led ultimately to his conversation with Dr. Bob.

The Mayflower Hotel Today

Today, the Mayflower Hotel is used for transitional housing, and some of the residents we encountered as we made our way to the lobby seemed vulnerable and struggling.  There, we literally had to cross the present to get to the past, and we could not control the extent to which the present inserted itself into what might otherwise be a romanticized version of the past.

Here is something else we can learn from AA history.  Narrative is appealing, especially narrative with a happy ending:  Bill met Dr. Bob, they both got sober, they created AA which has changed the lives of millions of people.  That is all true.  But seeing the current residents of the Mayflower Hotel reminded me that when Dr. Bob and Bill were going through this, it was undoubtedly messy, painful, even terrifying—and they did not know how it was going to turn out.  Similarly, recovery narratives seem to mark a clear before and after, but the dividing line is not necessarily that sharp, particularly when one is living it.  Perhaps no one said it better than William Faulkner: “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.”

Appropriate for So Many Reasons

Welcome Home: A Journey to Dr. Bob’s House

"Welcome Home": 855 Ardmore Avenue, Akron, Ohio

“Welcome home,” said the man who greeted us as we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Craftsman-style house.  After a long and rainy drive that had begun early that morning, I was grateful to hear those kind words.  Along with a group of graduate students from the University of Michigan, I had driven to Akron from Ann Arbor to visit the home of Robert and Anne Smith.  As many readers undoubtedly know, Dr. Bob, as he is affectionately called, co-founded the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship with Bill Wilson.  We had come to see the house as part of a public history class I am teaching this semester, focusing on a proposal that Dr. Bob’s Home be designated a National Historic Landmark (NHL).  For me, this course has been a terrific opportunity to bring together two long-time interests, addiction history and the role of historic places in shaping public memory.  It has also been a wonderfully collaborative enterprise, and some of the reflections I offer below come out of conversations with students.

Students in the class have been learning a great deal about drinking practices, alcoholism, and the treatment of alcoholics in American history.  They have also had to become familiar with federal historic preservation programs—a steep learning curve all around.
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“Drunken Orgy” and the Perils of Social Climbing, 1909 Style

"A Fondness for Intoxicants"

So there I was in the back room of a small local history museum in North Dakota, watching the frail-looking director heft large bound volumes of early-twentieth-century newspapers on and off the shelf.  My friend and I were on the trail of a confusing 1909 event in a tiny community on the Great Plains that formed the centerpiece of a family story she wanted to untangle.  The details of that event are not at all relevant here, because this is a story about something else and the role serendipity often plays in research.  As the museum director flipped through the volumes, I noticed another headline: “Mrs. Gould’s Life At Home, Drunken Orgy.”  And below that: “Coachman, Carpenter, Footman, Maid, Florist and Clerk All Relate Instances When Mistress Was Intoxicated and Profane.”  My friend, who knows I also work on the history of alcoholic women, met my glance; she had seen it too.  Because I feared distracting the museum director, whose help was essential to us, I said nothing but scribbled down as much information as I could so that I could pursue Mrs. Gould another day.

As I later learned, this article was part of widespread coverage of the divorce proceedings of Howard Gould, son of railroad magnate Jay Gould, and Katherine Clemmons, an actress.  News stories that reported the trial in great detail were reprinted in regional newspapers such as the one I saw in North Dakota (that headline, for example, also appeared in the Los Angeles Times on June 17, 1909).  While the reference to “Intoxication” had caught my eye, not to mention “Drunken Orgy,” I discovered as I read more about the case that Mrs. Gould’s drinking was presented as part of a cluster of characteristics and behaviors, including her background and class status, her actions toward servants, her (in)ability to manage money, her alleged pre-marital and extra-marital associations, and even her wardrobe.  Not surprisingly, I cannot conclude from existing evidence whether Mrs. Gould was actually an alcoholic.  But I can analyze this news coverage for what it tells us about early-twentieth-century attitudes regarding women’s alcohol consumption, social class, marriage, and respectability.Read More »

Teaching Points: “Hooked: Addiction in American Culture”: Commentary on the Class

In the second half of her post to the “Teaching Points” series, Contributing Editor Michelle McClellan reflects on how interdisciplinarity works–and doesn’t– in the undergraduate classroom.

“So how many of these drugs have you done?”  It was the first day of class, and the question came from a student who was clearly much hipper than I had been as an undergrad, or am now for that matter.

“Excuse me?” I was flustered but managed to rejoin, “Why do you want to know?”

“Because,” he said with a faint smirk, “I don’t see how can you teach about them if you haven’t experienced them.”

“Well, I didn’t live through the Civil War either, but I teach about that too,” I replied.

McClellan's Pedagogy: Take No Prisoners

Thinking back on that exchange from several years ago, I now realize that for me, teaching about addiction intensifies many aspects of pedagogy.  The classroom can be crowded: not just with ideas, but with emotions and backgrounds that are often invisible and therefore all the more powerful.  Many of these issues have been thoughtfully explored by Guest Blogger Eoin Cannon.  As the student’s challenge to me was meant to show, we instructors also bring a point of view into the classroom, whether we articulate it or not.  This is a useful reminder for me in all my classes.
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