Marty Mann: Alcoholism Pioneer, 1904-1980
Marty Mann was a true pioneer. Born in 1904 into a wealthy Chicago family, she attended the best private schools, was married at 22 years old, divorced at 23, and a drunk by 24. Attractive, engaging, with a sharp wit and a flair for parties, Marty enjoyed a reputation as a hard drinker and developed a high tolerance for alcohol. An international traveler, she ultimately settled in New York City where she pursued a career in publishing and public relations, working as a magazine editor, art critic and photographer – never finding herself too far from a drink.
Described by those who knew her as favored with “beauty, brains, charisma, phenomenal energy, and a powerful will,” Marty's life was like a blazing fire – one nearly extinguished by alcohol. “Hangovers began to assume monstrous proportions,” she wrote of her life in the 1930s, “and the morning drink became an urgent necessity. ‘Blanks’ became more frequent… With a creeping insidiousness, drink had become more important than anything else. It no longer gave me pleasure—it merely dulled the pain—but I had to have it.”*
Marty's drinking was an occupational hazard in her line of work, and within 10 years she went from a bright, assured future to a hideous existence of round-the-clock drinking. She lost one job after another, became destitute, living off the goodwill of friends, convinced that she was hopelessly insane. Two suicide attempts nearly killed her, and desperate drinking threatened to finish the job.
A hopeless alcoholic, in 1939 Marty got sober in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as it was just getting started – one of the first women to become a member of what was then a predominantly male group. A patient of Dr. Harry Tiebout, a psychiatrist familiar with the work of AA, Marty first came into contact with that fellowship as a patient at Blythewood Sanitarium, in Greenwich, Connecticut, where she had been committed because of her alcoholism.
At Blythewood, Marty was given a manuscript copy of the book “Alcoholics Anonymous,” and found in it a sense of identification she had never felt before. “The first chapters were a revelation to me,” she wrote. “I wasn’t the only person in the world who felt and behaved like this! I wasn’t mad or vicious—I was a sick person. I was suffering from an actual disease that had a name and symptoms like diabetes or cancer or TB—and a disease was respectable, not a moral stigma.”
Several relapses preceded her achieving continuous longterm sobriety, but when she did finally stop drinking she began to pour her considerable talents into helping others.
Dawn of a Vision
Tossing and turning in her bed one cold February night in 1944, Marty prayed for a way to help other alcoholics. Rising from her bed, a plan came to her, “a plan to teach people the facts about alcoholism. A plan to remove the stigma surrounding it, so people could face it unashamed and unafraid, armed with the weapons of knowledge and able to take constructive action.”
The idea needed scientific support, she felt, and so -- accompanied by Bill W., the co-founder of AA who had become her sponsor -- Marty approached E.M. Jellinek, one of America’s premier researchers into alcoholism, and Dr. Howard Haggard at the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies, who agreed to adopt Marty’s vision of educating Americans about alcoholism.
On October 2, 1944, the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism was founded in a modest office suite on the upper east side of Manhattan. With Mrs. Mann as spokesperson, the fledgling organization became quite successful in communicating the three tenets of its core message – a message that today encompasses drug dependence and addiction:
- Alcoholism is a disease, and the alcoholic is a sick person;
- The alcoholic can be helped, and is worth helping;
- Alcoholism is a public health problem, and therefore a public responsibility.
These ideas are so universally accepted today, that it can be difficult to imagine how revolutionary they were at the time. Yet through her vision and leadership, the attitude of America toward alcoholism and addiction began to change from the perception that it was a moral issue to recognition that it was truly a matter of public health. This was a tremendous shift, especially considering America's long temperance history that culminated in the Prohibition Amendment of 1920.
During her lifetime, Marty was extremely well known in the local, regional and national press. Her appearances before state legislatures and Congress were unforgettable and she was an honorary member of numerous prestigious professional groups here and abroad. In the early 1950s, Edward R. Murrow, a distinguished journalist, selected Marty as one of the 10 greatest living Americans.
Up until the time of her death in 1980 after suffering a stroke, Marty worked tirelessly on behalf of victims associated with alcohol and drugs. Individuals and their families, government policy makers, educators, the media, public health professionals as well as the medical community all benefited from the example of her willingness and courage to freely share her own story of addiction and recovery.
Today, NCADD carries on her legacy, in advocacy and services on both the national and local levels. The philosophies and values of NCADD are firmly planted in the belief that alcohol and drug dependence are preventable, treatable diseases from which people can and do recover.
Marty Mann was one of the key figures in the modern alcoholism movement and undoubtedly the most significant voice on behalf of popularizing the disease concept of alcoholism and addiction to the American public. A true pioneer.
* Quoted from Marty's story in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (Personal Stories section, Part I), "Women Suffer Too."
For more information about Marty Mann, see: Biography of Mrs. Marty Mann - The First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous, by Sally and David R. Brown, and “Twice I Sought Death,” from This I Believe.
Bill W., AA co-founder, on the accomplishments of NCADD:
“No other single agency has done more to educate the public, to open up hospitalization, and to set in motion all manner of constructive projects than this one.”
(from The Language of the Heart)