His conscience hurt him as much as his drinking.
But that was years ago.
I THINK that life, when I was growing up, was the most wonderful life that any kid ever had. My parents were very successful and every new luxury and every new beauty that came into the house was keenly appreciated by all of us. We didn’t have things thrown at us. They came little by little.
My parents were both Jews and, in my family life, we were always keenly alive to the beauty of religion, although we were not orthodox. I always saw God as a wonderful force that was a great deal like my father, only magnified to the Nth degree. I once asked my grandfather, when I was a little boy, what God was like. He asked me what my dad was like. I went into superlatives about dad because I really loved him so much. He was such a friendly, wonderful father, and so my grandfather said, “Well, your father is the head of your family. God is the head of the entire human family and of the whole universe. But what makes him ‘Dear God’ is that you can speak to him just as you would talk to your own dad. He’s not only a universal father, but an individual father too.” So I’d always had that wonderful comparison of my own father with God.
When they found out that I could create sculpture
at a very early age, it made both my parents very happy; my two older brothers were not artists, but they were good students. I was a very bad student and very much an artist. Instead of resenting that, they encouraged my art. So my childhood was really art and music, and I got along at school, usually, by leaving the day before examinations or getting measles or something else like that and being put in the next grade for trial. The teacher of the grade that I left would never take me back under any circumstances.
I was ecstatically happy. My brothers and their friends lived on horses as I did from six years old on. We did everything, all of our playing and wild games on horseback. This was up to World War I. I was about nineteen years old then. I don’t think I had any fears at all up to that time.
We were a very close family. Everything was very vital, anything that happened to one happened to another. When war broke out all I could hear in my heart was the echoes of what father and mother had told me so often; how grateful I should be to the United States. Both my grandfathers had come over from the other side, one from Bohemia and one from Prussia, because at that time there was persecution in those countries, and they wanted to live and be a part of the “land of the free.” They both had magnificent lives and were able to pull themselves up and live happily and die in luxury. I was very grateful to the United States for that.
I loved my grandparents very dearly and I had watched my father’s great financial success. So I felt that I didn’t want either of my two brothers to go to
war. They were both married, but certainly one of the family should show what we thought and felt about the United States. So I told my folks that I was going to join the Army and that scared them to death, but after a while they heard that a near by hospital was forming a unit and I think my mother had a picture of my going to war with my personal family doctor. Nothing could be more luxurious! So, they gave their consent that I should join the unit, never realizing that you could transfer when you got to the other side.
I was a terrible soldier as far as drilling was concerned, but I had been studying anatomy and dissecting for my art work so a hospital was sort of a second nature to me. I got along very well in that part of the Army, very well indeed.
I went through World War I without actually getting drunk. I did learn to drink heavily in France, but it didn’t do anything for me or to me. I mean to say I didn’t drink for relief or escape, and I was always flattered that I could out-drink almost anybody and take them home. Many of the patients insisted that when they got well they were going to take me down and get me drunk in appreciation. It was usually a hike of two and one-half kilometers to get the patient back to the hospital! These were walking wounded.
I had one bad experience in which a truck that I was in was blown up, and I woke up in Vichy a couple of days later in a bathtub. I thought I was in heaven. The whole room was full of steam. An enormous sergeant came through the steam and said, “Don’t move, young fellow.” I said, “Where am I?” He told me. I started to upbraid him, “Why shouldn’t I move?” He said, “Don’t move. That’s all.” I did, and found it was
very painful. I had an injury to my spine. When it was time to get me out of that bathtub that enormous guy just picked me up as though I were a baby and put me on a stretcher. That was about three days before the Armistice.
On Armistice Day everyone pushed all the hospital beds onto the street and had a grand parade of them. Everybody hugged and kissed us and gave us candy and drinks, and the sergeant came along with a glass and said, “The doctor says you’re to finish this right away.” I turned it upside down and believe me the bed swam from then on. It didn’t last very long because as soon as I got something to eat I got over that. But I think that was my very first feeling of being dizzy or drunk.
When I got back from World War I, there didn’t seem to be any alcoholic problem at all. I could drink or not drink, but when I did I liked to out-drink other people. This stupid desire to out-drink people, and then drinking more and more myself, was the first sign of my alcoholism.
I married in 1920. In 1928, my wife and I returned to Paris with two children, and I’d get insomnia and get up and go to the dining room and take a glass of brandy and that would put me back to sleep. I thought people took brandy to go to sleep.
Meanwhile, back in this country, I began to notice the family got worried when I was drinking and I didn’t like to see them worried. I thought, if it worries them so much, well, I’d drink over at the studio and take my friends over there. Because, by that time, I’d worked up a good, artistic reputation and the critics were particularly kind to me. I had loads and
loads of work, all that I could take care of, and I liked work. I always had a long day. To me, sunrise is the most gorgeous time of the day and the most spiritual, and I love to say my prayers and watch the sunrise at the same time. I am grateful for the new day and for the beauty of it.
This drinking over at the studio and then finally at barrooms—anything so as not to drink at the house—became progressively worse. This was when my “guilt complex” started, with this secret drinking. I went to Europe several times and the cycle seemed to be broken each time because I was never drunk over there, except when we lived in Paris after I was actively alcoholic. I was only actually drunk there twice that I know of.
The drinking got heavier and heavier and the compulsion got heavier and heavier. I could still come home without staggering and I was very proud of that. But I was very unhappy too because I was making the folks at home unhappy, and then my legs began to get unsteady and they could see by my bloodshot eyes that I’d been drinking on the sly, and then guilt really started in. And with the guilt there started fears and I was very unhappy, so I decided that I would quit—and then I found that I couldn’t quit. This one didn’t count. This one was medicine. By that time I was in my thirties. That’s just about the time I did such crazy things. I’d sneak away from the house on my motorcycle because I thought I could be wilder and have a grander time on a motorcycle than I could in a car, because a car had four wheels and, incidentally, a motorcycle could go faster. But I found that was very lonely, so I got a sidecar and took a chauffeur. Very
often when I’d go out with the chauffeur, he would drive out and I would have to drive him home because he didn’t have my capacity.
My wife always had faith that this was only a sickness, but she did worry. She knew nothing about A.A. and I knew nothing of it. But, she always realized that this was not her husband, that something had distressed him and that something had to be understood, although I was arrogant and rotten.
After father died in 1934, I drank for oblivion. That was a terrible shock. In my insecurity I thought that all the security in the world had gone with him.
The next few years were really terrible. So many things happened that the net was closing in. One of the most terrible things was that in my guilt I lost God. That was the big thing. I had no right to pray to God. I had no right to go into the temple or church. When we lived in Rome I used to go into one of the cathedrals every night on my way home from work and, to me, a house of God was a house of God and was beautiful and dedicated to His worship. Now I was robbed of God, because I was so ashamed, and so I had no help and I didn’t know how to quit. It was very terrible.
We had a dear friend up near us in Westchester by the name of Gabrielle. She had a wash-woman whose son was a cripple. He had created some really beautiful works of art. She asked me if I would to and see his work and help him. I couldn’t refuse Gabrielle anything, and I promised her that I would go, and that was really the beginning of the end of my alcoholic experience. I gathered together the most beautiful gooks of pictures from the Vatican. Like a
big shot alcoholic I did everything in style! I got gorgeous new art materials and fine new paper. I couldn’t get the train at my own station—that was impossible! I had to go down the line and beat the train by twenty minutes and spend those twenty minutes in a barroom. That held me till I got to 125th Street and the bars were open. (Prohibition had been repealed while I was drinking and getting up the steam to go and visit the poor cripple.) So I went to a bar on 7th Avenue and when I got there the welcome was warmer than any welcome I ever received in my life, there were a lot of bar-flies around, and everybody was treating everybody, and I was gulping them down as fast as I could. Finally, when I found myself with sixteen drinks in front of me, still to be taken, and this big package of pictures, I hurried up and finished the sixteen drinks and told the men that I would be back later, that I had to deliver this bundle. Then I began a most peculiar trek down 7th Avenue until I reached where I was going. I stumbled and staggered and fell in area-ways and I became absolutely filthy. I can see to this day the colored people grabbing their children so that I didn’t throw them into the gutter or area-way or knock a baby carriage under a truck. It was almost like a musical comedy when the hero comes downstage and everybody gives way before him.
I finally reached my destination and, to my horror, found that it was on the fifth floor of a walk-up tenement house. How I made the fine flights I really don’t know. I was just about to put my hand on the doorknob when I realized what a drunken, awful mass of humanity I was. I became thoroughly frightened and
instinctively I asked God, “Please help me not to bring further suffering to this family. It’s bad enough what they have to go through, but if anything happens to me there, or if I misbehave, think how terrible it would be! Please, please, help me get through these few minutes.” Having said that prayer, I straightened myself up and licked my handkerchief and washed my face with it, and slicked back my hair. Then I took off my overcoat and shook it and tried to make myself presentable as best I could, and rang the doorbell. The boy’s mother was a sweet, little colored lady in stiff starched white, absolutely immaculate. The place too was immaculate and the sun was streaming in. I could see the crippled boy in the chair, looking up and watching for me as though I were some great person. I don’t know how I did it, but I stayed there two and a half hours. I looked at all of his portfolios and work and showed him how to use the new art material. I told him about the originals of all the pictures in the book and left him, thank God, very happy. When I got out the reaction set in and I took a taxi down to what used to be a speakeasy and was then wide open, and what happened from then on for the next ten days I don’t know very much about.
I was in the country and in bed, and the bottle was under the pillow and my hand was firmly around the neck of it. Every time I came to I took another swig and got drunk all over again. During this drunk I had many flashbacks, and I remembered strange things. For instance, I’d seen a play years before called “The Dybbuk,” down at the Neighborhood Playhouse. It opened with two rabbis in a sub-sub cellar, talking about another rabbi and they said, “His words have
always been so great. From the highest heights to the deepest depths the soul may plunge, but, in itself the plunge contains the resurrection.” Those words just came to me. I thought, how much further and how much lower can I go? I’m at the bottom; I’ve taken the plunge. Suddenly I remembered that on the day I had visited my young colored friend I had prayed before I rang the doorbell, and that God had answered my prayer. I knew that the barrier to prayer was broken, and I turned around in bed and prayed as I had never prayed before. I prayed for instruction and knowledge, not to do something for me because I didn’t deserve it, but to do something to me, and to show me the right way so that I could do something for myself. I realized at that moment that alcohol was the basis of all my trouble, that all the rest was fantasy; nothing had happened yet, everything was happening all the time. Nothing was real. I bawled like a baby, as all drunks do, and I cried myself to sleep.
I awakened at dawn, before sunrise even, but it was dawn and very beautiful, and for the first time in years I awakened with a hangover. I didn’t have the dry heaves. The bed wasn’t full of sweat and all the other horrible things that went with the usual early morning awkening. I had a feeling that I had had a bath in a clean stream, mental, moral, physical and spiritual. All of a sudden I was clean. And, as I lay there in bed trying to understand this feeling, a thought came to me that was foreign to any thought I had ever had because of its simplicity, and that thought kept flashing on an off like a neon sign repeating itself, “You’re not going to have your last drink. You have had it!”
Then, as the sun actually began to rise, the thing dawned on me. The rat race was over and I was ecstatically happy. I went in the next room because I didn’t want to disturb my wife. I said so many prayers of thanksgiving that they were all jumbled up. It was the most wonderful feeling because I had read the handwriting on the wall. In my alcoholic fantasy, I had wanted to have a tremendous party, a drunk to end all drunks. I was going to out-Hollywood Hollywood, and I could see myself in the end, up on the model’s stand finishing it all up with a Royal Canadian quart and falling back in the arms of some other drunk. That would have been it! But this was simple, beautiful an real, “I’ve had my last drink.” The release was there.
I was not quite forty at the time, 1937, three years after father died. It was in the late spring around Decoration Day, because I had my last drink on Decoration Day.
My doctor put me in the hospital because he wanted me to get over my nervous period. He was very happy that I had stopped drinking, and he put me there in order to help me help myself. He started giving me certain drugs to stop me from shaking, among which was one that was jam full of bromides. I left the hospital very happily after just a couple of days, but about a week later I began staggering and began driving my car so far up on the right hand side that I was practically in the gutter and sometimes on the sidewalk. When I tried walking around the room I’d bump into everything on the right hand side, and then I couldn’t walk at all. They finally got a male nurse and put me to bed and a doctor came up from New
York, and said, “Oh, yes, I know all about Fred. I’ve seen them go like that before. There’s nothing you can do about it.” That didn’t satisfy my wife, thank God. That was the doctor that I had recommended, a very nice doctor. Every time I’d tell him about my drinking problem, he helped me drink some cocktails with him and told me to drink as he did. My wife got a really good doctor from New York, just in the nick of time. He suggested my going to a neurological institute that night with him. The minute I got into the hospital the horrors started. They took blood tests at once. By that time I was clear of alcohol, but I was jammed full of bromides. Bromide poisoning had started, and caused a swelling of the brain. I went from bad to worse there, but they started the therapy at once with tons and tons of salt injections, salt water baths and drinking salt. I had to drink seven and a half pitchers of salt water every day. I went into the horrors, which lasted for a whole month. I was in a strait-jacket all the time, in the bathtub and even in the padded cell. I came out of it finally within a month, with the loss of some thirty-five or forty pounds. I was a skeleton when I came out. The horrors were awful, but that never seemed to matter much because I blamed them on the bromides. I felt it was none of my doing. But alcohol was.
I stayed sober for the next ten years. I think I use that word inadvisedly. I should say I stayed dry for the next ten years. I wasn’t a nice person. There were certain dividends which were tremendous. My family was very happy believing I was sober. They took almost anything from me, though I was just as emotionally high at times as when I was drinking. But they
were so glad I wasn’t drinking that they stood for anything. They were terrible years.
It was during World War II, that we had lost two of our nephews. There was death, death in the family, one after the other as the youngsters went. Too, it always seemed to take a toll of two or three of the older members of the family at the same time. They were pretty horrible years, and yet I didn’t drink. I didn’t drink because I never wanted to break that wonderful covenant that I felt I had made, having gotten a release when I prayed to God for it.
After things were adjusted after World War II, mother died. She died after seeing me sober, or dry, for eight years. She died very happy on account of that. Then old John Barleycorn started to talk to me and say, “Well, you’ve been dry for ten years now, Isn’t that enough?” The severe temptation came when my thinking started telling me that after ten years of not drinking I could certainly drink like a normal human being.
So I planned that on Decoration Day my wife and I would try a bottle of champagne, and that if I stayed sober I could drink with her normally like anybody else, and that would have made her happy too.
A week or ten days before Decoration Day, I was having gasoline put into my car and a very dear friend who had gone to school with me and who had a severe alcoholic problem of his own—he was an A.A., whatever that was—came up to me and instead of just putting the gasoline in and saying, “Good morning, how many gallons of gasoline?”, which was his usual daily greeting, he said, “Hello, Fred, how’s your alcoholic problem?” I laughed. I said, “I haven’t any alcoholic
problem. In fact, on Decoration Day my wife and I are going to try a bottle of champagne.” He got as white as a sheet, and put his hand on my arm and said, “Look, before you take that first drink will your please come ton an A.A. meeting? There’s one in town tonight and I’ll call for you.” I just had to say “Yes.” And that was the evening that I was taken into A.A. That man had been wanting to talk to me for ten years about my drinking and never had the courage to mention it. That was about May 20, 1947.
I went to that meeting with my tongue in my cheek. I told my wife I was a joiner again. I said I had to do it, but it was no place for a lady. I’d tell her about it later. I went up there and found so many wonderful people in our little group, so many people who wouldn’t normally associate with me and , altogether, such a smiling, happy, delightful group of people that I couldn’t believe my eyes and still had to be convinced. The leader was a splendid man, a college man, very quiet, who started the meeting by saying, “Alcoholism is an incurable, progressive disease. Whether you are dry one year, ten years or fifty years, you’re still one drink away from a drunk.” Then he pulled out his pipe. The floor seemed to give way under me, but immediately it steadied because my reaction was, “Thank God I didn’t take that first drink! Thank God I came here!” And I realized at last that, after all these years, before I took that drink, I was going to be told the truth and then make the right choice for myself. The whole experience was so beautiful that I was thrilled by it, and a thing mother had said years before when I had come home drunk and she had seen me,
came to my mind. The only time that she ever broke down and wept was that night. She said, “This must be somehow good. This cannot be all negative. Some good must come of it.” Mother had been dead two years.
Toward the end of my first A.A. evening, I heard about the Twelfth Step where, as an alcoholic and having gone through the experience, I might be able to reach some other poor alcoholic where doctors, medicine, science and religion by themselves, had failed. Immediately, “That’s somehow good,” came to my ear. Thank God I have been able to turn it into “Somehow good.”
That’s my story.