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August 12, 2007

A note on Marty Mann's interesting habit of leaving Dr. Foster Kennedy's name unspoken

by Ron Roizen

Mrs. Marty Mann (1904-1980) was the great social advocate of the disease concept of alcoholism in mid 20th Century America.
     About ten years ago, I guess it was, I
had the pleasure of listening to and analyzing a number of tape recordings of talks Mann gave to Alcoholics Anonymous audiences.
In these presentations Mann retold her life story in relation to alcohol.  Her talks might also be characterized as autobiographical stump speeches, with a main core of repeated content and interesting variations in emphasis and material from talk to talk.

The puzzle

     Over the course of listening to these tapes, I happened to make a curious little observation:  According to my ear, Mann felt no reservations about  mentioning one of her important pre-AA doctors by name (Harry Tiebout) but, and on the other hand, avoided mentioning another of her doctor's names almost entirely (Foster Kennedy).1
     Mann's stump speech almost always described her stay at Blythewood Sanitarium in Greenwich, Connecticut and her care there under psychiatrist Dr. Harry Tiebout.  It was at Blythewood that Tiebout first exposed Mann to a preprint copy of "The Big Book," a key event in her recovery story and entry into AA. 
Mann's talks also occasionally mentioned her in-patient stay at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, which  preceded her stay at Blythewood.  Despite her half-year experience
2 at Bellevue, however, Mann almost never mentioned the name of the physician who admitted her and was responsible for her care there -- the famous and respected neurologist, Dr. Foster Kennedy.
     Why the difference? 

Some possible answers

     One possible answer is that Mann's progress under Kennedy's care was simply far less significant than her progress under Tiebout.  According to Mann's accounts this is certainly the case.  Mann told and retold howFoster Kennedy "The Big Book" and her entry into AA marked the beginning of her recovery from years of damaging drinking.  Oddly, however, when Mann's talks also included mention of her time at Bellevue she did not also mention Kennedy by name.
      Another possible explanation is that Mann wanted to save Kennedy from any possible embarrassment that her admission to Bellevue's neurology ward may have caused him.  According to Sally Brown and David R. Brown's biography of Mann, Mann had no credible medical reason for being admitted and kept at Bellevue.  Why was she allowed to be admitted?  Brown and Brown explained, "...[Kennedy] was head of this unit and ran it as a fiefdom somewhat independent of the hospital management..." (p. 92). Yet, as Mann's fame grew in the 1940s and 1950s she may have felt that there was little value in drawing attention to Dr. Kennedy's kind but difficult-to-justify admission.  Bellevue was after all a publicly supported institution.3
     A third possible answer resides in the possibility that Kennedy may have said or written something discrediting about Mann -- something Mann chose to distance herself from by avoiding mention of Kennedy's name and place in her life story.  A candidate for such an instance may be found in Foster Kennedy's remarks at the famous dinner in AA's early history hosted by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and held at the Union Club in New York City on February 8, 1940.  Dr. Kennedy addressed the gathering on behalf of AA.  His remarks memorably included the reading of an unpublished letter he'd written to the editor of JAMA offering some spirited comments on that journal's recent tepid review of the "The Big Book."
     Kennedy began his talk to the Rockefeller dinner gathering however with a pointed reference to an alcoholic "friend and patient":
Gentlemen, I am exceedingly glad to be here.
I had a friend and patient who became interested in this movement.  She had a very unhappy, in fact quite desperate situation. It has not been one of the complete successes of this group, but
she at least has stayed in the course longer with the aid of these ideas than at any other time in her adult life, and the effect of these doses still is working in her and I believe she will reach
health. I am sure she will. (p. 6)4
     Was Kennedy referring to Mann?  I rather think so.
    Was Mann not only Kennedy's patient but also his friend, as Kennedy's words described?  It appears she was.  Brown and Brown say for instance that Mann was maid of honor at Kennedy's wedding later on in 1940 (p. 135). 
     Yet, even if Kennedy were not referring to Mann, the passage in his talk could easily be interpreted as a reference to her by future readers in the AA community.
     What was discrediting in Kennedy's comment?
     Kennedy said that this "friend and patient" had "...not been one of the complete successes of this group...."  The obvious implication was that Mann had "slipped" or continued to manifest a drinking problem  even after joining AA.  That fact, in turn, did not jibe with Mann's stump-speech accounts. wherein Mann's slips -- to my knowledge -- were never reported.
     In February, 1940 -- i.e., the time of the Rockefeller dinner -- the launch of Mann's great disease-concept campaign was still four years in the future.  Kennedy could perhaps take it for granted that all of the non-AA guests at the dinner would not know whom he was referencing.  But as Mann's and AA's fame grew after 1940, Kennedy's opening comment at the historic dinner could have become a tangible liability for Mann, for Mann's movement, and for Mann's portrayal of her life story in her standard AA speech. 

Where to from here?

     Small mysteries have a way of illuminating a larger history, bringing significance to otherwise seemingly trivial detail.
     The mystery of why Mann may have avoided mentioning Foster Kennedy by name opens up a number of historical questions -- questions I'm unfortunately not in a good position to answer.  For instance:
(1)  Would a more complete review of Mann's AA talks confirm her tendency to eschew mention of Kennedy?
(2)  What new evidence might be gathered in relation to Mann's claim of a stay at Bellevue under the care of Kennedy?  Might Mann have been Kennedy's private patient instead of a patient at his Bellevue neurology ward? 
(3)  How well known within AA
in the 1940s and 1950s was the digest I've cited of the Rockefeller dinner?  How accessible to AA members would Kennedy's remarks to the gathering have been?5
(4) What other reasons might be offered for Mann's seeming reticence?
     For now, we shall have to wait for more answers.  This brief post is merely to suggest that an interesting mystery may be lodged in so simple a place as a name Mrs. Marty Mann preferred not to mentioned.

1 I recall only a single instance in which Kennedy's name was mentioned in the tapes I reviewed, and my hunch is that this instance was accidental.
2 According to Brown and Brown's biography (Sally Brown and David R. Brown, A Biography of Mrs. Marty Mann: The First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous, City Center, Minnesota: Hazelden, 2001), the best account we have, Mann was an inpatient at Bellevue for the first six months of 1938; Mann then resided for the next 15 months at Blythewood.  It might be noted that my own experience with sources relating to Mann's life suggest that times, dates, and durations can vary considerably from source to source.
3 It may be noted that Mann was apparently treated at no cost to herself at both Bellevue and Blythewood, which amounts to a total of 21 months of free care and room and board.  The claim that Mann received care at no charge occurs in a number of sources but it is no less baffling to this writer on that account.  Mann's standard talk suggested that her alcoholism had driven her into a penniless condition by the time she went to see Kennedy at Bellevue.  But was it perhaps the case that she or someone else had the wherewithal to cover the costs of her in-patient stays?  Going broke and hitting bottom made for a better story of course.  And -- once again -- if she were indeed in a penniless condition, what on earth explains the generosity of both Bellevue and (perhaps especially) upscale Blythewood in Greenwich?  The year 1938 fell near the end of the Great Depression. How, I wonder, did that factor play into Mann's long inpatient stays too?
4 A digest of the Rockefeller dinner, including Kennedy's remarks may be downloaded at http://aagso.org/1940/dinner_capture.pdf.
5 An unsigned article titled "Milestones in AA" in the The AA Grapevine (Aug. 1957, vol. 14, no. 3) offers:
This famous dinner needs no introduction but I do not remember ever reading Dr. Kennedy's answer to the AMA Journal, as he read it on this occasion: "To the editor--Sir--An unsigned review appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Oct. 14th, of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. . . . The cheapish tone reflects on the thoughtfulness, experience and kindliness of the reviewer.. . . The aim of AA is high, their success considerable. . . . One might ask the reviewer to produce a book on the subject of alcohol concocted out of 'pure' science. It would be unfortunate if the opinion of your 'Cynic Anonymous' be given too wide credence by our profession which has never before refused to use faith to move mountains." I think we can, in the light of history, assume that Dr. Kennedy had the last word.  (emphasis added)
Incidentally, Kennedy is elsewhere in this article misidentified as the "...head of the Alcoholic Division at Bellevue."

© 2007 Ron Roizen


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