Before it is auctioned off in June, the manuscript of the Big Book spent a morning at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel.
It took the Big Book forty-five minutes to make it down to Hollywood from Calabasas, riding shotgun in a Honda Accord. By 9:30 A.M., it was reclining poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel amid the memory of guests and carousers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Montgomery Clift, and Errol Flynn, who, legend has it, made bathtub gin in the hotel’s barbershop. Such ghosts, and the squiggly David Hockney mural at the bottom of the pool, and the ashy traces, among the palms, of a party the night before, seemed to call for a round of Bloody Marys. But not today, pal.
The Big Book is the founding testament and manifesto of Alcoholics Anonymous, written for the most part (anonymously) by the organization’s co-founder Bill Wilson, a.k.a. Bill W., and this version, by the pool the other day, was the original working manuscript, the some hundred and fifty typed pages, marked up with edits and corrections, that were sent to the printer in April, 1939. Its driver and escort was Zach P., an employee at Profiles in History, an auction house, which had it on consignment. (As the courier, Zach P. was not authorized by Profiles in History to speak on its behalf.)
The house is offering the book at auction in June, and estimates that it will fetch as much as three million dollars. To promote the sale, Profiles in History is exhibiting the manuscript in New York later this month, at the Questroyal Fine Art gallery, and was floating a claim from an A.A. historian, Dr. Ernest Kurtz: “Not only is this manuscript the most important nonfiction manuscript in all history—I consider it right up there with the Magna Carta, because of the personal freedom it has provided so many millions of alcoholics.”
This seemed like bar talk, until one thought it through a bit. The Big Book has sold tens of millions of copies, in dozens of languages, and has altered an untold number of lives, mostly, one assumes, for the better. (Aldous Huxley called Bill Wilson the twentieth century’s “greatest social architect.”) What, from the past century or two, at least, might compare? “The Communist Manifesto”? The Book of Mormon? Mao’s Little Red Book? “The Autobiography of Malcolm X”? “The Joy of Sex”? The Big Book represents the origin of the self-help movement; try to imagine a publishing industry without it, or without the word “anonymous.”
“I’ve seen people who behold it as though it’s a religious relic,” Zach P. said, as he removed the manuscript from its sixteen-by-twenty-inch archive box and its swaddling of bubble wrap. He laid it, with some ceremony, on a table stained with water rings and cigarette burns.
Its current owner, a longtime Profiles in History client and a recovering alcoholic, who’d bought it in 2007, for just under a million dollars, had had it bound in burgundy board. Each page was encased in a clear plastic sleeve, to prevent oxidation and decay. On the title page, someone had marked to delete the misbegotten apostrophe in “Alcoholic’s Anonymous.” The previous page had a handwritten inscription from Lois Wilson, Bill W.’s widow, bequeathing the volume to her friend Barry Leach, on New Year’s Day, 1978.
When Bill W. wrote the book, he’d been sober for fewer than four years, and there were only two A.A. groups: one meeting on Tuesdays, in Brooklyn, the other on Wednesdays, in Akron, Ohio. The book was an attempt to spread the word. (Bill W. also had in mind a for-profit drunk-tank business, but he couldn’t get the financing.)
The manuscript featured the collation and distillation of comments from about four hundred readers: A.A. members, doctors, and ministers, plus, in Bill W.’s words, “policemen, fishwives, housewives, drunks, everybody.” You could see, flipping through it, what they’d been going for, on this final round: to make it more palatable to a broad audience. The changes sought to make the text descriptive, rather than prescriptive. “You should do” became “we have done.” When Bill W. writes, “It works—it really does. Try it,” the “Try it” is excised. There was also an effort to tamp down the Christianity.
“It’s amazing how they made it more secular,” Joe Maddalena, the owner of Profiles in History, said over the phone. “Still, this is a sacred text. It’s not like it’s some ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul.’ ” He has sold Marilyn Monroe’s subway-grate-scene white dress, the car from “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and a manuscript of Einstein’s theory of relativity. “But the Big Book is so much bigger than all of us.”
After about an hour by the pool, the Big Book got back in the Accord and returned to Calabasas. It’s planning to come to New York via Brink’s. Not for nothing, but the Magna Carta, when it flew over from Oxford, seven years ago, for a visit to the Waldorf-Astoria, had its own seat in business class, and a bodyguard named Rocco. ♦