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5 Things You Didn't Know About Bill W.

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TIME called William Wilson one of the top heroes and icons of the 20th century, but hardly anyone knows him by that name. Instead, he's remembered as Bill W., the humble, private man who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous during the 1930s. Let's take a look at a few things you might not know about the man who valued his anonymity so highly.

1. He Had a Good Partner

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Bill W.'s partner in founding A.A. was a pretty sharp guy. Robert Holbrook Smith was a Dartmouh-educated surgeon who is now remembered by millions of recovering alcoholics as "Dr. Bob." Like Bill W., Dr. Bob had long struggled with his own drinking until the pair met in Akron in 1935. Bill W. took his last drink on December 11, 1934, and by June 10, 1935—what's considered to be the founding date of A.A.—Dr. Bob was through with the sauce, too.

The two men immediately began working together to help reach Akron's alcoholics, and with the help of Dr. Bob's wife, Anne, helped perfect the 12 steps that would become so important to the A.A. process. Eventually Bill W. returned to Brooklyn Heights and began spreading their new system to alcoholic New Yorkers.

2. The Rockefellers Gave Him a (Very) Little Bit of Help

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Getting a big nationwide organization off the ground is no easy task, so after A.A. had been up and running for three years, the group wrote a letter to one of the nation's most famous teetotalers, J.D. Rockefeller.

They didn't ask for any cash; instead, they simply wanted the savvy businessman's advice on growing and funding their organization.

Rockefeller, though, was quite taken with the A.A. and pledged enough financial support to help publish a book in which members described how they'd stayed on the wagon. Rockefeller also gave Bill W. a grant to keep the organization afloat, but the tycoon was worried that endowing A.A. with boatloads of cash might spoil the fledgling society. Instead, he gave Bill W. and Dr. Bob $30 apiece each week to keep A.A. up and running.

3. He Was (Almost) a Lawyer

When Bill W. was a young man, he planned on becoming a lawyer, but his drinking soon got in the way of that dream. He attended Brooklyn Law School, but in his very last semester he showed up for his finals so soused that he couldn't even read the questions.

Bill W. managed to reschedule the exams for the fall semester, and on the second try he passed the tests. He then asked for his diploma, but the school said he would have to attend a commencement ceremony if he wanted his sheepskin. Bill refused. As he later wrote in his memoir Bill W: My First 40 Years, "I never appeared, and my diploma as a graduate lawyer still rests in the Brooklyn Law School. I never went back for it. I must do that before I die."

Bill W. did almost get a law degree after all, though. In 1954 Yale offered to give him an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, and the school even agreed to make out the diploma to "W.W." to maintain his anonymity. Bill W. passed on the degree, though, after consulting with A.A.'s board of directors and deciding that humbly declining the award would be the best path. He requested that Yale offer the degree to A.A. as a whole, but the school declined to honor that wish.

4. He Became a Wall Street Hotshot

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After leaving law school without an actual diploma, Bill W. went to work on Wall Street as a sort of speculative consultant to brokerage houses. Although he was often dead drunk during work hours, he had quite a bit of success sizing up companies for potential investors. He and his wife Lois even traveled around the country throughout the 1920s looking for prime investment opportunities in small companies. Eventually, though, the stock market collapsed in 1929, and once the money stopped rolling in bankers had little incentive to tolerate the antics of their drunken speculator.

5. He Tried to Get Sober or Stay Sober in Other Ways

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Before and after Bill W. hooked up with Dr. Bob and perfected the A.A. system, he tried a number of less successful methods to curb his drinking. In the 1950s he experimented with LSD—which was then an experimental therapeutic rather than recreational drug—but wasn't a huge fan of the chemical. Bill later said that he thought LSD could "be of some value to some people and practically no damage to anyone."

Bill W. had also attempted "the belladonna cure," which involved taking hallucinogenic belladonna along with a generous dose of castor oil. This system might have helped ease the symptoms of withdrawal, but it played all sorts of havoc on the patient's guts. That's how it got the affectionate nickname "purge and puke."

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.


5 Things You Didn't Know About Ansel Adams

You probably know Ansel Adams—born on February 20, 1902—as the man who helped promote the National Park Service through his magnificent photographs, but there was a lot more to the shutterbug than his iconic, black-and-white vistas. Here are five lesser-known facts about the celebrated photographer.


Adams was a four-year-old tot when the 1906 San Francisco earthquake struck his hometown. Although the boy managed to escape injury during the quake itself, an aftershock threw him face-first into a garden wall, breaking his nose. According to a 1979 interview with TIME, Adams said that doctors told his parents that it would be best to fix the nose when the boy matured. He joked, "But of course I never did mature, so I still have the nose." The nose became Adams' most striking physical feature. His buddy Cedric Wright liked to refer to Adams' honker as his "earthquake nose.


Adams was an energetic, inattentive student, and that trait coupled with a possible case of dyslexia earned him the heave-ho from private schools. It was clear, however, that he was a sharp boy—when motivated.

When Adams was just 12 years old, he taught himself to play the piano and read music, and he quickly showed a great aptitude for it. For nearly a dozen years, Adams focused intensely on his piano training. He was still playful—he would end performances by jumping up and sitting on his piano—but he took his musical education seriously. Adams ultimately devoted over a decade to his study, but he eventually came to the realization that his hands simply weren't big enough for him to become a professional concert pianist. He decided to leave the keys for the camera after meeting photographer Paul Strand, much to his family's dismay.


If you've ever enjoyed Kings Canyon National Park in California, tip your cap to Adams. In the 1930s Adams took a series of photographs that eventually became the book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail. When Adams sent a copy to Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, the cabinet member showed it to Franklin Roosevelt. The photographs so delighted FDR that he wouldn't give the book back to Ickes. Adams sent Ickes a replacement copy, and FDR kept his with him in the White House.

After a few years, Ickes, Adams, and the Sierra Club successfully convinced Roosevelt to make Kings Canyon a national park in 1940. Roosevelt's designation specifically provided that the park be left totally undeveloped and roadless, so the only way FDR himself would ever experience it was through Adams' lenses.


While many of his contemporary fine art photographers shunned commercial assignments as crass or materialistic, Adams went out of his way to find paying gigs. If a company needed a camera for hire, Adams would generally show up, and as a result, he had some unlikely clients. According to The Ansel Adams Gallery, he snapped shots for everyone from IBM to AT&T to women's colleges to a dried fruit company. All of this commercial print work dismayed Adams' mentor Alfred Stieglitz and even worried Adams when he couldn't find time to work on his own projects. It did, however, keep the lights on.


Adams and legendary painter O'Keeffe were pals and occasional traveling buddies who found common ground despite their very different artistic approaches. They met through their mutual friend/mentor Stieglitz—who eventually became O'Keeffe's husband—and became friends who traveled throughout the Southwest together during the 1930s. O'Keeffe would paint while Adams took photographs.

These journeys together led to some of the artists' best-known work, like Adams' portrait of O'Keeffe and a wrangler named Orville Cox, and while both artists revered nature and the American Southwest, Adams considered O'Keeffe the master when it came to capturing the area. 

“The Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land,” he wrote. “No one else has extracted from it such a style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.”

The two remained close throughout their lives. Adams would visit O'Keeffe's ranch, and the two wrote to each other until Adams' death in 1984.

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5 Things You Should Know About Robert Todd Lincoln
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Robert Todd Lincoln was Abraham Lincoln's oldest son and the only Lincoln child to survive into adulthood. While he didn't make quite the mark on history that his father did, Robert Lincoln had a pretty interesting life himself. Let's take a look at five things you might not know about him:

1. He Was on Ulysses S. Grant's Personal Staff

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Part of Abraham Lincoln's mystique lies in his humble roots as a self-made man who found education where he could. His eldest son didn't have to go through quite as many trials and tribulations to do some learning, though. Robert left Springfield, Illinois, to attend boarding school at New Hampshire's elite Phillips Exeter Academy when he was a young man, and he later graduated from Harvard during his father's presidency.

After completing his undergrad degree, Robert stuck around Cambridge to go to Harvard Law School, but that arrangement didn't last very long. After studying law for just a few months, Lincoln received a commission as a captain in the army. Lincoln's assignment put him on Ulysses S. Grant's personal staff, so he didn't see much fighting. He did get a nice view of history, though; Lincoln was present as part of Grant's junior staff at Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

After the war ended, Lincoln moved to Chicago with his mother and brother and wrapped up his legal studies.

2. The Booth Family Did Him a Favor

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In 1863 or 1864, young Robert Lincoln was traveling by train from New York to Washington during a break from his studies at Harvard. He hopped off the train during a stop at Jersey City, only to find himself on an extremely crowded platform. To be polite, Lincoln stepped back to wait his turn to walk across the platform, his back pressed to one of the train's cars.

This situation probably seemed harmless enough until the train started moving, which whipped Lincoln around and dropped him into the space between the platform and train, an incredibly dangerous place to be.

Lincoln probably would have been dead meat if a stranger hadn't yanked him out of the hole by his collar. That stranger? None other than Edwin Booth, one of the most celebrated actors of the 19th century and brother of eventual Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth.

Lincoln immediately recognized the famous thespian "“ this was sort of like if George Clooney pulled you from a burning car today "“ and thanked him effusively. The actor had no idea whose life he had saved until he received a letter commending him for his bravery in saving the President's son a few months later.

3. He Had a Strange Knack for Being Near Assassinations

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Lee's surrender wasn't the only history Lincoln ended up witnessing, although things got a bit grislier for him after Appomattox. As he arrived back in Washington in April 1865 Lincoln's parents invited him to go see Our American Cousin at Ford's Theater with them. The young officer was so exhausted after his journey that he begged off so he could get a good night's sleep. That night, of course, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln's father, and Robert Todd was with the celebrated president when he passed away the next morning.

By 1881, Lincoln's political lineage and prominence as a lawyer qualified him for a national office, and he became Secretary of War under the newly inaugurated James A. Garfield. That July, Lincoln was scheduled to travel to Elberon, New Jersey, by train with the President, but the trip never took off. Before Lincoln and Garfield's train could leave the station, Charles Guiteau shot the Garfield, who died of complications from the wound two months later.

Oddly, that wasn't all for Lincoln, though. Two decades passed without a presidential assassination, but Lincoln's strange luck reared its head again in 1901. Lincoln traveled to Buffalo at the invitation of President William McKinley to attend the Pan-American Exposition. Although he arrived a bit late to the even, Lincoln was on his way to meet McKinley when anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot the president twice at close range.

Following these three bits of bad luck Lincoln refused to attend any presidential functions. He dryly noted that there was "a certain fatality about the presidential function when I am present."

4. He Realized His Mom Was a Little Nutty

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Mary Todd Lincoln is fairly widely renowned today for being mentally ill, but it wasn't quite such an open secret when she was still alive. Robert, however, realized that his mother needed psychiatric help so she didn't become a danger to herself or an embarrassment to her family, so he had her involuntarily committed to a mental hospital in 1875 following a hearing that declared her insane.

Mary Todd was none too pleased about this plan. She not only snuck letters to her lawyer to help her escape from the institution, she also wrote newspaper editors in an effort to convince the public of her sanity. Mary Todd's ploy worked; at a second sanity hearing in 1876 she was declared sane and released from the Batavia, Illinois, sanatorium to which she'd been confined. However, by this point she'd been publicly humiliated and never really patched up her relationship with Robert before her death in 1882.

5. He Made Some Serious Dough on the Railroads


Once he got his legal practice up and running, Lincoln found a particularly lucrative clientele in the booming railroad industry. He spent most of his career working as a corporate lawyer for various railroads and train-related companies; the only breaks were his four-year stint as Secretary of War under Garfield and successor Chester A. Arthur and a four-year hitch as a minister to Britain under President Benjamin Harrison.

One of Lincoln's major clients was the Pullman Palace Car Company, for which he served as general counsel. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln became president of the company, and in 1911 he became chairman of the Pullman Company's board. His lofty position in one of the country's most lucrative companies made him a millionaire and enabled Lincoln to build a sprawling estate, Hildene, in Manchester, Vermont.


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