Editor’s Note: We’re pleased to bring Points readers a short series of posts from Amanda Smith, author of the recently-released Newspaper Titan: The Infamous Life and Monumental Times of Cissy Patterson (Knopf, 2011). This historical exploration of the life of famed newspaper editor Cissy Patterson has earned Amanda plenty of positive press of her own (see, for example, Richard Norton Smith’s review in the Weekly Standard, here). Newspaper Titan touches upon the drinking life of Patterson’s daughter Felicia, who then encountered Alcoholics Anonymous in 1943. In this three-part series, Amanda focuses more directly on Felicia’s story; Part I, below, follows the road to her initial encounter with Bill W.
In 1943, at the age of thirty-eight, Countess Felicia Gizycka “divorced” her mother, the
notorious Washington, DC, newspaper publisher and Chicago Tribune heiress, Cissy Patterson. Falling into old habits on that decisive wartime evening during one of Felicia’s rare visits home, mother and daughter left the dinner table “in the middle of the night, both of us drunk as skunks,” to continue drinking and bickering in the living room. When Cissy began toying with Felicia by proposing to favor others in her will, and taunting her daughter for her personal failings as she had done many times over the years, Felicia finally exploded. “God damn you and may you roast in Hell. If there is a Hell. You’ve already made my life one long Hell from the time I was a baby, you stupid bitch! . . . And you can take all your Goddamn fucking money and stuff it!”
Felicia had lived in luxury up to that point, but in other regards her life had not been an easy one. As a toddler, she had become a pawn in the sensational international custody battle that followed the violent end of her parents’ marriage in 1908. Her father, a volatile, hard-drinking Polish aristocrat, kidnapped her and held her for ransom when she was two; only after President Taft and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia intervened did Count Gizycki finally return Felicia, then almost four, to her mother. Although Cissy had fought hard to bring her child safely home to the United States, she was a critical, unpredictable mother. One particularly nasty mother-daughter “knock-down drag-out fight, which included hair pulling and clothing tearing” persuaded Felicia to run away from home in 1924, at the age of eighteen.
To outward appearances, Felicia and Cissy reconciled six months later, but only after Felicia allowed herself to be corralled into a loveless marriage she hoped would end her mother’s authority over her. But marriage and motherhood held little interest for her, particularly after she began to realize her dreams of becoming a writer — and discovered, at the height of Prohibition, that “if I had a drink or two, I could relax and dance, laugh, joke. And feel popular. Feel accepted.” Following her first divorce, a failed love affair prompted Felicia to “get dead drunk that very night, and stay drunk for a month.” Instead, the binge would last a decade.