By Catherine Revland
From Billie Holiday’s drug conviction in 1948 to her death in 1959, she could not perform in the West Village nightclubs where she had always sung to a packed house. The drug conviction had resulted in the loss of her cabaret card, a license administered by the NYPD, denying her the right to perform in a venue where liquor was served. “In Philly, Boston, or Frisco I could live and work where I pleased,” she told her biographer. “Not in New York.”
There were other reasons for musicians like Billie having a problem with New York City. Harry J. Anslinger, head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, was of the opinion that addicts were psychopathic, “criminals even before they acquired their habit,” and he was especially intolerant of New York’s many jazz musicians. “Jazz,” he wrote in one of his books, “grew up next to crime.” Another drawback was the NYPD Narcotics Division, which a contemporary journalist called “more repressive than anything Anslinger proposed.”
The only refuge for addicts in those dark days was our neighborhood. Two natives of the West Village, Dorothy Berry and Daniel Egan, are celebrated as icons of that era in the newly released The Impossible Dream: A History of Narcotics Anonymous in New York. Published by the Greater New York Region of Narcotics Anonymous at 154 Christopher Street, the book reveals for the first time the importance of the West Village in the early history of this fellowship.
In the late 1940s, Salvation Army major Dorothy Berry had been assigned to work in the Women’s House of Detention. It had been built in the 1930s as a monument to humane incarceration, but even the corrections commissioner was now calling it a “skyscraper Alcatraz” and “a barbaric hellhole” where eighty percent of the inmates were addicts. In the course of her work, Major Berry met Danny C, an ex-convict who had been introduced in prison to an Alcoholics Anonymous program tailored for addicts. He wanted to start a similar program he called Narcotics Anonymous. She offered him a Sunday meeting in the House of Detention. This bleak fortress that loomed over the neighborhood, a revolving door to women she called the “unloved in the Legion of the Lost,” became the site of the first Narcotics Anonymous meeting in the world.
In early 1950 Dolly Berry, as she was fondly called, helped Danny C start the first public meeting of NA at a Salvation Army cafeteria in Hell’s Kitchen, not far from the docks where members of Cosa Nostra were unloading opium by the ton from Marseilles, and when that neighborhood got to be too dangerous, she secured a room for the group at the McBurney Y. When the NYPD narcotics squad raided the meeting, she convinced the chief of police to leave them alone. Then word got out about the raid to influential people who became NA advocates, including a New York Times journalist who wrote a glowing article about this group of addicts who had found a way to help each other stop using drugs. The story soon went national and professionals and entertainers, some of them famous, started coming to these meetings. Hope was in the air, but that was about to change.
In August 1956 Danny died of cancer. A month later Congress enacted the Narcotic Control Act, the most punitive anti-drug legislation in U.S. history, and Harry Anslinger ratcheted up his anti-addict campaign with renewed vengeance. People of influence faded away, but help was waiting in the wings. Father Daniel Egan, a Franciscan Friar of the Atonement living at 138 Waverly Place, had become another powerful advocate for addicts, and like Dolly Berry, he wasn’t afraid of “Anslinger the Gunslinger.” His story will appear in the August issue of the WestView News.
Visit Catherine Revland’s new Web site and blog at http://catherinerevland.com.