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A Guru's Fall From Grace

January 31, 1988|WILLIAM OVEREND | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — He was a junkie and a child alcoholic--but he whipped his problems, then set about helping other addicts do the same. With charm and a brash wit, he built a drug rehabilitation program that brought him celebrity status and a hero's image. Then, suddenly, the booze was back. Now, John Maher is determined to stay sober--and trying to rebuild his life.

The people who still care about John Maher remember him as a man with sparkling blue eyes and a special Irish gift for gab, a former heroin addict from New York who turned his own life around and then inspired hundreds of others to do the same.

The founder of a drug rehabilitation program called the Delancey Street Foundation, Maher conquered and charmed this city with a comic wit and a tough-talking mix of swagger and compassion that made him seem half hoodlum and half saint.

Maher's solution to drug addiction was to toughen addicts emotionally and put them to work helping others. To that end, Delancey Street became the ally of the poor and the weak and every underdog in San Francisco, a colorful part of the city's social and political fabric.

Delancey's Street's founder, a genius for publicity, was a media celebrity--the subject of two books, a television movie, a "60 Minutes" segment and dozens of adoring articles in newspapers and magazines.

Word Spread

And then, just as suddenly as he had become a part of the San Francisco scene, Maher disappeared. The word spread slowly that Maher and Delancey Street had parted company, but the reason remained a well-kept secret for more than three years.

Maher, a child alcoholic before he discovered heroin, had started drinking again. A series of drunken escapades, including a drunk-driving incident on the Oakland Bay Bridge, forced the final separation.

In Maher's absence, Delancey Street continued under the direction of Mimi Silbert, a criminologist and psychologist who served as Maher's co-president for years. Maher and Silbert had lived together for more than a decade, and Maher had helped raise Silbert's two teen-age sons.

Delancey Street's closest supporters initially feared a deluge of negative publicity over Maher's personal troubles. But most of the press had no idea of what had happened. Those in San Francisco who knew about the drinking chose not to make it public.

As time passed, the fears subsided. Delancey Street not only survived but flourished. Slowly, Maher became an almost forgotten man. Callers to Delancey Street were told simply that he was no longer with the organization. Increasingly, there was no mention of his name in references to Delancey Street's early history.

Thousands of miles away from San Francisco, Maher was on his own, fighting to survive.

A heavy rain had already turned the housing site on New York City's Roosevelt Island into a pool of mud and blotted out the Manhattan skyline on the far shore of the East River. Now a snowstorm was beginning as Maher sat in the small construction trailer and talked about his downfall.

"I was in terrible trouble," he said. "I had a breakdown for a couple of years, but I'm in much better shape than I was. I haven't had a drink in the last four months.

"Now, I'm your normal, average scum trying to get through. I always say I'm like the Titanic, found but not surfaced."

Maher, 47, blamed the start of his drinking on personal problems. For most of 1984, only Silbert had known about the situation and had tried to solve things on her own. Finally, she and Maher went to a small group of senior Delancey Street residents and supporters. Maher offered to resign, but the group gave him a chance to sober up with the foundation's help.

The drinking continued, however. On the night of Jan. 11, 1985, while heading toward San Francisco from Oakland, Maher's car smashed into another at the Bay Bridge toll plaza. After failing a sobriety test, Maher was arrested and jailed for drunk driving. A Breathalyzer test showed Maher's blood alcohol level as .20, twice the level needed to sustain a drunk-driving charge.

Maher pleaded guilty. He was fined $664, his driver's license was suspended for three months and he was placed on probation for three years. He was also sent by Delancey Street to a remote ranch facility operated by the group in Santa Fe, N.M., where it was hoped that he might still respond to Delancey Street's traditional "tough love" approach to therapy.

According to both Maher and others, however, Santa Fe turned into just one more disaster, and this time Maher showed up drunk in front of Delancey Street residents. By now, Delancey Street had accepted Maher's resignation, but was still committed to trying to help him. Stays in a private treatment program in West Sedona, Ariz., and another Delancey Street facility in Brewster, N.Y., followed.

Still drinking, he moved into a Manhattan apartment, continuing to struggle with his drinking problem, as well as deteriorating health that led, according to Maher, to a series of heart attacks.

Drinking Progressed

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