William Lindsay Gresham: A Life

Today, I was part of a presentation by Inkling Folk Fellowship about Nightmare Alley, a bestselling noir novel by William Lindsay Gresham recently made into a film by Guillermo del Toro. Readers familiar with Shadowlands, the movie about C.S. Lewis‘ marriage to Joy Davidman Gresham, may know that William Gresham was her first husband. Gresham’s legacy has been much debated, in part due to the fact that so far there hasn’t been a full-length biography of his life. The following is a longer version of a piece I read at the Inkling Folk Fellowship event, covering Gresham’s life:

William Lindsay Gresham was born in 1909 in Baltimore. His family moved to New York in 1917, and he graduated from Erasmus High School in 1926. During the 1920s and early 1930s he worked various jobs, as a magician, a folk singer (sometimes listed as a “cowboy ballad singer”) in Greenwich Village cafes, and a volunteer in the public relief program Civilian Conservation Corps. He left the CCC after marrying his first wife (whose name is rarely listed).

Around the time of his first marriage, Gresham began reviewing books for the Saturday Evening Post. In 1937 he joined the American Communist Party, and went to the Spanish Civil War as a medic. During his 15 months of service, he met a nurse, Joseph Daniel Halliday, who told stories about “geek shows,” a carnival event where an apparently feral man eats live chickens or snakes. This detail became an important image in Gresham’s first novel, Nightmare Alley. Gresham’s first marriage ended after he returned to the United States in 1939, and he spent a year recovering from tuberculosis. He began drinking heavily, unsuccessfully tried to commit suicide, and apparently stabilized through psychoanalysis.

When he met Joy Davidman in 1942, Gresham was a contributor to various publications, from prestige magazines like Esquire to detective pulp magazines. They married that year and had two sons, David and Douglas. Joy was a member of the American Communist Party, although Diana Glyer notes that Joy gave up communism after becoming a mother. Gresham seems to have lost interest in the movement after his experiences in Spain. Over the next three years, Gresham and Joy both wrote novels and Joy recalls they worked well as a team giving each other feedback.

In spring 1946 Gresham had a nervous breakdown in his New York office. He telephoned Joy, telling her that he was losing his mind and wasn’t certain when he’d be home. Joy tried to locate Gresham without success, and put her children to bed that night feeling immensely hopeless. She had an overpowering sense that there was someone in her home with her, “a Person so real that all my precious life was by comparison a mere shadow play.” (Soper 23). When Gresham returned to their home several days later, Joy told him that she’d given up atheism. Gresham said he was interested in Christianity, and the couple began attending a Presbyterian church.

In September of that year, Gresham’s first novel, Nightmare Alley, was published. Dedicated to Joy, the story follows Stanton Carlisle, a carnival employee who dreams of greatness and doesn’t mind what he must do to reach it. Stan goes from being a carnival entertainer, to a stage magician, to a Spiritualist minister working with a psychoanalyst to con rich clients. The novel was a bestseller and the movie rights sold quickly, allowing the Gresham family to buy a new house in upstate New York. The movie, starring action star Tyrone Powers, came out in 1947 and Powers hoped it would help him break typecasting. Unfortunately, critics and audiences were not kind at the time.

Whatever the movie’s fortunes, Gresham and Joy were now doing well. Friends introduced them to C.S. Lewis’ work, and Joy began writing to Lewis in 1950. Their conversion story appeared in a 1951 anthology These Found the Way: Thirteen Converts to Protestant Christianity.

By 1952, things were less stable. Money was tighter. Gresham’s second novel, a story of tuberculosis patients called Limbo Tower, appeared in 1949 to little attention. Gresham had various affairs, drank excessively and was violent when drunk (Glyer 11). He had given up Christianity, sampling “Zen, the Tarot, Yoga, I Ching and Dianetics” (Polidoro 15). Jaundice and stress put Joy in the hospital in 1952, and her doctor recommended complete rest. Joy took a five-month trip to England, which included visiting Lewis and his brother Warnie. Near the trip’s end, Gresham sent Joy a letter stating he was having an affair with her cousin, Renee Rodriguez. Joy returned in January 1953, tried to reconcile with no success. By November, she had moved to England with their sons. The divorce was finalized in August 1954, and Gresham married Renee. In 1956, Joy legally married Lewis to maintain her visa, a marriage on paper that we know became much more.

The mid-50s would be perhaps the last stable period in Gresham’s life. He joined Alcoholics Anonymous, kept writing freelance and expanded to sci-fi magazines. We have positive proof that Lewis read at least one of his stories, “The Dream Dust Factory.” In 1953, Gresham released Monster Midway, a well-liked nonfiction book on carnivals. In 1959 he published Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls. This was the second Houdini biography and while more accurate books have surpassed it, it was an important step in Houdini scholarship. Gresham’s research on Houdini led to two book projects he never completed, on famous mediums D.D. Home and Mina Crandon.

In 1960, following Joy’s death from cancer, Gresham came to the Kilns to see his sons. Douglas records in his book Lenten Lands that years of separation, plus him attending English schools where feelings were frowned upon, made it hard to connect with his father. Lewis and Gresham apparently got along, at least enough that Lewis let Gresham to record him reading passages from The Canterbury Tales and the Space Trilogy. Gresham’s widow Renee sold the tapes to the Wade Center in 1982, and you can buy digital copies through the Rabbit Room.

Gresham’s final book, a body-building guide, was published in 1961. His health had taken a poor turn – he was going blind from cataracts and a year later, learned he had throat cancer. In September 1962, Gresham checked into Manhattan’s Dixie Hotel with a false name. He was found dead the next morning, from a deliberate overdose of sleeping pills.

Following Gresham’s death, his work went under the radar for a while. Limbo Tower stayed in print at least through the 1970s, without receiving much attention. Nightmare Alley went in and out of print before critics rediscovered it in the 1990s. Since then, it has gone through various editions, been adapted into a stage play and graphic novel. The 1947 movie finally came to DVD in 2005 and is now considered a classic crime noir. This year, Guillermo del Toro released a new Nightmare Alley movie, to mostly positive reviews.  Whether or not Gresham’s other books will return to print is hard to say. It is possible we are seeing a resurgence, and the fact so little has been written about his work means that there are some great opportunities for new research.

Sources and Interesting Links:

Duncan, Paul. “William Lindsay Gresham: Nothing Matters in This Goddamned Lunatic Asylum of a World But Dough.” Miskatonic University Press: RARA-AVIS, 3 Jul. 2000, https://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/archives/200007/0019.html. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

Polidoro, Massimo. “Blind Alley: The Sad and ‘Geeky’ Life of William Lindsay Gresham.” The Skeptical Inquirer, vol. 27, no. 4, Jul/Aug 2003, pp. 14-17. ProQuest. Accessed 17 Dec. 2021.

Review/Overview of The Selected Writings of WIlliam Lindsay Gresham (Centipede Press): http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=23665

Soper, David Wesley, ed. These Found the Way: Thirteen Converts to Protestant Christianity. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951.

Wheaton Archives profile of William Lindsay Gresham: https://archives.wheaton.edu/agents/people/2530

Glyer, Diana Pavlac (1998). “Joy Davidman Lewis: Author, Editor and Collaborator,” Mythlore: A Journal of
J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature: Vol. 22 : No. 2 , Article 3. https://dc.swosu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2058&context=mythlore

“Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham. Reviewed by Ryder W. Miller.” Mythprint 48:5 (#346), May 2011: https://www.mythsoc.org/reviews/nightmare-alley.htm

Kirkus Review of Limbo Tower: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/a/william-lindsay-gresham/limbo-tower/

Kirkus Review of Monster Midway: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/a/william-lindsay-gresham/monster-midway/

Kirkus Review of Nightmare Alley: https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/a/william-lindsay-gresham/nightmare-alley/

New York Times review of Gresham’s second novel Limbo Tower: https://www.nytimes.com/1949/05/08/archives/men-stripped-bare-of-vanity-limbo-tower-by-william-lindsay-gresham.html

“Summary Bibliography of William Lindsay Gresham,” Internet Speculative Fiction Database: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?16153

One thought on “William Lindsay Gresham: A Life

  1. Pingback: What Makes a Noir Novel? Considering Nightmare Alley – G. Connor Salter

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