RARA-AVIS: William Lindsay Gresham

From: Paul Duncan ( Paul.Duncan@asml.nl)
Date: 03 Jul 2000

William Lindsay Gresham: Nothing Matters In This Goddamned Lunatic Asylum Of A World But Dough

Imagine a world obsessed by the acquisition of money. One man finds out what you need, preys on this weakness to get money out of you, and then moves onto bigger and bigger fish. Only, there are other people like this man. What happens when he meets someone who preys on his weaknesses?

Nightmare Alley (1946) is the story of Stanton Carlisle. He begins at the carnival by helping out at the Ten-in-One tent, giving the geek his chicken. Stan is happy with the shiny half-dollar in his trouser pocket and plays with it. And then he gets the idea that he should have more shiny new coins. And girls. He beds women to get what he wants. He learns the codes to become a mentalist - the person talking to the blindfolded mentalist nonchalantly includes code words into their speech, which identify the necessary objects. Stan wants to go even further, to aim for bigger stakes, more affluent marks.

So he decorates a parlour and sets himself up as a spiritualist - a popular occupation which satisfied the need of many who wanted to talk to dead sons after the wholesale slaughter of World War One. With each move up the social ladder, Stan finds another woman with whom to cohabit
- they give him their confidences, their secrets and he makes profit out of them. This is the world of the con. The magicians, the mentalists, the spiritualists and the psychiatrists are fakes. Only the freaks of nature are real people. Gresham uses the carnival people as a cross-section of society. The giant Hercules embodies the lumpen proletariat who know they are being screwed but do nothing about it. Major Mosquite is the little bit of pure hate we keep in our hearts - all talk and no action. Joe Plasky, the man with no legs, is the man of action. Mary is a passive woman who allows Stan to abuse her. Zeena, the mistress, is desire - she is the one who shows Stan that the only way forward in the world is through deception. And then there is Dr Lilith Ritter, a woman who shoehorns her way into the spiritualist racket and takes control of Stan. Together, they strip society bare.

But every predator in the food chain sooner or later becomes the prey, which Stan discovers to his cost. It takes him a much shorter time to slide down than it did to go up. In the end, Stan ends up as the lowest of the lowlife, the plankton of the food chain - a geek.

Gresham's only other novel was Limbo Tower (1949) an equally downbeat work about Asa Kimball and other men slowly dying of fear, depression, disease and tuberculosis in hospital. He is well known in magic circles for his biography of Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959), and his non-fiction book about freak shows and carnivals, Monster Midway
(1953). Gresham supported himself with a regular flow of short stories and articles in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Esquire and other publications. If there was a book about carnivals, circuses and freaks that needed reviewing for the New York Times, Gresham was usually assigned the job.


Born in Baltimore on August 20 1909, William Lindsay Gresham was the descendant of a family that settled in Maryland in 1641. His father needed to pursue a factory job so the family moved to New York. On a visit to the freak show at Coney Island, the young Gresham became fascinated by a sharply-dressed, suave-looking Italian man, who had a small headless body hanging out of his stomach. The small body was also impeccably dressed. Learning that the Italian was happily married with 5 normal children, Gresham began to envy him - all Gresham had was a father afraid of losing his job and a mother always grousing about money.

After jobs as a stenographer and freelance reporter, Gresham ended up in Greenwich Village singing folk music at a bohemian nightspot. He met a wealthy woman and married her. Then in November 1936, like many idealistic young men during the turbulent 30s he joined the Communist Party, taking the name William Rafferty. In November 1937, after a close friend died at Brunete, Gresham went to Spain and fought, with the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War. Gresham was a foot soldier, a topographer and then a first aider. It was in the latter post that he met a medic who liked to reminisce about his times in a carnival. This was Joseph Daniel 'Doc' Halliday, a former seaman and male nurse. It was from him that Gresham learned all about the carny culture, the habits, the mentality, the language. And it was there that he first came across the word geek. It referred to the lowest of the low - an alcoholic or drug addict who was out of his head all the time. He could be prodded, cajoled and led into working for more drink or drugs. His job? To sit and crawl in his own excrement, as the wild man of Borneo, and occasionally bite the heads off chickens and snakes. Immediately, a story idea entered into Gresham's head, about the rise of a carny conman and his subsequent descent into geekdom.

When Gresham returned to New York, his marriage collapsed and ended in divorce. He took to drink and, in despair, attempted to hang himself in a closet but the hook came loose and he fell to the ground, gaining consciousness hours later. To repair his mind, he went to psychoanalysis. To keep his body occupied, he worked as a salesman, magician, copywriter and magazine editor. Then he married again, to the writer and poetess Helen Joy Davidman, by whom he had two sons, David and Douglas.

With stories and articles being published regularly, Gresham began work on his novel, hanging out at the Dixie Hotel, where the carnival workers did their drinking. Gresham published Nightmare Alley in 1946 and it met with immediate and large sales success. It also sold to Hollywood for
$60,000 and became a very good Film Noir the following year. With the proceeds of this success, Gresham moved to a large estate in Staatsburg, about 75 miles north of New York City.

While Gresham was writing the equally bleak Limbo Tower (1949), both Joy and Gresham left the Communist Party and found religion. They joined the Presbyterian church. Gresham probably believed he was on the road to a successful career as a novelist, but that was not to be the case. The funds began to dry up, resulting in strained arguments between husband and wife. Another cause of tension was that Gresham did not believe he should sleep with only one woman. Joy believed otherwise. Cracking under the pressure, Gresham began drinking heavily and would fly into rages for little or no reason. One time he broke a bottle over Douglas' head. Chairs were regularly broken against the pillars on the front of the house. Gresham dabbled in Zen, the tarot, Yoga, I Ching and Dianetics to soothe his personal demons with little success.

Then in 1952 Joy became very ill and was advised by her doctor to plan a long vacation. Around this time, Joy's first cousin, Ren饠Rodriguez, visited Staatsburg to hide herself and her two children from her abusive husband, Claude Pierce. (Haunted by his experiences during World War Two, Claude began to drink, became abusive and treated Ren饠like a slave.) With someone to look after Gresham, Joy went on vacation, and left for England in August 1952. Gresham wrote to Joy in January 1953 saying that he and Ren饠had become lovers. Joy returned immediately. There were arguments, tears, rages and finally divorce. Joy sold the house to pay off the Internal Revenue Service and moved to England with the boys. In 1956, she married author C S Lewis and died tragically on July 14 1960. Their relationship was the basis of the stage play and film Shadowlands.

Gresham moved to Florida with Ren饠and they were married in 1954 - Gresham joined Alcoholics Anonymous and seemed to find some sort of peace. Shortly after Joy's death, Gresham visited England to see his sons. When it became apparent that they were well cared for, he left them in C S Lewis' care. Reflecting on his life, Gresham told a fellow veteran from Spain, "I sometimes think that if I have any real talent it is not literary but is a sheer talent for survival. I have survived three busted marriages, losing my boys, war, tuberculosis, Marxism, alcoholism, neurosis and years of freelance writing. Just too mean and ornery to kill, I guess."

Gresham discovered he had cancer of the tongue. He had no wish for either he or his family to face a long, ugly death, so on September 14 1962 he checked into the run-down Dixie Hotel room, registering as 'Asa Kimball, of Baltimore,' and took his own life. The only tribute paid to him in the New York Times came from the bridge columnist.


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