Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Three Glimpses of Gresham

So,  recently I've seen three passing references to Wm Lindsay Gresham which, while each brief in itself, add up to provide a little more insight into this elusive figure.  Gresham is mainly remembered today, if at all, as a shadowy and slightly sinister figure on the edge of Lewis biographies, the first husband of Joy Lewis and parent of CSL's heirs David and Douglas Gresham.

But Gresham was much more than this: a volunteer who fought fascist in the Spanish Civil War, an up-and-coming novelist whose first book was made into a noir film (staring Tyrone Powers) but whose subsequent books failed to live up to his early promise, eventually spiraling down into a serious drinking problem. He ended by dying relatively young (53) of suicide when his terminal cancer became too much for him to bear. In many cases a sad life, with someone of real talent for the most part unable to focus it to produce the works those who knew him early on believed he was capable of.

He also moved in some interesting circles, and it's from scattered references in reminiscences by others from those days that we get a glimpse of him in his own right, not as a walk-on roll in the Jack-and-Joy story.

First, there's Martin Gardner's autobiography; this one I learned about from Wendell Wagner's posting to the MythSoc list.* Here's how Gardner remembered Gresham:

I met Bill Gresham. Bill was the author of NIGHTMARE ALLEY, the best novel ever written about carnival life. It became a movie starring Tyrone Power . . . Bill once said to me that one day he realized that his geek was a symbol for all the persons who bitterly hate their jobs but have no other way to make a living.

Bill had been married to Joy Davidman, both once active members of the Communist Party. Joy was drama and poetry editor of the party's NEW MASSES magazine. She finally became disenchanted with Communism and wrote a series of articles for the NEW YORK POST titled "Girl Communist." As a result of reading books by C. S. Lewis, Joy became a convert to the Anglican Church. She began corresponding with Lewis, then an elderly bachelor in England, best known for his Narnia fantasies for children, and for his many books of Christian polemics.

One day Joy, who had become increasingly bitter about her marriage, said to Bill she was planning to divorce him and to take her two children to London where she planned to marry Lewis!

Bill thought that was the funniest thing he ever heard. Then suddenly, to his vast astonishment, Joy did exactly what she said she would do. She divorced Bill, took her sons to England, and sent word to Bill that she and Lewis would soon be married!

After the marriage Lewis published a book titled SURPRISED BY JOY . . . Bill once said to me that the book Lewis wrote was wrongly titled. It should have been OVERWHELMED BY JOY. As all Lewis fans know, the joy was short-lived . . .

After Joy's death, Bill visited Lewis to arrange for the care of his two young sons. He took with him a copy of my ANNOTATED ALICE, inscribed to Lewis as a gift. I asked Bill to ask Lewis if he had ever read one of Baum's OZ books. The answer was no. . . 

Bill was a great admirer of L. Frank Baum . . . he wrote a moving essay telling of a time when he was deeply depressed over his divorce from Joy. He phoned a friend who allowed him to spend the night in a daughter's vacant bedroom. In the room Bill found a copy of Baum's THE SCARECROW OF OZ, a book he had loved as a child. He spent the night reading the book again. It got him through the night.

(from UNDILUTED HOCUS-POCUS: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MARTIN GARDNER [2013], Chapter 17: "Math and Magic Friends", p.171-172)


The second glimpse came in a June e-mail from Richard West, who had come across the following sentence when rereading Frederik Pohl's memoir (THE WAY THE FUTURE WAS [1978]) for a book group discussion:
"William Lindsay Gresham was there a lot just at the end of his life, an irascible, mean-mouthed man who was having troubles he could not handle, and one night a little later, checked into a Times Square hotel and killed himself." (ch. 9, p. 216).

By "there" he means "the Ipsy-Wipsy Institute" which in the early 1950s was "an immense house in Highlands owned by Fletcher and Inga Pratt, twenty-three rooms, on acres of land rolling down to the Shrewsbury River. ... some two hundred years old, with sculptured plaster ceilings in the billiard room and immense fireplaces in the drawing room and the dining hall, and a strange, huge painting that went with the house (because there was no way to remove it) on the landing of the stairs." (p. 215) The Pratts hosted many visitors, not only the Pohls (who happened to live nearby) and other science fiction writers and editors (Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague de Camp. Lester del Rey, John Campbell, et al.), but people like Basil Davenport and John Ciardi, so Gresham coming there is not strange, but it's one more bit of information about him. There's nothing else about Gresham in this book, though, and it's now too late, alas, to ask Fred Pohl for any further memories.
The interesting thing here is that it shows Gresham very much at home with the science fiction community gathered around Pratt, which puts him in a different context than we usually think of for him. It also, by the way, ties in very well with Joy Gresham's befriending John Christopher and Arthur C. Clarke, among others, during her time in London following her move to England, before she shifted her base of operations to Oxford.

It's obvious that Pohl and Gresham didn't hit it off, but "troubles he could not handle" sounds a bit harsh as a description of terminal cancer of the tongue, which eventually prevented him from eating and made drinking very difficult. Perhaps Pohl meant Gresham's problem with alcohol (which we mainly know about through Joy's account during the time they were breaking up). The timing of Pohl's account also seems a bit off -- since Pratt died six years before Gresham did, the latter cd not have been dropping by Pratt's house "just at the end of his life"

Thanks to Doug Anderson, who sent me the following link, we also have a somewhat expanded version of Pohl's impression, a piece that appeared on Pohl's blog (under the header "Fletcher Pratt, Part 5: Shadow Over the Ipsy"). The relevant section is as follows:

. . . Remember that I once said that, with all the social drinking that went on of an Ipsy weekend, I had only once seen anyone unpleasantly drunk?

This was that once. The man in question I did not know well, though I had read some of his work. His name was William Lindsay Gresham.

To discuss William Lindsay Gresham, I must first ask if you have ever seen the play or film SHADOWLANDS? Gresham never appears in it, but he is a very significant character all the same.

You see, SHADOWLANDS is the story of C. S. Lewis -- yes, the SCREWTAPE LETTERS man -- and his tradical love for the American poet Joy Davidman. What made that love tragic was William Gresham.

When I heard that William Gresham would be present at the Ipsy that evening, I was pleased to have the chance to talk to him, which we had somehow never managed to have on his previous visits. The title of his signature book was NIGHTMARE ALLEY, a brutal but brilliant novel of life among the carnival workers, which I had enjoyed and respected. But my notion of author-to-author chatting with the man didn't work out. Gresham was too drunk for chatting, and too aggressively foulmouthed for any civilized kind of talk at all. Remember the somewhat quaint and actually endearing pass-the-port-to-the-left fantasy that Fletcher had erected around Ispy-Wipsy weekends? Gresham's presence showed how a single drunk could destroy a fantasy. I left early that night.

And I never saw the man again.

I did heard about him from time to time, and then, some years later, the tabloids published his final chapter. Slowly going blind and recently diagnosed with cancer of the tongue, Gresham had checked into the Dixie Hotel, just off Times Square. There he consumed an overdose of sleeping pills, and died.

In addition to establishing that Gresham attended more than one gathering at the Pratt House (e.g., through the references to not having the chance for discussion with him on previous visits), this portrait agrees with other evidence that Gresham was a mean drunk, not a happy drunk or convivial drunk. This more detailed account also fits in better with the timeline of events as we know them from other sources, and is a good description of Gresham's darker side.

Here's the link to Pohl's blog piece:



FInally, I knew I'd once run across a brief passage where Heinlein mentions Gresham but I'd not been able to locate the passage again. Once I mentioned this to Doug Anderson, he turned up the relevant quote at once: it comes not from GRUMBLES FROM THE GRAVE, as I'd thought, but Heinlein's EXPANDED UNIVERSE [1980]. The passage begins with a quote:

"You'll never get rich peddling gloom" -- Wm Lindsay Gresham

It then continues

The late Bill Gresham was before consumption forced him into fiction writing a carnie mentalist of great skill. He could give a cold reading that would scare the pants off a marble staute. In six words he summarized the secret of success as a fortuneteller. Always tell the mark what he wants to hear. He will love you for it, happily pay you, then forgive and forget when your cheerful prediction fails to come true -- and always come back for more.

The bit about being forced into fiction by TB strikes a bit of an autobiographical note, this being Heinlein's history as well. The main interest of this piece is, however, that it confirms that Gresham (and possibly also Joy) moved in circles that included the top science fiction writers of the day and that Gresham himself had great personal charm (a point worth stressing, since what we know about him through Lewis channels is mainly to his disadvantage): he was dynamic and had keen insight into what made people tick. And anyone who reads the short story of his Doug Anderson included in TALES BEFORE NARNIA can see that he had talent to an impressive degree. There's now a short story collection of his work, just recently published,*** and the description thereof revealed to me for the first time that Gresham also wrote crime fiction and science fiction. The introductory essay to the collection also looks to be revealing, both about Gresham's career and incidently the disintegration of his marriage to Joy (including an account of how he came home and found she'd not only moved but had sold every piece of furniture in the place).

So, glimpses rather than extended accounts, but still interesting in the ways they contradict the Received Version and in the new light they place on his career and contacts.

Many thanks to Wendell, Richard, and Doug for providing me with the building bricks for this post.

--John R.

**for a photograph of the Pratt House, or 'Ipsy-Wipsy Institute', see the follow (with thanks to Doug Anderson for the link):



1 comment:

Unknown said...

Can anyone tell me anything about his first wife, what her name is etc? Helen Joy Davidman was not his first wife as most people claim. She was the second and her cousin was the 3rd. He is quoted as saying "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."