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William Lindsay Gresham

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William Lindsay Gresham
Born(1909-08-20)August 20, 1909
DiedSeptember 14, 1962(1962-09-14) (aged 53)
Known forNightmare Alley
(m. 1942⁠–⁠1954)
  • Renée Rodriguez
Children2; including Douglas Gresham

William Lindsay Gresham (/ˈɡrɛʃəm/; August 20, 1909 – September 14, 1962) was an American novelist and non-fiction author particularly well-regarded among readers of noir. His best-known work is Nightmare Alley (1946), which was adapted to film in 1947 and 2021.

Life and career[edit]

Gresham was born in Baltimore, Maryland. As a child, he moved with his family to New York, where he became fascinated by the sideshow at Coney Island. Upon graduating from Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn in 1926, Gresham drifted from job to job, and worked as a folk singer in Greenwich Village.[1]

His parents divorced when he was 16. His own first marriage also ended in divorce, as well as his second to a New Jersey socialite, which fell apart after nine years when he returned to the United States, embittered by his experiences in Spain.[2] In 1937, Gresham had served as a volunteer medic for the Abraham Lincoln Brigade forces during the Spanish Civil War. There, he befriended a former sideshow employee, Joseph Daniel "Doc" Halliday, and their long conversations inspired much of his work,[1][2] particularly Gresham's two books about the American carnival, the nonfiction Monster Midway and the fictional Nightmare Alley.

Returning to the United States in 1939, after a troubling period that involved a stay in a tuberculosis ward and a suicide attempt, Gresham found work editing true crime magazines. In 1942, Gresham married Joy Davidman, a poet, with whom he had two children, David and Douglas.

In 1946 he published Nightmare Alley, his first and most successful novel. It was purchased by Hollywood for $60,000 and made into a film of the same name starring Tyrone Power in 1947. Gresham and Davidman moved into a sprawling fourteen-room house in Staatsburg, New York.

Gresham was an unfaithful and alcoholic husband.[3] Davidman, an ethnically Jewish atheist, became a fan of the writings of C. S. Lewis, which led eventually to her conversion to Christianity. Within a year or so Gresham was calling himself a Christian, which influenced his second and last novel, Limbo Tower. However, the couple struggled financially, and Gresham would have tax problems for many years to come. Davidman complained to friends of his frequent drinking, serial infidelity, and even occasional eruptions of violence. At this time Gresham became interested in Dianetics, the 1950 self-help book by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard.[2] Although an early enthusiast of Scientology, he later denounced it as another kind of spook racket.[2]

Suffering from an illness, Davidman decided to go to England in 1952 to seek out C.S. Lewis, with whom she'd been corresponding. She invited her cousin, Renée Rodriguez—who was fleeing an abusive husband with her two small children—to keep house for her family in her absence. Gresham and Rodriguez soon began an affair.

Gresham wrote to Davidman in January 1953 that he and Rodriguez had become lovers and Davidman returned to New York, enduring an awkward period during which all three of them were living under the same roof because none could afford to go anywhere else.

Davidman sold the house to pay off the Internal Revenue Service and moved to England with the boys. Later she married Lewis, their relationship forming the inspiration for the play and movie Shadowlands.[3]

Gresham married Rodriguez as soon as the divorce was finalized.[3] After Davidman's untimely death, Gresham visited England to see his sons. When it became apparent that they were well cared for, he left them in the care of Lewis.[3]

Gresham joined Alcoholics Anonymous and developed a deep interest in Spiritualism, having already exposed many of the fraudulent techniques of popular spiritualists in his two sideshow-themed books and having written a book about Houdini with the assistance of noted skeptic James Randi. Twenty-four of his articles and stories on fairgrounds, spook shows, and hucksters were republished in 2013 as Grindshow: the Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham.


In 1962, Gresham's health began to take a turn for the worse. He had started to go blind and was diagnosed with tongue cancer. On September 14, 1962, he checked into the Dixie Hotel, Manhattan—which he had often frequented while writing Nightmare Alley over a decade earlier.[3] There, 53-year-old Gresham took his life with an overdose of sleeping pills.[4] His death went generally unnoticed by the New York press but for a mention by a bridge columnist.[5] Business cards were found in his pocket, reading "No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired."[6]


  • Nightmare Alley (1946); London : Raven Books, 2020, ISBN 978-1-5266-2849-7; aus dem Amerikanischen von Christian Veit Eschenfelder und Anja Heidböhmer, Leipzig : Festa, März 2022, ISBN 978-3-86552-713-4
  • Limbo Tower (1949)
  • Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny (1954)
  • Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959)[7]
  • The Book of Strength: Body Building the Safe, Correct Way (1961)
  • Grindshow: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham, edited by Bret Wood (2013)[8]


  1. ^ a b "Blind Alley: the sad and 'geeky' life of William Lindsay Gresham". Skeptical Inquirer. July–August 2003.
  2. ^ a b c d Prendergast, Alan (Summer 2006). "One Man's Nightmare: The Noir Journey of William Lindsay Gresham". The Writer's Chronicle. The Association of Writers & Writing Programs. Archived from the original on June 15, 2006.
  3. ^ a b c d e Duncan, Paul (2000). "Nothing Matters In This Goddamned Lunatic Asylum Of A World But Dough". Noir Fiction: Dark Highways. Pocket Essentials. ISBN 1-903047-11-0.
  4. ^ Sragow, Michael (April 16, 2010). "Cult classic 'Nightmare Alley' resurfaces more macabre than ever". The Baltimore Sun. Archived from the original on April 2, 2017. Retrieved April 2, 2017.
  5. ^ Morehead, Albert H. (25 September 1962). "Bridge: Death of Gresham, Writer, Loss to Bridge World, Too". The New York Times.(subscription required)
  6. ^ Sutherland, John (6 May 2014). "10 overlooked novels: how many have you read?". The Guardian. Retrieved 30 June 2016.
  7. ^ Houdini, the man who walked through walls at the HathiTrust Digital Library
  8. ^ "Grindshow: The Selected Writings". Centipede Press.

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