William L. Gresham’s Nightmare Alley (1947) is that rarest of all beasts, a great book that became a great movie. A hard boiled noir set in a traveling carnival, it’s main character Stan Carlisle, a hustler turned spiritualist, may be the most cynical character in American popular culture. Tyrone Power played him well– oily, unctuous, not quite likable, it’s easily Power’s most memorable role (full credits can be found here)
Nightmare Alley was written by William Lindsay Gresham, who was born in Baltimore in 1909, raised in Brooklyn, New York, and wrote only five books in his lifetime. Largely forgotten today, Gresham deserves to be remembered as one of America’s best low life chroniclers.
There’s not a whole helluva lot of info on Gresham’s life. Growing up in Brooklyn he was fascinated by the Coney Island sideshows (which are still there, probably the last in the world). He worked there as a kid and may have traveled with a show as a young man. Like all good young leftist would be writers of the era, he volunteered and served as a medic on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (see George Orwell’s Homage To Catalonia, 1952, for an excellent look at that war from a volunteer medic’s viewpoint). Returning to the U.S. he went to work as an editor for various pulp mags, many of which he contributed short stories to, and published his first novel Nightmare Alley in 1947. Nightmare Alley was well received on publication and would eventually go through dozens of paperback editions. It’s still the easiest of his books to find today and was included in the Library of America Crime Novels of the 1930 and 40’s collection in 1998 along side classic works by James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Edward Anderson, and Cornell Woolrich (edited by Robert Polito, this is one of the Library of America’s best collections and worth searching out). The movie was released the same year, directed by Edmund Goulding, it would later become a staple of late night TV and is considered a film noir classic.
Gresham was an alcoholic and a mean drunk and today is better remembered for being an abusive husband to poet Joy Davidman, his first wife, who would leave him for C.F. Lewis before dying of cancer, a chain of events used for the basis of the Richard Attenborough’s film Shadowland (1993), than as a writer. After Davidman left him he quickly married her cousin Rene Rodriguez.
The above card which reads “You Would Rather Die Than Face Truth” was something he carried in his wallet for many years, I bought it from the same guy who sold me his insurance card (also above). In the same sale of Gresham artifacts Nick Tosches ended up with the original Tarot deck whose cards are reproduced as chapter headings in the original, hard back edition of Nightmare Alley.
Gresham’s drinking kept him from being able to capitalize on his initial success and he often found himself drying out in the nuthouse. This setting would provide the material for his second (and final) novel Limbo Tower which appeared in 1949. Set in the mental ward at a New York hospital, it didn’t sell and no movie was made from it. It’s easy to see why Limbo Tower, fine as it is, didn’t find an audience. Limbo Tower is a relentlessly grim book, and I like grim books but grim is not a selling point. It had none of Nightmare Alley’s color and a double dose of its cynicism. It’s commercial failure hit Gresham hard and he would spend the next ten years on an extended bender, supporting himself by writing stories for pulp mags for quick cash, and not much of it. His final three books were all non-fiction.
In 1954 Gresham revisited the world of traveling shows with the wonderful Monster Midway, another look at the world of freaks, hustlers, and all manner of sideshow flotsam and cretins that road shows attract. It’s first chapter is a glossary of carny lingo. The characters are sketches of real show folk Gresham knew. Although hard to find, Monster Midway is well worth looking for, I’m sort of amazed it’s been out of print since the mid-50’s.
Gresham would publish two more books– a quickie bio of Harry Houdini– Houdini: The Man Who Walked Through Walls (1959) and a book on bodybuilding: The Book Of Strength: Body Building The Safe and Correct Way (1962) written as he was dying in a shabby, rented room at a time when he could barely lift a toothbrush never mind a barbell. Although Gresham joined A.A. and quit drinking a year or two before his death, he had already ruined his health and once sober, Gresham deteriorated rapidly. First he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, then cancer which resulted in having part of his tongue amputated, finally he started going blind. With nothing but poverty, darkness, and a painful death in his future, Gresham checked into a cheap SRO hotel in Times Square and took an overdose of sleeping pills, killing himself. His exit was nearly as bleak as the end of Nightmare Alley itself (“…it’s only until we get a real geek…”).
the notoriously unreliable Winkapedia so don’t hold me to its accuracy, I’m feeling a bit lazy this morning).
I’m no literary critic, but I do like to read, so for those of you out there that have never read Gresham or have never seen the movie Nightmare Alley (which after years of legal problems with producer George Jessel’s estate is back in the regular late night rotation on the Fox Movie Channel and is readily available on dvd) here’s something I think you’re really gonna like. Step right this way…