William Lindsay Gresham

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…”).

His death received almost no attention, as a writer he was long forgotten. The only obituary he got was in the bridge column of the New York Times (although that final factoid comes from
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…

Gillians Found Photo #7

This week’s found photo– date and place unknown. It’s a Polaroid, faded to a lovely jaundice. I like the way the fellow on the right is cuddling his bottle like it’s a baby. Can anyone tell what type of hootch it is? His eyes come right out of a Wynonie Harris song (“your eyes look like two cherries/in a glass of buttermilk”). His breath seems to seep right through time, you can almost smell the booze breathe. The child in pigtails seems like she’s knows something that the adults will never figure out. She’s almost haunting. Where and when is this is from? What are they celebrating? It’s any one’s guess.

Dylan & Otis Rush

Over on his website, Bob Dylan is giving away this tune– Beyond Here Lies Nothing, to promote the upcoming album from which it was culled. It’s a great tune, in fact I think it’s my favorite Dylan song in decades, maybe since the Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid soundtrack, but it sounded awful familiar. It took a bit of brain racking but it finally dawned on me where I’d heard the tune before, it’s Otis Rush’s All Your Love (Cobra) with new lyrics. It’s not just the melody and riff that Dylan copied but the entire ambiance of Rush’s Cobra recordings are recreated on the Dylan tune. The saxophone has the same haunting, hollow tone, the echo of the room is nearly identical, he really went out of his way to channel the sound of that Rush got on his Cobra recordings (his first and best sides, you can find the complete Otis Rush on Cobra for download here, in two parts, note the password, but you should buy them and hear them properly). It was Rush’s Cobra discs that Lester Bangs (who was turned on to them by Bob Quine and me who were raving about them when Flyright re-issued them in ’80, I already had heard six of the tunes from a record trade with Jeff “Mono Man” Connelley which netted me three Rush Cobra 78’s for a Sonics Etiquette 45) described as sounding like “being mugged by an iceberg”. I haven’t heard the rest of the Dylan record which is called Together For Life and is due to be released on April 28th, but I hope he just took the best Otis Rush Cobra tunes and re-wrote the lyrics. Is this plagiarism? I’m not so sure, I mean maybe Otis Rush got the tune from somebody else. As far as stealing “riffs”, gimme a break, no one’s come up with a new guitar riff since 1956. Let’s face it, if you hold a guitar long enough you’ll play a blues scale, and if you play a blues scale enough ways you’ll play every rock’n’roll riff there is, if you play the blues scale backwards you’ve just played Rumble. Anyway, I don’t really care if Dylan stole the tune or not, I just thought I’d bring up the subject since it’s obvious Dylan’s been listening to Otis Rush’s Cobra recordings, and if you are a Bob Dylan fan you should listen to the Otis Rush discs too. Why? Cuz they’re great records and you don’t need Bob Dylan to tell you that. That’s what I’m here for.

Bill Pietsch remembered….

Can anyone identify the above arm? It seems someone out there went and got a silhouette of the late, great, Bill Pietsch (see my September blog entry if you’re unfamiliar with Bill’s life), the long missed drummer of the Church Keys, and sometimes front man for Purple Wizard, permanently inked onto their flesh. I’m not much of a tattoo fan, but Bill was a close friend and I was a huge fan of his and I’d quite curious about who is attached to this thing. The pic is taken from the cover of the Purple Wizard LP.

Gillian’s Found Photo #6

This week’s delve into Fang’s found photo archive asks the musical question Are You A Boy or Are You A Girl? as the Barbarians once put it. What I like about this photo is that it evokes the sleazy feeling of Hebert Selby Jr’s Last Exit To Brooklyn (Grove Press, 1957). The sad, queen in a cheap room somewhere, getting ready for a night out. The gloves are a nice touch, they cover up the tell-all hands. It also reminds me of a funny story. A friend of mine was working, renovating an apartment in the French Quarter in New Orleans for a gay couple who owned a parrot. The couple would be at their jobs all day while my friend was left alone to work while the parrot would say over and over again– “You’re just an all wrong drag queen”. The only other phrase it knew was– “ooh ooh oooh”. Anyway, getting back to this week’s found photo, I wonder what’s in the record collection? Judy Garland no doubt, but what else do you think is in there?

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