William Lindsay Gresham

    William L. Gresham

By the third or fourth year of the Ipsy, the great house in Highlands had pupped a fair-sized litter of clones. There was me and my family in Red Bank, the del Reys a quarter of a mile away, George and Dona Smith in Rumson and, at least briefly, the Kornbluths in Long Branch and the Budryses in Oceanport … and, perhaps most important, the Laurence Mannings in Highlands itself, next door to the Ipsy-Wipsy itself.

When Laurence Manning — Fletcher’s long ago collaborator from the days when science-fiction magazines had the square footage of telephone books (no, not in the number of pages, of course!) — and his family came out for a weekend, they loved the location as well as the company. And when Laurence mentioned that he was looking for a house to buy and move to, Fletcher was quick to say that when he and Inga had bought the Ipsy, they’d bought more acres of land than they had any use for, and the Pratts would be happy to hive off a few acres to sell to the Mannings if they’d care to build a house next door. Which they did, and so the Pratts and the Mannings were next-door neighbors.

Actually that seemed like quite a nice arrangement. Although Manning didn’t have much interest in science fiction anymore he still liked the company of writers, and the conviviality of an Ipsy-Wipsy weekend. And we liked the Mannings.

He knew everything about home plantings, which made him a useful resource for those of us who, like myself, had never had to plant a space much bigger than a windowbox before. He was good company and by no means limited to shop talk. So things went swimmingly, with the Mannings’ house guests walking the couple hundred feet of lawn to the great house next door on Saturday nights … until they didn’t.

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 the 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 tragical love for the American poet Joy Davidman. What made that love tragic was William Gresham.

Davidman had been married to and then, after two children, divorced from Gresham. Jewish by birth, then atheist while she was growing up, she became a Christian, converted by reading Lewis’s persuasive and enjoyable books. And she fell in love with Lewis the man, as totally and unquestioningly as he with her. But Lewis could not marry her.

For most of the Western world, there would have been no obstacle to that yearned-for consummation of their love. Nothing could stop their moving in together, or, if it came to that, marrying — nothing, that is, but Lewis’s religion.

To begun with, sex outside of marriage.was, for him, the very definition of sin. But then, an impartial observer might ask, why not marry? Both parties, after all, were legally free.

Unfortunately, Lewis’s religious beliefs held that marriages were for life, and “divorce” was a legal fiction. Marriages were irrevocably till-death-do-us-part contracts, no exceptions, and nothing that some judge may have said in a court gave a once-married person the freedom to marry again. Only the death of the partner could accomplish that.

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 Ipsy-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 hear 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.

Part 6, and last, coming up soon.

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  1. Chookie says:

    Wikipedia suggests the impediment was more that a divorcee was an unacceptable choice to the Anglicans of the time. In my diocese (Sydney, which is theologically conservative), ministers still have to ask the Archbishop’s permission to celebrate the marriage of a divorcee.
    Lewis and Davidman did marry eventually, but some of their friends (notably Tolkien, a Catholic) disapproved, again on the grounds that marriage was for life. Gresham’s adultery must have been hushed up, because that would have been seen as proper grounds for divorce.

  2. David B. Williams says:

    It’s endlessly fascinating, how people can screw up their lives with abstract belief systems.

    You couldn’t write a story in which the characters had these motivations, because no one would think it was believable.

  3. Mr. Rice says:

    I never thought I would find Fletcher Pratt interesting

  4. Michael Walsh says:

    The Kornbluths live in Long Branch? Jeeze, so did my late aunt: Joline Ave near Ocean Ave.

  5. Terry O'Brien says:

    William Lindsey Gresham? I certainly didn’t expect to see that name here.

    I encountered Gresham, albeit from an oblique angle, way back in (I think) 1969. It was an article entitled “Secrets of the Sleep Merchants” that was included as part of an English reading lesson program. It was about the carny tricks stage hypnotists would use to on volunteers to make them more “suggestible”. For years afterward I tried to find the original publication but all I could remember was that it originally appeared in “True, the Men’s Magazine” sometime about 1955. It took a web search just a few years ago to discover the author (Gresham) and his agent, and a letter to the agent provided the actual publication information. After that, I simply kept checking eBay until that issue of the magazine appeared for sale and bought it at the first chance I had.

  6. Bill Goodwin says:

    It’s endlessly fascinating, how people can screw up their belief-systems with the fickle passions of mere life. You couldn’t write a popular story where people aspired to higher things, because no one vulgar would find it believable….