Biographies/William Gresham

Tags: Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Author Member Of Communist Party Medic

Researcher: Max Fasano, Stuyvesant '21

William Gresham was born in Baltimore Maryland on August 20th, 1909.  Shortly after his birth his family of Maryland natives moved to New York City, where Gresham would attend Erasmus Hall High School.  He became fascinated with the Coney Island sideshow as a child, and it proved to play a huge role in his life.  He began to work there as a child, and the things he saw inspired him to become a writer.  He would later write about his experiences in his book Monster Midway: An Uninhibited Look at the Glittering World of the Carny, where after seeing an attached set of twins he writes “I thought it would be wonderful to have a vestigial twin, I wouldn’t have to work as hard as my father did, bossing around people in a factory all day … Bitterly I realized it was too late for me to be gifted like the italian gentleman, but hope surged within me that someday I might get tattooed all over and so qualify.”  He practiced magic, and at one point almost killed himself while attempting a Houdini act. Gresham dreamed of being a carny and a writer, feeling that he wasn’t fit for a normal day job. Upon graduating from Erasmus Hall in 1926, he kept true to that sentiment, working as a folk singer in Greenwich village while continuing to write.  This same anti-establishment sentiment pushed him towards joining the Communist Party, where he and his future wife Joy Davidman would become active members.  

With no set jobs or commitments in NYC, his leftist stance encouraged him to become a volunteer medic on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War.  While serving during the war, he by chance met a former sideshow employee named Joseph Daniel “Doc” Halliday.  They became great friends, and bonded over the sideshow that was such a major influence on Gresham.  Their long conversations would inspire Gresham’s future works, particularly Monster Midway and Nightmare Ally.  Gresham also tended to be a heavy drinker, being described as destructive and violent.  While enlisted, Gresham attempted to hang himself with his belt, only surviving due to the hook in the wall giving way.  He then returned to America in 1939 at the age of 30 after he contracted tuberculosis and was placed in the tuberculosis ward.  

The war had taken an immense toll on Gresham, and writing offered him therapeutic clarity. In 1946 he gained massive fame for his novel Nightmare Ally, a kind of autobiography where he describes a preacher's decline into a drunken carnival geek.  But this recently gained fame was hard on Gresham, and he cracked under the pressure to write another successful novel.  His drinking became worse, and he began to abuse both his children and his wife.  He couldn’t deal with his continued failure and his lack of belonging, driving away both his wife and his children, with his wife leaving him to escape to the UK.  He then turned back to his elusive carny dream, learning to eat fire, tell fortunes, and volunteering in a knife throwing act. 

By 1962, his health had deteriorated beyond repair, and shortly after going partially blind he was diagnosed with tongue cancer.  Diagnosed as terminal, Gresham was alone and dying, never having fulfilled his true dream of becoming a carny.  On September 14, 1962 he checked into the Hotel Carter in Manhattan, where he would then commit suice by overdosing on sleeping pills.  A writer, magician, and veteran, he was forgotten by New York, with his death only being noted by a single columnist. 


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