The Road to Nightmare Alley: William Lindsay Gresham in the Spanish Civil War

February 11, 2022
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Director Guillermo del Toro’s new film Nightmare Alley is bringing renewed attention to the author of the classic novel by the same name: William L. Gresham, who served in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War. Yet Gresham’s service in Spain is typically mentioned only because his first and most successful novel was inspired by information from a fellow international volunteer.

William Lindsay Gresham was born in Baltimore, Maryland on August 20, 1909.  He and his parents later moved the family to Fall River, Massachusetts, and then to New York City. Gresham graduated from Erasmus High School in Brooklyn in 1926.[i]  He later attended Upsala College in East Orange, New Jersey for two semesters in 1929 and 1930.[ii] While still in school he completed a month-long training session in the Civilian Military Training Corps, the CMTC.[iii] After leaving college Gresham worked a bewildering variety of jobs; among other things, he performed as cowboy and folk singer.[iv] The book jacket for Nightmare Alley, described Gresham as having held “just about every job one man could do in a relatively short life. He was a clerk for a fire insurance company, editor of the Western Electric Kearny newspaper, typewriter salesman, demonstrator of magic tricks, a laundry worker, a secretary in a private detective agency (until they discovered he couldn’t take shorthand and had been doing the correspondence by memory), and wanted to become a Unitarian minister.”[v] In Spain, Gresham reported a limited resume that included “typists, newspaper reporter, and secretary.”  In fact, Gresham always considered himself a writer and maintained membership in the left-leaning American Writer’s Union until the union was shut down. [vi]

Gresham’s path to Spain began with his marriage in September 1933 to Beatrice McCollum, who was a member of Section 31 of the New York Communist Party.[vii] In November 1936, following her lead, Gresham joined the party, where he was known as William Rafferty and served as a literature agent and president for the section. During the summer of 1937, Gresham volunteered to serve in Spain. With a passport issued in September 1937, he boarded the Volendam, bound for France, on October 9, 1937.[viii] He then traveled via Paris to the south of France, where he waited with other volunteers for smugglers to lead them into Spain. Gresham often stated that his decision to volunteer was a response to the death of a friend in the Brunete Campaign.[ix]

William Gresham, publicity shot.

The Anglo-American officer in charge at Figueras listed Gresham’s arrival in Spain as November 3, 1937, after Gresham had crossed the Pyrenees on foot via the Massanet smugglers route.[x] After induction into the International Brigades, he was assigned to a recruit company in the XVth International Brigade’s Training Base in Tarazona. Once he completed initial training, he was selected for the artillery and assigned to Almansa, the International Brigade’s Artillery training center.[xi]

Gresham served in the 35th Battery, 4th Group of Artillery, 11th Artillery Regiment, a unit formed in the fall of 1937 around a cadre that Nathan Budish commanded with Sid Kaufman serving as Commissar.[xii] The battery was equipped with heavy Russian cannon that dated from the 1870s and 1880s.[xiii]  These archaic, heavy guns could only fire a round every 3-5 minutes. A shell was placed in the breech, followed by powder and primer. The crew then attached a lanyard while the gunner finished sighting the guns with a goniometer. Once the crew was clear, the gunner pulled the lanyard to fire the gun. The guns lacked any type of internal recoil mechanism and the barrel flopped up and down as it recoiled. In order to keep the gun in battery, large ramps were placed behind each wheel. When the gun fired the recoil drove the gun up the ramp dissipating the recoil, after which the gun would roll back down the ramp into battery position once again.[xiv]

The battery was in action for several months on the Teruel Front. Gresham served on the frontlines from February 20 to May 15, 1938, in the battery’s reconnaissance and topography section, where he calculated firing data.[xv] By early summer 1938 one of the unit’s guns had blown up and the remaining pieces were turned over to a Spanish unit.[xvi]

The battery personnel were then sent to Alcoy, a town outside Valencia while they waited for new guns. Some personnel were ordered to join the John Brown Battery, but most remained “griping about the food and the lack of tobacco, and the endless waiting.” With Republican Spain cut in two, food was “garbanzos, or lentils, or rice, and not much else.” Alcohol was still available, however. “In Alcoy there was a wine shop,” fellow veteran Ben Iceland recalled, “its doorway shaded with hanging beads, where we would often go to escape the heat of the afternoon. There you could always find Bill Gresham, a lanky N. Y. magazine writer, huddled over a glass of wine. Gresham had thick glasses and wore a Trotsky-like beard. No matter how hot it was, he was always wrapped in his poncho and with a scarf around his neck. With him, usually, was Spike, a mid-western steeplejack, who had also been a carnival worker. Bill Gresham would pump Spike for details of his life and would see to it that his glass was always filled. Occasionally he would write in a little notebook that he kept with him. Some years after he returned from Spain, Bill wrote a novel about carnival life. Much of the material, I am sure, he got from Spike, in that wine shop in Alcoy.”[xvii]

With the arrival of new Czechoslovakian Skoda 37mm guns, the battery was redesignated as a dual anti-aircraft, anti-tank battery and assigned to the 129th International Brigade on the Levante Front. Under Budish’s command the men quickly learned their gun drill and sent into action. Outside the town of Linares de Mora, the battery “disable[d] a couple of fascist tanks.” The enemy was not the only danger at the front. The 129th IB was led by Slavic internationals and shortly after the tank engagement the Sector’s Artillery Commander ordered the battery to take up a position “… off the road in a wooded area” across the river from Linares de Mora. Convinced that the order “didn’t make sense,” the battery leadership decided instead to move to better firing position on the other side of the river. The next morning, the leaders conducted a reconnaissance of the area they planned to move the battery and were “shocked” to find engineers mining the bridge to the town. The leaders’ reconnaissance element returned to the battery and moved it across the bridge before it was blown.  Had they obeyed orders they would have been trapped on the far side and the guns would have had to be abandoned.[xviii]

At this point, Gresham shifted into a new role within the battery. After receiving additional training, he became a sanitario or medic, serving with the battery until August 1938. Gresham reported that he served in the front lines for a total of 183 days between the Teruel and Levante fronts. It may be inferred that he evacuated early due to his health, as he indicated that he spent 20 days in various hospitals, but it is unclear at what point in his service these hospitalizations occurred.[xix] Most international volunteers were withdrawn from the Republican Army in September. Those cut off in the central zone had to wait a few weeks longer to turn over their weapons to Spanish troops and await transportation to be organized.

Gresham spent this period in Villanueva de la Serrera in Extremadura. While there he filled out several forms that are preserved in the International Brigades archives. On December 7, 1938, for example, Gresham documented his service on a form that also asked for his impressions on several political topics. On the Spanish Popular Front, Gresham stated “it is the only barrier between Democracy and Fascist aggression.” He was less complimentary regarding the International Brigades, especially the leadership. “[T]hey had the advantage of high morale,” he noted, “and the disadvantage of insufficient training particularly among officers.” On the role the brigades played in Spain, Gresham said the International Brigades were “an example of working-class courage and international solidarity.”[xx]

The Communist Party in Spain assessed all the returning volunteers with regard to their service in Spain and future service in the United States. Jack Waters, Martin Kuusisto, and Sam Slipyan wrote and signed Gresham’s assessment, which was overall favorable. As a party member in Spain, Gresham was considered as “disciplined but without initiative.” His personal conduct was described as “very reserved (intellectual).”[xxi]

The men who were cut off in Southern Spain were eventually moved by coastal freighter to Barcelona. Most American volunteers were already home by the time Gresham and his fellow volunteers from the 35th Battery were processed for repatriation. Gresham returned to the US aboard the President Harding on February 4, 1938.

The dust jacket to Nightmare Alley tells us that, after returning from Spain, Gresham suffered from malnutrition and, while recuperating, began studying psychiatry. “He made friends with bookmakers, bums, ‘ladies,’ and listened to the rhythms of New York’s folk-speech as heard along the Hardened Artery,” the jacket text continues. “Friends claim they used to catch him strolling down Broadway on a summer evening magnificently clad in shirt, slacks and bedroom slippers.”

Shortly after his return, Gresham’s first marriage dissolved.  He spiraled into despair, and attempted suicide by hanging. After he lost consciousness—still according to the dustjacket text—the closet hook “came loose and he fell to the ground.” Gresham entered psychoanalysis and found work “as a salesman, magician, copywriter, and magazine editor.” He slowly built a career, regularly publishing articles and stories in a variety of magazines. In 1942, Gresham married poet Helen Joy Davidman, with whom he had two sons.[xxii]

Nightmare Alley was published in 1946 and sold well. It was Gresham’s literary triumph. Hollywood provided greater financial success when the book was adapted for the big screen a year later, directed by Edmund Goulding and starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray, and Helen Walker. Gresham went on to write additional fiction and non-fiction books, but none were as successful as his debut novel.

Gresham and his wife purchased a large estate from the novel’s proceeds. Their marriage, already rocky, was further strained by Gresham’s bouts of drinking and serial infidelity. In 1949, Gresham left the Communist Party. His second novel, Limbo Tower, published the same year, fell flat. Gresham’s promising literary career began to peter out. In 1952, his wife became ill and went to England to rest. Her cousin Renee Rodriguez Pierce, who had two children and was fleeing from an abusive husband, moved into the Gresham’s home to care for the children. While his wife was away Gresham had an affair with Renee. Divorce followed on the heels of Helen’s return from England. As Helen and her sons moved to England, Gresham relocated to Florida and married Renee shortly after his divorce was final in 1954. In Florida, Paul Duncan writes, Gresham “joined Alcoholics Anonymous and seemed to find some sort of peace.”[xxiii]

Less than a decade later, Gresham contracted cancer of the tongue. Seeking to spare his family the expense of the disease—and himself the pain—he resolved to die by suicide.  “On September 14 1962,” Duncan writes, “he checked into the run-down Dixie Hotel room, registering as ‘Asa Kimball, of Baltimore,’ and took his own life.” Gresham was 53 years old. “”I sometimes think that if I have any real talent, it is not literary but is a sheer talent for survival,” he had once told a fellow veteran. “I have survived three busted marriages, losing my boys, war, tuberculosis, Marxism, alcoholism, neurosis and years of freelance writing. Just too mean and ornery to kill, I guess.”[xxiv]

Chris Brooks, a member of ALBA’s Board of Governors, maintains ALBA’s online database of Lincoln Brigade volunteers. 

 

NOTES

[i] William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley, with an introduction by Nick Tosches, (New York: New York Review Books, 2010), Introduction.

 

[ii] Biographical Statement, William Lindsay Gresham Papers, Marion E. Wade Center, Archives of Wheaton College, Wheaton College, Wheaton, Illinois. Gresham, William Lindsay | Archives of Wheaton College

[iii] Russian State Archive of Socio-Political History Records of the International Brigades, Comintern Archives, Moscow (hereafter RGASPI), Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 902, ll. 92-93, Partido Comunista de Espana, Balmes, 205 – Telefono 80093, Barcelona, Biografia de Militantes, October 11, 1938. Gresham’s parents were Henry H. Gresham and Aline Lindsay, he also had a younger brother named Henry. CMTC offered an alternate route to an Army commission. Participants in the program trained for a month each summer for three years. Those who completed all three years could apply for a reserve commission. Approximately “370,000” American youths participated in CMTC though few actually completed the three-year requirement.

 

[iv] Biographical Statement, William Lindsay Gresham Papers, Archives of Wheaton College.

[v] Dust cover from Nightmare Alley 1948 edition.

[vi] Biografia de Militantes, ll. 92.

[vii] Ancestry.com, L-W Tree, Gresham, William Lindsay.

[viii] Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States, Hearings Before the Subcommittee to Investigate the Administration of the Internal Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws of the Committee on the Judiciary United States Senate, Eighty-Fifth Congress, First Session on Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States, February 20, 1957, Appendix I, Part 23-A, Printed for the use of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Government Printing Office, Washington, 1957.; Sailing information is from the Sail List. The Sail List appears to have been compiled from State Department lists. Copies of the lists were maintained in the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade office. One list is organized by date and ship and the second is organized alphabetically. They are nearly but not exactly identical. The documents include data on volunteers sailing from the United States beginning December 26, 1936 and running into early 1938.  The list includes the volunteer’s name, vessel and date of sailing.

[ix] I have not been able to identify the volunteer.

[x] RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 35, ll. 167, Voluntarios Llegados Hoy Noviembre 3, 1937.;

[xi] Almansa is about 74km south east of Albaceate, and served as the training base for the International Artillery.

[xii] RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 869; Letter from Budish to Bill Lawrence, July 18, 1937, RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 869, requesting transfer from JB; Letter from Timpson to John Gates, John Brown Visit, Jack Waters noted that Budish was not being properly utilized.

 

[xiii] Vince Lossowski, “A Letter to Nathan Budish,” The Volunteer, Volume 4, No. 3, November 1982. https://albavolunteer.org/2015/08/blast-from-the-past-a-letter-to-nathan-budish/

[xiv] Lossowski, “Letter to Nathan Budish.” Lossowski noted:

Very frequently it didn’t work; the ramp was missed, or it got stuck in the mud, or the piece actually fell over. It took a lot of manpower, and there were no forklifts around to right the gun and start all over again.

The guns also required experienced gunners and a degree of luck to correctly lay the guns on targets. Kaufman recalled a fire mission targeting a bridge on the Teruel Front. He remembered hearing Budish on the field phone from the forward battery observation post. Budish observed the fall of the rounds and corrected the shots onto the target with only three rounds. “Over, under and then on target smack in the center of the bridge.”

[xv] Lossowski, “Letter to Nathan Budish.”

[xvi] Ben Iceland “Last Months in Spain,“ The Volunteer, Volume 12, No. 1, May 1990. https://albavolunteer.org/2015/09/blast-from-the-past-last-months-in-spain/; and Lossowski, “Letter to Nathan Budish.”

[xvii] Iceland, “Last Months in Spain.” Spike was likely Joseph Daniel Halliday.

[xviii] Lossowski, “Letter to Nathan Budish.”

[xix] RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 902, ll. 94.

[xx] RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 902, ll. 94-96, Comisariado de Guerra de las Brigadas Internacionales Pasaje Méndez Vido, 5 Barcelona, December 7, 1938.

[xxi] RGASPI Fond 545, Opis 6, Delo 902, ll. 97, Partido Comunista de Espana Cimite Central, Calle Balmes, 205 Barcelona, December 12, 1938.

[xxii] Paul Duncan, “William Lindsay Gresham: Nothing Matters In This Goddamned Lunatic Asylum of a World But Dough,” originally published in Noir Fiction: Dark Highways, https://www.miskatonic.org/rara-avis/archives/200007/0019.html

 

[xxiii] Duncan, “William Lindsay Gresham.”

 

[xxiv] Duncan, “William Lindsay Gresham.”

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2 Responses to “ The Road to Nightmare Alley: William Lindsay Gresham in the Spanish Civil War ”

  1. diego on April 12, 2022 at 12:20 am

    Excellent article focusing on Gresham’s time with the ALB, as well as the additional research from other sources. I have show this to other Gresham devotees who have been very impressed with it.

  2. Diego on April 12, 2022 at 4:11 pm

    Excellent article and research about Gresham’s time with the ALB and beyond. Very impressed also with the research done with outside sources as well.

    I have shared this article to the William Lindsay Gresham FB page.

    Thanks!

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