Friday, November 5, 2021

Bill Gresham's first wife

Some of us in the Mythopoeic Society e-mail discussion list have gotten caught up in an unanswered historical trivia question: What was the name of Bill Gresham's first wife?

I need to explain. C.S. Lewis, one of our central interests, married Joy Davidman Gresham in 1956. She was a divorcee from America. Her first husband was William Lindsay Gresham, best known as the author of a sinister carnival novel called Nightmare Alley, which is about to be made into a movie (having already been made into one in 1947 with Tyrone Power). His place in Lewis's life starts with his and Joy's joint conversion to Christianity under the tutelage of Lewis's books, followed by his correspondence with Joy, and then with Lewis himself after Joy died in 1960, mostly over the care of the two sons Joy and Bill had had, who'd been left in Lewis's custody.

However, there's also this wheeze involved. Much to Lewis's distress, the Church of England refused to give him and Joy a church wedding, because Joy was divorced and the Church did not recognize divorces. (I don't grasp how the Church arrived at this position after having been founded by Henry VIII, but I'm sure someone will tell me.) But, Lewis pointed out: Joy's previous husband had already been divorced before he married her. So by the Church's rules, Joy and Bill's marriage was also illegitimate and thus by their reasoning she had never been married at all. Therefore she was an unmarried woman and free to be wedded in the Church to an unmarried man. But the Church didn't buy that argument. (However, a sympathetic Anglican priest conducted a second wedding anyway.)

So who was Bill Gresham's first wife? Biographies of Joy and of CSL that we've consulted don't say much about her. She was "a New York woman." They married in 1935, and divorced in 1942 so that Bill could marry Joy. During that period Bill was a professional folksinger, a Communist, and a fighter in Spain, on the Republican side of course. Nothing we've found so far gives her name. Odd.


  1. Alan M. Wald, in Exiles from a Future Time (2002), gives her name as "Jean Karsavina (1908-1989)"(p. 245) but I've also seen it said that this is incorrect. I was expecting/hoping it would all be cleared up with Nick Tosches planned biography of Gresham, but he died in October 2019, evidently without much actually written.

  2. Checking my fallible memory, I looked at the Intro to Grindshow: The Selected Writings of William Lindsay Gresham (2013), I see that Bret Wood identifies her as a "wealthy New Yorker" named Beatrice McCall, He doesn't say anything further about McCall, but gives his source as a letter to him from Renee Rodriguez Gresham, 30 September 2002.

  3. Abigail Santamaria in "Joy: Poet, Seeker, and the Woman Who Captivated C. S. Lewis" writes:

    "Bill had for some time been separated from his wife, Beatrice McCollum, whom he had married in 1933, although a legal divorce had never been finalized. After his return from Spain, he lived for a period with his girlfriend, the fiction writer Jean Karsavina, also a league member, at 27 Jane Street in Greenwich Village." (p. 125)

    "Bill's wife, Beatrice, initiated divorce proceedings in early 1942, accusing him of committing adultery with an unnamed woman, presumably Jean Karsavina, at 27 Jane Street in Manhattan. The divorce still wasn't final in June 1942 [...]" (p. 129)

    I don't know what Santamaria's sources are, but I guess she can be consulted.