William Lindsay Gresham was famous in the circus and carnival circuit during the late 1940s through the 1950s up until he died of apparent suicide, something probably not hard to accomplish with over the counter sleeping tablets of the day combined with alcohol. After losing his wife to author C.S Lewis and then being diagnosed with tongue cancer he checked in one last time in his favorite hotel before checking out for good. The business card that was found in his breast pocket read “YOU WOULD RATHER DIE THAN FACE TRUTH - No Address. No Phone. No Business. No Money. Retired”
To the carnival world he was a folk hero. Here was a man who wrote stories of amazement at the acts and personalities he observed that went on to becoming regarded as one of the all time greats of the “film noir” genre in his seminal book “Nightmare Alley.” The adulation he received, and all of the free liquor from the assorted boozers he met along the way, led to Gresham's becoming an alcoholic.
By the time Anton began working in the “mitcamp” as a “roustabout” or “cage-boy” cleaning up bear and big cat poop, he was well aware of who ”The Great” William Gresham was. Of course he had seen the movie “Nightmare Alley” and was a big fan. Anton felt “connected” to the character “The Great Stanton,” Stanton being Anton’s middle given name. It wasn’t long after meeting Gresham in person that Anton developed “The Great Szandor” act playing calliope and “working the crowd” as he fondly recalls in this late-in-life clip from the making of “Speak of the Devil: The Canon of Anton LaVey”
How direct of an influence Gresham was on Anton’s decision to rename himself – he never said. What is certain is that Anton was Howard Stanton “Tony” Lavey, and at about age 21 changed his name when he began playing organ for some bars and clubs in the SF bay area, when he began going by Anton Szandor LaVey.
By the time of Gresham’s death Anton was already a local celebrity and had put the world of the carnival mostly behind him. Although his cage-boy days of cleaning up lion poop weren’t over yet; in 1965 Anton and then wife Diane received a lion cub as a gift from a friend who Anton knew from his old circus days. He had a couple more good years of cage cleaning ahead of him, and the formulating of a new philosophy, “Satanism.”