February 21, 1994 12:00 PM

AS HE SAUNTERS INTO BEVERLY HILLS’S Peninsula Hotel in his captain’s hat and knee-high work boots, Douglas Gresham looks more like an ancient mariner than a Hollywood player. But despite his humble appearance, Gresham minces no words when the conversation turns to Topic A: the proposed film adaptation of his stepfather C.S. Lewis’s classic children’s story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “Any movie made,” he declares in a rich Oxonian accent, “must be a classic in its own medium.”

Gresham, 48, isn’t just spouting puffery. As executor of Lewis’s literary estate, Gresham’s approval was needed for Shadowlands, the Oscar-nominated hit based on Lewis’s marriage to Gresham’s mother, Joy (the film was nominated for Best-Adapted Screenplay, by William Nicholson, and for Best Actress, Debra Winger). The movie is about an unlikely couple: a cloistered Oxford professor and author (played by Anthony Hopkins) and a Bronx-bred Jewish Communist turned Christian poet. He fails in love with her late in life, then soon loses her to cancer. Gresham, an ardent Christian like his stepfather, says, “Everybody needs [the film’s] message: There is hope at the end of despair.”

In real life, the drama began in 1953 when Joy divorced novelist William Gresham (who died in 1961) and left Staatsburg, N.Y., with her two young sons for England, where she had befriended Lewis the year before. (Her older son, David, 50, who today lives in India, was written out of Shadow-Lands for what Gresham calls dramatic reasons.) When Douglas, a fan of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (of which Lion was the first volume of seven), met the author, he says, “I expected, in my 8-year-old naïveté, to find a princely character. Instead there was this elderly, balding professor.”

While not a dashing prince, Lewis, known to friends as Jack, was heroically devoted to Joy. Though they were only friends at the time, he married her in 1956 in a civil ceremony after the British government refused to renew her visa. But when Joy was found to have terminal cancer that same year, the couple proclaimed their love, and an Anglican priest presided over bittersweet nuptials at Joy’s hospital bedside. Shortly afterward, Joy miraculously went into remission. “It must have come as a shock for Jack to realize that what the love poets sang about was true,” says Gresham. “The two of them had the happiest years of their lives.”

But Gresham was miserable. At Dane Court School in Surrey, he endured homesickness and classmates’ taunts about his American accent. Then in 1960, after he transferred to a new school, his mother died. He remembers coming home to find Lewis looking 20 years older. “I burst into tears, and so did he,” says Gresham. “There were no words of commiseration, it was just agony shared.”

For a brief period, their bereavement brought them closer. But in 1963 Jack died at 64 of heart failure. “In a sense,” says Gresham, “Jack’s life after Mother’s death was merely an exercise in patience and obedience to the Lord’s will.”

At 18, Gresham was on his own. He entered agricultural college in England but soon dropped out and married Meredith “Merrie” Conan-Davies, now 51, his wife of 27 years. Although Jack and Joy were committed Christians, it wasn’t until three years ago that Gresham “submitted to Christ.” He now devotes time to such organizations as the Redlands, Calif.-based C.S. Lewis Foundation, which promotes Christian scholarship internationally.

Today, Douglas and Merrie live in a 12-bedroom mansion in County Car-low, Ireland, with two of their five children—Lucinda, 17, and Melody, 9, an adopted daughter from Korea. James, 26, is at LeTourneau University in Longview, Texas; Timothy, 23, works for a pharmaceutical company in Australia; and Dominick, 22, is at the University of Tasmania. While royalties from his stepfather’s estate have given Gresham a comfortable life, he insists his primary concern is not profits but protecting Lewis’s legacy. In fact, he expects to help pen the screenplay for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “After all,” he says, “I probably know Narnia better than anyone alive.”


NANCY MATSUMOTO in Beverly Hills

You May Like