February 22, 1925– Edward St. John Gorey
Yesterday morning I awoke early and started my usual day: stretching, a look at the news, and I began to formulate a #BornThisDay post for my own little place on the Internet. I ran into The Husband, who had found his way out of our bed, as I started gathering items from our sizable collection of Edward Gorey materials, including one of this year’s Saint Valentine’s Day gifts from him. The Husband said: “Hmmm… it must be Mr. Gorey’s birthday today!”
As an artist and author, he is the master of the comic macabre. The Harvard educated mostly self-taught Gorey had a unique imagination and he exercised it in his works. He has delighted me for nearly my entire life. Indeed, The Husband and I discovered we were both big fans of Gorey’s work at the very start of our relationship 37 years ago.
Gorey was a curious, reclusive man with an inordinate interest in the drama of other people’s lives, and a penchant for the grim reality of true crime. He produced nearly 100 books over a 50 year career, featuring his unique shadowy, black and white pen and ink drawings, along with spare, sly, satirical plots.
To this day, I remain enthralled and enchanted by his skilled drawings and his poisonous, poetic stories of cursed children, fainting femmes, shadowy specters, threatening topiary and eccentric events in eerie Victorian gardens, woods and mansions, works that are witty, woeful, devious and delirious to the point of obsession.
Gorey is one of the most aptly named notables in American art and literature. With his large body of small works, he has made an indelible imprint on my outlook and sense of humor.
Gorey was also a designer of theater productions, including revues based on his own stories and a Broadway production of Dracula starring a young, very sexy Frank Langella, for which he did sets, costumes and lighting. It was a Broadway hit and I saw it twice in 1977. I was enthralled by the look of the show and the leading man.
On occasion, I spotted Gorey walking around Manhattan in the mid-1970s. He looked like one of his own creations. In fact, his image lurks on the fringe of some of his drawings: towering, with a wild white beard and hair, with a ring in each ear and on most of his fingers. When he lived in NYC he went about town a raccoon coat.
Gorey was noted for being genial and gentle. He spoke in antiquated terms, using words like “jeepers”, “swell”, and “zingy.” He was known for his sweetness, good nature and fine spirit.
Gorey was passionate about Ballet. For years he attended all the performances of works by George Balanchine at The NYC Ballet. He invented stories about ballets and operas, and then he designed sets, costumes and drop curtains for them. He lived for a long time in a cluttered apartment on the Upper West Side, and then, after the ballet season was completed, he would retreat to his home on Cape Cod. After Balanchine’s passing in 1983, Gorey decided to leave NYC permanently.
In 1986, Gorey moved into a 200 year old house on Cape Cod that was said to have been supremely haunted. In 1994, he told an interviewer of the strange disappearance of all the finials from his lamps along with his collection of tiny teddy bears.
The Husband & I have a much loved copy of Elephant House: Or The Home Of Edward Gorey with photographs by Kevin McDermott and text by John Updike, an engaging, engrossing picture book of Gorey’s Cape Cod home. The house is a much larger version of my own place. Elephant House was filled with esoteric objects like a toilet with a tabletop. He displayed none of his own art work. But, there was a definitive Gorey touch: poison ivy creeping inside through cracks in a living room wall.
Like me, Gorey packed his home with stacks of books, but he also watched soap operas on television and rented horror movies from the nearby video store. He shared his life with a plethora of pussies. His many cats had the run of the house and furniture. If a stray showed up at his door, he would immediately welcome it in. Plus, there were the cats he drew for an early 1980s edition of T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats. After his death a friend moved into the house to take care of the many cats. Gorey liked to tell of the time that the cats were on a couch and suddenly:
“Everyone turned with eyes wide, as if someone, or something, unseen had entered the room.”
Looking at his work today as I prepared this post, I reread The Gashleycrumb Tinies, a deliciously morbid, alphabetical catalog of 26 children’s deaths. It begins with “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs” and ends with “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin”. Not just his art, my admiration extends to his poetry and prose.
My first Gorey book was a gift from my parents for my fifth birthday in 1959, The Doubtful Guests. This small tome tells of a strange, hook-nosed creature, wearing a long scarf and tennis shoes, who shows up uninvited at a dreary mansion and soon becomes a permanent member of the family, peering up flues in the fireplace, tearing up books and sleepwalking through the house, and after 17 years he showed no intention of going away. I still have my original copy.
Once when he was asked why he wrote so much about murder and other forms of violence, Gorey answered:
“Well, I don’t know. I guess I’m interested in real life.”
There are a great many Gorey books available; all his works are still in print. If you wish to know Gorey, start with Amphigorey (1972), and its two sequels, Amphigorey Too (1977), and Amphigorey Also (1981).
Although Gorey’s books may seem aimed at children, they are actually very adult, and Gorey did not associate with children and had no particular fondness for them.
Gorey’s roommate at Harvard was the openly gay poet Frank O’Hara. But Gorey was very discreet about his own sex life. He stated:
“I’m neither one thing nor the other particularly. I am fortunate in that I am apparently reasonably undersexed or something. I’ve never said that I was gay and I’ve never said that I wasn’t. What I’m trying to say is that I am a person before I am anything else.”
Famous around the globe, he only left the USA once, for a trip the bleak Scottish Hebrides Islands.
In 1994, at 69 years old, soon after he was told he had cancer, Gorey stated:
“I thought, ‘Oh gee, why haven’t I burst into total screaming hysterics? I’m the opposite of hypochondriacally. I’m not entirely enamored of the idea of living forever.”
I grabbed hold of that attitude when I received my own cancer diagnosis, a situation that I found as a font for gallows humor and acceptance of the inevitable.
Gorey left this world in the spring of 2000. He must have felt bad for wearing dead raccoons; he gave his entire estate to animal charities.