The Harvard University educated, mostly self-taught Edward Gorey (1925-2000) had a unique imagination and he put it to use it in his work. He has delighted me for nearly my entire life. He 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 a curious 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 over 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 was also a designer of theatre 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 by 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 New York City he went about town in 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 New York City 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 New York City 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.
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.”
Thinking of him this morning, 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 Guest. 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 you might consider Gorey’s books to be kid’s stuff, he 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 to visit 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. He would have been celebrating his 98th birthday with his cats today, but I feel certain that he’s fine with being dead.