That’s right, this month the fantastic Edward Gorey, is my icon of the month.
Edward St. John Gorey was born on February 22, 1925 in Chicago USA. His parents, Helen Dunham and Edward Lee Gorey, divorced in 1936 when he was 11, then remarried in 1952 when he was 27. One of his stepmothers was Corinna Mura (1909–1965), a cabaret singer who had a small role in the classic film “Casablanca” as the woman playing the guitar while singing “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s Café Américain. His father was briefly a journalist. Gorey’s maternal great-grandmother, Helen St. John Garvey, was a popular nineteenth-century greeting card writer and artist, from whom he claimed to have inherited his talents.
At the age of one-and-a-half, Gorey produced his first drawings, which featured passing trains, though Gorey later declared, “they showed no talent whatsoever. They looked like irregular sausages.” Two years later, by age three-and-a-half, Gorey had taught himself to read and by age 5, he had read “Dracula” and “Alice in Wonderland.” At age 7, he read “Frankenstein” from cover to cover; years later, he remarked that he had been bored by much of the novel, but “it hadn’t occurred to me that I could skip anything.” One year later, at age 8, he read the works of Victor Hugo.
Gorey attended a variety of local grade schools (Gorey and Charlton Heston graduated the Stolp School together in 1937, in Wilmette, Illinois) and then the Francis W. Parker School where Gorey discovered his passion for art. He spent 1944 to 1946 in the Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, the young soldier didn’t see any action during World War II, spending much of his time as a clerk at Utah’s Dugway Proving Ground. He then attended Harvard University, beginning in 1946 and graduating in the class of 1950; he studied French and roomed with poet Frank O’Hara. In 1950, he completed his studies at Harvard, earning his bachelor’s degree in French literature.
In the early 1950s, Gorey, with a group of recent Harvard alumni including Alison Lurie (1947), John Ashbery (1949), Donald Hall (1951) and Frank O’Hara, amongst others, founded the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, which was supported by Harvard faculty members John Ciardi and Thornton Wilder. He frequently stated that his formal art training was “negligible”; Gorey studied art for one semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943.
From 1953 to 1960, he lived in New York City and worked for the Art Department of Doubleday Anchor, illustrating book covers and in some cases, adding illustrations to the text. He illustrated works as diverse as “Dracula” by Bram Stoker, “The War of the Worlds” by H. G. Wells, and “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot. In later years he produced cover illustrations and interior artwork for many children’s books by John Bellairs, as well as books begun by Bellairs and continued by Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death.
His first independent work, “The Unstrung Harp”, was published in 1953. He also published under pen names that were anagrams of his first and last names, such as Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, Ms. Regera Dowdy, and dozens more. His books also feature the names Eduard Blutig (“Edward Gory”), a German language pun on his own name, and O. Müde (German for O. Weary).
By the early 1960s, Gorey had developed a reputation for his dark but humorous style. His drawings, usually of ghoulish, beady-eyed characters, often depicted macabre situations or settings, but with comic undertones. The New York Times credits bookstore owner Andreas Brown and his store, the Gotham Book Mart, with launching Gorey’s career:
“It became the central clearing house for Mr. Gorey, presenting exhibitions of his work in the store’s gallery and eventually turning him into an international celebrity.”
Gorey’s illustrated (and sometimes wordless) books, with their vaguely ominous air and ostensibly Victorian and Edwardian settings, have long had a cult following. He made a notable impact of the world of theater with his designs for the 1977 Broadway revival of “Dracula”, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design. In 1980, Gorey became particularly well-known for his animated introduction to the PBS series “Mystery!” In the introduction of each “Mystery!” episode, host Vincent Price would welcome viewers to “Gorey Mansion”.
Because of the settings and style of Gorey’s work, many people have assumed he was British; in fact, he only left the U.S. once, for a visit to the Scottish Hebrides. In later years, he lived year-round in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, where he wrote and directed numerous evening-length entertainments, often featuring his own papier-mâché puppets, an ensemble known as Le Theatricule Stoique.
The first of these productions, “Lost Shoelaces”, premiered in Woods Hole, Massachusetts on August 13, 1987. The last was “The White Canoe: an Opera Seria for Hand Puppets”, for which Gorey wrote the libretto, with a score by the composer Daniel James Wolf. Based on Thomas Moore’s poem “The Lake of the Dismal Swamp”, the opera was staged after Gorey’s death and directed by his friend, neighbour, and longtime collaborator Carol Verburg, with a puppet stage made by his friends and neighbours, the noted set designers Herbert Senn and Helen Pond. In the early 1970s, Gorey wrote an unproduced screenplay for a silent film, “The Black Doll”.
Gorey was noted for his fondness for ballet (for many years, he religiously attended all performances of the New York City Ballet), fur coats, tennis shoes, and cats, of which he had many. All figure prominently in his work. His knowledge of literature and films was unusually extensive, and in his interviews, he named Jane Austen, Agatha Christie, Francis Bacon, George Balanchine, Balthus, Louis Feuillade, Ronald Firbank, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, Robert Musil, Yasujirō Ozu, Anthony Trollope and Johannes Vermeer as some of his favorite artists.
Gorey was also an unashamed pop-culture junkie, avidly following soap operas and television comedies such as “Petticoat Junction” and “Cheers”, and he had particular affection for dark genre series such as “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, “Batman: The Animated Series” and “The X-Files”; he once told an interviewer that he so enjoyed the “Batman” series that it was influencing the visual style of one of his upcoming books. Gorey treated television commercials as an art form in themselves, even taping his favorites for later study. Gorey was especially fond of movies, and for a time he wrote regular reviews for the Soho Weekly under the pseudonym Wardore Edgy
Gorey spent the later part of his life living and working on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, His house contained over 25,000 books, over 700 videos and generally six cats (“Seven cats is too many cats”). There he continued to create such unusual works as “The Haunted Tea-Cosy” (1998). Gorey also became involved in the local theater scene and collaborated with the Provincetown Theater Company on several productions in the late 1980s.
In 1994, Gorey was told he had both prostate cancer and diabetes. Upon receiving the diagnosis, he questioned, “Why haven’t I burst into total screaming hysterics?” He answered himself, remarking, “I’m the opposite of hypochondriacal. I’m not entirely enamored of the idea of living forever.” Six years later, he passed away of a heart attack on April 15, 2000, at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Massachusetts. At the time of his death, Gorey had published more than 100 independent works and illustrated countless others.
After Gorey’s death, one of his executors, Andreas Brown, turned up a large cache of unpublished work, some completed, some incomplete. Brown described the find as “Ample material for many future books and for plays based on his work”. Although Gorey’s books were popular with children, he did not associate with children much and had no particular fondness for them. Gorey never married, professed to have little interest in romance, and never discussed any specific romantic relationships in interviews.
In the book “The Strange Case Of Edward Gorey”, published after Gorey’s death, his friend Alexander Theroux reported that when Gorey was pressed on the matter of his sexual orientation, he said that even he was not sure whether he was gay or straight. When asked what his sexual orientation was in an interview, he said:
“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…”
Edward Gorey agreed in an interview that the “sexlessness” of his works was a product of his asexuality.
From 1995 to his death in April 2000, the normally reclusive artist was the subject of a cinéma vérité-style documentary directed by Christopher Seufert. (As of 2021, the film has been screened as a work-in-progress; the finished film and accompanying book have yet to be released.) He was interviewed on “Tribute to Edward Gorey”, an hour-long community, public-access television cable show produced by artist and friend Joyce Kenney. He contributed his videos and personal thoughts.
Edward served as a judge at Yarmouth art shows and enjoyed activities at the local cable station, studying computer art and serving as cameraman on many Yarmouth shows. His Cape Cod house is called “Elephant House” and is the subject of a photography book entitled “Elephant House: Or, the Home of Edward Gorey”, with photographs and text by Kevin McDermott. The house is now the Edward Gorey House Museum. Gorey left the bulk of his estate to a charitable trust benefiting cats and dogs, as well as other species, including bats and insects.
Gorey is typically described as an illustrator. His books may be found in the humour and cartoon sections of major bookstores, but books such as “The Object Lesson” have earned serious critical respect as works of surrealist art. His experimentation – creating books that were wordless, books that were literally matchbox-sized, pop-up books, books entirely populated by inanimate objects – complicates matters still further. As Gorey told Richard Dyer of The Boston Globe:
“Ideally, if anything were any good, it would be indescribable.”
Gorey classified his own work as literary nonsense, the genre made most famous by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. In response to being called gothic, he stated:
“If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children – oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.”
Gorey has become an iconic figure in the goth subculture. Events themed on his works and decorated in his characteristic style are common in the more Victorian-styled elements of the subculture, notably the Edwardian costume balls held annually in San Francisco and Los Angeles, which include performances based on his works. The “Edwardian” in this case refers less to the Edwardian period of history rather than to Gorey, whose characters are depicted as wearing fashion styles ranging from those of the mid-nineteenth century to the 1930s.
Director Mark Romanek’s music video for the Nine Inch Nails song “The Perfect Drug” was designed specifically to resemble a Gorey book, with familiar Gorey elements including oversized urns, topiary plants and glum, pale characters in full Edwardian costume. Also, Caitlín R. Kiernan has published a short story entitled “A Story for Edward Gorey”, which features Gorey’s black doll. A more direct link to Gorey’s influence on the music world is evident in “The Gorey End”, an album recorded in 2003 by The Tiger Lillies and the Kronos Quartet. This album was a collaboration with Gorey, who liked previous work by The Tiger Lillies so much that he sent them a large box of his unpublished works, which were then adapted and turned into songs. Gorey died before hearing the finished album.
In 1976, jazz composer Michael Mantler recorded an album called “The Hapless Child” with Robert Wyatt, Terje Rypdal, Carla Bley, and Jack DeJohnette. It contains musical adaptations of “The Sinking Spell”, “The Object Lesson”, “The Insect God”, “The Doubtful Guest”, “The Remembered Visit”, and “The Hapless Child”. The last three songs also have been published on his 1987 Live album with Jack Bruce, Rick Fenn, and Nick Mason. The opening titles of the PBS series Mystery! are based on Gorey’s art, in an animated sequence co-directed by Derek Lamb. In the last few decades of his life, Gorey merchandise became quite popular, with stuffed dolls, cups, stickers, posters, and other items available at malls around the United States.
In 2007, the Jim Henson Company announced plans to produce a feature film based on “The Doubtful Guest” to be directed by Brad Peyton. No release date was given and there has been no further information since the announcement. The Creature Feature song “A Gorey Demise” was inspired by The Gashlycrumb Tinies. The online journal Goreyesque publishes artwork, stories, and poems in the spirit of Edward Gorey’s work. The journal is co-sponsored by the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago and Loyola University Chicago.
Goreyesque was launched in tandem with the Chicago debut of two Gorey collections: “Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey” and “G is for Gorey”. The collections were shown at the Loyola University Museum of Art (LUMA) in Chicago, Illinois from February 15 to June 15, 2014. Goreyesque features the work of both emerging talents and seasoned professionals, such as writers Sam Weller and Joe Meno. In 2016, a play loosely based on Gorey’s life called, “Gorey: The Secret Lives of Edward Gorey” premiered in New York City.
Although known for many years as a wearer of furs, Gorey stopped wearing them as his concern for animal welfare grew – to the point of allowing a family of raccoons that had taken up residence in his Yarmouth Port attic to remain. (He put his raccoon coats into storage). A devoted friend of animals during his lifetime, Gorey continues to support the organizations that champion animal welfare through the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust. Gorey’s work continues to delight and fascinate people around the world.
Gorey was very fond of word games, particularly anagrams. He wrote many of his books under pseudonyms that usually were anagrams of his own name (most famously Ogdred Weary). Some of them are listed below, with the corresponding book titles. Eduard Blutig is also a word game: “Blutig” is German (the language from which these two books purportedly were translated) for “bloody” or “gory”.
- Ogdred Weary – The Curious Sofa, The Beastly Baby
- Mrs. Regera Dowdy – The Pious Infant, The Izzard Book
- Eduard Blutig – The Evil Garden (translated from Der Böse Garten by Mrs. Regera Dowdy), The Tuning Fork (translated from Der Zeitirrthum by Mrs. Regera Dowdy)
- Raddory Gewe – The Eleventh Episode
- Dogear Wryde – The Broken Spoke/Cycling Cards
- E. G. Deadworry – The Awdrey-Gore Legacy and his grandson G.E. Deadworry
- D. Awdrey-Gore – The Toastrack Enigma, The Blancmange Tragedy, The Postcard Mystery, The Pincushion Affair, The Toothpaste Murder, The Dustwrapper Secret and The Teacosy Crime (Note: These books, although attributed to Awdrey-Gore in Gorey’s book The Awdrey-Gore Legacy, were not really written). She is a parody of Agatha Christie.
- Waredo Dyrge – The Awdrey-Gore Legacy parody of Hercule Poirot
- Edward Pig – The Untitled Book
- Wardore Edgy – SoHo Weekly News
- Madame Groeda Weyrd – The Fantod Pack
- Dewda Yorger – “The Deary Rewdgo Series for Intrepid Young Ladies (D.R. on the Great Divide, D.R. in the Yukon, D.R. at Baffin Bay, etc.)”
“I just kind of conjured them up out of my subconscious and put them in order of ascending peculiarity”. – Edward Gorey