Legends & Legacies View More

Edward Gorey, Comedian of the Macabre

Published: 4/10/2010

Edward Gorey (Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Stephen Rose)

Edward Gorey (Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Stephen Rose)

"Somebody once said that it doesn't much matter whether you're conquering an empire or playing dominoes," Edward Gorey told an interviewer shortly before his death April 15, 2000. "It's just another way of passing time."

If you're thinking of using the quote to justify your own indolence, consider: Gorey passed his time by writing and illustrating more than 100 books. He illustrated at least another 50 works by other authors, including Samuel Beckett, H.G. Wells, Charles Dickens, Raymond Chandler and John Updike. His output was so prolific he often used pseudonyms like Ogred Weary and E.G. Deadworry. He even found time to write film reviews for the Soho Weekly under the name Wardore Edgy, win a Tony award for costume design for a Broadway production of Dracula, and pen the libretto for an opera to be performed by hand puppets.

He did not, it would seem, spend much time playing dominoes.

Edward Gorey (AP Photo)Gorey was born in Chicago Feb. 22, 1925, son of a sometimes Hearst newspaperman who divorced Gorey's mother when Edward was 11 only to remarry her 16 years later. He taught himself to read before he was 3-and-1/2-years-old and began drawing at early age. His maternal grandmother had been a popular 19th century greeting card artist, but Gorey claimed he showed no early artistic talent. He characterized his childhood as more or less normal. "I think of myself as being sensitive and pale and wan. But I wasn't at all," he once told a journalist. "I was out there playing kick-the-can."

His only formal artistic training consisted of a few classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a stint in the Army he attended Harvard University on the G.I. Bill, where he roomed with Frank O'Hara, who would go on to become one of the best-known poets in America. Modeling themselves on Oscar Wilde, they delighted in playing eccentric dandies, listening to old Marlene Dietrich records, painting all the furniture in their room white, and using a tombstone stolen from a local cemetery as a dining table.

After getting a degree in French, Gorey moved to New York and landed a job illustrating book jackets for Doubleday Anchor, a new imprint with the then experimental idea of marketing "serious" literature in paperback editions. His cover work incorporating a simple, muted palette, hand-drawn lettering, and often his austere, cross-hatched pen and ink drawings, would do much to give Anchor an identity in the marketplace. In 1953 he published his first book, The Unstrung Harp, the story of a novelist named C.F. Earbrass struggling with his latest work. He would continue publishing an average of one to two new books a year for the next 45 years.

One of the best-loved remains 1963's The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an abcedarian book using rhyming dactylic couplets to chronicle the horrible deaths of twenty-six children ("A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil, assaulted by bears..."). Featuring his stylistic hallmark of bleak, ominous landscapes and characters in Edwardian and Victorian dress, it embodies his lifelong preoccupation with macabre and the whimsical, emerging as a work at once morbid, nostalgic and inventive.

"The Gashlycrumb Tinies" by Edward Gorey

It was a mix the publishing industry didn't know quite what to do with. Were Gorey's books meant for children? Surely some parents would be squeamish about reading it to their kids lest it induce nightmares of being smothered by rugs, trapped in ice or slipping down the drain. Was it then a morose, meant-for-adults parody of sunny, didactic children's literature? And just how do you market that sort of book?

The big publishers often had no answer and Gorey resorted to releasing many of his works through his own Fantod Press. Credit for spreading the word is often given to Manhattan's influential Gotham Book Mart, which become a virtual repository for all things Gorey. In 1959 he also received his first serious critical appreciation in an essay Edmund Wilson wrote for The New Yorker. "He has been working perversely to please himself and has created a whole personal world," Wilson wrote of the virtually unknown artist, "amusing and somber, nostalgic and claustrophobic, at same time poetic and poisoned."

Like children's author Shel Silverstein, Gorey did write some works aimed exclusively at adults, including The Recently Deflowered Girl: The Right Thing to Say on Every Dubious Occasion (authored ostensibly by Ms. Hyacinthe Phypps, whose "simple rules of propriety and common sense have helped a generation of girls over the threshold to womanhood") and The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work, in which all the naughty stuff happens off the page and is only coyly alluded to with lines like "Still later Gerald did terrible things to Elsie with a saucepan."

An avowed eccentric who lived alone with six cats in his Cape Cod home, Gorey never married, had no known long-term romantic relationships and was publicly indifferent about matters related to his own sexuality. "I'm neither one thing nor the other particularly," he said. "I am fortunate in that I am reasonably undersexed or something." Despite his lack of companionship, he was hardly a recluse – he ate breakfast at the same restaurant every morning, was a mainstay at the local movie theatre, and for 35 years attended every performances of the New York City Ballet.

His profile was raised with his Broadway work on Dracula (a book he'd first read at age 5) but many people still got their first introduction to Gorey for animated intro to the PBS popular series Mystery! in 1980.

In the later years of his career, anthologies republishing his Fantod Press works began to sell and he found another avenue of income from merchandizing his characters on calendars, posters and apparel. His work has been embraced in particular by the Goth subculture, where partygoers at annual costume balls dress as Miss Skrimpshaw, the young Drusilla, Millicent Frastley or Luke Touchpaper.

Shortly before died of a heart attack in 2000, Gorey reflected upon his legacy. "My name turns up in a review of a book or something where they say it's very 'Edward Goreyish' or something like that. That happens often enough, so I feel I've made a tiny mark somewhere."

Ten years after his death, his work continues to inspire a range of artists, from Lemony Snickett creator Daniel Handler (whose first book purchased with his own money was Gorey's The Blue Aspic), to the Tiger Lillies, who were nominated for a Grammy for their 2003 album The Gorey End. Filmmaker Tim Burton owes much of his aesthetic to Gorey's vision, and in 2007 the Jim Henson Company announced its hopes to make a feature film based on Gorey's work. With America's unending fascination with all things vampire, there are also plans to revive the 1977 Dracula production using Gorey's award-winning costume and set designs.

"My mission in life," Gorey once said, "is to make everyone as uneasy as possible." His life may be over, but he'll continue accomplishing his mission for as long as readers dare to enter his delightfully sinister world.

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