Do you know Edward St. John Gorey? If you watch public television, we bet you do. Gorey (1925–2000) is perhaps best known today for the wittily strange pen and ink drawings that comprise the opening animated credits of the PBS television series Mystery! (now renamed Masterpiece Mystery). His sketches were created specifically for the series, then animated by Derek Lamb. In fact, although the producers waffled quite a bit and didn’t end up using most of his ideas, his illustrations as adapted by Lamb are the series’ trademark as much as the atmospheric Victorian-sounding lead-in music. Gorey even created a number of highly acclaimed, animated short stories for the series called Fantods, which were aired on Mystery! for a few seasons to fill the spare time at the ends of episodes. These were aired starting with the show’s third season.
But Gorey created ever so much more than that. With warped yet literate humor that rivaled that of Charles Addams (whom he knew and with whom he shared an agent), Gorey’s eerie yet genteel cartoon world, wherein even ghouls must be properly dressed for dinner, inspired a spate of other artists of the Edwardian-style grim and gory, among them film director Tim Burton and Daniel Handler, author of the Lemony Snicket stories. In fact, rumor had it that Addams himself was a bit envious because Gorey had a more high-brow standing (or perhaps just a more literate following) than Addams did. Gorey was certainly the master of the Victorian-Edwardian-eccentric visual style, with a wry, disturbing twist of humor (see the illustration below from The Doubtful Guest, wherein a buzzard is formally seated at the family dinner table, with disconcerting results).
How does a boy who shared a birthday with First President George Washington, grew up in a sunny enough place like Chicago, and attended Francis W. Parker School and, briefly, the School of the Art Institute become the cartoonist of the elegantly gruesome? By reading too many Gothic novels or Edgar Allen Poe stories before bedtime?? Gorey himself claimed he’d devoured Bram Stoker’s Dracula at age five, been scared out of his wits, and then decided to teach himself to draw (with an eye toward illustrating exactly such scary tales). Sounds like every boy’s dream, doesn’t it?
The fact that the only child of Helen Garvey Dunham and Edward Lee Gorey went to Francis Parker School is your first clue that he came from an artistic family (that’s a dead giveaway if you’re from Chicago, even way back during the 1930s). Gorey’s father was a newspaperman for the Hearst chain and a writer, and the boy’s maternal grandmother, Helen St. John Garvey, was a popular 19th-century greeting-card designer, writer and illustrator (Gorey claimed to have received his talent from her). He reportedly had an uneasy relationship with his doting mother. His parents divorced in 1936 when he was 11 and, oddly, remarried 16 years later in 1952 when he was 27. In between, one of his stepmothers was the actress Corinna Mura, who played the guitarist who sang “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s Café Américain in the classic film Casablanca. Okay, we admit some of that is strange, yet somehow, we don’t think any of those adults foresaw young Edward’s particular bent sense of humor, which he seems to have acquired early on.
As it happens, Gorey took a course or two at the Art Institute of Chicago while awaiting the draft during World War II. He left Chicago in 1943 and spent two years in the armed forces. The war, of course, would have exposed soldiers to more than enough gore and killing; after all, it scared the crap out of thousands of them who came home with “shell shock” (read: post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD) as well as millions of civilians who were trapped and terrorized by the war. But Gorey never made it to the front: he spent most of the war as a clerk at the mysterious, highly secretive Dugway Proving Ground in Utah, where the U.S. government’s experiments in poison gas and bacteriological warfare were conducted. Perhaps his gallows humor really began there, as a coping mechanism, as dark humor often does in stressful situations.
Whatever the reason, after the war Gorey enrolled at Harvard University, where he studied French literature (not art, surprisingly), graduating in 1950. During the early 1950s, Gorey founded the Poets’ Theatre in Cambridge, MA, together with a number of other Harvard grads who were poets and writers, including Alison Lurie, John Ashberry, Donald Hall, and Frank O’Hara, among others; they were supported in this by two Harvard faculty members, poet John Ciardi and playwright Thornton Wilder. Thereafter, Gorey moved to New York in 1953 and worked for eight years in the art department at the Doubleday Anchor publishing house. The illustrations that he did for other people’s books – such as his beloved Dracula, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats – have made those versions perennial bestsellers. Yet his passion for writing and illustrating his own very strange stories eventually led him in another direction, and spooky old New England beckoned him back.
At some point during those early days at Doubleday, Gorey came to see himself as both writer and illustrator and began creating his earliest works of grim humor. Andreas Brown, the owner of the aptly named Gotham Book Mart in New York, took a liking to Gorey’s books and began promoting them at his bookstore. Brown even staged exhibitions of Gorey’s work in the store’s gallery, eventually helping to turn him into an international celebrity, though Gorey himself always thought his popularity to be minor. Gorey’s career really took off when in 1959, Edmund Wilson wrote a glowing review for The New Yorker of Gorey’s early works, The Unstrung Harp (1953), The Listing Attic (1954), The Doubtful Guest (1957), and The Object Lesson (1958). Wilson praised Gorey’s work as both “poetic and poisoned” and compared him to Max Ernst and Ronald Searle. Then three years later in 1962, after he’d left Doubleday and New York, Gorey took what he’d learned about the publishing business and founded The Fantod Press to publish his works. By that time, he was again living in Massachusetts.
Gorey worked in a variety of different media and formats, never particularly minding which one was at hand. A prolific writer (though by no means as prolific as, say, Isaac Asimov, who had more than 300 titles by the time he died), Gorey wrote more than 100 books between 1953 and 1999. He also later moved to Cape Cod and a suitably atmospheric landscape, perhaps the better to polish his image as the creator of the darkly offbeat. The weirdness extended to his pen names, of which he had dozens that he created to amuse himself as much as anyone else. A number were anagrams of his own name, such as Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde and Ms. Regera Dowdy, while his books often featured witty names like Eduard Blutig (which means “Edward Gory” in German, a pun on his own name) and O. Müde (German for “O. Weary”). He even wrote movie reviews for a while for the Soho Weekly under the name Wardore Edgy (yet another anagram).
Gorey has been gone for 14 years now, though Mystery! continues to use a shortened version of his original lead-in and his artwork is as popular as ever, a staple of public television fundraising gifts (who doesn’t want a Mystery! tee-shirt, print or mug with a Gorey drawing on it?). Because of his exposure on PBS, Gorey lived the way he wanted to live and probably died more popular that he’d ever been alive. Which certainly beats dying famous but penniless, like Mozart. And now he’s even more popular posthumously.
Yet even before his long association with PBS and Mystery!, which began in 1979, Gorey had hit the spotlight with the whopping-big national publicity coming from Broadway’s 1977 staging of Dracula, with a young Frank Langella as the daylight-challenged count, for which he contributed both stage and clothing designs and won a coveted Tony Award for Best Costume Design. Because he personally knew the people staging the play and was involved early on, he’d even been given a piece of the show, much to his surprise (as in, a percentage of gross, which contributed nicely to his bank account once it became a Broadway hit and then went on the road).
In his prime, Gorey was a tall, cheerful man with a full, luxurious beard and a “gloriously” bald head, a New England bachelor with six cats and no admitted romantic relationships who went about in a long fur coat (just like the stern Edwardian men in his cartoons!), until his conscience (and animal rights activists) famously got the better of him and he gave that up (for which the activists praised him). But for the cats, he lived alone in his big, rambling, 200-year-old house (hey, a bachelor with six cats can be a lot creepier than an old lady with cats).
However, Gorey, was not a loner. He was steadily involved in local theater and often produced his own plays, even acting in them. He was gregarious and ate two meals a day, breakfast and lunch, at a local restaurant, had tons of projects going on simultaneously at any given time (he had made himself a list of at least 100 that he wanted to complete), and attended every performance of the New York City Ballet for nearly 30 years until choreographer George Balanchine, his artistic idol, died. People who interviewed him reported him to be a wonderful, entertaining conversationalist. He was usually bemused by attempts to psychoanalyze him or his bizarre works and didn’t respond to those. To amuse himself at home, he taped old movies off his satellite dish and watched dark TV series such as Buffy The Vampire Slayer and The X Files (that part doesn’t surprise us).
Hospitalized at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Gorey died there of a heart attack at age 75 on tax day, April 15, 2000 (about which he no doubt would have made some dry, darkly witty observation, had he been around). He had suffered a silent heart attack five years earlier and then simultaneously learned that he had prostate cancer and diabetes; however, both of those turned out to be very controllable, and he continued to simply live his life, happily, until the end finally came. The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust now holds the copyright to his works and preserves the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth Port, MA on Cape Cod.
This past spring, the brand-new Loyola University Museum of Art, located in Lewis Towers across from Water Tower Square on Chicago’s Near North Side, hosted a four-month double exhibition honoring Edward Gorey. Starting last February 15 and running through June 15, Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey and G is for Gorey – C is for Chicago: The Collection of Thomas Michalak provided visitors with an in-depth look at the Gorey portfolio through the hundreds of original drawings, works, illustrations, and ephemera of popular culture that were on display. The double exhibit was, luckily for LUMA, fabulously popular – a great success.
There were also a dozen associated events, sponsored by Loyola and the museum, scattered throughout the first three months of the exhibit period (yours truly attended one of those events in the spring and enjoyed it, but truly, it seemed weird to be seeing the exhibition during a cheerful time of year; how much more fitting it would have felt had it been now, during The Dead Season; or the Grim(m) Season, if you prefer). In addition to an opening night soiree, a Gorey birthday bash on February 22, and an introductory presentation by one of the biggest collectors of Gorey’s work, there was a calendar of nine additional events, from lectures and readings to a Gorey cocktail party, from dramatic performances to a high tea with stories, and a puppet show staged to a reading of his work. Something was there for all ages, including children.
That’s surprising, because Gorey’s work, though it often featured children, really wasn’t meant for kids: too gruesome, with too many references to death. An alphabet book he wrote, for example, is all about death and begins, “A is for Amy, who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil, assaulted by bears” and just gets creepier as it goes along. You don’t want your toddler reading that. Well, maybe at 16. We all may enjoy such spooky things as adults, or as Teens Gone Goth. Then again, you might also produce another sane but bizarre illustrator of weird tales. Or perhaps daily life in the 21st century presents school kids with so many real terrors – like school shootings and suicide bombers – that Gorey’s work seems somehow politely, safely scary, like a junior roller-coaster ride at Kiddieland, or a Halloween haunted house at your local high school, organized by the boy scouts. Use your own judgment on that.
After Gorey’s death, Andreas Brown, who was one of his executors, found a large cache of unpublished work – some of it completed, some incomplete – which Brown then declared to be “ample material for many future books and for plays based on his work.” We haven’t seen much of that yet, but perhaps it’s still being collated and edited. The artist certainly left behind enough material to fill an archive. Even without that unpublished work, however, Gorey will certainly be remembered. And as long as Mystery! stays on the air in whatever guise, there’s always those wonderful, genteelly disturbing opening credits: très bizarre et très chic. And now there’s even a documentary film about his last days. RIP, you stylishly spooky dude.
Until next time,
Your spooky scribe, Marie