A pretty Gorey look at Edward Gorey’s life.

The late illustrator Edward Gorey in the kitchen of his home at Yarmouth, Cape Cod in August, 1999. Image source: Wikimedia Commons. (public domain)

Edward Gorey. Even without knowing his name, his work is immediately recognizable. Comprised of spindly figures and dark, anxiety-provoking cross hatching, Edward Gorey established a distinctly American macabre style that appeals to alternative children and adults alike.

The victim of a self-described unextraordinary childhood, Edward Gorey was an extraordinary child. In interviews, Gorey often nonchalantly spoke on the fact that he had taught himself to read by the age of three, stating that he had taught himself “before anyone thought of doing it”. Some of his childhood favorites were books you might usually find in a three-year-old reader’s library, like Winnie the Pooh, while other books, including Dracula and the Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland series, raised some eyebrows. As surprising as these book choices might be for a child, they were indicative of Gorey’s personality and sense of humor. The same sense of humor that inspired Gorey to repeatedly fake epileptic attacks on the bus when he was between 11 and 13 years old. By the time that Gorey reached his teenage years, his sense of humor and literary foundation would combine and begin evolving into the man later nicknamed “The Granddaddy of Goth”.

It wasn’t until Gorey joined the military in 1944 that he began to explore himself, as an artist, an author, and as a 19-year-old away from home for the first time in his life. Stationed as a company clerk at Dugway Proving Ground, a biological, chemical, and incendiary weapons test facility in the deserts of Utah, Gorey found himself bored to tears. Gorey described Dugway as “a ghastly place, with the desert looming in every direction” where the only way to bide the time was to “[keep] ourselves sloshed on tequila, which wasn’t rationed.”

While at Dugway, Gorey found a friend in Bill Brandt, a fellow young military recruit. The two quickly bonded over their passions for classical music, poetry, and avant-garde literature. Having never quite fit in with rest of the base’s routine of drinking all week, then chasing girls at a nearby bar on weekends, Gorey and Brandt began spending increasing amounts of time with each other and decreasing amounts with others.

Naturally, rumors began to fly about the two men’s sexuality. However, as Brandt’s wife would later recall, the two were simply good friends. Brandt knew that Gorey was gay, Gorey knew that Brandt was straight, and the two enjoyed a mutually respectful friendship. It was through this friendship and in this ghastly desert place that Gorey began experimenting with his creative styles.

To pass his time in the military Gorey wrote closet dramas and read them to Brandt. Looking back, Gorey described these plays as “pretentious… rather bizarre… [and] rather overwritten”. Riddled with word play, absurd and flowery names, preposterous and gruesome deaths, cruelty to and of children, and depicting the horrors of a boring life, these plays were what would go on to inspire Gorey’s career as an author. He even began to toy with his spindly characters and placing them in a mixture of Victorian, Edwardian, and Jazz Age settings.

As indicative as these closet dramas were of what was yet to come, the teenage Gorey wrote repeatedly about gay culture, homosexuality, included openly gay characters, referred to gay characters from contemporary literature, and incorporated motifs of gay culture like the color lavender. This was the first opportunity that Gorey had been presented with in which to explore his own sexuality, which he would later decide made him uncomfortable and he would choose to avoid. As his writing and artistic style developed, Gorey would avoid discussing sexuality throughout his adulthood and would dilute the topic of homosexuality in future written works.

Today Gorey might be defined as asexual and gay leaning.

After his release from the military in 1946 and about a year of returning to his home town of Chicago, Gorey attended school at Harvard University where he majored in French, a major that he chose because he felt that he had read everything interesting in English and was ready for a challenge. Surrounded by, and friends with many of the great literary minds of the late 20th century, including Alison Lurie and Frank O’Hara, Gorey’s personal style of dress and speaking stood out, even without the assistance of his impressive height. He was known to greet guests in a floor length Edwardian style men’s dressing gown.

After graduation, Gorey’s friend, Barbara Epstein, an editor for Doubleday Books Publishing suggested that her husband, Jason Epstein, hire Gorey to help establish Anchor Books. Gorey presented Epstein with a portfolio of works that Gorey himself described as “thoroughly uncommercial”, and thus launched his career as a paid artist.

While at Doubleday, Gorey would publish his first and arguably best-known book: The Doubtful Guest.

In 1959, Jason Epstein left Doubleday to establish his own publishing company. Discouraged by children’s books at the time, which treated young readers as though they could not comprehend themes more complex than their limited life experiences, Epstein sought to reinvent the Victorian children’s book for the contemporary age. An idea which Gorey, who was reading the Alice books by the time he was four, thoroughly embodied. Thus, Epstein established Looking Glass Library and invited Gorey to come on board the project with him as art director.

Where Gorey truly made his mark in publishing was in the way that he re-envisioned what a dust cover could mean for a book. Gorey designed the Looking Glass dust covers to be visually appealing from all angles, including the spine of the book, creating cover art that created one panoramic picture when laid out flat, but became a tryptic when folded across a closed book. In this way, the covers that Gorey worked on would be visually appealing and noteworthy, both assembled on a shelf and stretched open while the book was read. Gorey even published The Bug Book through Looking Glass in the first year that the company was opened.

The same year that Gorey began working with Looking Glass Library, art critic Edmund Wilson published the art review that launched Gorey’s career as a freelance artist. In his review, Wilson points out the fact that Gorey has yet to have a review written about him or to have become particularly popular, a fact which Wilson attributes to the way in which Gorey “has been working perversely to please himself” (Wilson, New Yorker, 1959). Working at Looking Glass allowed Gorey to focus on his freelance work, explore ways to utilize canvas space, and explore his personal cross hatching style.

Looking Glass Library was only open from 1959 to 1961 and published just 28 titles, with Edward Gorey as art director on every publication. Publications which included H.G. Well’s 1960 book War of the Worlds and a 1959 collection of Greek mythology titled Men and Gods.

Living in New York is when the eccentric in Gorey began to take flight. It was also, ironically, when his reclusive tendencies started to become more noticeable. Gorey was becoming the enigma that would enamor his collection of cult followers.

When reading about or reading interviews with Edward Gorey, an image begins to develop: one of a posh gentleman lounging in a wingback chair, smoking a pipe before a roaring fire in a dimly lit, Victorian study. Surrounded by volumes of ancient books by foreign authors, this person might answer questions in a deep, drawling British accent with a well-planned and honest answer in response.

This is the Edward Gorey that many interviewers and fans alike thought they would meet, but this was not the Edward Gorey who walked through the streets of New York.

The real Edward Gorey was the embodiment of camp. Described by one interviewer as “a tall man of noble Viking countenance”, Gorey would often be seen wearing colorful, long fur coats, selected from the collection that he kept; he wore gold earrings that dangled from his earlobes, unless he was feeling more casual, in which case he might wear studs; his hands would drip with large rings, which interviewers often commented on as they made an enormous amount of noise while Gorey emoted and slapped his hands; all this atop a simple ensemble of a shirt, jeans, and a pair of white sneakers. A simultaneous picture of the ostentatious upper class balanced with the laid-back bohemian.

Edward Gorey on the promenade at the New York State Theater, 1973. Image source: The New York Times.

Instead of a British drawl, Gorey spoke with a Chicago accent. Despite his evoking the imagery of something that emerged from long ago and far away, Gorey loved pop culture and popular tv shows, including The X Files and The Golden Girls, especially when they came out as reruns. His sense of humor was dark and sarcastic, though he was very blunt with his opinions, but there was something about his beliefs and way of life that was all very indicative of his middle-class upbringing and his strong sense of morals. He had very little time for the pompous and people or things that he deemed fake

Despite all his avant-garde presentation, Gorey rarely left the safety or comfort of his home. Whenever he saw friends, it was because they happened across each other or because they went to his house. He rarely sought people out to meet up and instead relied on them to approach him. Gorey was not one who particularly enjoyed going to parties or being in large groups of people. In a New York Times article from 2018, when referring to Gorey’s sexuality and lack of relationships, the author describes feeling that Gorey was one “for whom the messiness of human relationships was much too much” (Kurutz). Perhaps this idea, that Gorey didn’t like the “messiness” of being tangled up in human lives and emotions, extended beyond romantic relationships and into personal ones. Perhaps the idea of either keeping up or letting down the façade of the bejeweled man in the fur coats for another person was too exhausting for Gorey, so he kept to himself and filled his home with cats instead.

The one outing which Gorey diligently ensured that he was in attendance for was the ballet. Gorey was a disciple of co-founder and choreographer of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine. It was exceedingly rare that Gorey would ever miss a performance of one of Balanchine’s pieces. Sometimes he would attend several performances a day, and he would often see the same piece performed multiple times.

The ballet was more than an outing for Gorey, it was a chance to seek inspiration. In a 1977 interview on the Dick Cavett Show, Gorey spoke about his admiration for the ballet dancers. The way in which they used their bodies to express such emotion and maximized the use of their forms so that their movements were unmistakable and spoke to the entire audience struck him. He sought to emulate a similar effect in his spindly figures, using whatever motion they had to express as much emotion as possible. In the same interview, Gorey said that he often redraws his own characters multiple times to push the boundaries of his drawings and pack as much meaning into as little subject matter as possible.

It was the death of George Balanchine in 1983 that gave Gorey the excuse that he seemed to have been waiting for to leave New York City for good.

Back in 1979, while Gorey was visiting Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Gorey bought a house for himself in Yarmouth Port. Once the home of a sea captain, Gorey saw the house, walked into the realtor’s office, and paid for the home in cash. After leaving New York, Gorey made the Yarmouth house his permanent residence and steadily became more reclusive. If friends wanted to see him, they needed to make the trip to the Cape. Gorey also found this a very convenient excuse for why he couldn’t collaborate with others on any projects. They would have to make the trip out to the Cape, because he wasn’t leaving! If they couldn’t make it… oh well!

Gorey’s home in Cape Cod steadily evolved to evoke the same feeling that his artwork did: anxiety.

The floors of the second story sag under the weight of Gorey’s immense book collection, all which he inscribed with the dates of when he began reading the book and when he finished; Gorey dedicated a wall in his kitchen to every receipt he earned from dining at his favorite restaurant; another wall is dedicated to every torn ballet ticket accumulated at the New York City Ballet; stashed away are in the house are boxes filled with VHS tapes containing every episode of Gorey’s favorite TV shows; between yard sales and auctions, Gorey filled his home with collections of the mundane and bizarre, but did his best to arrange it in a way that suggested dignity and some kind of importance.

Gorey even owned a mummy hand, which is now proudly displayed under a plexiglass display case. Gorey won the piece and the matching head at an auction, but the head was unfortunately left in a closet during Gorey’s move to Cape Cod. When police recovered it and questioned Gorey regarding why he possessed the object, Gorey was angered and thus the head was never returned.

Gorey spent his remaining years in the Yarmouth house in Cape Cod, surrounded by his peculiar but thought-provoking collection of oddities, the books that he loved, and his family of cats.

In 2000, Edward Gorey died at the age of 75 from a heart attack.

Gorey’s entire estate was left to animal-related charities. His home was turned into the Edward Gorey Museum, which is open to the public. All of Gorey’s belongings that were left in his home are displayed almost exactly as he left them when he passed away. His collection of fur coats was auctioned off to a small room of roughly a dozen devoted Gorey fans.

Cover of “The Beastly Baby” by Ogdred Weary (1962). Image Source: Goodreads

Edward Gorey never reached the level of fame that many of his fans felt that he deserved. Despite establishing his own printing company in order to publish some of his more disturbing works, including “The Beastly Baby” and “The Evil Garden”, Gorey’s fame never expanded beyond that of his small cult following.

Gorey never reached the level of fame that so many felt that he deserved, but his lack of fame was not due to lack of trying. In 1992 a small group of Gorey devotees decided to compile a collection of all of Gorey’s works to be sold and launch Gorey to stardom. The attempt sold modestly well, but was not a huge success, in large part because Gorey would not cooperate with them. When one of the individuals, who was also a friend of Gorey’s, told him about the project, Gorey responded: “Oh, I suppose that means now I can die” (Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey by Karen Wilkin).

As Gorey’s friend, artist and producer Clifford Ross, once said about his friend: “Sometimes with him nothing happens, because nothing is exactly what he wants to happen.” (Clifford Ross)

Gorey was a man who was himself, meaning that he worked to please himself, he lived to please himself, and he loved to please himself. Perhaps this is why he never sought stardom. He knew that by becoming famous in the mainstream, there would be more demanded of his work and more conformity expected of his personality. His whimsically disturbed stories and his eccentric personality would no longer be things that he did because he loved them or had something to say. They would be created for the purpose of sale and would no longer be his spaces for play. Maybe there was some fear of rejection mixed in with Gorey’s motivations for not seeking widespread fame, but it would seem that the greater part of his reasoning owed to the fact that Gorey wanted to hold on to the feeling of gratification that he received from his work.

A self-published author and illustrator, a visionary art director, an individual constantly struggling with inner clarity, and an ambitious child who never lost his thirst for stories and knowledge. Edward Gorey was and remains a fascinating enigma.

For this reason, and many others, Gorey-files new and old admire the man, the myth and the legend of Edward Gorey: a man who found success and self-fulfillment on his own terms.

This short biography is part one of a three-part essay series, all published on Medium and authored by Maura Wilson, MAH.

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