April 17, 2000

Edward Gorey, Artist and Author Who Turned the Macabre Into a Career, Dies at 75


Edward Gorey, the artist and author who was a grand master of the comic macabre and delighted generations of readers with his spidery drawings and stories of hapless children, swooning maidens, throbblefooted specters, threatening topiary and weird, mysterious events on eerie Victorian landscapes, died on Saturday at Cape Cod Hospital in Hyannis, Mass. He was 75 and lived in Yarmouth Port, Mass.

He had suffered a heart attack on Wednesday, said Elizabeth Morton, a cousin.

Edmund Wilson, the first of many critics to extol Mr. Gorey's work, described his world as "poisonous and poetic." It was that and much more: witty, woeful, devious and delirious to the point of obsession. He was one of the most aptly named figures in American art and literature. In creating a large body of small work, he made an indelible imprint on noir fiction and on the psyche of his admirers.

Mr. Gorey, who wrote more than 100 books and illustrated more than 60 by other authors (from Edward Lear to Samuel Beckett), also had a career in the theater, with revues based on his stories and as a scenic designer. "Dracula," in the Gorey version, was a Broadway hit in 1977.

In person Mr. Gorey was as instantly identifiable as his work. Toweringly tall, he had a white beard and frothy hair, an earring in each lobe and rings on most of his fingers. When he lived in New York, he often wore a raccoon coat, although later in life he became sheepish about wearing fur.

He looked foreboding, like a buccaneer between piracies or a figure out of one of his books, and his self-portrait lurks on the fringe of many of his stories. But in contrast to the work, the man was genial and gentle, and sometimes childish in his language, peppering his conversation with words like "jeepers" and "zingy."

"There was this false idea that he was a brooding, melancholic man," said Andreas Brown, a friend of Mr. Gorey's and the owner of the Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan. "He was not a recluse. He was jovial and effervescent, and he loved to laugh."

The books could be bizarre in the extreme. His alphabet books chronicle the mishaps of unfortunates deceived by fate. "The Gashlycrumb Tinies" begins with "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs" (a ghostly child plummeting headlong to her doom) and ends with "Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin." The stories of peril are frightful, but with a strong sense of mockery.

Though sometimes mistakenly categorized as an author of children's books, Mr. Gorey appealed to all ages, at least everyone with a taste for the fanciful. Only a few of his books, including "The Wuggly Ump" and "The Bug Book," were intended specifically for young readers.

In both his art and his writing Mr. Gorey was inimitable. Developing crosshatched line-drawing into an art form, he used pen and ink to create a world of barren moors, abandoned railway stations and storm-struck formal gardens. A stroller in one of those gardens could suddenly be brained by a piece of falling masonry, as in the Gorey animated film that for years has acted as a prelude to the "Mystery" series on public television.

In Goreyland the moon is a skull, and no sun shines. A tiny green face peers through the curtained window of a black motor car. Frightful beasts are perched on a crag, and upstairs in the listing attic. Death is by drowning, dismemberment or being dropped by the Devil into a flaming pit. The Beastly Baby is a bulbous blob carried away by an eagle and exploding in midair.

Mr. Gorey could be sportive as well as horrific, as in "The Broken Spoke," which, in his words, "combines, with breathtaking cleverness, two objects of consuming interest: postcards and bicycles." Although sometimes confused with the cartoonist Charles Addams, with whom he shared an interest in the ghoulish, Mr. Gorey generally told cautionary tales that offered moral instruction along with tearful laughter.

As an artist he was close to Daumier and, with his aura of surrealism, to Magritte, as in "The Betrayed Confidence," a series of pernicious postcards, closing with wordless pictures: a dangling rope, an empty frying pan, an unmarked grave. As an author he bore the mark of S. J. Perelman, inventing an atlas that found room for place names like Nether Postlude, Backwater Hall in Mortshire (between West Elbow and Penetralia) and the Cycle Cemetery near Dingy Cruet, Blots. He also played word games with his name, anagrammatizing it in infinite ways, as Edward Gorey became Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde and D. Awdrey-Gore.

A passionate lover of the ballet, Mr. Gorey for years ritualistically attended all performances of dances by George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. Often he dreamed up stories about ballets and operas and occasionally designed sets, costumes and drop curtains. For many years he lived in a cluttered apartment in Manhattan, and at the end of the ballet season he would leave for his home on Cape Cod. After Balanchine's death in 1983, stripped of his primary cultural outlet, Mr. Gorey began thinking seriously about leaving New York permanently.

In 1986 he moved to Cape Cod, first to Barnstable, and then to Yarmouth Port, eventually living alone in a 200-year-old house that may or may not have been haunted. In 1994 he mentioned to a visitor the strange disappearance of all the finials from his lamps along with his collection of tiny teddy bears. The house was in disarray, with esoteric objects (a toilet with a tabletop) and with no sign of Mr. Gorey's work. There was, however, a definitive Gorey touch: poison ivy creeped inside through cracks in the wall.

A speed reader of writers from Agatha Christie to Jane Austen, he packed his home with books, many of them Victorian, and tempered his scholarliness with subcultural pursuits, watching soap operas and checking out horror movies from a nearby video stores.

A covey of cats shared his life and, in Gorey fashion, had free run of the furniture. The number varied from five to six. If a stray showed up at his door, he would immediately welcome it in. (After his death a friend moved into the house to take care of the cats.) Mr. Gorey remembered the time that the cats were on a couch and suddenly "everyone turned," eyes opening wide, as if someone, or something, unseen had entered the room.

Although the Gorey-like figure in his stories seemed icily removed, the real Mr. Gorey was a friendly neighbor on Cape Cod, holding court daily at Jack's Outback, a cafeteria-style coffee shop. He would take his personal mug from a rack reserved for regulars and join in the local gossip. He was close to his cousins, some of whom lived nearby, but there are no immediate survivors.

In 1994 he was told he had prostate cancer and diabetes, and he met his illnesses with his customary cheerful demeanor. "Why haven't I burst into total screaming hysterics?" he asked, and added, "I'm not entirely enamored of the idea of living forever."

Edward St. John Gorey, known to his friends as Ted, was born in Chicago on Feb. 25, 1925, the son of a Hearst journalist. "I like to think of myself as a pale, pathetic, solitary child," he said. "But it was not true." He taught himself to read at 3 1/2, and by 5, he had read "Dracula" and "Alice in Wonderland," two books that were to have a profound effect on his life.

The protagonists, one evil incarnate (but he can't help it), the other all innocence and curiosity (she gets what she deserves), were to haunt his dreams and dominate his art. By 8, he had graduated to reading Victor Hugo. He taught himself to draw and subsequently took courses at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Drafted into the Army at 18, he sat out the Second World War as a company clerk and in 1946 entered Harvard, where he majored in French literature and roomed with the poet Frank O'Hara. He and O'Hara joined the Poets Theater in Cambridge, Mr. Gorey as a designer, director and playwright.

After graduation he remained in Boston, illustrating book jackets. Then he went to New York and worked in the art department at Doubleday, staying late in the office to create his own books. "I didn't envision a career in anything," he said, unless, perhaps, it was running a bookstore. Unable to find a publisher, he invented his own imprint, Fantod Press, and sold his books directly to stores. His first book, "The Unstrung Harp," was published in 1953.

"The Doubtful Guest" (1958) quickly became a Gorey classic. In it a strange, hook-nosed creature, wearing a long scarf and tennis shoes, 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." "The West Wing" (1963) is one of Mr. Gorey's wordless masterworks. It is the house that is the central character, with its dark passageways, doors leading to other doors, a carpet that looks like a turbulent sea and shadows floating in space.

A turning point in Mr. Gorey's career was his meeting with Andreas Brown. When Mr. Brown bought the Gotham Book Mart, 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. The Gotham sold great quantities of his books and also collectibles: greeting cards, T-shirts (one reads, "So many books, so little time"), calendars and stuffed toys. With the publication of his first anthology, "Amphigorey" (in 1972), followed by two sequels, his audience widened.

Mr. Gorey worked slowly and precisely and because of his amiability often overcommitted himself to projects. Suddenly he would be struck with an idea, and that would draw him to his studio. In Yarmouth Port he worked in a cubicle about the size of a Gorey book. Pinned above his drawing table were postcards of paintings by Goya and Matisse (his favorite artist) and of an Indian sculpture of a tiger devouring a missionary.

He said he was inspired by "practically anything visual or verbal" and always tried to keep himself open to new experiences and new images. When he saw the French silent movie "L'Enfant de Paris," he was so excited that he began making notes in the dark, and then went home and wrote "The Hapless Child." "The Willowdale Handcar" and other cliffhangers derive from movies by D. W. Griffith. The moors murder case in England led to "The Loathsome Couple."

For "The Raging Tide: or, The Black Doll's Imbroglio," he drew an impish inkblot named Figbash (inspired by Max Ernst), and then years later produced a Figbash alphabet book. In his books, he acted as his own scenic and costume designer and typographer. He believed in hand lettering, even drawing the Library of Congress number in his books.

In addition to "Dracula," Mr. Gorey's work has been the subject of many theatrical revues, including "Gorey Stories," "Amphigorey" and "Tinned Lettuce." In recent years a series of revues were done on Cape Cod for limited audiences, with the author supervising as director.

One friend regularly supplied him with dreams. Mr. Gorey always insisted that he never used his own, which were "grandiose architectural dreams" and occasionally horror movies. Late in life he was troubled by insomnia, awake in the dark of night thinking Gorey thoughts.

Last year he published a new Christmas story, "The Headless Bust," subtitled "A Melancholy Meditation on the False Millennium." In a variation on a previous book, "The Haunted Tea-Cosy," Edmund Gravel (the Recluse of Lower Spigot) and the Bahumbug (a pear-shaped insect with six limbs) embarked on a disaster-prone journey through the village of Godly Wot. After phantasmal adventures, the author concludes:

They saw it was about to come:

The end of the millennium,

So find themselves perforce to be

Into another century.

Once when he was asked why he wrote so much about murder and other forms of violence, Mr. Gorey answered: "Well, I don't know. I guess I'm interested in real life."