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What's Gorey's Story?

The formative years of a very peculiar man.

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A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil assaulted by bears. —The Gashlycrumb Tinies, 1963

Children haunt the work of Edward Gorey. Lone, victimized children abound, grimly abandoned or violently rubbed out. Run over by motorcars, trampled in brawls, left on stoops to die of croup. Ever since the legendarily shy writer and illustrator published his first book, The Unstrung Harp, in 1953, fans and journalists have been trying, unsuccessfully, to pry open his psyche and explain his work--especially those beleaguered children.

Gorey was a hugely complicated man, his eccentricities the stuff of legend: the signature fur coat and tennis shoes, the dozens of years spent religiously attending every performance of the New York City Ballet, the persistently ambiguous sexuality ("I'm neither one thing nor the other particularly"). He hated Henry James, Manet, and Barbra Streisand. He loved Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Tale of Genji, and The Golden Girls. Above all else he loved cats.

But like a lot of reclusive figures, Gorey actually gave a lot of interviews. He never had an explanation for "O is for Olive run through with an awl," but he answered most questions in his own intelligent, diffident way and, over time, a set of facts took shape. He was born in Chicago, the son of a Catholic newspaperman. His parents divorced when he was 11, then remarried 16 years later. He was precocious, drawing and reading at a young age.

When the inevitable question arose as to what lurking horrors could possibly explain his work, he was less forthcoming. He always politely acknowledged that it was reasonable to wonder, but bapped away intimations of early trauma. "I'm sure mine was happier than I imagine," he told one interviewer who asked about his childhood. "I look back and think 'Oh poetic me,' but it simply was not true. I was out playing Kick-the-Can along with everybody else."

Still, the question endures. "I wondered if something bad happened to him once that he never told us about, that he never told anybody about," said his cousin Ken Morton in a 2002 Boston Globe article. His own comments even leave the door open a little. "When I look back on my childhood," he once told another interviewer, "I have an extraordinarily warped view of it." At times he even seemed to challenge the reader to find out more. He told the Washington Post, in 1997, "[I] was probably fully formed by the time I was twenty-one or twenty-two."

Since his death in 2000, at the age of 75, more information about his past has begun to come out. The last five years have seen the reissue of Clifford Ross and Karen Wilkin's The World of Edward Gorey, plus the release of a collection of interviews and a photo essay of his Cape Cod home shot the week after he died. (The home itself was opened to the public in 2002 as the Edward Gorey House, after its finials, iron implements, stuffed Figbashes, and 45,000 books were tidied up.) Two projects slated for the future include the final Gorey anthology, Amphigorey Again (the publication of which Harcourt keeps pushing back), and an examination of Gorey's career as a book designer for Doubleday's Anchor Books in the 1950s by designer and former colleague A. Christopher Simon.

What still remains unexplored is Gorey's Chicago childhood, the early years of an artist who was always in some ways writing about or for children, despite his oft-expressed disinterest in the creatures. What follows, as far as I know, is the first close look at it. Gleaned from old yearbooks, census data, newspaper clippings, and conversations with his family and friends, the particulars of his youth bring an understanding to his work that can't be found in his later life.

Gorey, known to intimates as Ted, was born Edward St. John Gorey on February 22, 1925, the only child of Helen Dunham St. John Garvey and Edward Leo Gorey. Though he's often mistaken for being English, his ancestors were primarily Irish. The Garvey side of his mother's Episcopalian family came from Ireland in the 1850s; his grandfather was a financial executive at Illinois Bell who began his career in the railroads and had a summer home in Winthrop Harbor. Both of Gorey's Catholic paternal grandparents emigrated to Chicago from Ireland in the late 1880s, his grandfather a city "street laborer" for many years before settling the family in Forest Park. Family lore tells of warriorlike Goreys exiled to Europe for fighting with the British government, and Gorey was built like his relatives: tall and thick, with big hands. There aren't any short humans in Gorey's work; they're all long limbs and torsos topped with small bulblike heads.

You might link the lonely fates of Gorey's children to his experience as an only child, especially as a child of divorced parents. But there's also a lot of family in his books, in the background, like all that patterned wallpaper. More often than not the social context of his work is the family, extended and undifferentiated, such as the large Edwardian household of The Doubtful Guest or the family rushing to the boy's bedside in The Stupid Joke. Who are all these people, alternately protecting and deserting the central offspring, and sometimes just milling around like penguins?

Gorey's family provided him with a phalanx of uncles, aunts (including a nun), and cousins. And cousins are the most commonly identified relative in Gorey's work, usually traveling in packs of three, as in The Deranged Cousins, which Gorey told Dick Cavett was inspired by the relationship between him and his two closest maternal cousins. He was also quite close to his maternal grandparents, according to yet another Garvey cousin, who I spoke with via e-mail in 2004. They were the source of a family scandal that has the hushed, darkly veiled air of a Gorey tale. Shortly after their marriage, his grandparents took in his grandmother's orphaned niece, known as Prue. Though only ten years older than their eldest daughter, Prue acted as a surrogate mother to Gorey's mother and her brothers and sisters, as his unstable grandmother Garvey would, in his words, "go insane and disappear for long periods of time." She was institutionalized several times, and eventually Gorey's grandfather divorced her and married Prue: he was 68, she 49. Few Goreys appear to have known Prue was his niece until after the marriage.

Gorey's parents, who married in 1921, were a study in contrasts. His mother "smothered" her only child. According to Gorey's childhood friend Betty Caldwell, who I also spoke with last year, she was "sweet," and a beauty, with eyes as blue as her son's. She was also six years older than her husband, and considered to have married down. Andreas Brown--proprietor of the Gotham Book Mart and a director of the Gorey trust--says she recognized the talent and smarts of her only child early on (he skipped two grades in elementary school). She documented his development with regular photographs and filled boxes with all his artwork--he started drawing when he was 18 months old. She said in an interview in the early 1960s: "Everybody asks me how Edward got this way, and my only answer is that he was always drawing pictures when he was a little boy and he was an omnivorous reader of English authors. Other than that, I really don't know. . . . I still don't know where he gets his ideas. . . . Ted always did puzzle me."

Gorey apparently saw much less of his father in his youth. The elder Gorey spent his childhood as a student at Saint Malachy's and Quigley Seminary, then a serious minor seminary designed to train young men for the priesthood. While still in high school he began reporting for the City News Bureau, and eventually dropped out before graduation to become a crime and police reporter for the Chicago Evening Post, the Herald-Examiner, and other papers. By 1920 he was regularly covering politics for the Chicago American--in those days of aggressive Chicago journalism, the most aggressive paper in town. Gorey always described his father as a Hearst newspaperman, but in fact he was more than just a reporter. In 1928 he ran, unsuccessfully, as the Democratic candidate for state senator in the Sixth District and in the mid-1930s was publicity director for the Drake and Blackstone Hotels. For the last 20 years of his career he was an aide-de-camp to Alderman P.J. Cullerton, of the 38th ward dynasty; Cullerton eventually became Cook County Assessor.

Gorey Sr. constantly moved his family about, though it's not entirely clear why. Gorey's peripatetic childhood is the one fact he always offered up when probed for unhappy stories from his youth. By the time he left Chicago for Harvard his family had had at least 12 addresses: two in Hyde Park, five in Rogers Park, two in Wilmette, one in Evanston, one on the near north side, and one in Lakeview.

Edward Leo Gorey, a joiner in the extreme, appears to have been the antithesis of his fitfully reclusive, eccentric son. According to his stepdaughter, Kiki Reynolds, who lives in Las Vegas, he was a "very big Catholic" who "knew everybody"--he was even an honorary pallbearer at Mayor Cermak's funeral. He comes across as a hard-drinking Hechtian character who would've had to have known everybody to have the jobs he did. Gorey, on the other hand, campaigned once for Adlai Stevenson then gave politics up completely. He was a Taoist who claimed church made him throw up. His father was a sports fan, but the only aspect of athletics his son appears to have enjoyed was a vague appreciation of sports photography. He shrank from anything smacking of PR. Gorey does not, however, give the impression of someone who flung away the Babbitty trappings of his youth in avant-garde disgust. He seems more like a cat who sniffed them and wandered away to its own interests. However, the man who hated sports did actually draw a couple of sports cartoons when he was a kid, and his father got them placed in the paper. They were among his first published work.

His father's personality echoes through Gorey's later work. Betty Caldwell told me male characters like Earbrass in The Unstrung Harp--men with folded-over heads like otters--remind her of how she remembers her friend's ruggedly handsome, mustachioed father. And it's probably worth noting that, other than the opera-themed The Blue Aspic, there aren't more than a few panels in any Gorey book where a character ever opens his mouth. Gorey's cats have bigger facial features than his people; the men, with all their mustaches, usually don't even have mouths. Even at their most expressive his humans are puppets, speaking only through their association with the text. The staid but muted social order they convey makes them both powerful and fundamentally foolish.

When asked once (again) why "stark violence and horror and terror are the uncompromising focus of his work," Gorey famously replied: "I write about everyday life." The Goreys lived in Hyde Park at the time of the Leopold and Loeb trial (Gorey was born while it was under way), and Gorey's father covered crime for the Hearst papers at the end of the Chicago newspaper wars. It's not so farfetched to argue that both he and, later, his son just wrote about things as they saw them.

Gorey's use of language is a kind of subversion of journalistic who-what-where-when; while sometimes rococco it's also telegraphic, communicating much with one carefully chosen sentence. Of course, that technique could also derive from his fondness for the interstitial titles in early French silent films, but the possibilities are suggestive.

Gorey's father broke up his family in a shattering way the summer after his son finished eighth grade, leaving his wife and son for the nightclub singer Corinna Mura, whom he met at the Blackstone. Mura was promoted during her short wartime film career as a South American singer of exotic origin, but she was in fact from Connecticut, the daughter of a Spanish-English father and Scottish mother. She was trained as a coloratura soprano but abandoned opera for pop and radio singing, specializing as an interpreter of Spanish songs. She's universally referred to in articles about Gorey as "the woman who sings the 'Marseillaise' in Casablanca" (although the woman people usually think of when they hear that is the young Frenchwoman, Yvonne; Mura is Andrea, the uncredited band singer). There are obvious connections to Mura's distinctive vampy, campy look in Gorey's work. His friend Alexander Theroux wrote in The Strange Case of Edward Gorey (his own posthumous Gorey memoir) that "most of the women in his books, the elegant ones certainly, are as identifiable for their black eye-liner as Claudia Cardinale," and it's a look Mura affects in all her photos. In Gorey's "pornographic" novel, The Curious Sofa, all the men have black-rimmed eyes as well, lending them a certain dissolute quality. There are echoes of Mura in the opera singer Ortenzia Caviglia of The Blue Aspic, with her obsessed fan Jasper Ankle (they are "married" through their last names; caviglia is "ankle" in Italian), and maybe even something of her career in Maudie Splaytoe, the common little girl who transforms into prima ballerina assoluta Mirella Splatova in The Gilded Bat.

After Gorey's father left, Gorey's mother took her son on a car trip to visit family in Ohio and New York, eventually dropping him off with relatives in Miami, where he went to school for a few months and even had a pet baby alligator--an animal that turns up later in The Epipleptic Bicycle. Gorey was 11, the same age as Drusilla in The Remembered Visit when she's sent abroad with her conspicuously absent parents.

Once back in Chicago Gorey and his mother moved from Wilmette to the Marshall Field Garden Apartments, a progressive experiment in moderate-income housing built by Marshall Field III on the near north side. The divorce may have actually brought Gorey some stability. Beginning in ninth grade he went to Frances Parker and for four years stayed at one address, an apartment in Lakeview where his mother would live until the 1970s. (Gorey's parents eventually reconciled, a few years after Gorey graduated from college. His father's marriage to Mura appears to have dissolved by the 1940s when Mura, according to Kiki Reynolds, her daughter from her first marriage, was back in Hollywood on her own.)

In his senior year at Parker Gorey was editor of the yearbook and had 22 works in the annual art exhibition, serving on the jury with another later-famous classmate, painter Joan Mitchell. Gorey is generally considered to be self-taught; he liked the "Irish romantic" idea, says Andreas Brown, that he got his talent from his Garvey great-grandmother, who designed Christmas cards for the McClurg family in the mid-19th century. He did, however, acknowledge one high school art teacher as influential, though never by name. He was Malcolm Hackett, a painter and WPA muralist who had trained and exhibited at the Art Institute. Mitchell, who often cited him as a significant influence on her work, says, "I was crazy about Hackett. He wasn't much of a painter. But he was talking about [Oskar] Kokoschka in 1939." Hackett was indeed a friend of Kokoschka and another Art Institute grad, Ivan Albright, and, despite the fact that Mitchell also described him as "angry," seems to have inspired strong loyalty in the students whose lives he touched. In painter Donald Vogel's The Boardinghouse, a memoir of his years at the School of the Art Institute during the Depression, Hackett is cast as a rock-solid sage and mentor, "simple, sturdy, quizzical, shrewd, fearless and unpretentious." The one course of Hackett's that the Art Institute has a record of Gorey taking is the Saturday summer class Costumed Figure Drawing.

Though his senior yearbook bio reads in part, "art addict, romanticist, little men in raccoon coats," Gorey's drawings from this period don't look particularly Goreyesque. Until his archives are opened and we can fill in the blanks, it would appear he fully arrived at his visual style while at Harvard, where he landed in 1946, after a three-year stint in the Army--in the words of Brad Gooch, biographer of Gorey's roommate, Frank O'Hara--a "precociously full-blown eccentric" at the age of 20. His early jackets for Anchor Books, where he started in 1950, are distinguished by meticulously drawn hand lettering and long lanky figures.

More than many people, Gorey may well be fundamentally unknowable. "I hate being characterized," he once said. "I don't like to read about the 'Gorey detail' and that kind of thing. I admire work that is neither one thing nor the other, really." But while there may not be something horrible lurking in his past, of a straight-up Beastly Baby variety, his embrace of ambiguity creates enormous space to poke around. After the death of Princess Di, as reporters kvelled about the oceans of flowers left around Kensington Palace, Gorey mused on the strange, unwanted, even alarming items that might be hidden in the glorious display: "I wouldn't be a bit surprised if there weren't some very peculiar things left in those heaps."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Edward Gorey Charitable Trust; photos/Stephen Rose/Liaison, Wilmette Historical Museum.

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