Today is the birthday (1925) of Edward St. John Gorey, writer and artist noted for his illustrated books. His characteristic pen-and-ink drawings often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes in Victorian and Edwardian settings. I was a fan for a while after a friend bought me Amphigorey as a birthday present in 1979. His combination of skillfully morbid rhyming stories and amusingly disturbing dark images is quite obviously unique.
Gorey was born in Chicago. His parents, Helen Dunham (née Garvey) and Edward Lee Gorey, divorced in 1936 when he was 11, then remarried in 1952 when he was 27. One of his stepmothers was Corinna Mura (1909–1965), a cabaret singer who had a small role in the classic film Casablanca as the woman playing the guitar while singing “La Marseillaise” at Rick’s Café Américain. His father was briefly a journalist. Gorey’s maternal great-grandmother, Helen St. John Garvey, was a popular nineteenth-century greeting card writer and artist, from whom he claimed to have inherited his talents.
Gorey attended a variety of local grade schools and then the Francis W. Parker School. He spent 1944 to 1946 in the Army at Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. He then attended Harvard University, beginning in 1946 and graduating in the class of 1950.
He frequently stated that his formal art training was “negligible” which is certainly true that he studied art for only one semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1943. From 1953 to 1960, he lived in New York City and worked for the Art Department of Doubleday Anchor, illustrating book covers and in some cases, adding illustrations to the text. He illustrated works as diverse as Dracula by Bram Stoker, The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells, and Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by T. S. Eliot. In later years he produced cover illustrations and interior artwork for many children’s books by John Bellairs, as well as books begun by Bellairs and continued by Brad Strickland after Bellairs’ death.
His first independent work, The Unstrung Harp, was published in 1953. He also published under pen names that were anagrams of his first and last names, such as Ogdred Weary, Dogear Wryde, Ms. Regera Dowdy, and dozens more. His books also feature the names Eduard Blutig (“Edward Gory”), a German language pun on his own name, and O. Müde (German for O. Weary).
Gorey’s illustrated (and sometimes wordless) books, with their vaguely ominous air and ostensibly Victorian and Edwardian settings, have long had a cult following. He made a notable impact of the world of theater with his designs for the 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula, for which he won the Tony Award for Best Costume Design and was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Scenic Design.
Here’s my customary gallery:
Without question Gorey was quirky and, in later life, isolationist. His house on Cape Cod was a sanctuary for his work, his books, and his cats (he had six, claiming that seven would be too many).
He rarely traveled and left the U.S. only twice, once as a youngster for a vacation in Cuba, and once as an adult to the Hebrides. He was open about his sexuality (or lack of it). He never married, had no known relationships, and baldly stated that he had no idea whether he was gay or straight primarily because he had no interest in sexuality.
Gorey was very fond of eating but always ate out. On Cape Cod he frequented a local restaurant twice a day and as a tribute to him the restaurant mounted some of his food orders and presented the collage to him, which now hangs in the Gorey Museum in his old home. In his honor I recommend cooking something Victorian, odd, and vaguely disturbing. This recipe from Mrs Beeton fits that description for me. I am not sure whether her idea that the recipe is useful when baking is more convenient than boiling is laughable or disquieting. It’s certainly Victorian.
- INGREDIENTS.—1 lb. of any kind of meat, any trimmings or odd pieces; 2 onions, 2 carrots, 2 oz. of rice, 1 pint of split peas, pepper and salt to taste, 4 quarts of water.
Mode.—Cut the meat and vegetables in slices, add to them the rice and peas, season with pepper and salt. Put the whole in a jar, fill up with the water, cover very closely, and bake for 4 hours.
Time.—4 hours. Average cost, 2-1/2d. per quart.
Seasonable at any time.
Sufficient for 10 or 12 persons.
Note.—This will be found a very cheap and wholesome soup, and will be convenient in those cases where baking is more easily performed than boiling.