Author and artist Edward St. John Gorey ( 1925 – 2000) was a child prodigy, drawing pictures at the age of two, and reading (self-taught) by the time he was three. Excelling at school, he skipped some early grades and arrived at Chicago’s legendary Francis Parker School in the ninth grade. An exceptional student, he contributed to many school events, exhibited in the annual art shows, and appeared in various school publications. When he was 13, a Chicago newspaper published his cartoons in its sports pages—Gorey’s first commercial work.
Having received the highest regional scores on his college boards, Gorey was offered scholarships to Harvard and other academic institutions. After graduating from Francis Parker at age 17, with pending draft notices, Gorey postponed university and enrolled in art courses at the Art Institute of Chicago. He then entered the U.S. Army and served during World War II from 1943 until after the end of the war.
In 1946 he enrolled at Harvard, where he occasionally made the Dean’s List. He began pursuing artistic interests: publishing stories, poems, and illustrations in student publications; and designing sets, directing, and writing for the influential Poets Theatre (with John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, Alison Lurie, Violet Lang, and others). His illustrations appeared for the first time in a published book in 1950. Two years later he was offered a position in the art department of Doubleday Publishers in New York City. He became a serious admirer and frequent attendee of George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and would later often refer to Balanchine as a major influence on his work.
Gorey rapidly became a significant figure in the Doubleday art department. In 1953 he published his first book, The Unstrung Harp, an illustrated 64-page novella about the creative struggles of a novelist. The book stands today as one of the early precursors to the graphic novel movement in which both text and illustration tell the story. Graham Greene declared The Unstrung Harp “the best novel ever written about a novelist, and I ought to know!” The London Times referred to it as “a minor masterpiece.” Writing in The New Yorker, America’s pre-eminent literary critic, Edmund Wilson, gave Gorey his first early critical boost. Gorey’s fifty years of exceptional productivity had begun.
Gorey had established an association with New York City’s Gotham Book Mart in the early 1940s while still in the Army. As a voracious reader he began accumulating a unique library of some 25,000 books, many of which he had read more than once. When he came to the city to work he began making frequent visits to the bookshop and became a close friend of its founder, Frances Steloff. In 1961 he launched The Fantod Press, his own private press imprint and sold many of his copies through the Gotham Book Mart.
As early as 1939 Gorey had begun exhibiting his art work at the Francis Parker School, and continued to exhibit during his Harvard years at the Mandrake Bookshop, and as far away as California. In December of 1967, Gotham Book Mart announced the opening of a second-floor art gallery in its brownstone and invited Gorey to be among its first exhibitors. He exhibited there for the next 32 years, until his death. As a result of this association, Gotham Book Mart began to occasionally publish new Gorey works and eventually arranged for Gorey illustrations to appear in works by Samuel Beckett, John Updike, and others.
The theater had always interested Gorey and he was soon involved in off-Broadway productions. Eventually, his own experimental plays were produced on Cape Cod in the summertime, using local amateur actors and even puppets, to the delight and puzzlement of the local community. In 1973 Gorey designed a production of Dracula for a small theater on Nantucket Island. It attracted considerable interest, and in 1977 opened on Broadway as Edward Gorey’s Dracula. A huge commercial success with extraordinary reviews, it garnered two Tony Awards for Best Revival and Best Costumes, ran for almost three years, and had road companies across America, in London, Australia, and elsewhere.
Gorey’s work received serious critical reviews and high praise; his books have been translated into 15 foreign languages (beginning in 1961 with his Swiss German publisher Diogenes Verlag). In 1972 he published his first anthology, Amphigorey,containing 15 of his early works. The New York Times selected it as “One of the Five Noteworthy Art Books of 1972.” Three more anthologies followed (Amphigorey Too, Amphigorey Also, and Amphigorey Again), and have now become Gorey classics and the cornerstones of his large body of work. His strong interest in book design eventually expanded into various forms, including miniatures, pop-up books, books with movable parts, and other unusual formats. Over 150 book designs and hundreds of periodical illustrations are listed in his bibliography and are now much sought after by Gorey enthusiasts.
He became involved in printmaking in 1975, and for the next 25 years he explored and produced a variety of limited edition prints. In February 1980 he was asked to design animations for Boston Public Television’s Mystery! series. His collaborative work with animator Derek Lamb continues to appear over 30 years after its inception.
For years his family had visited and lived on Cape Cod, and Gorey had spent most of his summers there. In 1979 he purchased a 200-year-old sea captain’s home in Yarmouth Port, and in 1983 resolved to leave New York City and live on the Cape. He became even more active with his small experimental plays and continued to exhibit his work and publish widely.
He left his estate to a charitable trust, which he established for the welfare of all living creatures, including not only cats, dogs, whales and birds, but also bats, insects, and even invertebrates. After his death in 2000, his Cape Cod home was converted into the Edward Gorey House museum with profits and programs focused on benefiting animals. Located in the park-like setting of the Yarmouth Port common on an elegant “horseshoe” of several attractive old New England homes, Edward Gorey House, open seasonally, has become a very successful cultural attraction and has contributed to the community with interesting exhibitions, programs, and events for children as well as adults.
Humorous, complex, serious and provocative, Gorey’s creative body of work includes illustrations for writers other than himself, many of whom are famous and include Nobel Prize and Pulitzer Prize winners. He has received wide praise for his work from such notables as Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov, Hermann Hesse, Max Ernst, Oskar Kokoschka, Agatha Christie, and many others.
Edward Gorey’s diverse achievements in literature, art, theater, and illustration, have made him a permanent part of world culture.
Andreas L. Brown
Gotham Book Mart & Gallery
The Edward Gorey Charitable Trust