Sat February 19, 2011

The Life Of Edward Gorey, Told By An Old Friend

It's difficult to describe the illustrations of Edward Gorey without using the word "macabre." Death was often a subject of his drawings, and the way he depicted evil adults and dispatched mischievous children often provoked horror. However, his work often provoked humor. Besides, he didn't like the word "macabre."

Gorey died in 2000 at the age of 75. Not long after, a slim paperback called The Strange Case of Edward Gorey was published. It was written by Alexander Theroux, one of Gorey's close friends — he had few. Recently, Theroux went back to the now-out-of-print original monograph to rewrite, expand and redesign it. It's just been published in hardcover, and Theroux spoke to Weekend Edition Sunday host Liane Hansen about his peculiar longtime friend.

When asked why Gorey didn't like the word "macabre," Theroux says: "I think he heard it too much — 'ghoulish' and 'macabre' — in interviews. He never really liked to talk about his work to make a paradoxical point, and everyone always went through that gate when they were talking to Edward Gorey, and I think over the years he wanted to talk about other things.

"He was a cartoonist in the widest definition and a major illustrator in the smallest," Theroux says. "But I think his particular style grew out of the fascination with pen and ink drawings. He once told me it was so hard to get a book published in color in the early 1950s that all his books were in black and white. And his drawings got more and more oblique — his subject matter was the 1920s, and he always fit his drawings to that particular world, the Edwardian period."

Gorey wrote more than 90 books, illustrated some 60 others, designed sets, and won a Tony Award for the show Dracula. Yet it seems Gorey thought his work was ephemeral and almost insubstantial.

"If you asked him what was behind The Dwindling Party, which was a mysterious pop-up book," Theroux says, "he would say, 'I'll leave you to tell me — I don't even know.' He loved that phrase, 'I don't even know.' "

Yet Gorey's humility made him open to meeting with strangers, an openness that led to his meeting with Theroux in 1972.

"I was in a bookstore and bought several of his books, and the proprietor told me he lived virtually around the corner," says Theroux. "I couldn't believe it. So I drove over and knocked on his door and took a photograph, and he signed some books. And I had written some stories I thought he might want to illustrate. And so it was a question of my being a fan and just knocking on his door."

This was not the only case of Gorey entertaining his fans at home. He was even listed in the phone book. "He was a very poor hermit," says Theroux. "Goth people would flock over there — and he would say, 'We've got customers.' They'd say, 'I love your work!' and start gushing, and he'd say, 'Thank you ... now what?' But he was always very accessible, and people would always stop over to see him."

Theroux notes that Gorey was a man of very peculiar habits: "I still see myself just sitting in his kitchen. There was always a melancholy tone to his voice, and he would give you white toast with a cinnamon shaker.

"He was very campy, in the Susan Sontag sense," Theroux continues. "He could also be very serious. He read every book possible. He had wide interests. There wasn't a subject that didn't interest him. I always said I wondered which Edward Gorey would show up on a given day. He was a film critic, he was interested in cooking. He was a man that would seem to be a bird of paradise, very ornate — but he could be a quiet and subdued and fairly shy person."

And you wouldn't know it from looking at his drawings, but Gorey also loved soap operas, especially All My Children.

"He would sew beanbags while he watched television," Theroux says of Gorey's eclectic habits. "He went to the movies almost every night. He could segue from reading a book on Wittgenstein to watching The Golden Girls. He was curious about everything, which is a great virtue in a person. He needed to have a lot of movement in his mind, a lot of water going over the stones in his mind."

Theroux says his old friend was a true free spirit; a curious, kind and adventurous soul.

"Edward was one of the few people I ever knew who did exactly what he wanted," he says. "He went his own way." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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