A campaign has been launched to recognize American queer artist Edward Gorey, whose “sinister whimsy” drawings inspired everyone from the novelist Lemony Snicket to film director Tim Burton, with a US postage stamp on his 100th birthday in 2025.
“Eccentric” isn’t strong enough to describe the writer, illustrator, puppeteer and theatre designer known to some as the “Grandfather of Goth”.
The late ballet fanatic stalked 1960s and 70s New York in ripped jeans, raccoon fur coat, costume jewelry and an Edwardian beard, and kept a mummified head stored in a closet.
He illustrated hundreds of books for authors like Samuel Beckett, TS Eliot and HG Wells alongside an emerging Andy Warhol, and won two Tony awards for his 1977 Broadway revival of Dracula.
Gorey created more than 100 tiny books filled with morbid, camp, Victorian-style crosshatch etchings, including The Glorious Nosebleed, The Fatal Lozenge and The Gashlycrumb Tinies, which dispatched children in rhyming couplets (beginning “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs” and ending “Z is for Zillah who drank too much gin”). He died surrounded by 25,000 books, leaving his fortune to animal charities in honour of his six cats.
“Goreyphiles” include film-makers Wes Anderson and Monty Python, fashion designer Anna Sui, Snicket creator Daniel Handler and Coraline author Neil Gaiman. His most obvious “fan”, Burton, remains mute, although the set designer for The Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas reportedly confirmed the influence.
Yet, he’s not a household name.
“He’s that oxymoron: a mainstream cult,” said Mark Dery, author of a Gorey biography, Born to Be Posthumous.
“The people making culture are influenced by Gorey but … the ordinary folks who dine on a steady diet of Hollywood blockbusters and Marvel franchises might not be aware that they know Gorey without knowing him.”
The Edward Gorey House, a museum opened in his 200-year-old house in Yarmouth Port, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, after he died in 2000 aged 75, hopes to change that.
Last month they organised a letter-writing campaign to the US Postal Service, with Gorey now reaching “committee stage” for consideration as a celebrity stamp.
Past examples include author James Baldwin, astronaut Sally Ride, and this year, the Native and African American sculptor Edmonia Lewis.
Why has recognition taken so long?
Dery said: “To my mind, what made him inimical to becoming a mass phenomenon … and taking his place in the pantheon of US culture … is his profound queerness.”
Gorey famously rejected classification: a gothic writer who wasn’t goth, a children’s author who didn’t write for children, a graphic novel genre founder who insisted he wrote “Victorian novels all scrunched up”.
Whether he identified as LGBT+ or asexual is a fierce debate between those who consider him a workaholic more interested in cats, and others, like Fun Home author Alison Bechdel, who revere his work’s iconic queerness, regardless of his personal preference.
In 1980 Gorey told Boston magazine “I suppose I’m gay”, but said that he didn’t like the label, was “undersexed” and “a person before I am anything else.”
In more recent times the elements of his art that reference sexuality and gender have been informing the work of younger artists.
“He was a man of mystery,” said Kevin Shortsleeve, associate professor of children’s literature at Christopher Newport University, Virginia, who considers Gorey on a par with Maurice Sendak, a contemporary Goreyphile who wrote the world-famous Where the Wild Things Are.
“He left ambiguity, unfinished endings, essentially ‘white space’, in his work and life … letting people read between the lines and fill in themselves.”
Born in Chicago in 1925, the hardcore anglophile drew on 19th century, acid-tongued, LGBT+ British satirists and “literary nonsense” writers including Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, cautionary tales, Penny Dreadful comics and woodcut drawings.
He graduated from Harvard in 1950, allegedly a member of its “gay underground” along with his roommate, the poet Frank O’Hara, during the rise of McCarthyism when LGBT+ communities were considered the “lavender menace”.
Prof Shortsleeve credits the lack of mainstream success partly to that “conservative, pre-Stonewall era”, with “sanitised” literature and LGBT+ figures living “flamboyant”, coded lives hidden in plain sight.
The Curious Sofa didn’t help.
Billed on the cover as “pornographic’” yet containing no nudity, with “action” taking place in furtive glances and innuendo, the 1961 book was eagerly stocked by children’s bookstores wanting to repeat the success of Wuggly Ump – but was quickly removed.
“People were afraid of him,” said Shortsleeve.
“His transgressive work marks a huge leap in nonsense, modernist and postmodernist literature that went unrecognised. When I ask 30 students who he is, one person raises their hand. For those who know, his impact is incalculable.”
A fanbase he may have embraced is the death positive movement.
In 2018 The Death Salon hosted a Gorey party in Mount Auburn cemetery, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, featuring funeral directors and a “haute macabre” dress code. The $225 tickets sold out in 24 hours.
Megan Rosenbloom, Death Salon’s director, hailed Gorey’s gallows humour in the face of “western death denial”, adding: “I get the same fuzzy feeling from Gorey as others do from Winnie the Pooh.”
According to legend, Gorey quit New York for the Cape “in protest” when ballet director George Balanchine, whose performances he never missed, died in 1983.
Though he didn’t immediately occupy the derelict house he bought, to avoid displacing the raccoons until they were “ready.”
His increasing interest in animal welfare led him to sell his fur coats, which still appear at auctions.
New York Studio School art historian Karen Wilkin, who befriended him as a ballet student, recalls rooms “verging on hoarding … suffering from fleas”, with Gorey “a cultural encyclopedia” obsessively watching Japanese silent films or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, while sewing puppets now fetching thousands.
“I can hear his sighs,” she said of the stamp campaign, “like: ‘Why are they doing this?’. Secretly, he would have liked it.”
One man who would buy many stamps is Ken Morton, son of Gorey’s cousin Skee, immortalised in The Deranged Cousins (Sotheby’s is selling a first edition for $1,100), and the only child whose relationship with Gorey didn’t involve murder by ink.
“I had no idea of his … fame when I was growing up”, said Morton, who remembers “Uncle Ted” in jean shorts doing jigsaws.
“It was after his death that I learned just how big a deal he was, globally. He may actually be incomparable.”
At Gorey’s house, between “dead” puppets flung under carpets purged of fleas (“G is for Gregory smothered under a rug”), a quote on the wall says: “Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost ever does; that’s what makes it so boring.”
• This article was amended on 2 May 2022 to correct a misquote of Mark Dery, and to make clear that Gorey illustrated books alongside Warhol, not for Warhol as an earlier version said due to an editing error. It was further amended on 7 May 2022 to clarify that debate about Gorey’s personal life centres on his sexuality rather than gender, but that both these elements of his art are informing the work of young artists.