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A Little Attention, Not Too Much, for Edward Gorey

Art* The late eccentric illustrator was not one for the spotlight. Family and friends have created a tribute to his life and work in his Cape Cod home.

September 07, 2002|THEO EMERY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

YARMOUTH, Mass. — Edward Gorey never passed up a chance to give a gift--unless it involved a birthday bash, a Christmas gala, an anniversary party or any event where an admiring stranger might thrust the shy author and illustrator to the center of attention.

So he probably would have grumbled aloud about the spotlight on his life at the Edward Gorey House, a tribute to all things Gorey that opened in July in his beloved Cape Cod home, where he suffered a fatal heart attack in April 2000.

Secretly, however, Gorey might have been pleased by efforts from friends, family and an anonymous foundation to preserve his eccentric legacy.

"I thought, initially, he would hate the idea, but now I don't know," says Herb Senn, 77, a longtime friend. "I think he liked a little adulation.... Not too much, but some, and from the right people."

Gorey's famed art work, clutter and vast library are carefully culled into exhibits chronicling his life. The four walls of the 200-year-old cedar shingle home can barely contain the bulging legacy of the artist idolized for his morbid depictions of domestic life, prim murders, Edwardian intrigue and fantastic characters.

The house might have been sold to a home buyer had a private foundation not stepped in, bought the property and helped open a museum in his honor, says another friend, Andreas Brown, the owner of Gotham Book Mart & Gallery in New York.

"I do believe that Gorey was one of the creative geniuses of the 20th century, and the tribute that's paid to him by the foundation and the people on the Cape is deserved," says Brown, who is also the executor of Gorey's estate.

Gorey, 75 when he died, is best known for just a handful of works. His sets and costumes for the Broadway production of "Dracula" won him a Tony Award in 1978, and the introductory animation he drew for the PBS series "Mystery!" introduced him to millions of television viewers.

The macabre PBS sequence depicts a string of seemingly unconnected vignettes--a gowned damsel in distress, sinister men in bowler hats and handlebar mustaches, dark figures playing croquet in a rainstorm.

Another unforgettable work is his book, "The Gashlycrumb Tinies," part of his three-volume "Vinegar Works" and one of his more than 100 books. "The Gashlycrumb Tinies" chronicles the grisly demise of 26 children, beginning: "A is for Amy who fell down the stairs," and ending with "Z is for Zillah, who drank too much gin."

But those works are only a tantalizing sample of his work. Despite the grim--if facetious--nature of his best-known art, Gorey's playful sense of humor left an impression remembered among his tightknit group of friends and family, and gained him a near cult-like status among admirers.

"In his day-to-day life, it would be hard to believe that he would be someone who would create the works he did. He was not a morbid or macabre person," says Gorey's cousin, Ken Morton, who was consulted by the museum.

Bizarre characters and creatures perch, mope and pedal through his dreamy artwork, such as an alligator that rides a bicycle upside down, the "Doubtful Guest" that stumps through a book by the same name, wearing tennis shoes and a scarf, and Mr. Earbrass, who plays an unstrung harp in a massive fur coat.

His verse was as mischievous as his art. In a miniature book titled "The Eclectic Abecedarium," published in 1983 (there are only 300 copies, numbered 101 through 400), he advises, "Pick up loose crumbs upon your thumbs," and "Be loath to drink Indian Ink."

Gorey left thousands of books and jumbled piles of bric-a-brac, artwork and found items in his home, which he purchased in the early 1980s and where he lived with his cats.

After he died, much of the house's contents were dispersed to friends and family, who were invited, according to his will, to come help themselves. Many items were eventually donated to the museum.

On view in the house are bowls of rocks he displayed around his kitchen, his doorknob and cheese-grater collection, rusty spoils from yard sales, and the stuffed toy animals he made: frogs, elephants and his "Figbash," a long-limbed character in some of his works.

There were also posters that he made for Cape Cod theater productions, such as one for Theater on the Bay's 1995 production of "Salome," depicting Salome kicking John the Baptist's head in the air. The production's opening act was a Gorey puppet show titled "Six who pass while the lentils boil."

A back room for children is dedicated to animal welfare organizations Gorey supported, among them the Tufts Veterinary School in Grafton and the Xerces Society, which protects invertebrates such as butterflies, beetles, squids and snails.

Gorey, a Taoist, delighted in all animals--with a particular love of creatures shunned by humans, such as bats. Later in life, he became a passionate animal rights supporter, permanently shedding his trademark fur coat.

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