The man in the yellow fur coat

As the Boston Athenaeum stages an Edward Gorey retrospective, his biographer reflects on the artist's lasting legacy
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  February 5, 2011

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The cultural critic Mark Dery worked as a clerk for Manhattan's Gotham Book Mart in the early '80s. One afternoon, he was taken by surprise.

"There was a jingle at the door," he recalls. "In walks this tall derrick of a man with this beard that was a cross between Santa Claus and a Victorian littérateur — a kind of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow flowing white beard — balding dome; lavishly be-ringed, these lavish iron rings dripping from every finger; this clanging sound of amulets and talismans and African fetishes, necklace upon necklace around his neck; and then this floor-length fur coat, dyed Easter-egg yellow."

And that was just the outfit. "He came swanning through the door with somebody trailing behind him, speaking in this high, fluting, swooping voice — a melodramatic figure, equal parts Carnaby Street and Oscar Wilde."

That melodramatic derrick turned out to be none other than the writer and illustrator Edward Gorey.

"I was spellbound," Dery says — so spellbound, in fact, he embarked on a lifelong fandom, culminating in a Gorey biography recently acquired by Little, Brown and Company.

Today, visitors can see the rings and amulets and talismans locked in a glass-covered bookshelf in the parlor of the Edward Gorey House — the museum established at Gorey's Yarmouth residence after he died in 2000. The yellow fur coat — one of 21 Gorey collected in his lifetime — was auctioned by Bloomsbury early this year.

After Tuesday, interested parties won't have to travel so far afield. For the next five months, the Boston Athenaeum will house a career-spanning exhibit called "Elegant Enigmas: The Art of Edward Gorey," containing illustrations from the hundred-plus books Gorey wrote in his lifetime and the drawings he began to make only a few years after his birth in 1925.

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Gorey's grayscale pen-and-ink illustrations — of malevolent objects, dead children, and soignée, dead-eyed aristocrats — are instantly recognizable. Other favored subjects include the ballet and cats, and some of his most iconic drawings depict cheerful, globular kitties wearing ballet shoes. "He thought of [cats] as alien beings who had entered into his home," Dery says. "He told a story about the cats all looking up at once and staring into thin air — he was convinced they had seen a spectral presence."

Perhaps it was the spectral presence of his sexuality — or lack thereof. "Most of Gorey's intimates . . . claim never to have seen him with anyone," says Dery, who speculates Gorey might have been asexual. "If he was simply a closeted gay man, he's historically anomalous in being utterly discreet."

David Dearinger, the Athenaeum curator who organized "Elegant Engimas," met Gorey along with Maurice Sendak and Jim Henson in New York in the early '70s. All ran in the extended social circle surrounding the creation of the Children's Television Workshop. "They all had weird sensibilities," he says. "They had wonderful senses of humor that were a little bit off."

Dery believes that Gorey has at last joined Roald Dahl and Dr. Seuss in the pantheon of strange men who exert undue influence on the world's children. The notion that childhood can be fraught, can be wicked, can be, in fact, ironic, has a direct line back to a man whose most popular work, The Gashleycrumb Tinies, is an alphabet book in which, for each letter, a child gets it.

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