Brown’s merchandising of Gorey products presses on successfully today, with calendars, bookmarks, T-shirts, postcards, mugs — you name it! — widely available. Dery, however, takes potshots at Brown and his co-trustee of the now very rich Edward Gorey Charitable Trust, especially for their handling of the immense Gorey archive. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Brown would not sit for an official interview for “Born to Be Posthumous.” Nor did the two friends to whom Gorey left $100,000 each in his will: Connie Joerns and the dance critic Robert Greskovic, whom Dery barely mentions. And yet he boasts in his “note on sources” of the “more than 78 in-depth interviews with people who’d known Gorey, each of which was recorded and transcribed to ensure accuracy.” What does he think biographers do? He’s also proud of having “tracked down the addresses Gorey called home during his Chicago boyhood.” If only he hadn’t! At times his passion for detail is just bewildering. Did we need to know that Bobbs-Merrill, the publishing house where Gorey spent a “dreary” year, was located at 3 West 57th Street?
Dery isn’t an experienced biographer, so it’s understandable that he stumbles. But he is an experienced writer, and although parts of his Gorey book are persuasively written — as are the bulk of the essays in his collection, “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” — the new book is so swamped in clichés that I kept being reminded of the famous pieces Frank Sullivan wrote for The New Yorker about a fictional Mr. Arbuthnot, “the cliché expert.” People in the Dery universe pound the pavement and keep an eye peeled, books both fly off the racks and roll off the presses, letters fly thick and fast, things speak volumes, are grist for the Freudian mills and do a land-office business (in no time flat). And, speaking of The New Yorker, Dery seems fixated on it — why else, when referring to a profile of Gorey by Stephen Schiff, does he identify him nine times as writing in the magazine? And speaking yet again of The New Yorker, why doesn’t Dery capitalize its “The”? Where, indeed, are the copy editors at his generally excellent publisher, Little, Brown?
By the mid-80s, once Gorey was permanently installed in his house in Yarmouth Port, his books had become somewhat predictable and thin — more manner than content. “Gone,” Dery accurately reports, “was the spiderweb delicacy of his classic style, replaced by a thicker, bolder line. Gone, too, were the eye-buzzing pattern-on-pattern compositions and dizzily detailed wallpaper of his heyday, exchanged for monochrome backdrops.” One gets the feeling that he was going through the motions. Alexander Theroux, author of the interesting if factually precarious “The Strange Case of Edward Gorey,” told an interviewer that, in around 1990, Gorey had told him that “he’d lost his talent.” But he was enjoying his life. His enduring fascination with theater had gripped him again, and he was the driving force behind countless amateur plays, puppet shows and revues that absorbed most of his time and energy and gave him endless pleasure — sometimes more pleasure than they gave his local audiences.
His tastes in his later years were if anything wider and seemingly more than ever incompatible with one another. Genji and Mozart and Balanchine, yes, but also “Buffy” and “Golden Girls” and “All My Children.” As for movies, he venerated the glorious silent serials of Feuillade and the masterpieces of Ozu and Naruse but he also indulged happily in the most graphic splatter films. When asked whether these popular tastes reflected “a scholarly interest in American pop culture,” he answered, “No, I just like trash.” Similarly, his highly personal collections, mostly culled from yard sales, extended to worn stuffed animals, telephone pole insulators, rocks and old machinery (“I just like rusted iron”). As for success, after “Dracula” he said, “I began to realize what it would be like to be rich and famous, but I’ve decided unh-unh.” In this, he uncannily resembles Paul Taylor.
In other words, he un-self-consciously and firmly lived by his own lights — a perfect example of the “inner-directed man” of David Riesman’s “The Lonely Crowd.” An admiring Dick Cavett put it this way: “You have done exactly, as I see it, what you want to do.” To which Gorey, true to form, replied: “Well, I guess I have. But only because I didn’t really see any way of doing anything else.” He even died his own way, stubbornly refusing to take standard precautionary measures that would almost certainly have postponed the heart attack that killed him in 2000.
His way baffled a lot of people, because there weren’t a lot of people like him. Chris Seufert, who filmed him for a documentary, said: “My background in anthropology really was appropriate. My sense, shooting him, was that he was indeed the last of a disappearing race. … But the thing with Edward was, there was no race. He was the most one-of-a-kind person you’d ever meet.”
His mother, candid as always, summed things up this way: “But then, Ted always did puzzle me.”