“E” is for Edward — Gorey, and his eccentric Cape Cod home.
Artist’s Mass. abode now is a fun museum
There lies George, his lifeless legs poking out from beneath a rug. An unfortunate death, to be sure, but it could have been worse. An entire case holding thousands of theater ticket stubs could have fallen on him, flattening the poor boy like an anvil.
Edward Gorey might have been macabre, but he wasn’t cruel.
The Edward Gorey House, in Yarmouth Port, Mass., is stuffed with references to the author’s illustrated books (for George et al., see “The Gashlycrumb Tinies”) as well as artifacts that offer a cobwebbed window into his world.
“We don’t use the ‘H’ word,” said docent Emily Wood. “We say that he was an enthusiastic collector.”
The Chicago-born writer and artist spent his last 14 years residing in a 200-year-old sea captain’s house on Cape Cod. When he died in 2000, he was survived by a pair of cousins in nearby Barnstable, more than 100 works of literature and a home suffocated by stuff.
The museum, which opened in 2002, changes its exhibits annually. Past shows have included “From Aesop to Updike, Edward Gorey’s Book Cover Art,” “F is for Fantods” and “Edward Gorey’s Envelope Art.” The current “Edward Gorey’s Cabinet of Curiosities” runs through Dec. 31. (The museum closes Jan. 1 till April 15 to assemble the next show.)
This year’s theme centers on Wunderkammers, the 15th-century tradition of galleries, a predecessor to our modern-day museums. Emily said that the staff didn’t know if Gorey had amassed goods for intellectual reasons or because of pack-rat urges. Or maybe he was just feeling expansive: After squishing into a tiny Manhattan apartment for years, Gorey finally had the space for his 25,000 books, rocks, glass vessels, tarot cards and kitchen tools, among other belongings.
Emily led me through the entire first floor, starting in the Front Room and ending in the Ball Room, a repository of round objects. We passed the main entrance, which Gorey never used. A fervent animal lover, he avoided the door because he didn’t want to upset a bird’s nest in the screen. Attic renovations took an exceptionally long time because he scheduled the construction around the comings and goings of a family of resident raccoons.
“He gave more personality and character to animals and inanimate objects,” said Gregory Hischak, the museum’s curator. “He drew people in a very naive manner.”
The creator of the intro to PBS’s “Mystery!” also killed them off.
The museum invites visitors to embark on a scavenger hunt inspired by “The Gashleycrumb Tinies,” an alphabet lesson illustrated by the grim deaths of wee ones. Find all of the deadly devices — tacks, peach, leech, awl, ennui — and win a (nonfatal) bookmark.
“All 26 unfortunate and somewhat dim children are around the house,” said Emily, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper to add, “Susan is behind me.” (She died of fits.)
Gorey’s artistic skills, as well as his skewed sense of humor, surfaced at a young age. He drew his first work of art, “Sausage Train,” when he was 18 months old. (The sketch resembles snow peas with training wheels.) He created his first book, “Sketches in Two Volumes with Supplement,” at the age of 12. He drew a detective dog and nattily dressed cats that seem to presage his animal rights activism and sartorial style.
“He wore that everywhere,” Emily said of an ankle-length raccoon coat on display. “He’d wear it to the ballet with tennis shoes and jeans.”
I mentioned that the fur coats seemed to contradict his pro-critter stance.
“He wore them until PETA came along,” she joked.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he named his Cape Cod abode the Elephant House. Emily offered several possible reasons for the moniker: the gray roof shingles, which resembled the animal’s hide; a piece of pachyderm-headshaped driftwood he had discovered; or simply his fondness for the lumbering mammal.
Several photos feature Gorey with his brood of cats, another favorite creature. After his death, friends divvied up his ashes. They floated some out to sea on a raft decorated with magnolias and gave his mother in Chicago a pinch. The rest joined his cats’ remains in the back yard. Note to squeamish guests: The urn on display, which is wrapped in a Harvard scarf, is empty.
Gorey’s yen for accumulating objects is on towering display. He stockpiled potato mashers, cheese graters, frog figurines, door knobs, Beanie Babies and tassels, which played a menacing role in his 1976 picture book, “Les Passementeries Horribles.” In a case filled with board games and toys, a photo shows a bearded Gorey beaming after he completed a 500-piece puzzle of three bears that are the same shade of brown.
Just as he found laughter in death, he discovered beauty in bad art. The museum hangs some of his finds from flea markets and yard sales, such as a painting of a calendar-cute cat. He also purchased high-end art by French impressionists and modernists. The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., will share 75 of these works in its exhibit, “Gorey’s Worlds,” which runs from Feb. 10 through May 6, 2018.
“He wanted to give these artists hope,” Emily said of his equalopportunity approach.
Gorey accumulated a substantial sum of money as the set and costume designer for the 1977 Broadway revival of “Dracula,” which earned him a Tony Award for costume design. He used his earnings to buy the Cape Cod house. During the move from New York, he remembered to pack the arm of his mummy, which the museum encased in a Cinderella slipper-like box. However, he forgot its head on a closet shelf. A sign informs concerned visitors that the New York Police Department “may or may not have the lost head in lockup.”
In the kitchen, I learned about Gorey’s dining habits. He ate at Jack’s Outback almost daily. His friend, Rick Jones, who is the museum’s director and a previous co-owner of Jack’s, crafted a collage out of guest checks from the neighborhood restaurant. According to “A Month in the Life of Edward Gorey at Jack’s Outback,” June 1998 was a very good month for poached eggs in a bowl and English muffins with cream cheese.
The kitchen was also teeming with Tinies.
“Did you find the leech yet?” Emily asked a young boy gripping the checklist in one hand, a pencil in the other. “That’s not the only one in the corner. I don’t know who took a bite out of that peach, and don’t touch that hatchet. It’s sharp. Don’t forget this poor creature, either. She looks kind of sad.”
Of course she’s blue: Clara succumbed to wasting away.
In the gift shop, I ran into Rick and asked him if Gorey ever incorporated Cape Cod residents or locales into his stories. He said Gorey’s Barnstable relatives appeared in “The Deranged Cousins.”
“They all kill each other in the end,” he said.
If George weren’t under the rug, he surely would have cast a knowing glance our way.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: Gorey’s home for the last 14 years of his life now is a museum dedicated to his unique style. His sink features unfortuante character Una, from “The Gashlycrumb Tinies.” (She slipped down a drain.) Many of the glass-protected items were flea-market finds. Gorey’s trademark raccoon coat is on display next to a self-portrait.
ABOVE: Illustrator Edward Gorey left behind a large legacy of work — as well as a huge amount of, well, stuff.