It’s a Miserable Life: Edward Gorey and The Golden Girls

I’m passionately devoted to reruns. Like, for instance, up until just last week, late in the afternoon, you could watch three different ‘Golden Girls’ reruns in the space of an hour and a half. I’ve seen them all fifteen times, I’m sure.

Edward Gorey, 1992

Just when I thought I’d heard of every nuance related to The Golden Girls along came that bit of trivia about one of my favorite artists, Edward Gorey. Usually I like to honor the Girls and others on their birthday rather than when they died, but for the macabre obsessed Edward Gorey it seems only fitting to use his death date of April 15th instead. Let’s delve into the surprising connections between Gorey and The Golden Girls, shall we?

Edward Gorey was born in Chicago on February 22, 1929 and died on Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 2000. I first encountered his illustrations on the covers of children’s novels by John Bellairs in a public library in the early 1990s. Gorey is known for his distinctive style of crosshatched “pen-and-ink drawings of vaguely Victorian Englishpersons suffering ghastly fates and demises, often described in droll rhyme.” Gorey wrote more than 100 of his own books, many of which are collected in the Amphigorey volumes. He also illustrated over 200 book covers for Doubleday Anchor and other publishers and created numerous illustrations for magazines. Many people are also familiar with Gorey’s work from the title sequences he created for the PBS Mystery! series. His favorite elements included “swirling wallpaper, jittery carpets, ponderous draperies, tea sets, balustrades, [and] urns” in scenes that recalled his own home that was filled with books and bric-a-brac he had collected over the years.

It was in a 1992 profile for The New Yorker that Gorey revealed his fondness for The Golden Girls, and a 2018 biography noted that Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a favorite show as well. He also recorded episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation and The X-Files on VHS tapes. Recently, Gregory Hischak, the curator at the Edward Gorey House, shared that Gorey would often sew small fabric toys of cats and other creatures while watching his favorite shows. When asked on a Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross, also from 1992, Gorey described his television tastes as “mostly trash.” Perhaps he was a bit self-conscious of his reputation as an aesthete with that remark, but watching reruns of network television wasn’t quite as celebrated then as it is now.

Gorey also loved the ballet, opera, and classical music. For many years he was a fixture at performances by the New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center and was devoted to the choreography of George Balanchine. In 1977 he designed the sets and costumes for the revival of Dracula on Broadway and won a Tony award for Best Costume Design. Although known for wearing fur coats throughout his time living in Manhattan, Gorey was also an ardent animal lover, especially of cats. He gave up wearing the coats when he moved to Cape Cod in the 80s, remarking that he was “perhaps insensitive at the time,” and left his entire estate to animal charities. Further, “as stipulated by Gorey in his will, the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust continues to support these causes through local and national organizations.”

His work is often called strange, sinister, and, yes, macabre. But for all the darkness, humor is always at the forefront of his illustrations. Gorey loved using playful anagrams of his own name like Ogred Weary, and his work is filled with other clever word plays, rhymes, and verses. His penchant for outlandish, and often nonsensical, storytelling rivals even the wildest of Rose’s St. Olaf’s stories. For instance, read his “The Hapless Child” in which a little girl named Charlotte Sophia gets run over by her own father, and you can’t help but think of St. Sigmund’s Day and the Headless Boy, however his demise may have surmised. Many of his stories, such as “The Curious Sofa,” also playfully comment on the dubious nature of morality in society, much like Sophia’s trademark fables from Sicily. Gorey described himself as “much more optimistic than I am pessimistic” in the 1992 New Yorker interview, and it’s easy to imagine him having a laugh when a St. Olaf story takes a wrong turn, as they usually do. The Great Herring War comes to mind as a distinctly Gorey-ish moment. “After that, no other herring would do it,” after all. Other moments like the Celia Rubenstein mix up in “It’s A Miserable Life” are also quite reminiscent of Gorey’s trademark dark humor. I can also glimpse a kinship in the scenic details of his instantly recognizable style with the iconic set design of The Golden Girls.

More and more, I think you should have no expectations and do everything for its own sake. That way you won’t get hit in the head quite so frequently.

Edward Gorey, 1992

While Gorey didn’t mention any specific episodes of The Golden Girls, it seems reasonable to expect that ones like “The Case of the Libertine Bell,” “Journey to the Center of Attention,” and “Henny Penny – Straight, No Chaser” would certainly have been favorites considering his love of the arts and humorous whodunits. I think he also would’ve appreciated Blanche’s attempt at becoming a great Southern writer in “Sick and Tired: Part 1,” to say nothing of the numerous literary references in “Dorothy’s New Friend.” And I’m also sure he would’ve loved the reference to CATS in “Bang the Drum, Stanley” since his illustrations for T.S. Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book Of Practical Cats (the source material for the Broadway musical) are among his most well-known works.

Since I didn’t truly get into The Golden Girls until I was an adult, I love knowing now that an artist I’ve loved since childhood was watching reruns of the show at the same time I connected with his work as a child. Discovering that Edward Gorey was a fan of The Golden Girls has also been a wonderful reminder of the show’s unique ability to connect with a wide variety of people.

Further Reading

Edward Gorey and the Tao of Nonsense

Edward Gorey and the Power of the Ineffable

Hapless Children: Drawings from Mr. Gorey’s Neighborhood

Gorey Tales: The Art and Stories of Edward Gorey

How peculiar it is

Uncategorizably Edward Gorey

Edward Gorey: A Highly Conjectural Man

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