Book Excerpt: The Cinephiliac Tendencies of Author/Illustrator Edward Gorey

Mark Dery's new biography 'Born to Be Posthumous' includes details on the Godfather of Goth's time in NYC film-buff circles, alongside Susan Sontag and Andrew Sarris.

Edward Gorey was one of the most influential artists of a very specific contemporary pop culture aesthetic; he’s sometimes called the Godfather of Goth. But who was this eccentric illustrator and author, beyond the tall tales of his peculiar dress and cat-and-book-filled home? Author Mark Dery attempts to answer that question in Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey (out now from Little, Brown), a wickedly entertaining biography that captures much of the gonzo spirit of Gorey’s work. It’s full of insights and surprises — including, in this excerpt, the time he spent running in New York’s film buff scene:

Nineteen fifty-three turned out to be a watershed year for Gorey: not only did he move to New York, install himself at 36 East 38th Street, settle into the nine-to-five routine at Doubleday — his first real job — and publish his first book, he also immersed himself in the New York City Ballet, the Gotham Book Mart, and, lastly, the movie screenings hosted by the film historian William K. Everson — hubs of activity whose artistic pleasures, intellectual excitements, and social mi- lieu would feed his art and fill his life throughout his time in New York.

Gorey discovered Everson’s circle of movie buffs, the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, “not long after January 1953,” according to Brown. Originally known as the Film Circle, the Huff Society was a loose-knit group of movie buffs who met for screenings of rarely seen silents, early talkies, and foreign gems from the ’20s and ’30s. The group had coalesced in ’52, when Theodore Huff and Everson, film histori- ans and pioneering preservationists, started getting together with a few of their movie-industry friends to screen prints of hard-to-find titles. When Huff died, in March of ’53, Everson renamed the group in his honor.

The Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society was just the sort of cultish group Gorey was drawn to, a secret society knitted together by shared obsession rather than camaraderie, like the “in crowd” dissecting Balanchine at City Center or the impossibly knowledgeable clerks at the Gotham or the cocktail-party aesthetes in Eliot House. A non profit endeavor sustained (just barely) by ticket sales, the Huff Society scrounged projection space wherever it could — one month a film studio, another month a movie theater or even a room in a psychiatric institute (which was appropriate, Everson joked, given the oddballs his screenings attracted).

When Gorey met him, Everson was a publicist for independent film distributors. Later, he would win acclaim among cineastes as a pioneering preservationist of disintegrating silents (which movie studios viewed, at the time, as Dumpster fodder). An ardent cinephile with a prodigious knowledge of pre-’40s film, he used the nearly twenty books he wrote on movie history to promote the serious study of the silent era.

By the 1970s, he’d amassed a hoard of more than four thousand feature films, which he kept in stacks in his overstuffed apartment on the Upper West Side. Huff Society members whom he found simpatico comprised an inner circle, invited to Saturday night screenings at his home. Gorey was one of the devotees who squeezed into Everson’s living room. If an evening was oversubscribed and all the chairs were taken, overflow attendees sat on film canisters piled high.

“When my dad was having his Saturday night screenings, there was no other way to see these films that he was showing,” says Everson’s daughter, Bambi. “That’s why we had this conglomeration of really wonderful people and then the people that came regularly.” Among the wonderful people were Andrew Sarris, the noted critic and standard-bearer for the auteur theory, and Susan Sontag. As for the regulars, Bambi remembers them as “molelike people” with “pasty white skin” who “lived in their mothers’ basements.”

Gorey kept his distance. His devastating zingers were his way of discouraging chumminess, she believes. “The other people just sat in their chairs, feverishly writing notes, and during the break they would ask dumb questions,” she says. Gorey, by contrast, “had a sardonic wit. . . . [W]hen one of the Great Unwashed would say something, he would come back with a witty retort.”

“He definitely had a camp sensibility,” recalls Howard Mandelbaum, an alumnus of Everson’s Saturday night screenings and cofounder of the entertainment-photo archive Photofest. Ted’s startling height, “thrift-store bohemian” garb, and stentorian delivery, perfect for broadcasting opinions about the evening’s fare, made an impression on Mandelbaum, then a “pretty unworldly junior-high-school student.” Gorey liked gossip, he recalls: “We talked about [the French model and actress] Capucine. She was a very beautiful actress who was rumored to have had a sex change, she was the mistress of William Holden, she was in Song Without End, North to Alaska. [He] enjoyed the possibility that she might have been a man.”

Gorey and Everson struck up a friendship. They would remain friends until the ’70s, when Gorey’s attendance at screenings dropped off, presumably because of his growing freelance illustration workload. In the days before streaming services such as Netflix and premium cable, when the chance to see a rare or suppressed movie might come once in a lifetime (if ever), Everson’s “incredible collection” was an Aladdin’s cave for movie addicts. His Saturday night screenings gave Gorey a degree in film history, broadening and deepening his knowledge of pre–World War II cinema, specifically the silent era.

It’s tempting to dismiss Gorey’s comment that “movies made a terrible mistake when they started to talk” as his usual calculated outrageousness. In this case, however, he was deadly serious. When an interviewer asked why silent films appealed to him, he replied, “It’s what you had to leave out. . . . [O]ur imagination is engaged, whereas movies today get more in your face by the moment. What has killed movies is the special effects. See one screen filled with flames and you’ve seen all of them. . . . And if it’s a special-effects movie, you’ve seen all the effects already in the trailer, so don’t bother to go.”

Gorey’s belief that the silents were superior to the talkies makes perfect sense in light of his aesthetic preference for the understated and the unstated, as in Asian art and literature, and his attraction to the highly stylized, as in Firbank and Balanchine. He abhorred Hollywood’s increasing tendency to pander to the lowest common denominator for the same reason he lost patience with Henry James novels: the lunkheaded insistence on explaining things to death, which kills ambiguity and, with it, subtlety, leaving no room for imaginative participation by the audience. Film exerted a profound influence on Gorey’s aesthetic. “I’ve been watching movies for close to seventy years,” he told an interviewer in 1998. “My family took me to movies very early. I’ve always been an inveterate moviegoer. There was a period in New York where I would see a thousand movies a year.” If this strains credulity, bear in mind that Everson’s screenings sometimes verged on endurance tests: “Movies used to be an hour long,” Gorey recalled, “but we’d see twelve or fifteen movies and be bleary by the time it was all over.”

Excerpt from Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey by Mark Dery, out now from Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.