Edward Gorey at Harvard

September 1950 Registration Issue of the Harvard Advocate. It contains, among other things, two poems and one story by "Francis" Frank O'Hara. The cover illustration is by Edward Gorey. 

As part of my internship for the Department of  Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, I compiled a report of sorts on Edward Gorey's milieu during his studies at Harvard. The impetus for collecting this information was a bequest to the museum of a group of envelopes hand-drawn by Gorey and sent to his childhood friend Sylvia Sights, who was in Chicago while he was in Cambridge. A story by Julia Vodrey Hendrickson featuring the envelopes and an interview with AIC's Curator of Prints and Drawings Mark Pascale can be found here. A Flickr set of a few of the envelopes can be found here. After the jump is the piece I wrote about Gorey's time at Harvard.

Edward Gorey at Harvard

Edward St. John Gorey, or Ted as he was called then, was educated at the progressive, private K-12 school Frances W. Parker School in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. While there he was a classmate and good friend of Sylvia Sights, née Simons. After a semester at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and a course in Japanese at the University of Chicago, Gorey was drafted into the army in 1943 and served two years of non-combatant military service in Utah.  His detail included filing morning reports as a company clerk at the Dugway Proving Ground near Salt Lake City in Utah. The proving ground was a site for testing mortars and poison gas.
     After his service Gorey began his studies at Harvard in 1946 at the age of twenty-one, though he was initially accepted into the school in 1943. He was part of the fabled class of 1950, the first to capitalize on the GI bill after World War Two. During that first post-war year Harvard’s student body ballooned in terms of sheer size, and also expanded in terms of social diversity. Though by no means a “multi-cultural” class in the way we think of that term today, the GI bill did allow many to attend Harvard who would otherwise never have had the financial wherewithal to do so. This was the case, for instance, for one of Gorey’s sophomore and junior year roommates, the poet Frank O’Hara.
     In 1946, veterans constituted 71 percent of all students at Harvard, pushing the enrollment to a record 5,435 students. This influx of former soldiers predictably precipitated a blowback on the campus of America’s most elite university; The Harvard Advocate
alternately referred to the change as a “siege” or “invasion.” Reacting to this “siege,” Harvard enacted new policies of compulsory attendance, roll call, and limited-access library cards.
     Like many veterans, Gorey lived on the first floor of Mower Hall his freshman year.
     Gorey decided to read French Literature at Harvard, picking his focus with the following reasoning: “I figured I’d read everything I wanted to read in English, but I would have to force myself to read all of French literature. And I thought I would like to read all of French literature.” Unfortunately for Gorey, Harvard had what he would term a “perfectly god-awful” French department at the time.
     Gorey downplayed his Harvard courses, saying the ones he took were “dim proceedings” during which he “went to sleep after lunch” and “bounced from the Dean’s List to probation and back again.” He lauds his French courses with especial praise, saying “most of my survey courses used to come right after lunch, in which I would have a nice nap…” Looking back on his studies, Gorey often complained that “many years later, I thought, ‘My god. I read about one French book a year. This is a great waste of my education.’ So I went out and bought lots of French books, but that’s about the extent of it.”
     Gorey said he “always felt a bit removed from Harvard.” And as for joining the Crimson
, Lampoon, Advocate or any other extra-curriculars – “We looked down on the whole thing.”
     The 1950 class contained many esteemed Americans: Daniel Ellsberg (Pentagon papers), Henry Kissinger (Secretary of State), and James R. Schlesinger (Secretary of Defense), to name a few. In the late 1940s, the following writers studied at Harvard, many of whom were part of Gorey’s coterie: Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, John Hawkes, Harold Brodkey, John Updike (who wrote a foreword for Elephant House, a book about Gorey’s home on Cape Cod), V.R. (Bunny) Lang, George Plimpton, and Alison Lurie.
    Many of Gorey and O’Hara’s friends were in orbit around a young poetry professor named John Ciardi, who wrote a “Letter from Harvard” at the time for the Chicago-based Poetry
magazine. Of his extended social circle at Harvard, Gorey said, “We all sort of gravitated together. Most of us took John Ciardi’s courses in creative writing. I wrote short stories and long poems in unrhymed tetrameter. All of us were obsessed. Obsessed by what? Ourselves, I expect.”
     Gorey and O’Hara’s circle inundated themselves with Oxbridge fiction, affecting the personalities of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited
set – like the alcoholic aristocrat Sebastian Flyte who carried a stuffed animal with him on campus and the bisexual painter, Charles Ryder, who loved both Flyte and Flyte's sister. In addition to Waugh, Gorey compulsively searched out books by Ronald Firbank, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elizabeth Bowen, C. Day-Lewis, and Henry Green. Other currents of influence in the air were French Surrealist poetry (Paul Valery, Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire, Stephane Mallarme, etc), Japanese Kabuki and Noh, and Hollywood's “guilty pleasures.”
    In O’Hara and Gorey’s scene, high and low cultures were effortlessly mixed, an uncommon mélange at the time. These influences had a profound, palpable affect on Gorey’s work, and the same wavelengths may be felt in O’Hara’s poetry, which often feels more aligned with Pop Art than the Abstract Expressionism his clique of painters were more involved in.  

     In his 1993 biography of Frank O’Hara, City Poet
, Brad Gooch describes Gorey as,
“Standing over six feet tall, thin and gaunt, Gorey accentuated the towering effect of his presence by dressing in long sheepskin-lined canvas coats and sneakers. Looking like a Victorian curiosity, Gorey invited inevitable characterizations from fellow students who perceived him as ‘tall and spooky looking’ or as a ‘specter.’ The costuming and gesturing, including, as one Eliot House neighbor recalls, ‘all the flapping around he did,’ decidedly cast him as a campus aesthete. ‘I remember the first day Ted Gorey came into the dining hall I though he was the oddest person I’d ever seen,’ recalls the photographer George Montgomery, an Eliot House resident. ‘He seemed very, very tall, with his hair plastered down across the front like bangs, like a Roman emperor. He was wearing rings on his fingers. It was very very faggoty.” 

     The long fur coats that Gorey was famous for wearing were likely adopted due to the posthumous influence of Boston Brahmin poet and Harvard alumnus John Wheelwright, a local legend who was killed by a drunk driver in 1940. O’Hara writes in a poem titled “A Wreath for John Wheelwright,” – “Now Wheelwright in a bear coat that wouldn’t house the small forest he had the key to…”

     As to how Gorey acted that first year at Harvard, Gooch writes,

“Gorey was appropriately vague in his pronouncements, especially about his own emotional states, but always spoke in such a way that clichés or commonplaces were given a twist, almost as if he were placing invisible quotation marks around them as he spoke. There was a lilting music in his quiet remarks that somehow implied humor in even the most serious of situations. He made whimsical drawings of endearingly ghoulish  Edwardian figures in ruffled collars, smoking jackets, and floor-length frocks, using India ink on scratch paper.”

     Though Gorey was said to carry himself in a “fey,” “affected,” “effete” manner (all code words for gay at the time), one should not think that post-war Harvard was a tolerant social sphere. Preceding the class of 1950’s arrival to Cambridge, The Harvard Advocate
, the school’s literary magazine, was temporarily disbanded due to suspicions that the entire editorial board was homosexual. A Boston businessman later provided funds to restart the magazine in 1947 with the stipulation that homosexuals would be barred from participating – forcing many involved with the magazine to hide their sexuality.
     Gorey said of his sexuality, “I'm neither one thing nor the other particularly. I am fortunate in that I am apparently reasonably undersexed or something...I've never said that I was gay and I've never said that I wasn't...what I'm trying to say is that I am a person before I am anything else....” That statement recalls a sentiment of one of his favorite authors during his time at Harvard, Ivy Compton-Burnett, who referred to herself and her live-in partner as “neutrals.”
     The political landscape at Harvard and throughout post-war America was repressive. McCarthyism was on the rise at the end of Gorey’s years at Harvard; a purging of Communist “fellow traveler” professors led one professor of literature at Harvard, F.O. Matthiessen, to commit suicide. Votes for the 1948 election among members of Gorey and O’Hara’s Eliot House residence went 2 to 1 for the Republican Presidential Candidate Thomas E. Dewey. (They lived in Suite F-13 of Eliot House with Vito Sinisi, an army acquaintance of Gorey’s.)
     Gorey held the first exhibition of his pen and colored ink drawings at the Mandrake Bookstore, then on Mt. Auburn Street. Mandrake was a space Gorey and O’Hara haunted, regularly buying up books on an ever-increasing tab. It was during this premier exhibition that Frank O’Hara first met John Ashbery, a semi-chance meeting of the main figures of what would later be known as the New York School of poetry.

Friendship with Frank O’Hara

     Gooch says of Gorey and O’Hara’s friendship,

“… [They] became a noticeable odd couple on campus. Tall and short, these friends, not lovers, stalked the Yard together, rummaged through dusty book bins, traveled into Boston to catch a ballet at the old Opera House on Huntington Avenue or a foreign film at the Kenmore near Boston University. As an inveterate bookworm who had quickly run up tabs for hundreds of dollars at three local bookstores, Gorey was impressed by O’Hara’s extensive discourses on obscure writers whose works never showed up on the syllabi of any of their classes.”

     O’Hara wrote a student poem at Harvard about Gorey, which is contained in the 1974 collection of O’Hara’s work, Early Writing

For Edward Gorey

The picture is the miracle, not
just the fearless fact alive.
What anger you assume as weapon
in your fight for order
rends you but the effort
bears. Upon the void you scratch
your signature as special:
you people this heatless square
with your elegant indifferent
and your busy leisured
characters who yet refuse
despite surrounding flames
to be demons. You arrange
on paper life stiller than
oiled fruits or wired twigs
in canvas bowls, even though
the resemblance is human.

See how upon the virgin grain
a crosshatch claws a patch
of black blood unsuspected
in that sterile barnyard.
You transfigure hens, your men
cluck tremulous, detached;
at sunrise they avert their beaks. 
And when the sun goes down
their eyes glow gas jets
and the gramophone supplies them,
resting, soft-tuned squawks.

     Summarizing his friendship with O’Hara, Gorey said, “We were giddy and aimless and wanting to have a good time and to be artists… we were just terribly intellectual and avant-garde and all that jazz.” In reflecting on O’Hara’s eventual decision to move out of the Eliot House suite they shared, Gorey said “I have to admit I did feel mildly abandoned.”
     Gorey was close to O’Hara for only that time at Harvard, and seldom saw him in the intervening years, though both lived in New York City and were avid cultists of the George Balanchine-era of the New York City Ballet. O’Hara died in 1966, hit by a jeep on Fire Island beach.

Poets’ Theater

Gorey graduated from Harvard in 1950 and stayed in Boston for two and a half years afterward, working part-time in a bookstore. During this time, Gorey was a founding member of Poets’ Theater with V.R. (Bunny) Lang, Frank O’Hara, Lyon Phelps, Richard Eberhart, and Richard Wilbur, among others. This group of students and recent graduates worked with professors Archibald MacLeish, Thornton Wilder, Harry T. Levin, and their friend and mentor John Ciardi.
     Poets’ Theater’s first show opened February 26th, 1951. In a Harvard Crimson story announcing the inaugural show by Poets' Theater, an egalitarian chord was struck by spokesman Lyon Phelps who said that there would be no admission fee, a modest production, and that all were invited.
     The program that night was made up of four one-act plays: Everyman, a masque by John Ashbery; Interlude by Richard Eberhart; Try! Try! by Frank O'Hara; and A Play About Three Words by Lyon Phelps.
     For O’Hara’s Try, Try, a play later included in O’Hara’s Hopwood award-winning manuscript, Gorey did the sets; the stars were John Ashbery and V.R. Lang. Gorey also drew posters, wrote, and directed for other productions.

     Gorey said of Poets’ Theater,

“I was connected with this thing called the Poets’ Theater of Cambridge while I was at Harvard and afterwards. I loved it. It was kind of a goofy amateur theater where we all did the very arty plays and so forth. It was great fun… It was the most fun I had in the early days because of the variety of people who were involved – faculty, faculty children, graduates, undergraduates, and strange people.”

     Gorey’s last connection to the Poets’ Theater was his work on V.R (Bunny) Lang’s play about Orpheus and Eurydice called Fire Exit.
     The Poets’ Theater performed in a small 50-seat theater on Palmer St. where the COOP Annex now stands in Cambridge. When the Palmer St. theater burned down in 1968, it temporarily halted The Poets’ Theater. It was resurrected twenty years later, but in the process the Poets’ theater lost its avant-garde edge since its revival was headed by Harvard’s faculty.
     In Gorey’s day, one of Poets’ Theater’s claims to fame was that it staged a early production of Dylan Thomas’s work. An advert for the show is included in the Sights bequest.


     In 1953 Jason Epstein gave Gorey a job in New York City doing paste-ups and illustrating book covers for a new line of paperbacks at Anchor/Doubleday books. Jason Epstein was married to Barbara Zimmerman, who was a friend of Gorey’s who graduated from Radcliffe in 1949. Sylvia Sights also briefly attended Radcliffe.
     Since 1999 Radcliffe has been wholly integrated into Harvard, but during Gorey’s time it was a separate college on essentially the same campus. Women were first allowed to attend classes at Harvard in 1943, just three years before Gorey would have attended, but the female students still graduated with Radcliffe diplomas.
     It’s possible that Gorey knew Zimmerman through Sights, since both were at the same school - but that is pure speculation. If that were the case, Gorey would have been indebted to Sights for this advantageous acquaintance, as his job as a book illustrator was his first opportunity to reach a widespread audience through his artwork.

     A collection of Gorey’s cover designs, which are avidly collected by Goreyphiles, can be found at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcianddeth/sets/72157623540530883/ (accessed April 22, 2011).

Friendship with Sylvia Sights

Most of the information under this section was culled from an interview conducted by Mark Pascale with Julius Lewis on March 28th, 2011.)

     Sylvia Sights was born Sylvia Simons, to Hi and Helen Simons. Her parents were intellectual, liberal, and dedicated to the arts. Her mother performed in an amateur theater company that staged performances at the Auditorium Theater – advanced for her time (1910-20). Her father died young. 

   They owned Yearbook Publishing Company, which published abstracts of medical papers. Hi and Helen owned some works on paper by various artists, which they catalogued in a small, hand-made diary. Her parents owned many of the works that Sylvia later bequeathed to the Art Institute of Chicago. Sights also donated the Albrecht Durer print, Death of the Virgin, to the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, in memory of her father. 
    Sights was unusual; she lived for awhile with her parents in France, acquiring sophisticated tastes in art and culture. By Julius’s observation, she was exotic looking. She met Edward Gorey when they were in high school at Frances W. Parker. He was also “exotic” – very tall, rail thin, and very effeminate. Apparently, they were kindred spirits. Gorey came from a different background – his father was politically connected, a newspaper reporter who may have been an alderman. His mother, Helen Gorey, was a “lace curtain Irish lady.” Gorey was extremely shy and more surprised by his success than anyone else, which may account for the consistency of his style over the years.
     While Gorey went to Harvard, Sights attended Radcliffe College for a year or two. (Editor’s note: Gorey delayed entrance to Harvard until he was 21, if Sights entered Radcliffe directly after high school graduation (as she wouldn’t have been drafted obviously), then it is unlikely they were in Cambridge together at the same time. However, they would have applied to both schools at the same time, since Gorey was accepted three years before he entered, so they most likely planned to go with one another. (This is presupposing they were of the same high-school class year.))When she returned to Chicago, she also briefly attended the University of Chicago for a pre-med program, which ultimately didn’t work out and she never completed the degree. She may have met her husband Warren Sights at the University of Chicago. They married in 1949 (Julius attended the wedding). The marriage lasted 10 years, and she kept her married name after the divorce.
     Sylvia and Ted remained friends throughout adulthood, and Ted became very friendly with her mother later in her life. In the 1960s, Julius once met Sylvia and Ted for lunch, and Gorey arrived wearing a long, fur-collared black coat and sneakers – his typical outfit (until years later when he gave up the fur coats on animal rights/spiritual grounds). When Julius offered to take his coat, Gorey shrugged it off onto Julius and it nearly knocked him over as it was lined with mink. Julius remembers that he wore many rings on his long, beautiful hands. When someone asked him about the number of rings he wore, he replied that he felt wearing more than 12 rings was vulgar.

     Similar envelopes to the ones Gorey sent Mrs. Sights and her mother can be found in Elegant Enigmas: the Art of Edward Gorey by Karen Wilkin (2009, Brandywine River Museum, pg. 104-106). In Elegant Enigmas Wilkin reproduces seven envelopes with pen, ink, and watercolor from 1948 that are addressed to Gorey's mother, Mrs. Helen Gorey, at the address 2620 Lakeview Avenue Chicago 14 Illinois. These envelopes showcase early formulations of the Earbrass figure from Gorey's first publication, The Unstrung Harp. The coloring is a bit garish for Gorey, and the subject matter ranges from the circus (trapezes, human cannon), to angels, to a man about to be garroted.
     The Ryerson library has another copy of the Plain and Coloured Drawings booklet from the Sights bequest, in the pamphlet room, listed as pamphlet 11112. It is for a show at Graham gallery in 1974 (April 23rd - May 18th) called Edward Gorey: Plain and Coloured Drawings.
     Sights also donated $1,000.00 to Barack Obama’s 2004 Illinois Senate campaign. Obama would have been Mrs. Sights’s state senator as she lived in Hyde Park.


Gooch, Brad. City Poet.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.

McDermott, Kevin; Updike, John. Elephant House: Or, the House of Edward Gorey. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 2003.

No writer attributed. “’Poets’ Theater’ Will Stage Plays Written in Verse.” Harvard Crimson,
02/06/1951. Online version here: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/1951/2/6/poets-theater-will-stage-plays-written/ (accessed 04/25/11).

O’Hara, Frank. Early Writing
. Bolinas: Grey Fox Press, 1977.

Pascale, Mark. Interview with Julius Lewis. 03/28/2011.

Ross, Clifford; Wilkin, Karen. The World of Edward Gorey
. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1996.

Wilkin, Karen. Ascending Peculiarity: Edward Gorey on Edward Gorey. New York; San Diego; London: Harcourt, Inc., 2001.

Wilkin, Karen. Elegant Enigmas: the Art of Edward Gorey
. Chadds Ford: Brandywine River Museum, 2009.

(Books for further inquiry: Alison Lurie’s memoir of V.R. Lang entitled Poems and Plays; The Strange Case of Edward Gorey
by Alexander Theroux.)

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