Ghoulish Acquisition No Mystery to University Libraries
Special from The Record
A large and important collection of works by idiosyncratic illustrator, designer and writer Edward Gorey has been donated to Columbia’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library by Andrew Alpern (ARCH'64). Numbering more than 700 items, the collection includes nearly every edition of every work published by Gorey, in addition to illustrations for dust jackets and magazines, original drawings, etchings, posters and design ephemera. By any measure, this is a major gathering of Gorey’s work.
Born in Chicago in 1925, Gorey attended Harvard after World War II, and then became an illustrator for Doubleday Anchor in New York City. At the same time, he began writing and illustrating his own distinctive works, in a wittily ghoulish style that evoked a fin de siecle atmosphere. He also illustrated books by such literary masters as Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, John Updike and Charles Dickens. He died in 2000.
Gorey is perhaps best known for the animated opening sequence to the long-running PBS television series Mystery! He also designed sets and costumes for many theater productions, and in 1978, his work on the Broadway play Dracula, starring Frank Langella, earned him a Tony Award for best costumes and a nomination for best set designs. A very limited edition of photographs of the set and costume design drawings was made, and one copy from that edition is part of the Alpern gift.
Alpern is a noted architectural historian, architect, writer and attorney who has long been active in historic preservation. His interest in Gorey goes back to the many occasions when he would see the illustrator at Gotham Book Mart, a well-known, mid-town Manhattan bookstore that sold rare and out-of-print books as well as new publications. It was also something of a literary salon, and in its early years trafficked in banned books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover; it closed in 2007.
Andreas Brown, Gotham’s owner, took an early interest in Gorey and helped promote the artist’s work at his store, where Alpern was a frequent customer. “I saw a couple of these odd little things sitting on the counter, and they were fascinating, beautifully drawn, and the words were very odd,” recalls Alpern. “I was interested in the drawings, and the books weren’t expensive either, which appealed to me because I didn’t have very much money.”
He started collecting Gorey’s work and became a nodding acquaintance with the artist. In 1980, Alpern and George Bixby, a book dealer, decided to publish some of Gorey’s works. “We came up with the idea of having a boxed set of oddball things—a little of this, a little of that,” he says. “A collection of drawings that you wouldn’t see together because they didn’t form a single book—ephemera essentially.” When the co-publishers met with the artist and asked what they should call the work, Gorey wrote “F.M.R.A.” on a piece of paper. And that became the title.
The author of nine books and scores of articles, Alpern also recently donated his collection of drawing instruments from the early 18th through 20th centuries to Columbia’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. Avery’s extensive holdings include sketches and plans by hundreds of architects and architectural firms, yet “the kids and young practitioners of today have no idea how those drawings were made,” Alpern says. Computer-assisted design has rendered those drawing instruments all but obsolete, much as a sextant is no longer used by sailors. “It’s important that they know the work that went into producing them.”
—by Bridget O'Brian
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