The Coats of Edward Gorey
January 4, 2011 | by A. N. Devers
Over the years, Edward Gorey collected twenty-one fur coats, which he was notorious for wearing with Converse sneakers, often to the New York City Ballet. Sometime in the eighties, however (he died in 2000), Gorey seems to have had a change of heart. He opened portions of his home to a family of raccoons that finally settled in the attic. According to a tour guide at the Edward Gorey House, this was an act of penance; Gorey felt guilty for wearing their fur. At some point he locked up his coats in a storage facility. In his will, he left his entire estate to the care and welfare of animals.
Among the many beneficiaries of the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust: the Xerces Society, dedicated to biological diversity through invertebrate conservation; the Bat Conservation International Foundation; and the Animals League of Boston (Cape Cod branch). But because of this commitment to our furry friends, the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust faced a difficult decision when it came to his coats. One of them—the one Gorey sketched most frequently—hangs on display in the museum. But the cost of properly storing the others was exorbitant. The trustees began to sell one coat a year. After some deliberation, the trustees decided last year to auction off the remainder in one go. For a Gorey fan, it was an unimaginable opportunity.
The sale was held at Bloomsbury Auctions on West 48th Street in New York. Despite some advance press, it was a sparsely attended affair; most of the seats were empty. Of the dozen or so people scattered among the seats, most showed the true and devoted look of a Gorey fan. The coats hung on a rack in the back of the room, and people took turns trying them on. One raven-haired woman posed for a picture, wrapping the fur around her. As we took our seats, an older gentleman sat down behind us, wearing a three-piece suit with a watch chain—the kind of ensemble Gorey could have sketched in his sleep.
Although I count myself among Gorey’s most devoted admirers, I couldn’t afford to bid over the highest estimate, which ranged from $800 to $1,200. A friend who accompanied me gave me stern instructions: “We have to decide which coat you want. You have to imagine yourself winning it.” She looked around the room, studying the other bidders, searching for competition and deep pockets. “Someone is going to want all of them,” she warned.
Once the auction began, anxiety set in. The coat I had settled on was second to last. As my friend predicted, one person was snapping up nearly every lot. Perhaps it was adrenaline, perhaps it was my irrational desire to own a part of Edward Gorey, but I began to bid on coats I didn’t want or couldn’t have even worn. I stayed in far longer than my budget allowed. The coats were selling for $3,000 to $6,000. Part of me knew I would be beyond broke if I won, but I assured myself that winning was impossible.
The coat on which I had my heart set—a stunning Fischer Stroller designed by Gorey himself—went to the mysterious bidder at the back of the room. I was disappointed but relieved and ready to go home. I had tried. But wait! As a model walked down the aisle wearing the final coat, someone from the back pointed out a mistake. The last two coats had been accidentally swapped on their hangers. The auctioneer would reset the bidding, something he said he’d never done before. I would get another chance. The first coat—the Gorey-designed coat—went for $3,800, and I lost again. Then the last coat went on the block: a Lorraine mink stroller. I hadn’t tried it on; for some reason I had overlooked it on the rack. It wasn’t designed by Gorey, but it was gorgeous.
I won the coat. I won the coat that moments ago sold for triple the price I could afford to pay. Everyone cheered. It wasn’t a miracle. The other bidders, with the sympathetic eyes of Goreyites, had allowed me to win. They watched my enthusiastic, haphazard pursuit of a coat, and they had gotten behind me. On the elevator down, the dapper gentleman dressed in a three-piece suit said to me, “You’ve got more than a fur coat, you’ve got a coat with a pedigree. You can’t go out without sparkle at your throat. You must live up to this coat!” In many ways, he’s right. But it’s not the sparkle on my throat that will do this coat justice. It’s those two sparkling stars on the outside of my heels—my Converse sneakers—that will make it live.
A. N. Devers is founder and editor of Writers’ Houses, an online publication dedicated to literary pilgrimage. She is on the editorial board of Pen America’s journal and teaches at Adelphi University. She is working on her first book.