On the evening of April 23, 1964, the New York City Ballet opened the doors to its new home, the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, with a gala performance of George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and Stars and Stripes. It was, for all practical purposes, Edward Gorey’s new home, too, five months out of the year.
As in all the rituals that governed his life, Gorey was compulsive in his devotion to routine, arriving for eight o’clock performances at seven thirty, when the doors opened. Yet he sometimes spent long stretches in the lobby if he didn’t like one of the evening’s offerings. Gorey “had to be there on time, partly (he would say) because maybe they would change the order of the program, but I think it was just his compulsion—he had to be there,” says Peter Wolff, a ballet friend of Gorey’s who now sits on the board of the George Balanchine Foundation. “It was all part of his insane routine.”
During intermissions, Gorey could be found in the theater’s main lobby, the Grand Promenade, located above the orchestra level. Three tiers of undulating balconies overhang the room; Elie Nadelman’s massive, generously proportioned female nudes, sculpted in white marble, bookend it. Inevitably, Gorey was near a bench by the east stairs, at the center of a circle of gossipy, inexhaustibly opinionated ballet obsessives. Toni Bentley, a Balanchine dancer turned author whose Costumes by Karinska features a foreword by Gorey, recalls him “leaning in his full-length fur coat, in his full-length beard, against the left-side Nadelman statue at intermission every single night.”
Gorey “was very breezy about his opinions,” tossing them off in an artless manner, Peter Anastos says. “He just sat back and proclaimed evident truths about the company from a lofty cloud.” He had a flair for the bitchy bon mot, dubbing Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins, neither of whom he could abide, “the world’s tallest albino asparagus.” Asked about the moldy chestnuts of the classical repertoire, he sniffed, “Les sylphides? Where they’re all looking for their contact lenses?” That said, his pronouncements were never mean spirited. “Even if Ted hated something or somebody or some costume or set, and covered it with abuse, it was never really very fearsome,” Anastos emphasizes. (“You can often hear me bitching about somebody’s performance, but I’m bitching on a terribly high level,” Gorey said.)
Behind the witticisms, however, was a profound appreciation of Balanchine’s genius, Anastos says—“a knowledge and a familiarity with every arcane aspect of life at the NYCB going back to City Center days” coupled with a fluency in the vocabulary of ballet (arabesques and grand jetés and penchés and all the rest of it) that enabled Gorey to pick apart a dancer’s performance on a technical level and compare it with another ballerina’s interpretation of the same steps, way back when. He tossed off his aperçus in a nonchalant manner that dared the listener to take them seriously, although dance critics such as Arlene Croce, of The New Yorker, and intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, who knew Gorey from Bill Everson’s screenings, knew better. “They’d want to know what he thought of things,” Peter Wolff recalls. “He was experiencing it on a different level.” People who didn’t know Gorey may have thought he was “a campy character because of the way he dressed and spoke and all that,” Croce says, but he impressed her as “utterly serious … a thoughtful man who made penetrating remarks” yet was “genuinely witty.”
To those who weren’t admitted into his charmed circle, however, Gorey could exude an in-crowd snootiness. Even old friends such as Larry Osgood and Freddy English got the freeze-out, since they were mere balletgoers, not acolytes of the Balanchine cult. “Ted would be holding court with his admirers and his fellow aficionados and you couldn’t get near him,” Osgood says. “He wouldn’t even recognize old friends who might try to approach him during the intermission.”
Some of this may have been high school–cafeteria cliquishness, but it might have had something to do with Gorey’s secretiveness, too. He lived a compartmentalized life, maintaining strict boundaries between his social lives: between his Harvard friends and his ballet coterie, between his New York circle and his Cape Cod crowd, and so on. For the nearly three decades he went to the ballet, the Promenade crowd was his social life when the NYCB was in residence. “I have very little social life, because the only people I have time to see are the ones I’m going to the ballet with,” he said.
New York City in the sixties and seventies was the dance capital of the world. Balanchine was producing works of genius; the NYCB was a serious contender for the most dazzling collection of dance talent on the planet; avant-garde choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Twyla Tharp, and Paul Taylor were blazing trails for modern dance. The fever-pitch anticipation that greeted the premiere of a new work by Balanchine is unimaginable today, when the New York City Ballet no longer dominates New York’s cultural consciousness. “Being in New York in the seventies with Balanchine working was like being in Salzburg when Mozart was working,” Wolff recalls. “It was like abstract expressionism: it was of its time; it was wildly earth-shattering.”
Seeing a Balanchine premiere was an indispensable part of being culturally au courant, of understanding the zeitgeist. “The lobby of the State Theater was the one place where you could see, night after night, literary intellectuals like Susan Sontag, the poetry critic David Kalstone, the essayist Richard Poirier, the cartoonist Edward Gorey, the music and dance critic Dale Harris, the editor of Knopf, Robert Gottlieb—and dozens of others,” recalled Edmund White, the novelist and memoirist, in his essay “The Man Who Understood Balanchine.” “We were all enjoying a rare privilege—the unfolding of genius. Balanchine had started out in imperial Russia, reached his first apogee under Diaghilev in France and, in the 1930’s, moved to the United States, where he led dance to summits it had never known before.”
Gorey’s sentiments exactly. “I feel absolutely and unequivocally,” he said in 1974, “that Balanchine is the great genius in the arts today … My nightmare is picking up the newspaper some day and finding out George has dropped dead.”
Mark Dery is a cultural critic. He coined the term Afrofuturism, popularized the concept of “culture jamming,” taught at Yale and NYU, and has published widely on pop culture, the media, and the mythologies (and pathologies) of American life. His books include Flame Wars, a seminal anthology of writings on digital culture; Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century, The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink, and the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-by Essays on American Dread, American Dreams.
Excerpted from Born to Be Posthumous: The Eccentric Life and Mysterious Genius of Edward Gorey. Copyright © 2018 by Mark Dery. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York. All rights reserved.