VENICE, CA — A tattoo of two children hitting each other over the head with croquet mallets graces Cybele O’Brien’s left shoulder. It’s an illustration by that master of morbid, Edward Gorey, from his book The Epiplectic Bicycle.
“It’s a made-up word,” O’Brien says, producing a copy of the macabre little paperback.
We sit together on the indoor porch of her grandfather’s home, a sun-bleached beach cottage, the likes of which are becoming scarcer and scarcer in Venice, Calif. Out the windows, beyond poisonous calla lilies and thorny branches of heirloom rose bushes, beyond a narrow walk bisecting the tranquil block, lies a field of fetching wildflowers upon which Cybele was shot (for this Gorey story).
“When i was a little girl,” O’Brien recalls, “My grandmother, Fern O’Brien, used to read me Edward Gorey books as children’s stories — which they most certainly aren’t if you’ve ever read them. But they do have cartoon-like drawings. I guess that’s how she excused herself.”
Like author and illustrator Gorey, whose popular if perverse works defied easy categorization, Fern O’Brien was both beloved and one-of-a-kind.
A tall beauty and former model, Fern and her photographer husband Ken O’Brien settled in the South Venice cottage in the early 1960’s after having lived in New York City and Paris, among the ex-pats, for much of the 1950’s.
Fern stood out among the adults of Cybele’s youth. Where so many of the “grown-ups” surrounding her were drugged or drunk hippies — think Venice in the disillusioned 1970’s — Fern was sharp. Fern wore silk. Fern could hold her liquor.
“She had style and intelligence,” O’Brien recalls. “If she had something to say, she said it. She was never apologetic. What little class I have — what little about me is interesting or evolved — I learned from her.”
In her early twenties, O’Brien had the idea of getting a version of the “mom” tattoo (“Wherein you get a big heart that says ‘Mom’ on it”), only dedicated to her granny. The catch was coming up with something granny would approve of.
“She hated tattoos,” O’Brien recalls. “She thought they were crass, and for sailors. She would never approve of a big heart with ‘Granny’ in the middle of it.”
The idea of choosing an illustration from a Gorey book came to O’Brien; her grandmother had given her The Epiplectic Bicycle as a child.
“It was kind of a rare one,” O’Brien says. “It was representative of my Granny’s sense of humor. It reminded me of her.”
O’Brien shared her thoughts with friend Paul Summers. A year later on a road trip together Summers began pressing her about getting the Gorey tattoo.
“I said, ‘I can’t get the tattoo,” O’Brien recalls, “I don’t have the book with me.”
Oddly, serendipitously, friends they were staying with in Chicago — Gorey’s home town — did. She and Summers searched it for an appropriate image.
“We came across this picture of two little kids beating each other over the head with croquet mallets,” O’Brien says. “At the time, it reminded us of (ourselves). We were on a crazy road trip across the U.S.”
They settled on the illustration of children with mallets. The book’s owner made O’Brien a xerox.
A week later, she and Summers arrived in New Orleans.
“It was the day before my birthday,” O’Brien recalls. “We went out on the town, met up with a couple street punk kids, and spent the better part of the night with them.”
In the morning, after crashing for a few hours in their truck, O’Brien and Summers again ran into the vagabond kids from the night before.
“I guess we were looking so rough they thought we were homeless, too,” O’Brien says. “So they took us along to the soup kitchen — I had my 22nd birthday breakfast at the New Orleans soup kitchen.”
It was a memorable meal.
“They found me a piece of cake — all these homeless guys there who didn’t have enough food to eat themselves,” Cybele recalls. “They went into their stores of stuff. There had been a cake at some other celebration that had been put in the freezer. And they cut off a chunk of it for me. It was really sweet and made me kind of cry.”
Such an auspicious start to such an auspicious day called for an auspicious follow-through.
“Paul had been poking me and poking me and poking me about getting the tattoo,” O’Brien says. Producing the scrap of paper with the drawing from her pocket, she said: “Fine, I’ll do it today.”
“We asked around, and found out who the best guy in New Orleans for fine line work was,” O’Brien recalls. “He turned out to be in the suburb of Metairie. So we drove out to Metairie and found him.”
“I think he actually had one of those contact machines that sort of makes an ink xerox of a picture.”
The artist, whose name O’Brien can no longer recall, xeroxed her xerox and transferred it onto her back.
“So, with New Orleans birthday hangover — and still digesting soup kitchen cake — I got my version of a mom tattoo,” O’Brien says.
The effort was worth it.
“Fern made a huge pronouncement at a party that I had achieved the impossible by getting a tattoo she actually liked.”
Fern O’Brien died in September 2002. She was 85.