Man behind the macabre: The life of Charles Addams
Cartooning “is the ideal work for the uncommitted.” That quote from Ed Koren, the epigraph for this first-ever biography of Charles Addams, cartoonist extraordinaire, could not be more apt. Had Addams’ habits been those of a man with a conventional occupation, they would have quickly marked that man as eccentric, perhaps even bizarre.
Shooting rats from the window of his summer house did not make Charles Addams unique, but how manyadultmalesontheEastCoast of the United States collected — and knew how to use — crossbows and ancient instruments of torture, orkeptamedievalsuitofarmorand wore its helmet to parties?
And while a fair number of men droveaBentleyonadailybasis,how manydroveaBentleyandaBugatti? A conventional man who did such things would never have been invited to the “right places,” but in the case of Addams, people just smiled and said, “That’s Charlie.”
It’s a truism that many of the world’smostfamousfunnymenand women had miserable lives and were miserable (and unfunny) in person. Not Charles Addams. He wasahappymanwho’dhadahappy and perfectly respectable childhood in Wildwood, N.J., the only child of Charles Huey Addams and Grace Spear Addams, who wrote in his baby book, “He started smiling at the end of his second month and never stopped.”
Perhaps the only hint of what was to come was the fact that 1912, the year of his birth, was the year the Titanic sank. Whatever the rea- son, despite his sunny disposition, Charles was drawn to the unconventional, offbeat and macabre early on.
Linda Davis, a gifted biographer whose previous subjects were Stephen(“Red-Badge-of-Courage”) Crane and Katherine S. White, writes that Addams said, “‘There’s a legend in Westfield. They say that instead of locking me in the west wing of the family mansion they gave me a pencil and whipped me until I drew pictures.’
“From almost the moment he could hold a crayon in his chubby baby hand,” Ms. Davis writes, “Charlie had begun drawing with a happy vengeance.”
And he never really stopped. He sold his first cartoon to the New Yorkerwhenhewas20andastudent at the Grand Central School of Art (after short stays at Colgate and Penn). By the time of his death in 1988 he had done, mainly for that magazinebutalsoothers,thousands of cartoons and hundreds of covers, plus collections and book jackets, and had licensed any number of grisly toys. His fame took on celebrity status in the 1960s when hisAddamsFamilycharacterscame to unreal life as a television series of the same name.
Unfortunately, the success of that show helped perpetuate the myth that Charles Addams the man was as weird as some of his more outre characters. Fortunately, Linda Davis sets the record straight. However, the fact that she does so in such an open and often blunt manner risks the creation of a counter-myth, that of Charles Addams the satyr.
Addams was, to put it mildly, a ladies man. He was married three times, once sadly, once disastrously and then once very happily, but along the way (and oftentimes during) he “dated” the likes of Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Jackie Kennedy. The author reports that his great success with women came from the fact that he not only liked women but also listened to them and was genuinely friendly to their children.
That last trait is somewhat surprising, and perhaps also ironic, in that Addams, a la W. C. Fields, professed to dislike children and never hadanyofhisown,areluctancethat cost him his first marriage. Yet he waswonderfulandverygenerousto any number of his friends’ children andhisownstepchild,oftenfavoring them with personalized cartoons and drawings.
Linda Davis does the late cartoonist and his fans a service by pointing out, again and again, that his humor was neither sick nor mean. It was just different and funny.
Take his classic 1940 cartoon showingaskierracingdownhilland leaving a tree inside his tracks. Ms. Davis, who quotes Time magazine’s description of it as “that haunting simile of the mind’s disintegration,” writes that the cartoon, published whenAddamswasonly28,brought him“moremailthanhehadeverreceived for a single drawing and made him world famous. The New Yorker itself got more reprint and purchase requests for ‘The Skier’ than for any other cartoon they published that year . . . He was paid $45 for it.”
Anotheressence-of-Addamscartoon shows a man in a darkened movie theater saying to his wife, “Everything happens to me”; the very proper matron sitting in front of him has two (identical) heads. The author says Addams’ holy grail was the caption-less cartoon, one in which the drawing said it all, like his unpublished cartoon depicting a man in a seedy room aiming a machine gun at the door as a valentine slides underneath.
As rich as this biography is in chronicling its subject’s professional life, it is at least as rich in its account of his personal life, especially the accounts of his multitude of friendships, male and female alike. We learnthisbecauseLindaDavisisobviously a very good interviewer; the bookisfilledwithcandid,andsometimes coarse, comments (all carefully documented in the notes). It all soundslikesuchgreatfun,exceptfor when he makes a mistake with women,andCharlesAddams,forall his “success,” made a lot of them.
Of the end of his “romance” with Jackie Kennedy, Ms. Davis writes, “Addams later put it this way: yes, he said, he had taken Jackie Kennedyout—‘butthentheincome from my television series started to fall off.’ Though it was true that Addams wasn’t rich enough for Jackie Kennedy, he also had apparently ‘made an indiscreet comment’ abouthertoareporterwhilehewas still seeing her.
“ThoughheandJackieremained friendly, he was cast out of her inner circle . . . Though Jackie was clearly fondofAddams,sheneverregarded him as husband material. ‘Well, I couldn’t get married to you,’ she told him. ‘What would we talk about at the end of the day — cartoons?’”
Ouch. Ms. Davis writes that the putdown, which Addams repeated to two different women friends, “crushed him.”
Despite this and other similar revelations, this is a very sympathetic biography. Linda Davis clearly became enchanted with her subject, as will anyone who reads this most readable book, which in addition to providing a full portrait of Charles Addams contains fascinating side panels of life at the New Yorker and life in New York over four-plusdecades,atimewhenNew York was really New York.
But astride all these wonderful vignettes, there’s the seemingly larger than life figure of an enormously talented, very funny and definitely conflicted man named CharlesAddams,amansothoughtful and polite that on Sept. 29, 1988, he waited until he had driven all the way back from Guilford, Conn., before he pulled up in front of his Manhattan apartment house and died, slumped over the wheel of his Audi, of a heart attack. As Linda H. Davis makes abundantly and enjoyably clear, they don’t draw ‘em like that any more.
John Greenya is a Washington, D.C. writer.