Man be­hind the macabre: The life of Charles Ad­dams

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

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.

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