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Book Excerpt: 'Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life'

'Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life'

They said that Charles Addams slept in a coffin and drank martinis with eyeballs in them. They said he kept a guillotine at his house and received chopped-off fingers in the mail from fans. It was once reported that he had been given a monogrammed straitjacket as a birthday gift -- a garment that might have come in handy if the other stories were true, such as the one Patricia McLaughlin told about Addams moving around the living room at a party, "methodically and imponderably depositing" dollops of tooth powder in various corners. "A charm to ward off cavity-causing vampires?" she wondered. People said that Addams had married Morticia, the pale dagger in the spidery black dress from The Addams Family, that familiar band of subversives that included Gomez, Lurch, Pugsley, Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Thing, and Cousin Itt.

The story most often heard concerned a Charles Addams cartoon about a ghoul in a maternity room, come to claim his offspring. "Don't bother to wrap it; I'll eat it here," he tells the nurse. They said that Addams would have periodic mental breakdowns and begin drawing the gruesome maternity room cartoon. Or he'd redraw "The Skier," his classic 1940 cartoon showing single ski tracks on either side of a tree, as though the skier seen vanishing down the hill has passed right through it. As Addams would begin madly sketching the skier or the maternity ghoul (depending on which version of the story you heard), his New Yorker employer had him carted off in an ambulance to the loony bin.

Everyone from Dick Cavett to medical illustrator Shirley Baty had heard the stories. George Plimpton heard them while he was still a student at Harvard during the 1940s; Wilfrid Sheed was told about them during his school years at Oxford.

And the Addams legend caught up with New Yorker staff members and contributors all over the world. What, people wanted to know, was Charles Addams really like? Even in places where people had never heard of The New Yorker, said Calvin Trillin, "eventually they'd get around to asking about Addams." James Geraghty, Addams's former art editor at The New Yorker, had been asked the question wherever he went. "In Avignon I was asked... the French for 'What is Charles Addams really like?' "He had been asked the same question in Italian in Bergamo, and in Greek on the island of Rhodes. And he truly believed that if he had ever visited Timbuktu, he'd have been asked the question in Timbuktuese: "What is Charles Addams really like?"

"Are people ever disappointed when they meet you?" a reporter once asked Addams.

"I suppose they are. Aren't you?" he deadpanned.

Everyone from Cary Grant to the clerk at the Registry of Motor Vehicles had wanted to meet Addams. He had long ago opened his front door to find "a fat little man standing there."

"I've just come to see you in your natural bailiwick," drawled Alfred Hitchcock.

Many years before 1981, when the latest intrepid reporter went in search of answers, the name Chas Addams, as the artist abbreviated it in thick black ink in a lower corner of his cartoons ("Just a matter of design," he explained; "it looks better than writing out 'Charles' "), had become synonymous with black humor. He could make even a chair "scary, grim," said New Yorker artist Mischa Richter.

Though much of Addams's work was funny without being dark, and marked by great sweetness, it was the sinister stuff that had made him famous and earned him such sobriquets as "the Van Gogh of the Ghouls," "the Bela Lugosi of the cartoonists," "the graveyard guru," and a purveyor of "American Gothic." His work was compared to that of Shakespeare and Poe.

The Addams name was intertwined with a certain kind of offbeat character and place. One saw a particular type of woman -- model-thin, with pale skin and long black hair, wearing a black dress -- and thought: "Morticia." Round, bald men brought Uncle Fester to mind. The Addams name also conjured an atmosphere, and a house -- a peeling Victorian confection that had come to represent something menacing.

"Well, it looked a bit like a Charles Addams cartoon," Lady Bird Johnson said in 1964, after seeing the property in Johnson City, Texas, that would become the presidential ranch. "And I think that if I'd been told that I was going to buy it and start trying to make it into a home I would have turned and run," she added. It was no coincidence that the notorious Hitchcock movie Psycho, released in 1960, had featured an Addamsesque Victorian as the home of the psychopath Norman Bates: Hitchcock had become an Addams friend and owned two of his original cartoons.

Sometimes the Addams delinquents assumed nonhuman form. There was the famous hairball, named Cousin Itt in the television series. There was the grinning, snaggletoothed, grinchy figure who had appeared in The New Yorker in 1974 tearing down a wintry mountain slope on a snowmobile, the razorlike hair on his body flying straight back: the Abominable Snowman as winter sportsman. But often Addams's creepiest people were the normal-looking, nondescript types, the people one passes on the street without truly seeing them: the little clerk, the drab housewife, the "purposeful charlady," as Addams called her, who in a memorable 1942 cartoon raises the leg of her bound and gagged employer and continues her mechanical sweeping.

People swore that they had actually seen the maternity room cartoon, but Addams had never drawn it. He had, however, submitted a cartoon rough (an artist's draft) with a similar idea: "I'm worried about Albert," says a wife of her husband in a maternity room. "He eats his young." "It was of course rejected," Addams told his friend Steven M. L. Aronson, a book editor and writer.

Still, people believed what they wanted to believe. A 1978 New Yorker Thanksgiving cover by Addams showing a stunned turkey farmer contemplating the flock that has gathered into military formations in the yard provoked some wild reactions by readers who interpreted the straightforward drawing as a reference to "Nazi concentration camps."

And yet Addams himself had invited the misperception -- if only in jest. Hadn't he once answered his fan mail on a letterhead inscribed "The Gotham Rest Home for Mental Defectives"? Hadn't he worn flaming red pajamas over his clothes to one Manhattan party, and a Knights Templar robe to another? Dressed as Abe Lincoln for an awards ceremony, which wasn't a costume party? Taken to pedaling a tricycle (while smoking a cigar) around another party?

He had long delighted in telling reporters about some of the gifts he had received: a gilded skull, a human thighbone, a frozen beef heart in a box for Valentine's Day. "I woke up the other night and felt like screaming," he once told a reporter. "I thought, 'Why not? No one will ever hear me.' So I let out a long, thin scream, and felt much better."

He visited snake farms. He was known to picnic in graveyards, and he sometimes took souvenirs. Friends of the cartoonist noted that it was always at Charlie's instigation that they found themselves dropping in at the "booby hatch," or the winter home of the Ringling Bros. circus freaks in Sarasota, Florida. "Charlie, what about you? What did you do over the weekend?" cartoonist Mort Gerberg asked Addams over lunch one day when the mundane conversation had turned to the subject of gypsy moths. "Well, it was really such a nice day on Sunday, I decided to take a friend for a drive -- to Creedmore," said Addams, referring to the state psychiatric facility in Queens. Gerberg wasn't sure whether he was kidding.

Addams's friend Ralph Fields, a lawyer who had a home on Long Island, as Addams did, recalled the time the cartoonist offered him a ride back to the city. Addams arrived at the appointed hour in his 1926 35C Bugatti (the same model Isadora Duncan was riding in when the fringes of her neck shawl caught in the spokes of a rear wheel) and from there followed a route back to New York that took them by cemeteries "about seventy-five percent of the time," said Fields. "It was a beautiful day for looking at cemeteries."

But Addams's interest in "the aberrations of life," as his friend from Quogue, Walker McKinney, put it, also led to random acts of kindness. Addams took a keen interest in McKinney's brother, who had been brain damaged as a boy, giving him autographed copies of his cartoon collections and spiriting him away for rides in his classic cars, which included a red 1933 Aston Martin, a gleaming 1960 Bentley, and a 1927 Amilcar -- "the poor man's Bugatti," Addams called it. He maintained a long correspondence with a fan who had been disabled in childhood by meningitis.

Addams's friends treasured his endless curiosity, and his irreverent, sometimes haunting one-liners: "Okay, let's get out the carving set!" he cried the day a bird hit the big glass window at a friend's barn and was killed. "Well, we'll stab them," he said when the soft-shell crabs another friend had ordered for an Addams birthday dinner turned up alive. (He and his hostess, Axie Whitney, gassed them in the oven instead.) "What a pity," he would sigh at the happy ending of a near-disaster. Was it any wonder that Addams loved W. C. Fields -- a perpetrator, as George Carlin would point out, rather than a victim.

Everyone had an Addams story. Emmy and Billie Winburn, Savannah friends through Addams's old flame Odette (Benjamin) Terrel des Chenes remembered the time Charlie noticed the white plaster horse head sitting on their fireplace mantel -- the handiwork of their young daughter, Emily.

"Emily, have you ever put that in the window on a moonlit night?" he asked the girl.


"Try it," he said.

Though he was known to be a bon vivant and a lover of women (almost everyone had heard about his 1960s romance with actress Joan Fontaine), there was that undeniable dark streak. He saw bats where there were barn swallows. He had an unfortunate tendency to laugh at funerals. Then there were the things he kept in his homes, and in the trunk of his car. There was the woman -- make that women -- who had tried to kill him...

Bennett Cerf, who had published Addams's first cartoon collections at Random House, called him "the gentlest and kindest old schizophrene." A woman who had gone to school with Addams in Westfield, New Jersey, remembered him as an unsmiling "sinister figure prowling the dim halls of old W.H.S." without offering a salutation. (She claimed to have been afraid of him.) "People expected him to look like Lon Chaney, Jr., in The Werewolf, " said Dick Cavett, who interviewed Addams in 1978 for his television show. Once, Cavett introduced the cartoonist to two women, who "kind of gripped each other" in apprehension before they saw him.

The true Addams was instantly reassuring. A well-dressed, courtly man with silvery backcombed hair and a gentle manner, he bore no resemblance to a fiend. He stood six feet one inch tall, with a head made for caricature: a big round nose, large ears, squinty eyes, and a thin-lipped mouth that never showed his teeth, even when he laughed -- a source of endless fascination and second-guessing for children. "Charlie, do you have any teeth?" his wife's daughter had asked when she was little. (When he left the house, he suddenly turned around and made a face at the little girl, using all ten fingers to spread his mouth and expose his perfectly acceptable ivories.)

He had been immortalized in clay, paint, and print. Alexandra "Axie" Whitney, a former girlfriend, did a disarming sculpture of the cartoonist's wonderful head. "The eyes aren't squinty enough," he'd told her, and sprang down from his perch to fix them. Artist Everett Raymond Kinstler caught the squinty, "twinkly" eyes perfectly. Though Addams was not a vain man, he liked the result of Kinstler's 1975 oil portrait enough to want to buy it. He was photographed by Bachrach, Beaton, and Penn. Peter DeVries borrowed pieces of Addams for the character of Pete Seltzer in his 1968 novella, Witch's Milk: a man whose extensive dental work had given "his smile a rather villainous air, at least until you got used to it." (Addams had seen pictures of himself smiling; he "looked so evil, he couldn't stand it," he told his friend Buddy Davie.)

And yet he walked the streets of Manhattan unrecognized. At newsworthy events, the camera would be trained on someone else. "Thank God no one knows my face," Addams told his wife as the flashes went off on one such occasion.

Addams had long claimed that he looked like the Addams Family's toothless grinning ghoul, Uncle Fester, "only with more hair." But even in the black bearskin coat he wore on the coldest days of a New York winter -- a nine-pound garment with thirty-four-inch sleeves, in which the average man would have looked like David Copperfield in Mr. Dick's clothes -- he was unthreatening. His coffee-colored eyes twinkled; he looked "like an elf -- except that he was 6'4" or so," said Mort Gerberg. (To the people who were surprised that Addams did not seem sinister in the flesh, he said, "I try not to let it show.")

And yet there was something familiar about Addams: People were sure they had seen him somewhere. One evening, he joined a group of cronies from the Vintage Sports Car Club at the Hotel Elysée on Fifty-fourth Street. They were all standing around enjoying a drink before dinner when a call girl entered the room and gravitated toward Addams. After a few moments' chat, she said, "You look like someone. Who are you?"

"I'm Bella Abzug's husband," said Addams.

Strangers sometimes mistook him for Walter Matthau (and once, Lyndon Johnson) because of his bulbous nose and crinkly eyes. "Mr. Matthau," a woman began on the street one day, only to be bitterly disappointed when Addams told her that he was not the actor. Even his voice, with its slow, "side-of-the-mouth delivery," as writer Sidney Offit described it -- a faintly lisping drawl that was part New Jersey, part Addams -- suggested Matthau. (In a peculiar symmetry, Matthau played Pete Seltzer in the 1972 movie version of Witch's Milk, Pete 'n' Tillie.)

And yet, said Offit, Addams had an "innate dignity," which set him apart from Matthau's screen image. Dressed in Brooks Brothers suits and Saks ties, "he looked like someone who once in a while did a cartoon, but had a very interesting and rather sophisticated life somewhere else," said cartoonist Lee Lorenz. Kennedy Fraser, who wrote The New Yorker's "On and Off the Avenue" column, always thought of Addams "as a kind of 1940s and '50s New York figure." And with his faultless tailoring, Italian leather boots, and suave manner, he did seem to belong to that more stylish time of nightclubs and cigarette girls and big bands.

Still the questions and rumors persisted. What must his home be like? In the 1960s, the New York Herald Tribune ran a photograph of a fantasy Addams room -- the cartoonist's lair as an interior designer had imagined it. The Addams habitat had "Surfwood walls," an "eery [sic] skylight," a stuffed snake slithering across a black Chinese desk, "and murky niches hung with such objects as primitive masks, headless puppets, and of course, a Vampira doll," noted the Tribune.

But the photograph did not prepare the visitor to the Addams apartment for the real thing.

The Addams dwelling at 25 West Fifty-fourth Street was directly behind the Museum of Modern Art, at the top of the building. It was reached by an ancient elevator, which rumbled up to the twelfth floor. From there, one climbed through a red-painted stairwell where a real mounted crossbow hovered. The Addams door was marked by a "big black number 13," and a knocker in the shape of a vampire.

The apartment consisted of the top two floors of the building. It stood under a leaky ten-thousand-gallon water tank which had flooded the bedroom at least once, destroying the drawings, photographs, papers, and other mementos Addams kept in boxes under the bed, as well as on closet shelves. The layout was equally eccentric. The bedroom, where Addams worked most of the time, was upstairs, accessible to the downstairs living room and kitchen only by outside service stairs.

Inside, one entered a little kingdom that fulfilled every fantasy one might have entertained about its inhabitant. On a pedestal in the corner of the bookcase stood a rare "Maximilian" suit of armor, which Addams had bought at a good price ("a bargain at $700") from the Litchfield Collection at Sotheby's Parke-Bernet gallery thirty years earlier. It was joined by a half suit, a North Italian Morion of "Spanish" form, circa 1570–80, and a collection of warrior helmets, perched on long stalks like decapitated heads: a late sixteenth-century German burgonet; a German trooper's lobster tail pot helmet, circa 1650; and the pointed fore-and-aft helmet from the sixteenth-century Italian suit, which was elaborately etched with game trophies, men-at-arms, monsters, birds. There were enough arms and armaments to defend the Addams fortress against the most persistent invader: wheel-lock guns; an Italian prod; two maces; three swords. Above a sofa bed, a spectacular array of medieval crossbows rose like birds in flight. "Don't worry, they've only fallen down once," Addams once told an overnight guest. The valuable pieces of medieval weaponry, which would ultimately fetch $220,113 at auction, mingled with books, framed cartoons and illustrations, photographs of classic cars, gruesome artifacts, and such inexpensive mementos as a mounted rubber bat.

Everywhere one looked in the apartment, something caught the eye. A rare papier-mâché and polychrome anatomical study figure, nineteenth century, with removable organs and body parts captioned in French, protected by a glass bell. ("It's not exactly another human heart beating in the house, but it's close enough," said Addams.) A set of engraved aquatint plates from an antique book on armor. A lamp in the shape of a miniature suit of armor, topped by a black shade. There were various snakes; biopsy scissors ("It reaches inside, and nips a little piece of flesh," explained Addams); and a shiny human thighbone -- a Christmas present from one wife. There was a sewing basket fashioned from an armadillo, a gift from another.

In front of the couch stood a most unusual coffee table -- "a drying out table," the man at the wonderfully named antiques shop, the Gettysburg Sutler, had called it. ("What was dried on it?" a reporter had asked. "Bodies," said Addams.) The table had holes in each corner for draining the fluids, a rusted adjustable headrest, and a mechanism for raising and lowering the neck. There was also, Addams genially pointed out, "a rather sinister stain in what would be the region of the kidneys." The table was covered with the usual decorative objects -- a Baccarat goblet, a couple of plates, a miniature castle, a bowl of ceramic nesting snakes.

Some years earlier, following an Allman Brothers concert, eighteen-year-old Christopher Benjamin, the son of an old love, had arrived at the Addams apartment at about three in the morning. A lady friend of Charlie's came down the outside stairs from the bedroom to let the boy into the living room to sleep on the sofa bed. Christopher was "wiped out and tired" when he looked around the lamplit room for the first time "to see torture devices, armor, crossbows -- a stunning end" to his adolescent adventure. He thought, "It doesn't get better than this."

"There was not a false note in that apartment," said Shirley Baty. Everything harmonized -- and yet it was "sort of funny," remembered New Yorker cartoonist William Hamilton. "He'd have, say, a Currier & Ives print, but it would be of Siamese twins." And yet there was nothing gimmicky. Addams, for instance, would never have had one of those fancy bathroom chairs disguising a toilet, such as he had seen at the William F. Buckley apartment. "A throne should look like a throne," he protested.

Addams regarded even his grisliest artifacts with an artist's eye. He thought his crossbows -- which were made of iron, steel, and walnut and exquisitely detailed with iron scrolling, Gothic slotted ornaments, and ivory and ebony inlays of running hounds, bears, and goats' heads -- "quite beautiful." He loved the clean craftsmanship of his papier-mâché anatomical figure; he earnestly demonstrated how the brain came apart "like a walnut." Even "that ghastly table," as New Yorker cartoonist James Stevenson called it, once used for human embalming, was elegantly made, with mahogany legs and frame, brass fittings, and a "marvelous" canework top, said Addams. (The workmanship reminded Addams "of the old Rolls-Royces.") The human thighbone, noted Addams, had "taken on a beautiful patina."

By 1981, Addams had not only been trafficking in cartoons for half a century; he had published a dozen book collections, most recently Creature Comforts, released that year. Addams illustrations had graced the dust jackets of books by Peter DeVries, Wolcott Gibbs, Evelyn Waugh, and Brendan Gill; Addams cartoons adorned the walls of the Fogg Art Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Rhode Island School of Design, the Museum of the City of New York, and the Pennsylvania University Museum. Addams originals were owned by Roald Dahl, Evelyn Waugh, John O'Hara, Ray Bradbury, Herbert Marshall, Ronald Coleman, "a New Haven doctor who specializes in medical humor," and a fortunate few others, including a friend who hung her two classic Addams cartoons on a wall with a Picasso and a Léger. His influence as a cartoonist was worldwide. Such was the Addams fan base that he once got a colonoscopy in exchange for a cartoon. He had won the Humor Award from Yale, an honorary doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and a special award from the Mystery Writers of America.

One quickly saw that the Addams wit, unlike that of many comic geniuses, was not confined to his art. Asked by a reporter whether he could fairly be described as "the progenitor of American middle-class macabre humor," Addams had blinked and said, "I have always thought of my family as upper-middle-class." He had told another reporter, "I like to think I've formed some terrible people. Won't people love to hear that I'm just a normal American boy?" And he talked with apparent candor about his claustrophobia and his fear of snakes, his unconventional -- and macabre -- last wedding, his struggle with cartoon ideas, his secularism.

"If I told you your work was theological, that much of its essence was theological as well as being funny, would you agree?" asked reporter John Callaway.

"Yes," said Addams, nodding. "I might even go into a corner and cry for a little while," he added, blowing his usual deadpan and laughing before he got through the sentence.

Once, said Addams, a priest had asked him about his religion. "Well, I believe in Mother Nature," Addams had told him. And the priest had said, "That's all right. As long as you believe in something." Addams seemed to remember the remark fondly.

Nancy Holmes once told Addams that everyone loved him. He asked how she described him to people. "As very nice," she said. "Lord, you're going to ruin my reputation," he told her. "Why don't you describe me as having the faint scent of formaldehyde?"

Were the crossbows mere props? Was it all a cover, just a gag? After all, fans sent him things. "You're run out of the house by brass lizards and bat door knockers and -- you know," Addams had said. And he understood the impulse. People gave him such things "because they want me to be a man who likes shin bones," he said. "People must feel I need a skull." And yet Addams himself obviously delighted in his gruesome curiosities. They were "perhaps childlike enthusiasms," he said, "but I don't mind; it keeps you curious." Was it vanitas? Though Addams had described death as "a kind of cozy condition" that he thought shouldn't be too upsetting, he was also a collector; perhaps all the memento mori and the preoccupation with death and violence in his cartoons revealed an attempt to resist the inevitable by literally building a fortress against it.

Or was he working out unhealthy impulses in his cartoons? Was Ad-dams, in fact, the genial man he appeared to be? And if so, how to explain the multiple marriages, and the abundance of cartoons about spousal killing? How to take the persistent, though untrue, story about his mental breakdowns?

Looking around the Addams apartment -- the water tower, Addams called it -- the observant reporter would note a dog bed on the premises, and various civilized touches -- a homey afghan on the couch, fine pieces of furniture. But though Addams in 1981 had recently remarried, there was no sign of a wife on the premises. (The elevator man knew Addams as "the man with the dog.") The kitchen was minute, suggesting that the resident dined out a lot.

An investigation of the tightly packed cream-colored bookshelves backed in scarlet produced such titles as The Bashford Dean Collection of Arms and Armour in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1933, the three-volume 1842 edition of A Critical Inquiry into Ancient Armour -- and a first edition of Charlotte's Web.

"What kind of a kid were you, aside from your drawing?" asked John Callaway.

"Well, a perfectly good-natured child, and no great problem," said Addams with his mischievous smile. And then he paused. "I was arrested at the age of eight..."

Excerpted from Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life Copyright © 2006 by Linda Davis.

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Linda Davis