Light Heart, Dark Humor: The Man Behind The Addams Family

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Cartoonist Charles Addams was almost as bizarre as the characters he drew. His most famous creation, The Addams Family, has been reincarnated time and again during the past 70 years, coming back to life from the grave. Are his drawings morbid? Sure. But they’re also immortal.

As The New Yorker’s star cartoonist from the 1930s to the 1980s, Charles Addams practically invented dark humor in America. His cartoons found comedy at the intersection of the bizarre and the everyday, featuring ordinary people harboring exotically morose tendencies. Over the course of his lifetime, Addams illustrated 68 covers for The New Yorker and contributed more than 1,300 cartoons to the magazine, inspiring everyone from The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson to film director Tim Burton. If the stories of writers such as Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and John Cheever were the lifeblood of The New Yorker, then Addams’ drawings were its spirit.

Charles Addams’ most enduring creation, The Addams Family, reflected American values in a funhouse mirror, showcasing the paranoia, the darkness, and the sweetness of suburban life. In the past seven decades, The Addams Family has spawned two live-action television series, two animated cartoons, and two blockbuster feature films—and the reincarnations keep coming. Right now, there’s a musical of the cartoon on Broadway, and Tim Burton is slated to direct a new film version. But as creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky as the characters are, they have nothing on Charles Addams himself.

The Man Behind the Macabre

In his heyday, Charles Addams was a celebrity, the type of person everyone wanted to know. Director Alfred Hitchcock once made a pilgrimage to Addams’ front door, just to catch a glimpse of him in his natural habitat. Popular lore had it that the cartoonist was a regular patient at New York State sanitariums, and that he preferred his martinis garnished with eyeballs. And while many of the stories about Addams were exaggerated, there’s no doubt he had a penchant for the peculiar. Instead of a standard coffee table, Addams used a Civil War-era embalming table. He also kept a collection of antique crossbows above his sofa, and he used a young girl’s tombstone (“Little Sarah, Aged Three”) as a perch for his cocktails.

With quirks like that, you wouldn’t guess that the artist had such a normal upbringing. Charles Addams was born January 7, 1912, in Westfield, New Jersey, the only child of a piano salesman. He was a smiling baby who grew into a smiling boy, loved indulgently by his parents and well liked by his friends and classmates. “I know it would be more interesting, perhaps, if I had a ghastly childhood—chained to an iron beam and thrown a can of Alpo every day,” Addams once told an interviewer. “I’m one of those strange people who actually had a happy childhood.”

And yet, Addams’ fascination with the macabre began early in life. Even as a child, he loved to explore graveyards. At the age of 8, he was caught breaking into a creepy Victorian mansion near his home. And when America entered World War I, Addams took to drawing pictures of German Kaiser Wilhelm II being stabbed, shot, run over by a train, or boiled in oil.

A New York State of Mind

As fate would have it, while Addams was in high school, his future employer was beginning to emerge. The New Yorker published its first slender volume in 1925. It started out as a sophisticated humor weekly, relying heavily on elegant illustrations and comic drawings. Witty cartoons soon became the magazine’s hallmark, and Addams knew he wanted to work there from the moment he first saw a copy.

After high school, Addams drifted through several colleges in search of a good art program. He finally landed at the Grand Central School of Art, perched atop Manhattan’s Grand Central Terminal. He was still a student there when he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker—an unsigned sketch of a window-washer on a tall building. It ran on February 6, 1932, and earned Addams a check for $7.50.

That wasn’t quite enough to pay the bills, so Addams got a job retouching grisly crime scene photos for True Detective magazine. It wasn’t glamorous work, but it allowed the artist to hone and craft his style. Using a delicate ink wash technique, Addams discovered comic gold at the crossroads of the morbid and the mundane—simultaneously highlighting the magic and the horror of everyday life. In Addams’ world, a man opens his parachute to reveal that it was crocheted by his wife, and two lovers snuggle by a moonlit pond where a shark fin is poking out. In one of his more famous cartoons, a crowd watches an octopus drag a hapless man into a manhole. As another man passes by, he says to his friend, “It doesn’t take much to collect a crowd in New York.”

By 1940, Addams had become a regular at The New Yorker, allowing him to quit True Detective and concentrate full-time on his drawings. That year, he published the cartoon that would make him one of the magazine’s best paid and most used artists. In it, a skier leaves behind a set of tracks that indicate he’s just passed through a tree, rather than around it. The New Yorker fielded more reprint requests for that image than any other cartoon that year. Two months after “The Skier” was published, Addams received a letter from an Illinois psychologist, who told him that she’d been using the image to determine the intelligence of mentally challenged adults. She would ask her patients why the image was funny, and if they didn’t get it, she pegged their intelligence as lower than a 9-year-old. During the next few years, “The Skier” was cribbed and plagiarized relentlessly. The gag was even used on the big screen in Abbott and Costello’s 1943 film Hit the Ice.

Ladies’ Man

As Charles Addams’ fame continued to grow, so did his social life. He quickly developed a reputation as a man-about-town, known for spending late nights in bars with pretty women. But in 1942, Addams met a fellow Westfield native named Barbara Day. A statuesque woman with black hair and pale skin, Day looked quite similar to Morticia Addams, the matriarch of his Addams Family comics. Addams had drawn Morticia for the first time four years earlier, so in Barbara, he’d found the woman of his dreams. Before long, the couple was engaged.

That same year, Addams was drafted for service in World War II. He was assigned to the Army Signal Corps—the group responsible for producing propaganda films and posters—where he found himself surrounded by artists, screenwriters, and fellow cartoonists. In the end, the war did little to impede Addams’ career. He continued working for The New Yorker, as well as other magazines and advertising agencies, and he also found time to see Barbara. By the end of the war, Addams and Day were married, and his work was being shown in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. [Image: © Bettmann/CORBIS]

Addams and his wife were soon living the glamorous life. They bought fancy sports cars, posed for pictorials in Harper’s Bazaar, and threw the kinds of parties that people talked about. Too many parties, perhaps. After eight years of marriage, the couple split up. She wanted children, and he did not. Essentially a child himself, Addams expressed apprehension about becoming a father. Also, his womanizing hadn’t stopped at the altar.

Focus on the Family

While Addams’ marriage was breaking up in real life, his comic strip family was expanding. Morticia entered the world in 1938. Four years later, she got a husband, Gomez, a squat and ugly man with a pug nose. Gomez was a political statement of sorts; Addams, a devout Democrat, based the character on Thomas E. Dewey, then the Republican Governor of New York.

The Addams Family added a son, Pugsley, the following year, introduced while building a coffin in shop class. Daughter Wednesday came next, attempting to poison her brother. The last to take his place was Uncle Fester, who first appeared as a ghoulish bald man in the audience of a movie theater, laughing as everyone around him cried. Uncle Fester, Addams later revealed, was the character that he related to the most.

On the page, Addams’ characters were distinctly more wicked than their TV counterparts. In a Christmas drawing from The New Yorker in 1946, the family is seen on the roof of their dilapidated Victorian mansion, tipping a pot of boiling oil on the carolers below. Readers loved the cartoon so much that the magazine printed it on Christmas cards.

By the 1950s, The Addams Family had become so popular that it spawned a line of merchandise, including silk scarves and crockery. But oddly enough, the characters didn’t even have names until 1963, when the series was turned into a TV show. In his haste to name them, Addams almost gave Pugsley the name “Pubert,” but at the last minute, he decided it was too gross.

The Addams Family’s transition to TV wasn’t an easy one. In fact, it almost didn’t happen—thanks to Addams’ second wife, Barbara Barb. Addams and Barb had wed in 1954, and the marriage was a disaster from the beginning. The attraction was clear: Barb looked even more like Morticia than Barbara Day. (She even got a nose job to match the character.) But she was an abusive woman who once attacked her husband with an African spear. She was also a lawyer, and she used her legal skills to force Addams to sign over the rights to many of his cartoons. By the time the couple divorced just two years into their marriage, Barb had complete control of The Addams Family rights, and she stalled production on the television show until the producers agreed to give her more money.

When the series finally premiered on ABC in 1964, Charles Addams wasn’t a fan. He loved the theme song, but he complained that the family wasn’t “half as evil” as his original characters. Still, the American public loved it, and the program brought a new level of fame and fortune to Addams. It also spawned even more merchandise, including bubble gum and board games.

Despite its commercial success, The Addams Family was abruptly cancelled in 1966. Suddenly, Addams found himself without a significant portion of his income. At the time, he was dating Jackie Kennedy, who broke up with him soon after the checks from the television show stopped rolling in. To make matters worse, The Addams Family had also disappeared from the pages of The New Yorker. The editors had decided that once the family was on television, it could no longer be in print. Addams kept Gomez and the gang alive through various advertising campaigns, but as one biographer claimed, he remained bitter towards the magazine for disowning his family.

Death, His Old Friend

Well into the 1980s, Addams continued to make money as a freelance artist, selling his work to magazines and galleries. Even after five decades of making cartoons, he showed little sign of slowing down. He still liked fast cars, though he wasn’t racing them anymore, and he still enjoyed the company of women. In 1980, he married his longtime girlfriend, Marilyn “Tee” Miller. The wedding was held in a pet cemetery, where the bride wore black, as did the attendants.

Charles Addams died on September 29, 1988, at the age of 76. He suffered a heart attack while sitting in his parked car. His wife told The New York Times, “He’s always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go.”

Of course, that was hardly the end for Addams. His cartoons live on, largely because they tap into something in the American psyche. People connected—and still connect—to Addams’ fascination with the dark side of humanity. As biographer Linda Davis wrote, “His cartoons, unlike those of so many other cartoonists, were for the most part timeless and dealt with universal themes. They’re still funny today; we still get them today.” Indeed, Addams drew upon his fears—fears about marriage, fears about alienation, fears about death—to show us that on the dark side of life, there is light, or at the very least, levity.

This article originally appeared in mental_floss magazine. If you’re in a subscribing mood, here are the details. Got an iPad or another tablet device? We also offer digital subscriptions through Zinio.

March 10, 2011 - 7:56am
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