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

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.

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Recall Alert: Swiss Rolls And Bread Sold at Walmart and Food Lion Linked to Salmonella
Evan-Amos, Wikimedia Commons // CC 1.0

New items have been added to the list of foods being recalled due to possible salmonella contamination. According to Fox Carolina, snack cakes and bread products produced by Flowers Foods, Inc. have been pulled from stores in Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

The baked goods company, based in Georgia, has reason to believe the whey powder it buys from a third-party supplier is tainted with salmonella. The ingredient is added to its Swiss rolls, which are sold under various brands, as well as its Captain John Derst’s Old Fashioned Bread. Popular chains that normally sell Flowers Foods products include Walmart and Food Lion.

The U.S. is in the middle of a salmonella outbreak. In June, Kellogg's recalled Honey Smacks due to contamination and the CDC is still urging consumers to avoid the brand. The cereal has sickened dozens of people since early March. So far, there have been no reported illnesses connected to the potential Flower Foods contamination.

You can find the full list of recalled items below. If you have one of these products in your kitchen, throw it out immediately or return it to the store where you bought it to be reimbursed.

  • Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls
  • Mrs. Freshley's Swiss Rolls
  • Food Lion Swiss Rolls
  • Baker's Treat Swiss Rolls
  • Market Square Swiss Rolls
  • Great Value Swiss Rolls
  • Captain John Derst's Old Fashioned Bread

[h/t Fox Carolina]

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Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

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