Charles AddamsA Cartoonist's Life
Random HouseCopyright © 2006 Linda H. Davis
All right reserved.ISBN: 0-679-46325-9
Arrested at the Age of Eight
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 Gergamo, 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 sprung 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¢ 4d 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.