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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

When the cartoonist Charles Addams died in 1988, he received a front-page newspaper obituary. He was the creator of The Addams Family, the morbid stars of magazine, cartoons, a TV show and movies. When Addams died of a heart attack inside his parked car, his wife made a remark that could have been a caption for one of Addams' cartoons. She told The New York Times, he has always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go.

(Soundbite of song “The Addams Family Theme”)

INSKEEP: Charles Addams was as strange as some of his characters, and we are going to learn more about him on this Halloween morning. His sense of humor resembled that of Uncle Fester, the bald-headed ghoul that Addams once depicted in the movie theater, laughing at the same movie that makes the rest of the audience cry.

The cartoonist is the subject of a new biography by Linda Davis, who begins her work with these words.

Ms. LINDA DAVIS (Author, 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 monogram 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.

INSKEEP: Linda Davis is the author of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life. And, Linda Davis, there are so many things fascinating about that passage but let's start with this. Was he as demented as people rumored him to be?

Ms. DAVIS: Not at all. He was the most gentile, civilized, gracious, charming, witty, normal person you would ever meet - with one exception. He did have a taste for rather unusual things. He decorated his apartment with real Medieval working crossbows. He had a most unusual coffee table, which was made from a Civil War-era embalming table. They called it the drying-out table in those days. And it still had the rusted metal headrest attached at one end, and as Addams loved to point out, a rather sinister stain and what would be the region of the kidneys.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking that if he ever served tea and coffee or cookies on that table that it all remained untouched.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DAVIS: Most people thought it was funny.

INSKEEP: Now let's remember the Addams Family. I mean just one famous character after another, Morticia, her husband Gomez, Lurch, the butler, the evil little kids. Where did The Addams Family come from?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, it came about quite by accident. The first cartoon was in 1938 and it showed a somewhat different looking Morticia. Her hair is pulled back in a bun and she's wearing the same slinky, black dress that we're all familiar with. Lurch, the butler, is standing behind her. He has a beard, so he looks quite different. This was the first cartoon and he didn't know where it came from.

INSKEEP: And so he drew this again and again. He drew this family again and again.

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, he did. He kept adding characters over the years.

INSKEEP: What makes Charles Addams relevant now at this moment in history?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, I think his cartoons, unlike those of so many other cartoonists, were for the most part timeless and dealt with a universal theme so that they're still funny today, we still get them today.

INSKEEP: A particular grim type of humor.

Ms. DAVIS: Well, yes, I suppose you could call it that. He laughed at things that are scary and defused his own fear and defused ours in the process.

INSKEEP: His own fear?

Ms. DAVIS: Oh, yes, he was very fearful. He was fearful as a child. He was very claustrophobic and he struggled with that fear all his life. He has this fear of snakes and so he drew them constantly in his cartoons, these enormous snakes that were about 20 feet long. And it was the most psychologically smart thing to do because by drawing out his fears and by making fun of them, he defused them.

INSKEEP: Let's describe another cartoon here, page 89.

Ms. DAVIS: Okay. This is probably his most famous Addams Family cartoon known as boiling oil and this shows the spooky mansion at Christmas time. It's surrounded by snow. There are Christmas carolers gathered at the front door and they've left their little footprints in the snow and they're singing their hearts out.

And way at the top of the mansion, outside the attic story of the mansion is Lurch and Gomez and Morticia and the character known as Thing, who you can barely see because he's lying so flat and his fingers are gripping the cornices. Lurch has a gigantic pot of bubbling oil - this cauldron that is about to be tip onto the heads of the unsuspecting Christmas carolers far below, and you can see the steam rising from the pot.

The important thing about the drawing is that there's not a bubble of oil that has spilled or is about to spill onto this people; there's no real danger. Addams took his cue from - in drawing scary cartoons from the Greeks where the violence always happens offstage.

INSKEEP: May I tell you what makes me laugh about the drawing here.

Ms. DAVIS: Sure.

INSKEEP: You see all that. You understand all that, but then the thing that really gets me is you kind of zoom in and you see Gomez leaning over and he's holding out one hand and a finger like, ugh, just a little more, not yet, not yet, almost.

(Soundbite of laughing)

INSKEEP: And it's that delicacy, that being right on the edge that kind of gets you.

Ms. DAVIS: Yeah, Gomez is always a bad influence; like Uncle Fester, he's a bad influence on the kids and on everybody else.

INSKEEP: What draws you to Charles Addams?

Ms. DAVIS: His sense of humor. That's the obvious answer, but I think it's the man himself even more than his cartoons. He was witty and funny, which is not true of all comic geniuses who put the witty and funny stuff into their art, might be a little disappointing in the flesh. He didn't disappoint. And I think he has very healthy attitude about death that we could all profit from if we take it to heart, which is basically the death of something we all face and we might as well have a laugh out of it if possible.

INSKEEP: Linda Davis is the author of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life. Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Ms. DAVIS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure being here.

(Soundbite of song “The Addams Family Theme”)

INSKEEP: You can look for yourself at some of the most famous Charles Addams cartoons if you dare on this Halloween just go to npr.org.

It is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song “The Addams Family Theme”)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) The house is a museum when people come to see ‘em. The really are a scream. The Addams Family…

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