Monday, March 17, 2008
Mister Charles Addams. I miss you...
Charles Samuel Addams (January 7, 1912–September 29, 1988) was an American cartoonist known for his particularly black humor and macabre characters. Some of the recurring characters, who became known as The Addams Family, became the basis for two live-action television series, two cartoon series, and three motion pictures.
His cartoons regularly appeared in The New Yorker, and he also created a syndicated comic strip, Out of This World, which ran in 1956. There are many collections of his work, including Drawn and Quartered (1942) and Dear Dead Days (1959). Typical of his work, one cartoon shows two men standing in a room labeled "Patent Attorney." One is pointing a bizarre gun out the window toward the street and saying, "Death ray, fiddlesticks! It doesn't even slow them up!"
He drew more than 1,300 cartoons over the course of his life. Those that didn't appear in The New Yorker were often in Collier's and TV Guide. In 1961, Addams received, from the Mystery Writers of America, a Special Edgar Award for his body of work. His cartoons appeared in books, calendars and other merchandising. Singer-guitarist Dean Gitter's 1957 recording, Ghost Ballads, folk songs with supernatural themes, was packaged with album art by Addams showing a haunted house.
Addams collected crossbows and used a little girl's tombstone for a coffee table, but Janet Maslin, in a review of an Addams biography for The New York Times, wrote, "Addams persona sounds cooked up for the benefit of feature writers ... was at least partly a character contrived for the public eye", noting that one outre publicity photo showed the humorist wearing a suit of armor at home, "but the shelves behind him hold books about painting and antiques, as well as a novel by John Updike."
Addams was born in Westfield, New Jersey, and had a happy, sociable, perhaps somewhat bland childhood there, providing few clues as to the macabre character of his humor. He was "known as something of a rascal around the neighborhood" and "there was always a little group of boys at his house, doing things," as childhood friends recalled.
There were a few, but not many, forebodings of dark oddity to come during his childhood: His nickname was "Chill", and a chalk drawing of a skeleton in the garage behind one of the homes his family lived in at the time is said to have been drawn by him. That house at 552 Elm Street (now a local landmark), and another on Dudley Avenue in which police once caught him breaking into, are said to be the inspiration for the Addams family mansion in his cartoons (though scholars have pointed to a three-way resemblance among the Addams Family mansion, the house in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and the Victorian building depicted in Edward Hopper's "House by the Railroad"). He was fond of visiting the Presbyterian Cemetery on Mountain Avenue. One friend said of him, "His sense of humor was a little different from everybody else's". He was also artistically inclined, "drawing with a happy vengeance" according to a biographer.
Before graduating from Westfield High School in 1929, he drew many cartoons for the Weathervane student newspaper.
Addams studied at Colgate University and at the University of Pennsylvania where a fine-arts building on campus is named for him. In front of the building is a sculpture of the silhouettes of Addams family characters. He also studied at Grand Central School of Art in New York City.
His first drawing in The New Yorker ran on February 6, 1932 (a sketch of a window washer), and his cartoons ran regularly in the magazine from 1938 until his death. He was a freelancer throughout that time.
During World War II, Addams served at the Signal Corps Photographic Center in New York, where he made animated training films for the Army. In late 1942, he met his first wife, Barbara Jean Day, who looked like the cartoon Morticia Addams. The marriage ended eight years later, after Addams, who hated small children, refused to adopt one.
He married his second wife, Barbara Barb (Estelle B. Barb), in 1954. A practicing lawyer, she "combined Morticia-like looks with diabolical legal scheming" in which she wound up controlling the "Addams Family" television and movie franchises and persuaded her husband to give away other legal rights. At one point, she got her husband to take out a $100,000 insurance policy. Addams consulted a lawyer on the sly, who later humorously wrote, "I told him the last time I had word of such a move was in a picture called Double Indemnity starring Barbara Stanwyck, which I called to his attention." In the movie, Stanwyck's character plotted her husband's murder. No one has accused Barbara Barb Addams of attempting the same. They divorced in 1956.
The Addams Family television series began after David Levy, a television producer, approached Addams with an offer to create it with a little help from the humorist. All Addams had to do was give his characters names and more characteristics for the actors to use in portrayals. The series ran on ABC for two seasons, from 1964 to 1966.
Addams was "sociable and debonair", and described by a biographer as "A well-dressed, courtly man with silvery back-combed hair and a gentle manner, he bore no resemblance to a fiend." Figuratively a ladykiller, Addams squired celebrities such as Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Jacqueline Kennedy on social occasions.
Later, he married his third and last wife, Marilyn Matthews Miller, best known as "Tee" (1926–2002), in a pet cemetery; he wore sunglasses during the ceremony. In 1985, the Addamses moved to Sagaponack, New York, where they named their estate "The Swamp".
On September 29, 1988, Addams, a sports car enthusiast, had just driven back to his apartment in Manhattan from a visit to friends in Connecticut when he parked his Audi 4000 in front of the apartment building. He was struck by a fatal heart attack while still behind the wheel.
A cartoon of his was (allegedly) used to gauge incipient lunacy in an asylum, depending on how long it took the subject to see why it is funny. You can see it here. The same cartoon was referenced in the Frazz cartoon published on the 27th January, 2008.
Addams was distantly related to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, despite the different spellings of their last names, and was a first cousin twice removed to Jane Addams, the noted social reformer.
He was a member of Theta Chi fraternity.
In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Cary Grant references Charles Addams in the auction scene. Upon discovering Eve with Mr. Vandamm and Leonard, he says "The three of you together. Now that's a picture only Charles Addams could draw."
The Addams family mansion is rumored to be modeled after College Hall at the University of Pennsylvania, where Charles Addams studied.
Books of Addams' drawings or illustrated by him (Kobler's anthology):
Drawn and Quartered (1942), first anthology of drawings (Random House)
Addams and Evil (1947), second anthology of drawings (Random House)
(illustrations) Afternoon in the Attic (1950), John Kobler’s anthology of short stories
Monster Rally (1950) his third anthology of drawings (Simon & Schuster)
Homebodies (1954) fourth anthology of drawings (Simon & Schuster)
Nightcrawlers (1957), fifth anthology of drawings (Simon & Schuster)
Dear Dead Days (1959) compilations book
Black Maria (1960), sixth anthology of drawings (Simon & Schuster)
Drawn and Quartered (1962) re-released (Simon & Schuster)
The Groaning Board (1964) seventh anthology of drawings
The Chas Addams Mother Goose (1967) Windmill Books
My Crowd (1970), eighth anthology of drawings (Simon & Schuster)
Favorite Haunts (1976), ninth anthology of drawings (Simon & Schuster)
Creature Comforts, (1981), drawings
The World of Charles Addams, by Charles Addams (1991), posthumously compiled from works with the copyright owned by his second wife, later named Lady Barbara Cloyton (Knopf)