A Cartoonist's Life
By Linda H. Davis
Random House. 382 pp. $29.95
The images implanted on the American consciousness by the great cartoonist Charles Addams are unique and indelible. A group of innocent carolers sings before the front door of a spooky Victorian house while, on the roof above, a devilish family prepares to pour a vat of boiling oil on them. A skier swoops down a snowy hillside, leaving single tracks on either side of a tree. A snowman lies on his back, pierced through the heart by his broom. A South Sea Islander, watching a volcano erupt in a brilliant display of fireworks, says, "Whatever the gods are, they aren't angry." As people watch an octopus emerge from a manhole to grab a pedestrian, one man says to another, "It doesn't take much to collect a crowd in New York." In a movie theater, a man seated behind a two-headed woman whispers to his companion, "Everything happens to me ."
And so forth and so on, and on and on and on in a glorious procession of the macabre, the outré, the hilarious and, from time to time, the poignant. From February 1932, when an unsigned Addams drawing of a window washer was published in the New Yorker, until his death 56 years later at the age of 76, Addams published more than 1,300 cartoons in that magazine and 64 drawings for its cover, a body of work distinguished, as Roger Angell wrote in the obituary it published, by "clarity, originality, artistic assurance, and abiding pleasure." He published many more cartoons and drawings in other magazines, but the public primarily knew him as the eponymous creator of "The Addams Family," inhabitants of the aforementioned Victorian house and stars of the popular television series and movies of the same name.
During Addams's lifetime and indeed to this day, certain questions repeatedly have been asked: What kind of man could create such weird, spooky and occasionally lunatic images and words? Was the real Charles Addams as creepy as Morticia and Lurch and others in the Addams Family? Did Charles Addams eat little children for breakfast and barbecue domestic pets for dinner?
This biography by Linda H. Davis provides an answer of sorts, and not an especially surprising one: On the whole, Addams was a pretty normal guy, a "solid American boy" who never really grew up -- which doubtless helps explain the boyish wonder with which he regarded and interpreted humankind's ordinary oddities -- and who had zillions of friends, most of whom adored him. Davis writes:
"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.)"
Like W.C. Fields, who greatly amused him, he made a great show of his dislike of children -- and over three marriages he managed to produce none, apparently to his relief -- but much of it was nothing more than show. Robert Pilpel, the son of his lawyer, "and his sister Judith, who were in elementary school during the 1950s, saw Addams as a tall, debonair man -- 'a cross between Noël Coward and Abraham Lincoln,' with kindly, craggy features, a rueful smile, and the time to draw a kid a picture." He was courteous, thoughtful, interested in others, a good listener as well as a good talker.
He grew up during and after World War I in a suburban New Jersey town called Westfield, and he was, in his own words, "one of those strange people who actually had a happy childhood." He was "the beloved only child of Charles Huey Addams, a manager and sometime 'commercial traveler' for the Aeolian Company, a premier maker of pipe organs and player pianos, and Grace Spear Addams, a homemaker." He was a cheerful boy, indulged but not really spoiled. He grew up feeling that the world loved him, and he loved it back, especially if it took female form. He started drawing "from almost the moment he could hold a crayon in his chubby baby hand," and he never stopped.
His apprenticeship was brief. He thought he "was headed for a career as a serious illustrator, but the jokes kept staging a breakout" -- an awkward turn of phrase that is, unfortunately, in keeping with much of Davis's prose. By the age of 20 he had "a job retouching crime scene photographs at True Detective magazine in New York," and less than a year later the New Yorker published the first of his cartoons. It took a couple of years for the "wash style" the world came to know so well to emerge, in a cartoon showing a woman on a roller coaster pointing to the sky and saying, "Alfred, look! Vultures!" Morticia made her debut in 1938: "A big, bearded retainer stands next to her in the foyer of her dilapidated Victorian house as she listens, incredulously, to a vacuum cleaner salesman giving his pitch: 'Vibrationless, noiseless, and a great time and back saver,' says the dapper little man in the white summer suit."
With that, Addams was off and running, though he didn't realize it immediately; "he had ventured into new territory with the same uncomprehending innocence as his polished little salesman," Davis writes. In time, that Victorian house and its inhabitants became near universally familiar and beloved, not least because Addams had the gift of being simultaneously macabre, innocent and unthreatening. As Davis points out (as have others before her), there is no blood or gore in an Addams cartoon. The boiling oil is never poured on the carolers: The humor lies in the possibility rather than the fact, and the viewer senses that the possibility never will be realized.
Addams's cartooning career followed a steady if occasionally irregular path. Not until the television series and other spin-offs did he realize significant income from his work, but he always lived comfortably and never held a full-time job after he left True Detective. He was able to indulge his taste for fast, expensive automobiles, he lived comfortably in an eccentric little house on Long Island as well as other, more conventional residences, and before, during and after each of his three marriages, he was an accomplished Lothario. His "endless philandering" was "one of his charms," according to one of his innumerable lovers. Another said, "Charlie was the only man I've ever known who women never got jealous about -- except for that dreadful Joan Fontaine."
The famous actress was 44 and "long past the height of her film career" when she and Addams connected in 1961, but she was still quite a catch. Addams basked in her glow for a while, but she was exceedingly difficult and temperamental, and he seemed relieved when that flame burned out. He was occasionally in the company of Greta Garbo and escorted Jacqueline Kennedy for a while before her marriage to Aristotle Onassis, but there is no evidence that either relationship ever was anything more than platonic. Of his marriages, the first and last were happy, but the second was a disaster, to a woman who squeezed blood out of him until, and after, the end of his days in 1988.
There isn't a whole lot of a story here. A cartoonist, like a writer, spends his most important working time in solitude and leads an interior life. Romantic and other attachments have their interesting moments, but they are little more than gossip and have nothing of real consequence to tell us about the artist or the art. Linda Davis struggles mightily to wrench a narrative out of Addams's life, but with far less confidence -- and much less success -- than in her previous biographies of Katharine S. White and Stephen Crane. Her prose too often lurches between lumpiness and perkiness. Too bad, but the only things that matter to us now about Charles Addams are his cartoons, and the tales they tell are as wonderful and as weirdly original as ever. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.