In a sunny day in 1953, patent attorney F.T. Griswold holds a funny-looking electrical gizmo out the window of his office, aiming it down at the streets below. At his side stands the inventor of the device, hat in hand and waiting hopefully.
"Death ray, fiddlesticks!" comes the verdict. "Why, it doesn't even slow them up."
That is, of course, a New Yorker cartoon perpetrated by Charles Addams. Like his inventor's ray gun, Addams has never successfully harmed anybody. But it is safe to say that, over the past 50 years, his weird cartoons have certainly slowed them up.
He is 70 now. From his two-story midtown penthouse, where the walls are hung with medieval crossbows and a Civil War-era embalming table dominates the living room, he looks down smilingly at the creatures below who are simultaneously his subjects and audience.
It is at the drafting table here that he has prepared boiling oil for his "Addams Family" to pour on those same subjects' heads; sent them hurtling off Lovers' Leaps merely so a passing woman could lament to her husband, "You've never felt that way about me"; stuck their heads in gas ovens ("Mr. Mitchell! You know you don't have kitchen privileges"); caused gruesome things to be born in hospital delivery rooms (no caption: just nurses gagging in horror while a strange father beams); let very unusual children flourish unpunished (a girl plays house; a boy, having lit the house, waits happily on his fire truck), and, for reasons best known to himself, hanged from the telephone poles of the hamlet of West Felton the bodies of its speed-limit violators.
For these crimes against complacency Addams has paid not at all, it would seem. He has been the house haunt of The New Yorker since 1938, publishing drawings at the rate of 20 or 30 each year, and has produced 10 cartoon collections that have sold, in all, more than 460,000 copies. When Morticia, Gomez, Lurch, Pugsley, Wednesday and Uncle Fester -- his cold-to-the-touch but warm-in-the-heart cartoon family -- hit TV in the early 1960s, the very black Chas Addams signature was seen round the world.
So it came to be that he is loaded with dough, and on Long Island has a wife (his third), a dog, an Aston Martin and a Bugatti. He steadfastly refuses to live there during the working week. He prefers the city; it brings out the worst in him.
"Why, just the other day there were nine fire engines outside the University Club," Addams said, gazing out from the penthouse. "I went down there, and immediately overheard a bag lady telling somebody '---- you' on a pay telephone. It appeared that a man had climbed 10 floors up the scaffolding of a building and was threatening to jump. A crowd had gathered, and some were coaxing him, of course. I saw a dreadful teen-aged boy drinking beer out of a paper bag, and then a policeman came over and threw him down on the sidewalk and said, 'Get out!' The policeman was perfectly right to do it, of course. Still, they were trying to get the man to come down from the scaffolding. As they were talking to him, he climbed up another three floors. In the end, he didn't jump. I myself was not disappointed. Some others were."
This lad of Westfield, N.J., who grew up doodling skulls and bones for his high-school newspaper, was not a rebellious youth, he admits. "I was once arrested for breaking into a house, but the house was abandoned." He then went off, for one year each, to Colgate, the University of Pennsylvania and The Grand Central School of Design.
"I'll bet you can guess where that was."
"Er, Penn Station?"
Addams pauses, reflects, grins. "Oh, ha ha. Ho ha ha ha. Yes, that's it. Penn Station, ha."
Ghoul, fiddlesticks. Oh, there may be a cobra skin nearby, a full suit of medieval armor in the corner, and he may have gotten married two years ago in a pet cemetery ("I just like animals"), but in the flesh the sinister jig is up. Few are the rich, fewer the famous, who will laugh so warmly at an unsolicited joke.
Lee Lorenz, the cartoon editor of The New Yorker, says that "despite the embalming table, he's not what you might anticipate. He's an urbane, relaxed, congenial man of great civility. He doesn't eat babies." The writer John O'Hara, an old pal, had spilled the same beans years before. Noting that Addams is 6 feet 1, and a "toxophilist," or archer, capable of handling a 60-pound pull, O'Hara had added that "I don't think he'd hurt a fly. I never have seen him lose his temper, although that is not to say he doesn't get mad. He happens to be what is called easygoing, and has a decent contempt for the opinions of mankind."
It is curious or outrageous or maybe just typical, but Addams says he did not make as much money from "The Addams Family" television series as we might suppose.
"They gave me money each week, but after the first runs ended I didn't get anything. No residuals. This was a mistake made by the big, old, fat law firm I let represent me. I believe I had 4 percent of the gross. I remember seeing some document reporting one-point-something million dollars, with a rundown like this: 400,000, foreign sales; 700,000, something else, etc., etc., and Mr. Addams' share, $218.11. It was just a classic error, that's all, not getting residuals."
Furthermore, when Morticia, Gomez and the gang went on television, they disappeared from the pages of The New Yorker. "Shawn [William Shawn, the editor] doesn't want to revive them," Addams explained. "I suppose he feels they are sullied by TV, or something. I think he's wrong." Addams says, with delicious ambiguity, that The New Yorker was somewhat more "sinister" under Harold Ross, its former boss.
Actually, the "decent contempt for the opinions of mankind" that O'Hara was talking about was always best transmitted in another sort of Addams cartoon. "He's always been a surrealist," Lorenz says, "and even more so of late."
The cartoon that first won him a wide audience was published in The New Yorker of Jan. 13, 1940. It showed a lady skier whose tracks passed neatly but inexplicably on both sides of a large tree. That was a decent contempt for the hubris of a Cartesian world, you might say--or you might say that it was simply funny in a funny sort of way.
However, the surreal and the macabre often coexist quite happily in his work, as when the "Addams Family" children are read a Christmas story, and gleefully imagine a red-faced Santa Claus whipping his reindeer rather a bit too hard, and apparently for the fun of it. Or when innocent motorists make a wrong turn in heavy rain, and the husband gets out, map in hand, to turn his flashlight on a river with an ominous signpost: STYX.
Often, Addams' cartoons take a moment to figure out. Four Cub Scouts walk a fallen tree across a woodland stream, carrying a banner which reads "Beaver Patrol." Each has buck teeth, and there you have the joke. But look again at how the tree has been felled. By beavers? Or by the patrol?
The best cartoons don't have captions, Addams says. There is some thought that captionless cartoons originated in Europe, so laughter could surmount language. Addams is very popular in Europe. "I am often printed in Der Stern," he explained. "When Der Stern gets one with no caption, they print a line in German under it which says: no caption. Typically Teutonic, wouldn't you say?"
One of these captionless wonders was beloved by the TV host Dave Garroway, an old friend of Addams'. It is the one in which a conspicuously empty bus is passing a graveyard on a rainy night. Many persons do not get this cartoon, but Garroway was not one of them.
"When he had that early morning television program the "Today" show , Dave held that one up to the camera and asked a passerby what he thought of it. Fellow said he didn't understand it. So Dave did this."
Addams demonstrated the two-finger-in-air tracing of a box, which indicated instantly, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the presence of a "square." But it was not considered a good idea for a TV host to call his audience "squares" even in those halcyon days. "He got in a lot of trouble for that," Addams said.
The cartoon throws nearly everyone at first. If you look closely at the bus, it is apparent that the driver looks very uncomfortable. Why does he look uncomfortable? Because the "next stop" buzzer has just been pulled as the rainswept graveyard approaches -- and there is no living thing on his bus.
In his penthouse, Addams sips Tab out of a goblet. He does nothing to dispel the notion that there are hideous fangs, or some such, hidden behind his bemused, avuncular smile, and that just maybe at any moment he might devour any hapless visitors, women and children first.
It must be awfully disappointing to him when the women and children only snuggle closer, as if he were the fire and not the chill.
Part of Charles Addams' problem is that he likes dogs, and a man who will like a dog is never taken completely seriously in anything he attempts, even including the ghoul business. The dog's name is Alice, and came along in 1970 from a pound or similar place.
"I should tell you the truth, Mr. Addams," said the dog's keeper. "This dog detests children."
"I'll take it," he says he replied.
Pause for effect. "Oh, she doesn't go for their necks," he amplifies. "Not that extreme. She does keep them in their place."
It is an urbane sense of fun he has, and like his best cartoons a conversation with Addams is filled with pauses and twinklings and a playful teasing of likelihoods (a friend of his is Janet Guthrie, the first woman to drive in the Indianapolis 500, and Addams claims that when he got her on the track at Bridgehampton in his antique Bugatti, she exclaimed as they hit 75 mph, "Are you sure the wheels will stay on?").
Asked if it's fair to say he is the progenitor of American middle-class macabre humor, he blinks once, and says deadpan:
"I have always thought of my family as upper-middle class."
Lorenz says Addams submits "two or three or a half-dozen sketches a week, loosely drawn on a visualizing pad, with or without captions. We discuss them. I discuss them with Mr. Shawn at the art meeting. If in fact we want any changes, he incorporates them in his finished drawing. If it's a radical change, he'll start over."
Both Addams and Lorenz say that ideas are purchased for Addams' drawings. "Occasionally, we will ask another artist to sell us an idea that is right for Addams, because in The New Yorker you would expect an idea like that to be done by Charles Addams. I should make clear that this is an exception, because most of our cartoonists come up with their own ideas."
Addams says he does buy ideas that are sent in, but in general they are "too grotesque, too ghastly." "There was a minister in North Carolina who sent me stuff for years, but I never could use any. It is remarkable how tasteless this minister's ideas were."
Even so, people are forever congratulating him for cartoons he did not draw.
"They say, Oh, I loved the one about the maternity ward where the father says, 'Don't bother to wrap it, I'll eat it here.' Well, I never drew that, and I don't know who did. I did do a similar sketch once, but it was turned down and I never finished it. I think on that one the caption said, 'If the father comes don't let him in, because he eats his young.' "
He still gets turned down. Recently he submitted a sketch in which the Grim Reaper had appeared, with scythe, on the lawn of a fellow who peered down in horror from his bedroom window. "Don't worry," the caption read, "I'm only here to cut the grass." Mr. Shawn didn't like it. "Too sinister, I guess," said Addams.
His own favorite cartoonists are George Price ("I'm glad he's still in there") and Steinberg ("In there all too seldom now"). He would never say anything bad about a fellow artist, but some of the more contemporary (i.e., verbal-conceptual-minimalist-existential) cartoons in The New Yorker he finds to be "more and more just a wisecrack with a drawing accompanying it."
Edward Gorey, he says, makes death "Victorian and precious."
So what is death like in the work of Chas Addams?
"Death is more of a cozy feeling in my work, I suppose."
Every once in a while, and tellingly perhaps, Charles Addams' "decent contempt" and ghoulish delight take the form of an outright valentine. Then the mask is down, as when a lonely lighthouse keeper, rendered in Addams' characteristic wash, is captured at the moment of discovering a lace-bound heart tossed up to him by the waves; or on the cover of his latest collection, "Creature Comforts," where a kindly old man, behind the multiple locks and chains of a city dweller's door, watches with guarded delight as under the fortress gate there slips . . . a valentine.
He didn't say so, but it is undeniably a self-portrait. CAPTION: Picture 1, Charles Addams: Fangs behind that avuncular smile? By David Handschuh for The Washington Post; Illustration 1, no caption, Drawing by Charles Adams, Copyright (c) 1940, 1968, The New Yorker Magazine Inc.; Illustration 2, no caption, Drawing by Charles Adams, Copyright (c) 1953, 1981, The New Yorker Magazine Inc.; Picture 2, Charles Adams at work; By David Handschuh for The Washington Post