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Black Humorist

The funny-macabre century of Charles Addams.

Dec 24, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 15 • By JONATHAN LEAF
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It’s possible to be underrated though employed by the New Yorker. Peter de Vries was. Another sufferer from this affliction was the cartoonist, born 100 years ago this year, for whom de Vries wrote more than a few captions: Charles Addams (1912-1988). Both men committed the not-always-extenuated crime of being terrifically funny. 

Charles Addams, Joan Fontaine (1962)

Charles Addams, Joan Fontaine (1962)

associated press

One wonders: Whence is this transgression? Why is the most tediously “serious” person invariably elevated above the most accomplished clown? How is it that a ham like Richard Burton is judged a better actor than Peter Sellers, and a stiff like Paul Robeson more consistently venerated than Eddie Murphy? Those gifted with the power to make people laugh seeking respect and awards would do well to follow the example of Woody Allen. I do not mean that they should wed their step-daughters; no, the trick is never to be in any degree amusing when you are interviewed about your work. 

This was not Charles Addams’s practice. If he was happy to pose for photographs wearing medieval suits of armor, he never garbed himself in the heavy breastplate of the artist. Even as he created an oeuvre of more than 1,300 published cartoons (including the memorable characters we know today as the Addams Family), he was always a model of amiability and winking affection. Contrary to myth, he was at no time committed to an asylum. Nor was he known for moodiness or depression.

Moreover, even though his drawings were regularly published in bound volumes, and he sold well through prestigious galleries, he refused to produce lithographs of his compositions, and insisted on describing himself only as a “cartoonist.”

This persistent impulse towards modesty was inherited through an impressive patrimony of well-mannered and successful WASPs. Patrilineally a distant cousin of Jane Addams, he was also, through his mother, a descendant of John Adams and that original Adams Family. But this was not something he would mention, and the range of his friends extended from fellow bar patrons in out-of-the-way taverns to such notorious misanthropes as Alfred Hitchcock and John O’Hara. 

If Addams’s wit is sardonic, there is also something warm and inclusive about it. This is a reflection (as it must be for all artists) of who he was. The much-indulged only child of a housewife and a prominent naval architect, Addams followed his father in his early avocation for the art of drawing and his mother in displaying an offbeat sense of humor and fascination with haunted houses and graveyards, something which continued throughout his life.

Addams took these interests from the small New Jersey town in which he grew up to the University of Pennsylvania, then to work as a retoucher at a publication specializing in gruesome crime scene photographs, and finally to the magazine with which he is most associated. 

At each of these places—and during his subsequent wartime service in the Army and his many years living in the Hamptons on weekends and in a townhouse he owned in New York during the work week—he displayed the classic artist’s preoccupation with beautiful women. Of these there were many in his life, including three wives and such famous lovers as Jacqueline Kennedy and Joan Fontaine. (Addams and the former first lady became a couple in the year after her husband’s assassination, and, though she ultimately spurned him, telling him pointedly that he was not rich enough for her, it was he who introduced her to Greta Garbo, another of his former girlfriends, at a dinner for three.) 

In spite of this overactive libido, he had hardly any enemies. This may have been partly because he was, by his own acknowledgment, somewhat childlike. Though he did not want to have children himself, the progeny of his paramours consistently adored him, finding in him a kindred spirit. This was not only a consequence of his impishness, but of a certain naïve wonderment with which he looked at things. Like many intelligent tykes, Addams would spend hours staring at objects or the sides of buildings, trying to more fully appreciate their designs, gazing fixedly and with something akin to rapture. 

This concern for detail—along with a habit of going to antique stores to study period furniture and purchase curiosities like crossbows and halberds—vitally assisted him in his work, since much of the brilliance of Addams’s drawings derives from their specificity. His haunted Victorian piles have minutely rendered mansard roofs and finely drawn gables and shutters. The shadows formed by his drainpipes are elegantly executed using delicate washes. A cash register in a remote store is of a recognizable make and model. 

Though Addams’s faces and hands are rounded and smoothed off in the manner common to caricatures, there is no question but that he was a superb draftsman in a way that other acclaimed modern comic artists—Charles M. Schulz or Garry Trudeau, for example—are not. This was integral to his work. Just as Peter Sellers’s Inspector Clouseau was not merely a bumbling idiot, but one who aggressively insisted upon his own dignity and importance, Charles Addams’s characters determinedly labor to deny the perversity of what is in front of them. 

Characteristic of this is the cartoon which first brought Addams to national attention. In it, a skier observes the tracks of another skier moving away from him. The first skier’s expression tells us that he does not want to admit that he sees what he (and we) plainly do: The other skier’s fresh tracks go on with the person’s right and left skis passing, without a hitch, around opposite sides of a broad tree. The joke works because the observer’s face and posture show us his willful disbelief.

Often crucial, too, is Addams’s use of perspective and suggestion. Thus, a famous panel shows a frumpy, middle-aged woman racing along a sand dune, visibly balked, crying out, asking her husband simply to give her their car keys. Looking up imploringly towards the sky, she holds out her hands to receive them. On the sand next to her is a shadow indicating the shape of a giant birdlike creature with an airborne man, her spouse, in its clutches. The mechanical patterns through which the husband and wife express their enmity for one another have not been altered by the situation. 

Brilliant as the greater number of these drawings are, it must be admitted that many were not originally conceived by Addams. Rather, from early in his career, Addams paid friends for ideas, or looked to ideas suggested by editors, fans, and even other cartoonists. Still, when working from other cartoonists’ “roughs”—sketches for his finished panels—he almost always improved on the original. The ski cartoon, as initially proposed, lacked the essential detail of the puzzled observer.

And though the characters in the Addams Family cartoons are subtly different from the ones in the 1960s television show, they were all pure inventions of the artist. (In the original cartoons, Lurch is presented as a mute and Gomez looks less like John Astin or Raul Julia and more like Peter Lorre.)

Sadly, the success of the TV show prompted editor William Shawn to tell Addams to discontinue the series—and it did cease until the arrival of Shawn’s successor at the New Yorker, Robert Gottlieb, in 1987, towards the end of Addams’s life. This is especially regrettable because the Addams Family captured so much of what was best about Addams’s humor. Take, for instance, a panel showing a disdainful Morticia instructing her complaining daughter Wednesday, fleeing from her troublesome brother Pugsley: “Well, don’t come whining to me. Go tell him you’ll poison him right back.”

Especially excellent, as well, are the artist’s many drawings that work without captions. Addams worked long hours doing sketch after sketch for his completed compositions, carefully working out all the details and trying innumerable variations for each. Most often, he labored on the drafts at his New Yorker office; then he would finish the works either at his place in the Hamptons or at his townhouse. Addams also deliberately avoided topical subjects, as he wanted his designs to last. Yet this did provide critics with reasons to ignore his work, even as they promoted a thousand poseurs. 

Still, one cannot help wondering: How many of the artists now in the permanent collection at Addams’s Manhattan neighbor, the Museum of Modern Art, will be remembered, or so rightly treasured, in another hundred years?

Jonathan Leaf, a playwright in New York, is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Sixties.

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