Take it from one who knows: Cartoonists lead unexciting lives. Dreaming up gags is a solitary business, with none of the camaraderie enjoyed in collaborative work. No curtain calls. No ovations. And certainly not enough money to go jetting around with beautiful women. In short, cartoonists do not lead the kind of life that will sell a lot of books.
But one did. And now Linda H. Davis has given him a biography: Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life. Addams—for those of you still without a green card—is the man who drew those delightfully macabre cartoons in The New Yorker from 1933 until his death in 1988. His eccentric ideas and chiaroscuro drawings placed him in the pantheon of New Yorker cartoonists, at a time—the 1930’s—when the cartoons were the best thing about the magazine.
Addams developed his distinctive wash technique while on staff at True Detective magazine, retouching photographs of blood-splattered corpses so they weren’t quite so grisly. New Yorker editor Harold Ross found Addams’ drawing style hilarious, and he began feeding the cartoonist ideas when he ran dry. Ross thought of his magazine as a collaborative effort, and by the time Addams got there, as many as 2,000 cartoon sketches and ideas were submitted by writers, artists and staffers each week, to be disbursed to favored artists. (Lee Lorenz, the magazine’s former art editor, once told me that of the thousands of published cartoons by George Price, only one idea came from Price himself.)
The Addams cartoon in the Aug. 6, 1938, issue was, however, very much his own. In the interior of a dark, dilapidated Victorian house, a curvaceous, dark-haired woman in a spidery black dress and her hulk of a retainer listen patiently as a vacuum-cleaner salesman, oblivious to the home’s disrepair—cobwebs, bats and broken balusters—makes his pitch: “Vibrationless, noiseless, and a great time and back saver. No well-appointed home should be without it.” This was the first appearance of what later became known as the Addams Family. As more cartoons about the vamp (soon christened Morticia) and her ghoulish family followed, New Yorker readers became curious about the weirdo who drew them. “What,” they kept asking anyone remotely connected to the magazine, “is Charles Addams really like?”
Charlie, they were told, was really a sweet, charming guy, and nothing at all like his bizarre cartoons. Happily, the answer that Ms. Davis gives isn’t nearly so bland. She notes his tendency to laugh at funerals and his fondness for buying suits of armor, medieval weaponry and other reminders of death—such as his coffee table, a wooden contraption with holes in each corner meant for draining fluids from human bodies. Furthermore, photographs of him in the book reveal a face that was exactly what you’d expect from looking at his cartoons: bulbous nose, slits for eyes, heavy brows and a smile that always seemed demonic. Nevertheless, a steady stream of young beauties longed for him, and no fewer than three goddesses—Jacqueline Kennedy, Greta Garbo and Joan Fontaine—found him a desirable escort.
As anyone might easily have deduced from the way Addams drew children, he loathed the idea of having any. Although genuinely in love with his first wife, Barbara, he refused to have a child. “I am my own child,” he explained. He also found monogamy impossible to endure and was always on the make. Barbara knew about most of his dalliances and put up with them, but when Charlie, after finally agreeing to adopt a child, reneged at the last minute, she left him.
In his tiny datebook, which kept a terse record of all his conquests (“Veronica Lake, 1770 Inn”), he also noted the end of his marriage (“B.A. leaves”). Addams returned to the unencumbered life of a bachelor. The small-town kid from Westfield, N.J., was a celebrity now, with a duplex on West 54th Street, right behind the Museum of Modern Art. Since Barbara didn’t ask for a nickel in alimony, he had plenty of disposable income to buy a 1926 35C Bugatti (the same model in which Isadora Duncan lost her life, as he frequently and gleefully pointed out) and to participate in amateur car races sponsored by the Sports Car Club of America, of which he was a member. He also bought a house at Westhampton Beach that even Morticia might have thought looked extremely odd.
In 1954, Addams married another Barbara, Barbara II or “Bad Barbara” (as his friends dubbed her), a diabolically manipulative woman who separated Charlie from a big chunk of his fortune upon their divorce, including residuals from the television series The Addams Family.
Thanks to Addams’ datebooks and interviews the author conducted with those who’d known him, the reader is supplied with a long list of Charlie’s tootsies. My brain cells were beginning to go numb from the numbers when suddenly, among the list of his attractive dates, the name of Jacqueline Kennedy showed up.
Yes, they really were a combo for a short while—until he committed the unforgivable indiscretion of discussing her with a reporter and was shut out of her inner circle. Just as well. He didn’t have the big bucks she required, and as she once put it, “Well, I couldn’t marry you. What would we talk about at the end of the day— cartoons?” Had he really broached the subject of marriage? How could he? What was he thinking?
Well, judging from this extremely detailed biography, thinking wasn’t something Charlie liked to waste his time on. He enjoyed his cigars, his vintage automobiles and his celebrity. Most of all, he enjoyed women. As far as women and fame were concerned, he’d gotten everything he could have hoped for. Perhaps thinking is only for those who haven’t. On the last day of his life, spent in Connecticut with fellow cartoonists Frank Modell and James Stevenson, his old friends asked him if he had any regrets about his life. Well, yes, the 76-year-old cartoonist replied, there had been this pretty but elusive woman named Kay ….
The memorial service was organized by his third wife, Marilyn, known as Tee, who didn’t care how often he caroused with other women (although by that time he was spending more time in doctors’ offices than hotel rooms). Tee also respected his expressed wish that his funeral not be the occasion for solemnity. It wasn’t. The gathering of friends at the Celeste Barthos Forum room in the New York Public Library was the jolliest of parties. How could it have been otherwise with the likes of Roger Angell, Calvin Trillin and Saul Steinberg, as well as the other New Yorker cartoonists, all telling their favorite Charlie anecdotes? And it was comforting to his friends to know that Addams’ drawings would often be on exhibit on the third floor of that very building. (He’d donated them to the library.)
A person’s charm is difficult for a writer to convey on the printed page, but Linda Davis has managed it. At the close, I found myself feeling terribly cheated that I hadn’t had the pleasure of Charlie Addams’ company.
Edward Sorel’s Literary Lives (Bloomsbury) was published earlier this year.