A tip of the hat today to the late, great American cartoonist Charles “Chas” Addams, whose work has most recently been brought to life in other media by Tim Burton, in his Wednesday series for Netflix.
Born 7th January 1912 in Westfield, New Jersey, the only child of devoted parents in Charles Samuel Addams was, it seems, a bit of a rebel at an early age. An account of his life in article for Long Island Press in 2018 noted how he broke into a deserted Victorian house to draw pictures of skeletons on the garage walls, aged 8. He explained his obsession to biographer Linda H. Davis: “I was always aware of the sinister family situations behind those Victorian facades.”
When he was 12, a New York Herald newspaper cartoonist said he was untalented and should forget his dream of an art career. But the kid nicknamed “Chill” kept drawing, creating cartoons as art director of his high school paper before brief stints at college.
Charles “Chas” Addams enrolled in Manhattan’s Grand Central School of Art, in 1931, selling his first spot sketch to The New Yorker for $7.50 in 1932. The following year, the magazine bought the first of many regular drawings, a sketch of a window washer, that ran in The New Yorker on 6th February 1933.
After his father died, he worked for True Detective Magazine in 1933, retouching photographs to remove blood.
“A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were,” he once complained.
Addams drew his first caricatures for The New Yorker in 1937, a series that came to be called “The Addams Family”. The first anthology of the series, Drawn and Quartered, was published in 1942, and has been republished since. Down the years, his work also appeared in other publications, such as Collier’s and TV Guide.
Such was the success of his cartoons, David Levy eventually picked them up for The Addams Family television show which ran for two seasons, from 1964 – 1966. It was Addams who gave the unforgettable characters their names and characteristics, shaping the way the actors brought them to life on screen.
He was also the creator of the syndicated one panel comic “Out of This World” in the 1950s, becoming a friend of both Ray Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock. (Alfred Hitchcock once knocked on his door to see how he lived; Hitch was said to depict Addams’ Victorian mansion in his 1960 masterpiece Psycho).
A biographer once described him as being “a well-dressed, courtly man with silvery back-combed hair and a gentle manner, he bore no resemblance to a fiend”. Figuratively a lady killer, Addams accompanied women such as Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Jacqueline Kennedy on social occasions.
He married attorney Estelle Barb in 1954, Estelle persuaded him to give her control of his TV and Film rights, after which they divorced. There have been numerous spin-offs of The Addams Family in several other forms of media since.
For all his macabre cartoons and wild nature as a youth he was, it seems, a generous soul. Although his cartoons were often ghoulish and possessed of a dark sense of humour, a friend of his once said his drawings belied his personality. “I don’t think he’d hurt a fly,” they said. “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.”
Fan Mike Woolson would no doubt agree, recalling in 2020 how he roadtripped from Michigan to Manhattan in 1988, just to have a drink with Mr. Addams in his midtown penthouse, shortly before the cartoonist’s death.
“He was a very friendly, gentle guy,” Mike recalled in a Comic Book Historians Facebook post. “[He] had an embalming table, suit of armour and a wall of crossbows in the living room. He showed us a scrapbook of mostly just filthy cartoons Sam Cobean had drawn for him, when they were in the Signal Corps. (He also brought Cobean to the New Yorker, where his career was just taking off, when he died in a car accident).”
Charles married his third wife, Tee, in a pet cemetery in Water Mill. His bride dressed all in black and carried a feather fan, black, of course, because the groom just liked black.
“He thought it would be nice and cheerful,” she recalled. In 1985, they bought the Sagaponack home they named “The Swamp.”
In late September 1988, Addams drove to Manhattan and died of a heart attack in front of his apartment in his parked car. Tee reacted in classic Addams style, saying “He’s always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go.” She passed away in 2002.
Their ashes, along with those of their pets, were buried in their pet cemetery.
Charles “Chas” Addams – 7th January 1912 – 29th September 1988
• The Charles Addams Foundation, founded in 1999, is dedicated to advancing the artistic achievement of Charles Samuel Addams
The Addams Family is creepy and kooky, but wait till you see what their creator had in his apartment. In Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, meet the legendary cartoonist behind the altogether ooky Addams Family in this first biography, written with exclusive access to Charles Addams’s private archives.
Take a front-row seat to the widespread rumours and storytelling genius behind one of America’s oddest and most iconic creators. Even as The Addams Family grew in fame, the life of Charles Addams remained shrouded in mystery. Did he really sleep in a coffin and drink martinis garnished with eyeballs? In reality, Addams himself was charismatic and spellbinding as the characters he created. Discover the real stories behind Addams’s most famous, and most private drawings, including the cartoon that offended the Nazis. From his dazzling love for sports cars and beautiful women – Jackie Kennedy and Joan Fontaine among them – to the darkest relationship of his life, this witty book reveals Addams’s life as never before.
With rare family photographs, previously published cartoons, and private drawings seen here for the first time, Linda H. Davis provides a fascinating journey into the life of a beloved American icon.
• Long Island Press: Charles Addams: The Long Island Macabre Master Who Created The Addams Family by Annie Wilkinson (29th October 2018)
How a massive painting by Charles Addams wound up hidden away in a university library, by Paul Karasik. This article features an features an interactive graphic of the mural pointing out how the elements of the painting come together to make the viewer respond to it