Charles Addams Biographer Defends Addams Family Values

Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life author Linda H. Davis confirms the myths behind the man who created The Addams Family.

Charles Addams A Cartoonist’s Life cover
Photo: Turner Publishing

The Addams Family, Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1991 comedy classic, will celebrate its 30th Anniversary this month. The Addams Family 2 recently resurrected the classic characters for a cross-country holiday, and the classic TV series The Addams Family can still be seen on syndication, streaming, and in memes and dreams.

The malevolently mischievous artist Chas Addams is as mysterious as his comic The Addams Family is iconic. Addams was the only cartoonist at The New Yorker magazine whose mental facilities were questioned. He was rumored to sleep in a coffin, to keep eyeballs in martini glasses, and show up in a full suit of armor at non-costume parties. The only biography written about Addams is Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, which was rereleased by Turner Publishing on Oct. 19. The book doesn’t dispel the myths so much as confirm the vast eccentricities of the social butterfly with bat-wings.

Charles Addams loved fast cars and beautiful women. All three of his wives projected the essence of his most iconic muse, Morticia Addams, and he dated the actress Joan Fontaine and the presidential widow Jackie Kennedy. But he also drew black and white cartoons so off-color they offended Nazis. The real Addams passed around sex drawings to his classmates in English class, was arrested for breaking and entering, studied at the Grand Central School of Art, and lived in a townhouse with a leaky water tower on the roof.

Linda H. Davis is the author of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, which initially came out at Random House in 2006. She is also the author of the biographies Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane, and Onward and Upward: A Biography of Katharine S. White. Davis spoke with Den of Geek about the many misconceptions of a man who thrived on mystique.

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Den of Geek: What drew you to Charles Addams as a subject?

Linda H. Davis: It’s the strangest thing. I don’t know why he came into my head. But I had this file I never looked at, into which I put obituaries, because that’s a great source of ideas for biographies. And I found that I’d clipped two of his, including from The New York Times, which started on the front page with a photograph and was wonderful. I looked into it, and it turned out nobody had done it. But honestly, I can’t tell you. I think he was a repressed memory. He was there, buried inside. I just didn’t know it.

Do you think he would’ve liked the idea that you had a box of obituaries?

He would’ve loved it. Absolutely. He would’ve said, “That’s the biographer for me.”

People today don’t know that his contemporaries saw him as an off-kilter public figure. Tell me about the man about town.

The man about town. I mean, he was just the most charming man you could expect to meet. He was on the top of everybody’s dinner party invitation list in New York, and knew everyone. He socialized a lot and had an incredible love life, but he never let socializing or his love life get in the way of his work. He was very serious about it from the time he was young. But yeah, he was out and about. He owned a couple of tuxedos, because he needed them. He couldn’t have rented them, because he needed them too often. And well-traveled.

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But he also would wear pajamas to parties.

Well, there was just that one time. Someone had given him some red pajamas, so he wore them kind of as a joke. But he didn’t usually do that.

Abraham Lincoln at a non-costume party?

Yes. That was one. And when he went to a costume party, he wore a real medieval suit of armor. I mean, he did that at least a couple of times.

I know he didn’t sleep in a coffin, but his decor in his home, even in New York City, was like the Addams Family mansion. So how was it like that?

Well, of course, it wasn’t a big gold house. He’d always wanted to live in a house, like in a big Victorian, but somehow it had never happened. This was the apartment in New York, at the back of which overlooked the sculpture garden of the Museum of Modern Art, was the top two floors and not connected by an inside stairway. You had to go outside to the stairs to get up, which was very inconvenient. If it was raining, and you were wearing your red silk pajamas, but it also leaked. It was under the water tower there. He had a lot of drawings and papers and things stored under his bed and maybe in the closet that got wrecked. I mean he had a very, very nice set of medieval arms and armament, along with the Maximilian suit of armor.

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There was a papier-mâché, anatomical figure that had been used in a medical school, and you could take the organs out. But maybe the most sensational thing was his coffee table, which was made from a Civil War embalming table and still had the headrest at one end. Then he had a lot of things that people gave him, bats. And there was a bat door-knocker on the front and things like that. Some of it was just having fun. And some of it was that he really did love these things. He thought the crossbows and longbows, which he knew how to use by the way, were beautiful. And they were, I mean they were hand-decorated and etched and really marvelous. And his widow sold them at Sotheby’s for a pretty penny after he died.

Would he have been surprised at the continued success of the Addams Family?

I think he would have been very disappointed that he missed out on all the really big money. Yeah.

Did he get screwed from the TV show? Is his family getting any of the money coming out of the movies? Did they ever fix that?

I want to be clear that he didn’t get screwed by the people who did the TV show. He got screwed by his second wife, and that’s a whole dark section of the book in which she managed to wrest the rights from him. His second wife Barbara, Barb as she was known then, became Lady Colyton. It was a very brief marriage, extremely complicated. And she walked away with all of that and with a number of cartoons. He did not have any children. There are no more residuals from that, but the films things that go on are continuing to make money for the Addams Foundation, which Tee [Addams third and last wife] set up before she died, along with the help of Kevin Miserocchi, who’s running it.

Was his first wife, Barbara Jean Day, the basis for the character Morticia Addams?

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No. I mean, they liked to play that up, because she had dark hair. She’s a prettier, softer version of Morticia, but I will say that all three of them did bear a resemblance to Morticia. And he liked to draw them as Morticia, particularly Tee. And I think I’ve got one of those drawings in the book. They were just playing that up, and she did grow her hair long to please him and play along with it and would dress in black for photographs.

What do you think the films get wrong?

I think what they get wrong is they’re not nearly as dark as the original cartoons. And one thing, they’ve never passed anybody who looks like, well, Gomez in particular is a really revolting-looking man. He was inspired by Thomas E. Dewey, though there was a little bit of Peter Lorre. Addams never said that, but I could see that. But crossed with a pig, a very unattractive man. And I think that Hollywood just can’t bring themselves to cast somebody who looks like that.

And Morticia, of course, has always been made prettier. Although he said, “She was just my idea of a pretty girl,” Morticia. He did like that type. And all three wives had dark hair and were that certain type, though he did date blondes and redheads too. But I think there are so few Addams Family cartoons that I wish that somebody would look at his other cartoons and add them to the script, because there are a lot of other dark cartoons that could work.

The cartoons are really more sinister and don’t rely on pratfalls. So, it seems to me, first of all, it’s very difficult to create a good script based on the Addams Family, because there are so few of them, but it seems to me that the knowledge of Addams’ cartoons isn’t deep enough.

What cartoons do you think would lend themselves cinematically?

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I’m thinking of one cartoon for instance, from the 1930s, which shows a woman entering the gates of a rest home. I think she’s wearing mink or fur as women in those days did. And there are vultures sitting on the post. And she’s sort of doing a double take.

There are a lot of cartoons about husbands and wives doing away with each other or trying to. He illustrates the idea, of course, not the act, which wouldn’t be funny. One of them, a very early cartoon, I think it’s from the ’50s, shows a man. He is opening the door of his car. It’s overlooking a really steep cliff. “Darling, will you step out for a moment?” I’m not a screenwriter. These are just my thoughts.

What was the most surprising thing about him that you did find?

I don’t want to give the story away, because it’s kind of a shock when you find out how far it went. But the story about his second marriage and just how far things went and his inability to just put his foot down with her and fight back. It took me a long time to understand, and that really surprised me. That was a shocker for me. It was really difficult to understand and write about.

Did his work actually get darker after that?

No. No, it was always there. It was always there; from the time he was a kid.

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Tell me about how breaking and entering informed his life as an artist.

He had to break and enter to get into The New Yorker, I guess. That was just a childish prank, but I think those things tend to get overplayed also. And when people write about Addams, they want him to be so literally like his cartoons, and he wasn’t.

He used to describe himself as just a normal American boy. And he was, except he had medieval crossbows and an embalming table in his apartment and some rather sinister taste. But he was sophisticated and urbane and charming and witty. One of the things that most pleased me is that he was just as funny and interesting a man as he was a cartoonist.

He said his experience at True Detective magazine didn’t open his imagination, but what do you think it did besides give him a steady check?

He learned some things technically from it, because his job was to lighten the blood stains to make them look less horrible, I think, to readers, and mark the X where the body was found. I mean, he found it a bore, I think, very quickly and then quit to be a full-time artist after he’d sold a few cartoons to The New Yorker, which was a brave decision in 1935. But I think just some technical things about working for a magazine were helpful to him, but that was it. It had no effect on his imagination. He was really born with that imagination.

I’d like to hear about his friendship with Alfred Hitchcock, his relationship with Joan Fontaine, and how he was seen by Hollywood.

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I don’t know any details about his friendship with Hitchcock unfortunately. He became very close to Burgess Meredith. He and John Astin became friendly when Astin got the part of Gomez in The Addams Family on TV.

I did talk to Patricia Neal about him. I mean, everybody just adored him. That was another thing that’s so unusual in biography, frankly, or in learning anything about anybody, that not anybody, that not one, even an ex-wife, had anything bad to say about him. Barbara Colyton, when her back was against the wall, but even she didn’t enjoy it.

Everybody liked him. And Carolyn Jones had a party for him at her very swanky house in Beverly Hills. She had a wonderful party for him when the Addams Family was on TV. Everybody just wanted to know him and felt better for having known him.

Other than those few things, I don’t have any specific information except that Burgess Meredith and John Astin wrote a song about Addams, which they performed at the wonderful memorial party, celebration of a life event, that Tee had for him at the New York Public Library. This was a couple of months after he died. Just an incredible party.

And yet he expected people would be disappointed to meet him.

He was just kidding. I mean, he told one of his lady friends, “Tell them I have a scent of formaldehyde or something.”

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I wanted you to talk a little bit about his love of cars, the Aston Martin and the poor man’s Bentley.

He started collecting cars early, I think when he started making money, and he got the Bugatti. And he had a Mercedes at one point, kind of an old Mercedes. I can’t remember. The kind of the classic I think was the 1960s Bentley sedan. And he would squire girlfriends, including Jackie Kennedy, in that car, drive off to Pennsylvania at 80 miles-an-hour and take them to a nice restaurant after going antiquing. He loved classic cars. He was an amateur car racer. Good driver, very fast.

Can you expand on his relationship with Jackie Kennedy?

Well, he had a little romance with her, and I write about it in the chapter called “The Addams Family.” Part of what I think is kind of funny is that he was seeing Jackie, when The Addams Family came on TV. He was also seeing a number of other women, and she was seeing other men. But this was just a few months after the assassination.

What was the relationship like? Was it photographed and chronicled at the time at all?

People did get some pictures. The paparazzi were always stalking her, but I don’t think the romance was really known until I wrote about it in my book. She, I think, liked him very much. He wasn’t somebody she was going to get that serious about, because he didn’t have enough money. But I think she was quite charmed by him and enjoyed him. And they remained friends too, but there are a few anecdotes in there that are, I think, pretty funny and revealing about the two of them.

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There’s a story about them at Bunny Mellon’s house in Virginia. There was a big house party, and they were assigned separate bedrooms, all looked very proper, but somebody walked into Jackie’s room by mistake. And Charles Addams was sitting on the bed, in a robe or something. She was in bed, and they were talking. When the door closed, Jackie said, “Well, I’ll be invited back again, but you won’t be.”

I should ask about the Nazi cartoon. Why were they so offended? And has it been seen?

Oh, yeah. It was published. I’m trying to remember where it was originally published. It might have been a German publication. Oh gosh, now I’m going to forget exactly which one that was. I think I would have to check this. I think it was a Boy Scout cartoon. He loved to draw Boy Scouts. He’d been a scout himself and could, by the way, recite the entire Boy Scouts code his whole life, which he’d love to do for girlfriends.

He loved drawing scouts in their little uniforms and everything. And I think it’s the one where a Boy Scout opens the door to a room in his house, where his father is trying to hang himself. And one arm is kind of caught and the scout says, “Hey, pop, that’s not a hangman’s knot.” And the Nazis were offended by it. And I’m sure that made his day. 

Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life will be re-released by Turner Publishing on Oct. 19, the same day the newly restored cut of Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family arrives on Digital 4K Ultra HD.