Creepy, Kooky, Mysterious, Spooky: A Birthday Tribute to Charles Addams
Cartoonist Charles Addams, born on this day in 1912, is responsible for characters that have become so endemic to our culture in the last seventy-plus years that it will basically be a miracle if you make it to the end of this piece without the theme song getting stuck in your head. Heck, you'll be lucky if you make it to the end of this paragraph.
Born in Westfield, New Jersey, Addams showed his particular aesthetic proclivities from a young age. He was known by his peers for having a sense of humor that was “a little different,” and for being the kid who hung out at the cemetery and got caught breaking into one of the numerous spooky mansions that peppered his neighborhood. By his early 20s, he was working for True Detective magazine, where his job was to retouch photos of corpses, primarily to remove blood and gore. Naturally, he complained that they were “more interesting the way they were.”
His first cartoon for The New Yorker ran in 1932, and soon he became a freelance cartoonist, which he would be for the remainder of his life. But it was in 1938 that he debuted a one-panel cartoon of a ghoulish woman and her lumbering butler that would change his career, and, indeed, American pop culture.
Over the course of dozens of cartoons and fifty years, Addams would return to these characters and soon extend the family to include a father, two children, a grandmother, an uncle, and so on. While they would never receive names in the comics, Addams gleefully provided names and expanded personalities when his cartoons were adapted for TV as The Addams Family in 1964 (though he didn't get his wish to name the son Pubert, and had to go with his second choice of Pugsley).
Addams's gleefully macabre but still unflaggingly loving family struck a chord with both readers and viewers, and The Addams Family has been adapted into many forms of media, including two different animated series (not to mention appearances on Scooby-Doo), a reunion TV movie, a musical, video games, a pinball machine, and, of course, the hit feature films. Addams's uniquely dark but charming style continues to resonate with audiences almost eight decades after their first appearance.
Of course, Addams authored more than just the Addams Family cartoons. Besides a lifetime of contributions to The New Yorker, Collier's, and TV Guide (more than 1300 in all), Addams assembled the book Dear Dead Days, a collection of vintage and grotesque ephemera, including 19th century woodcuts and medicine show advertisements.
He also contributed cover art to an album of supernaturally-themed folk songs, and his animated title sequence is pretty handily the best part of William Castle's remake of The Old Dark House. Addams was given a special Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America in 1961 for his overall body of work.
Addams was well known for his sociable public persona. He had a succession of three wives who allegedly looked like Morticia (the last of whom he married in a pet cemetery), but he was also seen at public occasions with such women as Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy. He was also pals with Alfred Hitchcock, who namedrops him in North by Northwest, and began a collaboration with Ray Bradbury which ultimately did not come to fruition.
Charles Addams died of a heart attack in 1988 at the age of 76. He was given a wake rather than a funeral; he was cremated, and his ashes were placed in the pet cemetery of his estate, which he had named “The Swamp.” That feels right.
His wish for his legacy was to be remembered as a “good cartoonist.” I think we can accommodate.