Cartoonist Charles Addams was almost as bizarre as the characters he drew. His most famous creation, The Addams Family, has been reincarnated time and again during the past 70 years, coming back to life from the grave. Are his drawings morbid? Sure. But they’re also immortal.
As The New Yorker’s star cartoonist from the 1930s to the 1980s, Charles Addams practically invented dark humor in America. His cartoons found comedy at the intersection of the bizarre and the everyday, featuring ordinary people harboring exotically morose tendencies. Over the course of his lifetime, Addams illustrated 68 covers for The New Yorker and contributed more than 1,300 cartoons to the magazine, inspiring everyone from The Far Side cartoonist Gary Larson to film director Tim Burton. If the stories of writers such as Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, and John Cheever were the lifeblood of The New Yorker, then Addams’ drawings were its spirit.
Charles Addams’ most enduring creation, The Addams Family, reflected American values in a funhouse mirror, showcasing the paranoia, the darkness, and the sweetness of suburban life. In the past seven decades, The Addams Family has spawned two live-action television series, two animated cartoons, and two blockbuster feature films—and the reincarnations keep coming. Right now, there’s a musical of the cartoon on Broadway, and Tim Burton is slated to direct a new film version. But as creepy, kooky, mysterious, and spooky as the characters are, they have nothing on Charles Addams himself.
The Man Behind the Macabre
In his heyday, Charles Addams was a celebrity, the type of person everyone wanted to know. Director Alfred Hitchcock once made a pilgrimage to Addams’ front door, just to catch a glimpse of him in his natural habitat. Popular lore had it that the cartoonist was a regular patient at New York State sanitariums, and that he preferred his martinis garnished with eyeballs. And while many of the stories about Addams were exaggerated, there’s no doubt he had a penchant for the peculiar. Instead of a standard coffee table, Addams used a Civil War-era embalming table. He also kept a collection of antique crossbows above his sofa, and he used a young girl’s tombstone (“Little Sarah, Aged Three”) as a perch for his cocktails.