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Charles Addams: A Cartoonists Life by Linda H. Davis

Michael Harrington
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Charles Addams' cartoons are fascinating, but not his life.

Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life

Publisher: Random House
ISBN: 0679463259
Author: Linda H. Davis
Price: $29.95
Length: 400
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2006-10

A woman runs along a beach, chasing the shadow of a huge bird carrying a man in its beak. "George! George!" she cries. "Drop the keys!"

Another woman, with the silhouette of a dagger, stands at the door of a ramshackle mansion, confronted by a mournful deliveryman holding two pet carriers. She looks up the stairs to an oily-looking gent with a pencil moustache. "It's the children, darling," she says, "back from camp." And then we see, peering from the carriers, two feral faces, contentedly waiting to be set free to wreak havoc.

Charles Addams' cartoons are simultaneously macabre and funny, even in description. With his creation of the mysterious, spooky and altogether ooky family that came to bear his name, he found fame as one of the New Yorker's most distinctive artists (and later as the imagination behind the 1960s sitcom that named the family as Morticia, Gomez, et al.).

It's only natural we would be curious about someone who could make us laugh at what should be disturbing. His colleagues were regularly asked what he was really like, and there were stories that he was deranged. And Addams did do his best to appear as spooky and ooky as he could, collecting crossbows and mortuary equipment, painting his bathroom walls black, posing for a picture in a suit and a medieval knight's helmet.

Now, for those who wish to know what he was really, really like, there is Linda H. Davis' biography Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life.

What it reveals is a man who liked to have fun, who liked women, booze and fast cars, and whose life was equal parts "Andy Hardy Meets Debutante," Playboy adviser and celebrity gossip.

Harris, a capable biographer who has written about Katharine S. White and Stephen Crane, really had little choice but to take this route. Life at the New Yorker is ground that has been well-covered, so she does her best with his life outside his work. But Addams' life as a New York sophisticato was ephemeral, scandal-sheet stuff. The artist comes off as affable, immature, lovable -- and eccentric, yes, but not unusually so.

He had a happy childhood in New Jersey, sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker at 20, spent World War II in Astoria, Queens (in a Signal Corps unit that included William Saroyan and Marvel Comics' Stan Lee), and spent the rest of his life living mostly as he pleased.

He friends included Boris Karloff, Burgess Meredith, Arthur Laurents and John O'Hara.

And, for a tall, big-nosed man whose resemblance to Lyndon Johnson and Walter Matthau was often noted, he was quite the ladies' man, dating, among others, Veronica Lake, Doris Lilly (the model for Holly Golightly), Joan Fontaine, Jackie Kennedy (possibly platonically) and Greta Garbo (ditto), as well as a harem of New York socialites, and -- in the most truly macabre act of his life -- Megan Marshack, the young book editor who was with Nelson Rockefeller when he died, in an affair that started the day after the politician's demise.

The real drama in his life came from his second wife, a predatory party girl and lawyer who had named herself Barbara Barb. Materialistic, bluntly seductive (she indicated her interest in Addams, shortly after their first meeting at a party, by showing up at his apartment naked under a mink coat), she talked Addams into agreements that gave her control of his art, and exerted herself in making money off it long after their divorce. She certainly seems to have been formidable, but is perhaps given short shrift by Davis, who assigns her a villain's role.

Addams' willingness to sign away his property rights to Barb (a later remarriage made her Lady Colyton) was a puzzle to his lawyer and remains so to his biographer, but it isn't so mysterious. Addams himself explained it. "Look, she is fantastic about money, about the contracts, those movies, the IRS," he told a friend. The hold she had on him was that she allowed him to live his adolescent's dream of a life. As O'Hara once described him, Addams was "All Boy, if not exactly All-American Boy."

The biography loses steam once Barbara Barb leaves the stage, becoming a recitation of items from yellowing gossip pages. Names blur, and the cartoonist's life comes to seem more and more inconsequential.

Except there are those cartoons, which are enduringly funny. Many are reproduced; many are laugh-out-loud hilarious.

In the end, this biography is a curio. If one wants to know what Addams was really, really like, it provides answers, but adds little to an appreciation of his achievement.

It doesn't really matter what cars Addams drove, whom he slept with, how his second wife cheated him -- it's Addams' art that makes a lasting impression, as it should.

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