Home ~ Background Materials ~

Biography of Charles Addams

Biography of Charles Addams

Charles Addams

Charles Addams

Charles Addams, the beloved creator of the dark and delightful Addams Family and thousands of other characters, was born in Westfield, New Jersey in 1912. Addams had a wonderful childhood complete with devoted parents and middle-class comforts. According to Linda Davis, Addams’ biographer, young Charles was “known as something of a rascal around the neighborhood.” In her book, “Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life” she quotes Addams, “In Westfield, I was always aware of the sinister family situations behind those Victorian façades.”
“His first foray into art was at the age of eight when he was arrested for breaking into a Victorian house that was undergoing repairs and drawing skeletons all over the walls.”
 

Addams got many of his ideas for his darker cartoons from his memories of Westfield, and from the stories drifting around town of family scandals. He also drew heavily from his own fears, especially his claustrophobia. According to Davis, Charles inherited his fears from his mother: “Charlie…shared her fearfulness. And he developed something more than a typical childish interest in the spirits of the dead.” Addams lived in his imagination, and soon, that imagination began to live on the page. When he was twelve, his mother brought some of his drawings to the world office of the New York Herald, where cartoonist H.T. Webster told her that Addams had no talent, and to forget him ever having an art career. The next year, Addams won his first drawing contest. After short stints at Colgate and the University of Pennsylvania, Addams enrolled in the Grand Central School of Art. One day in 1931, while cutting class, he submitted a sketch of a window washer on a tall building to The New Yorker offices, forgetting to include a return address. A few months later, when he returned to the offices to pick up his drawing, he learned his work had been accepted. Although his career was off to a promising start, the death of his father the following year made Charles decide to leave art school in favor of a job retouching crime scene photographs for True Detective magazine.

Addams’ first real success didn’t come until 1933, when his second New Yorker cartoon was accepted. This cartoon depicted three hockey players in full uniform on the ice, one of them looking sheepish and without skates. The caption read, “I forgot my skates.” Addams’ signature dark style had yet to emerge. Despite his early successes, he was fearful that he would “run out of funny things”. In March of 1935, Addams found inspiration in a new cartoon—his drawing depicted a tabloid reading “Sex Fiend Slays Tot” amidst a line of New York Times’ rolling off a printing press. The success of the risqué cartoon opened Addams up to a new style and freed him to explore his dark side. The pieces that followed featured touches of macabre humor including a 1935 drawing depicting a woman, in a roller coaster car filled to capacity and inching up the first drop, pointing to the sky and exclaiming, “Alfred, look! Vultures!”

It wasn’t until April 6th, 1938 that the first Addams Family cartoon crept into the pages of The New Yorker. This first cartoon depicted a then-unnamed Morticia (a lithe, dark beauty inspired by his first wife, Barbara) and a large man, later to be known as butler Lurch, standing in the foyer of a dilapidated Victorian house. They are listening to a vacuum salesman pitch.

“Vibrationless, noiseless, and a great time and back saver. No well-appointed home should be without it.”

“Vibrationless, noiseless, and a great time and back saver. No well-appointed home should be without it.”

“Vibrationless, noiseless, and a great time and back saver. No well-appointed home should be without it.” The house, in grand Addams style, is covered in cobwebs, dust, and crawling with creatures, including a sinister figure peeking down from the top of the stairs. After the cartoon entitled “Vacuum Cleaner” debuted, Addams made no plans to develop the dark characters further, but was encouraged by Harold Ross (New Yorker founder) to explore “more characters in the delicious house.” A year later, Addams submitted his second Family cartoon. A few more followed, including the introduction of Grandma, modeled after his own, and Morticia’s lover Gomez, modeled after Thomas E. Dewey crossed with a pig. Even with the addition of more characters, Addams was uninspired by his family, and rarely made them the subjects of his cartoons.

“The Skier”

“The Skier”

It was in 1940, with his “The Skier” cartoon, that Addams received worldwide attention and his first taste of fame. A simple drawing illustrating a perplexed skier watching as another skier skis down a slope leaving tracks in the snow—one on each side of a tree as if she had gone right through it. Addams, then 28, received more purchase and reprint requests for his cartoon than any other published in The New Yorker that year. Later Addams expressed regret for selling the drawing for only $35.

Despite his newfound fame, Addams was still haunted by the dark family that had begun to emerge in his cartoons. According to Davis, Addams told a reporter, People always want to know more about them, but I’ve never been able to figure out what they’re doing. Maybe they are at a gathering with some hobby in common. I’ve become quite attached to them. I think maybe I’m in love with the young looking witch.

“Well don’t come whining to me. Go tell him you’ll poison him right back.”

“Well don’t come whining to me. Go tell him you’ll poison him right back.”

He didn’t have to wait long for his answer. In 1944, Addams expanded his family— including two children in his latest drawing entitled “Poison” featuring a round, mean-looking little blonde boy with a glass bottle and a thin, anemic-looking girl with braids wearing a black dress complaining to her mother. The caption reads, “Well don’t come whining to me. Go tell him you’ll poison him right back.” The children later became known as Pugsley and Wednesday in the 1964 television series. The popularity of his Addams Family cartoons began to grow despite their relative scarcity in his output (only 30 out of 244 were Family cartoons in the 1940’s).

Davis recalls, Like film stars, they attracted a devoted and eager following. Even the children of New Yorker readers, who would not otherwise have picked up the magazine, had come to watch for the cartoons that made scary things funny and celebrated breaking the rules…the children who loved Addams’ cartoons understood that there was nothing really scary going on in them.

“People expected Charles Addams to live among crossbows and skulls…and the cartoonist was happy to accommodate them.”
While many seemed to understand that Addams’ Family was more funny than scary, his dark subjects began giving him a personal reputation as a sinister character. Davis remarks, “People expected Charles Addams to live among crossbows and skulls…and the cartoonist was happy to accommodate them.” Addams even used a discarded headstone he found in a desecrated graveyard reading, “Little Sarah, Aged Three” as a cocktail table in his apartment. “He had the unfortunate tendency to laugh at funerals”, remarked one of his close friends. Davis speculates that Addams was merely satisfying the world’s perception of him, “Addams himself had invited the misperception—if only in jest…He had long delighted in telling reporters about some of the gifts he had received: a gilded skull, a human thighbone…he was known to picnic in graveyards, and he sometimes took souvenirs.”

“toothless grinning ghoul”

“toothless grinning ghoul”

Addams once remarked that he thought he looked like Uncle Fester (a character added to the cartoon in the mid 1940’s), a “toothless grinning ghoul” who was depicted in one cartoon sitting in the audience of a movie laughing at a scene that was making everyone else in the theater cry. Davis notes, “One quickly saw that the Addams wit, unlike that of many comic geniuses, was not confined to his art.”

Despite his reputation as a ghoul himself, Addams was a consummate professional who took his art very seriously. Over his nearly 60-year career, Addams maintained his position as one of the most celebrated cartoonists of all time. He created several thousand cartoons and drawings. In addition, fifteen anthologies of his work have been published in numerous languages worldwide.

Addams’ Family cartoons have inspired a television show, two major motion pictures, a cartoon television show based on the films, as well as a Broadway musical. Addams’ work can also be seen in many prominent museums and libraries including The Museum of the City of New York, The New York Public Library, and The Library of Congress, where his works are part of their permanent collections In 1988, Charles Addams died of a heart attack inside his car, parked in front of his apartment. Addams’ wife, Tee Addams remarked in his September 30th, 1988 New York Times obituary, “He’s always been a car buff, so it was a nice way to go.”

Article and pictures reprinted with permission from The Tee and Charles Addams Foundation.

Copyright © 2011 No Snap Judgments – StageNOTES for The Addams Family. All rights reserved. Site Map