When cartoonist Charles Addams married his third wife, Tee, in 1980, the ceremony was held in a Long Island pet cemetery — and the bride wore black. ”Maybe it was odd,” admits Tee, 64, whose husband died in 1988 at age 76, ”but it wasn’t creepy.” Addams’ gently ghoulish New Yorker drawings are beloved for being much the same — chilling, but somehow charming. To wit: A middle-aged housewife, relaxing in her favorite armchair, chats on the telephone with a good friend. But look closer. She’s holding a gun and her husband’s legs are stretched out on the floor. The caption: ”Nothing much, Agnes. What’s new with you?”
”He was like a kid saying, ‘Ha! Look what I did!”’ says Tee Addams. ”He was very low-key, very gentle, anything but a fiend.”
Born in Westfield, N.J., a photo retoucher on True Detective magazine prior to becoming a regular New Yorker contributor from 1940 until his death, Addams is best known for creating the macabre but oddly comforting universe of the characters who came to be known as the Addams Family. In one of his most famous cartoons, which became a scene in the movie, the family gleefully prepares to pour a vat of boiling liquid from the roof of their Gothic mansion onto Christmas carolers singing below.
”In some way they’re the perfectly typical American family,” says cartoonist Lee Lorenz, art editor of The New Yorker, where Addams sketched 65 covers and approximately 1,300 cartoons. ”That’s what’s so funny about them. They’re more direct than the rest of us — not different in kind, just in degree. At times we’ve all felt Christmas is too much.”
In 1962, Addams sold rights to his cartoon creatures to TV producer David Levy, though soon after The Addams Family aired in 1964, New Yorker editor William Shawn banned the family from the magazine, saying they’d become too commercial. (His successor, Robert Gottlieb, welcomed them back in the ’80s.) Addams had little if any involvement with the TV show, and said he never received residuals from the series, though he was paid handsomely during its two-year run.
If his work was considered a bit out there, Addams himself was sometimes the subject of lurid lore. The artist allegedly flirted with insanity several times over the course of his career, with each breakdown signaled by his submission (which The New Yorker invariably refused) of a cartoon showing a vampire in a maternity ward, telling a nurse holding a baby, ”Don’t wrap it up, I’ll eat it here.” Addams always denied the story, though he thrived on the public’s perception of him as a man a little too close to the edge. He collected medieval armor as a hobby, as well as antique cars, and his Manhattan apartment contained a beheading sword and an embalming block that served as a coffee table.
”These crazy rumors would start and he’d say, ‘Don’t tell them any differently,”’ says Tee, who wrote an introductory note to The World of Charles Addams, a cartoon collection published Oct. 31 to coincide with the opening of a show of Addams’ work at the National Academy of Design in New York City. ”He didn’t care. He got a laugh out of the whole thing.”