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How the cartoonist behind The Addams Family defused fear, with dead-on humor

Charles Addams in his Westhampton Beach, N.Y., studio in 1977.
Tee & Charles Addams Foundation
Charles Addams in his Westhampton Beach, N.Y., studio in 1977.

On November 3, the Society of Illustratorswill induct the cartoonist Charles "Chas" Addams into its Hall of Fame. Although he drew thousands of cartoons throughout his career, Addams is best known for ghoulish and charming characters who first graced the pages of The New Yorker in the late 1930s.

After they appeared on a TV sitcom that ran from 1964 to 1966, The Addams Family, as they came to be known, enjoyed an afterlife in syndication, as well as books, animated series, live-action films, a Broadway musical, a pinball machine, video games and ads hawking everything from M&Ms to home insurance. Next month, the ever-morose tween Wednesday Addams will have her own Netflix show, directed by Tim Burton.

The origins of this pop culture dynasty can be traced to the small town of Westfield, N.J., about 20 miles west of Manhattan. Addams was born there in 1912 and as a child he played in graveyards, imagining those who lay beneath, and resurrecting them in his sketchbook. "If that's morbid, then he started out as a morbid person, but it was more a fascination with death," explains Kevin Miserocchi, Director of the Tee & Charles Addams Foundation.

Having contributed cartoons to the student newspaper and literary magazine at Westfield High, Addams followed with brief stints at Colgate and the University of Pennsylvania. A transfer to the Grand Central School of Art brought him to New York City, where he landed a gig cleaning up crime scene photos for True Detective magazine in the early 1930s. "They wanted him to 'jazz up' the stories," says Miserocchi, "but then he would have to back off because it was too much."

In 1932 Addams sold his first spot sketch to The New Yorker. His big break came in 1940, with a captionless cartoon depicting a skier whose tracks pass on both sides of a tree, which earned him a spot as a marquee contributor.

"Downhill Skier," <em>The New Yorker</em>, January 13, 1940
/ Tee & Charles Addams Foundation
Tee & Charles Addams Foundation
"Downhill Skier," The New Yorker, January 13, 1940

Cartoonist Roz Chast first discovered Addams' work as an eight-year-old visiting the browsing library at Cornell University while her parents attended summer lectures with other adults. At a time when most of The New Yorker's cartoons poked fun at boardrooms and cocktail parties, Chast says Addams's work stood out. "I loved almost anything that the kids were in," she recalls. In one of her favorites, a delivery man appears to be returning kids from summer camp to their parents – in animal restraining carriers.

In another, one of Addams' most well-known, it's Christmastime, 1946. Members of the yet-to-be-named Addams family are on the roof of a creepy-looking mansion, poised to douse carolers on the street with the contents of a steaming cauldron.

"Boiling Oil," <em>The New Yorker</em>, December 21, 1946
/ Tee & Charles Addams Foundation
Tee & Charles Addams Foundation
"Boiling Oil," The New Yorker, December 21, 1946

"You know, instead of it being sort of like, look at these hostile psychotics, what's wrong with them, it's like when you just kind of can't bear the carolers sort of thing and you just want to dump boiling oil on them," says Chast with a chuckle.

Over time, those loosely connected characters experienced an "evilution" into a family: Morticia, her husband Gomez, their offspring Wednesday and Pugsley, Uncle Fester, Granny Frump, the butler Lurch, and a mysterious disembodied hand called Thing. They became internationally famous denizens of the dark side in the mid-1960s thanks to The Addams Family TV sitcom, starring John Astin as Gomez and Carolyn Jones as Morticia.

That's around the time that cartoonist Alison Bechdel encountered Addams' work — including an illustrated book of nursery rhymes. Bechdel says even an innocent verse like "girls and boys come out to play, the moon does shine as bright as day" could take a grim turn as members of the Addams Family rushed into the cemetery with shovels. On a personal level, she says she could relate.

"I really felt like I was a part of the Addams Family," Bechdel explains. "My parents looked like Morticia and Gomez, we ran a funeral home, we lived in this big old rambling Victorian house like the Addams's did. I even looked quite a bit like Wednesday, especially in my first-grade photo where I'm actually wearing a black velvet dress with a white collar."

As for Charles Addams, he loved to have fun with his public image, decorating his Manhattan penthouse with medieval weaponry and a Civil War-era embalming table. But he was also known as a gracious and congenial man who loved vintage cars and animals. Addams married and divorced two raven-haired beauties resembling Morticia before wedding his third and final wife Marilyn "Tee" Matthews in a pet cemetery at her Water Mill, Long Island home in 1980. Naturally, the bride and groom both wore black. When the couple died, he in 1988, and she in 2002, their ashes were interred in the pet cemetery on their shared Sagaponack estate, which they affectionately called "The Swamp."

Miserocchi points out that as a cartoonist Addams' goal was never to create fear, but to defuse it, infusing the horror with a playfulness that appealed even to those who prefer daylight to the witching hour. "The suggestion of blood, the suggestion of gore, the suggestion of torture is always there but his cartoons never showed it." Subtly, but powerfully subversive, The Addams Family left readers wondering if maybe these weirdos weren't so weird after all ... and we were weirder.

Addams' work is now shown in prestigious galleries and museums. But perhaps nowhere is his enduring spirit more evident than in his hometown of Westfield, which holds a month-long celebration each October called "AddamsFest."

"Have you ever noticed how some people resemble their pets?" by Nadia Rego.
/ Photo courtesy of AddamsFest
Photo courtesy of AddamsFest
"Have you ever noticed how some people resemble their pets?" by Nadia Rego.

There's a masquerade ball, cemetery crawls and a gallery exhibition pairing Addams' cartoons with works by aspiring young artistswho took a multi-day class to learn his print-age techniques.

"We [then] looked at a list of prompts, not knowing that they were his. And so we drew what we interpreted from that, and then we got the opportunity to look at how he drew it," says Nadia Rego, a 15-year-old participant. Even though Addams and Rego may be separated by nearly a century, the humor is still dead on.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allyson McCabe