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Altogether ooky

October 29, 2006|Ed Park | Ed Park is a founding editor of the Believer.

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Charles Addams

A Cartoonist's Life

Linda H. Davis

Random House: 384 pp., $29.95

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Amphigorey Again

Edward Gorey

Harcourt: 264 pp., $35

WHAT could be more preposterous than the cartoonist as babe magnet? In a one-page riff by "Ghost World" creator Daniel Clowes, a lovelorn words-and-pictures man hopes that re-branding himself as a suave "ink stud" will change his luck with the ladies. Oddly enough, would-be ink studs have a real-life model in Charles Addams (1912--1988), the legendary New Yorker artist responsible for indelible scenes of blackly comic menace (and possibly Christina Ricci's career). As recounted in Linda H. Davis' new biography, "Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life," the thrice-married penman had numerous affairs (with women who mostly indulged his concurrent flings and spoke fondly of him afterward), even romancing the rarefied likes of Greta Garbo and Jackie Kennedy in the '60s. "I love Pugsley and Lurch, but my favorite is Morticia," the latter said in 1964 about the Addams Family, his popular clan of grotesques, which had just been translated to television. "She and I have a lot more in common than you might think."

The family's raven-haired, pale-skinned, perpetually slender matriarch was Addams' erotic ideal. His first two wives bore a striking resemblance to her, and in 1943, he told an interviewer, "I think maybe I'm in love with the young looking witch," whom he had introduced to New Yorker readers five years earlier.

Perhaps the attraction to her flesh-and-blood avatars wasn't just physical: Morticia is one letter away from the person who sees you to your grave -- death and sex in one neat bundle. The former first lady shared details with him about her husband's assassination. ("Do you know, she had his brains in her lap?" he marveled.) The day after Nelson Rockefeller expired in the arms of his 26-year-old assistant, Addams (who lived in a neighboring building) bedded her and began an affair, despite the 41-year age gap. (Devotees of Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time" might here recall Pamela Flitton's rumored deathbed romp, but the connection is in fact even more direct: Addams had an affair with the pale, dark-haired Barbara Skelton -- the British writer and "femme fatale of the first rank" on whom Pamela is thought to have been partly based.)

Addams' colorful love life suggests an unruly force at odds with Davis' respectful tone. She catalogs his conquests and his collection of antique weaponry but emphasizes his warm side -- there are a few too many interludes in which Addams is shown to be good with kids. She avoids psychoanalyzing her subject, who attributed his own lack of therapist gags -- that New Yorker staple -- to his "arrested intellectual development." Addams claimed to have had a happy childhood; one admirer said the cartoonist had "more friends than anybody I've ever known." Davis doesn't hazard a guess as to what might have linked his serial womanizing, his taste for fast cars and his gift for the sinister, which he distilled in nearly 5,000 drawings. Nor does she explicate, in any revealing way, why Addams' work stuck in the mind, then and now.

Nevertheless, the biography engagingly details Addams' meteoric rise (he sold his first illustration to the New Yorker at age 20 and was soon in the fold), and his working method comes to life in the early chapters -- his preferred brand of drawing paper, his extraordinarily supple "wash" technique. Most captivating is the glimpse of the magazine's communal spirit: Cartoon ideas often came from other staffers, and the vetting process could be impressively specific. ("[Put them] all in robes; ... fix bulging eye; not all bald; suppressed merriment," read part of one elaborate editorial critique.)

Addams' only flaw, as Davis sees it, was his masochistic relationship with his second wife, Barbara Barb, whom he married in 1954. (His third wife referred to her as "Bad Barbara" to distinguish her from her predecessor, "Good" Barbara Day). An aggressive lawyer who looked like a "bimbo," Barb circulated a fictitious snooty pedigree, lied about her age and could become physically violent with Addams (an African spear once came into play). She rapidly took over Addams' financial affairs, to the alarm of his lawyer, and acted as agent for his artwork, an arrangement that would have repercussions long after their 1956 divorce. This hopeless entanglement, this "terrible dark passion," is a disturbing but invigorating counterpoint to the sunny portrait Davis otherwise paints. One finishes the book entertained but with the nagging feeling that another narrative wants to emerge, like the Addams cartoon in which a pumpkin is being carved, creepily, from the inside out.

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