The National Digest

The Cultural History of ‘The Addams Family’

In the summer of 1938, a determined salesman dropped in on a haunted mansion to peddle his “vibrationless, noiseless” vacuum doubling as both a “great time and a back saver” that “no well-appointed home should without.” It was a single-panel cartoon on page nine of The New Yorker fetching the author a tidy $85 sum. It introduced the world to an unnamed brood that will, once again, be returning to the big screen on Friday.

It might stand to reason that the man behind the family, Charles Addams, was a lost soul with a troubled background who brought his pain to the pages of the New Yorker. But in reality, born in 1912 in Westfield, New Jersey, Addams grew up in a warm, loving household as the only child of devoted parents; his father sold pianos. Charles was known to be a scamp who loved a good gag—a favorite being when he would scare his grandmother by popping out of his home’s dumbwaiter. He once told Linda H. Davis, author of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, “It would be more interesting, perhaps, if I had a ghastly childhood—chained to an iron bed and thrown a can of Alpo everyday. But I’m one of those strange people who actually had a happy childhood.”

What Addams always had was a love for the macabre (the common descriptor of his work he eventually grew weary of), be it exploring graveyards, trespassing in an abandoned neighborhood Victorian mansion, or drawing German Kaiser Wilhelm II in all manner of graphic death scenes.

In high school, Addams fell in love with illustration and ended up at New York City’s Grand Central School of Art. In 1932, while still a student, he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker, a sketch of a window washer that paid him $7.50.

“Addams is one of those rare people who made a living throughout his entire life in the arts,” says Davis, his biographer, from her Massachusetts home. “He was with The New Yorker until the end and it afforded him a glamorous sophisticated life. He wasn’t filthy rich, but he had an apartment overlooking the MOMA scultpture garden, drove a Bugatti and a Bentley, dated Jackie [Kennedy] not long after the assassination, and was always at the top of everyone’s dinner party list.”

(Alfred Hitchcock himself once showed up on Addams front door, befriended him, and later name-dropped him via Cary Grant in North by Northwest.)

Throughout his career, Addams cartooned for a variety of publications including Collier’s and TV Guide, and for a time, he retouched crime scene photos for True Detective, the ideal training ground if ever there was one. But The New Yorker was always his first home, especially after his 1940 classic “The Downhill Skier,” put him on the map. And it’s on that magazine’s august pages where he introduced the nation to the lunatics who bear his last name, even though the Addams Family represented just a small percentage of his output. Charles Addams drew some 1,300 New Yorker cartoons, but only 58 of them, almost all in the 1940s-50s, featured the unnamed family who remained anonymous until around the time the television show debuted. Addams’s popular 1959 collection, Dear Dead Days: A Family Album, features the primary six characters, but the television patriarch’s name of “Gomez” didn’t come in until actor John Astin embodied him, much to the chagrin of Addams who preferred Repelli, a play on repellent. (Pugsley lucked out, Addams originally suggested Pubert be his TV handle, but network censors found it too risque.)

In a broad sense, “The Addams Family” hit the airwaves in the golden age of broad high-concept low-brow comedies—”My Favorite Martian”, “Green Acres”, “My Mother the Car”—but in a specific sense, the show was a direct response to the planned CBS sitcom, “The Munsters.” Both shows shared some of the same spooky DNA (as well as debuting and getting canceled within days of one another), but “The Addams Family” had something its spiritual doppelganger couldn’t compete with: the original comics themselves, even if there were no new ones to draw from. Snooty New Yorker editor Wallace Shawn banned Addams from the magazine during the show’s run.

“The TV show wasn’t as dark as the strips, it was more zany than spooky, but it captured the flavor of what Charles Addams was doing in the New Yorker,” says Stephen Cox, author of 23 book about film and television including The Addams Chronicles. “For sheer laughs, I always thought ‘The Munsters’ was funnier, but ‘The Addams Family’ delivered an intellectual charge because of the more adult themes.”


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