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Charles Addams, happiest amid horror, gets a Google Doodle

January 7, 2012 |  3:01 pm

Addams Family

Charles Addams, Google Doodle honoree, signed his cartoons "Chas" Addams, but as a child he was known as "Chilly."  That nickname was an indicator of who he would become -- a man who could tickle your funny bone with a hangman's noose.

Addams was born on this day in 1912.  His oddball brand of cartoons, featured in the New Yorker, included the recurring Addams Family characters.  Gomez, Morticia and the gang inspired two TV series, two animated TV shows, three movies and a Broadway musical.

On a table in his Manhattan penthouse home, Addams once had a glass-encased model of a human body with skeleton and organs exposed.  Then there was the suit of armor with a double-edged beheading sword.  A People magazine article from 1973 describes Addams' "fascination with the sinister." But the article notes that the cartoonist was a "gentle, almost self-effacing man" whose big laugh was famous around the offices of the New Yorker.  

Growing up in Westfield, N.J., Addams' father, a naval architect who became a New Jersey piano company manager, encouraged him to draw.  A 1950s-era Look magazine spread on the cartoonist said that "even as a small boy he was fascinated by the macabre, in a cheerful way. He lived in his own world."

The Los Angeles Times' obituary on Addams, who died in 1988, said he grew up drawing skulls and crossbones for his high school newspaper.  He decided to pursue art and attended Colgate, the University of Pennsylvania and the Grand Central School of Design in New York -- one year each.

Out of college, according to the People article, Addams worked as a photographic retoucher for MacFadden Publications' detective pulps -- his job was to "clean up the bodies when they were too gruesome," he said. 

He went on to spend more than 53 years drawing cartoons for the New Yorker.

Look said in '53:

Addams' gloomy brand of humor has had great effect on the nation in the 20 years since he sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker.  Such sales prompted him to quit his $15-a-week job retouching photos for a detective magazine. Today, he enjoys a healthy five-figure income.

Addams was twice divorced (he was married to model Barbara Day and lawyer Barbara Barb).  He reportedly married his third wife, Marilyn Matthews Miller, in a pet cemetery.

He told People he married women who looked like Morticia. "She's my ideal," he said.

Despite his strange obsessions -- with the 16th century, for instance, which he once described as a "romantic time" when "everyone was beheaded and they had a lot of plagues" -- a colleague at the New Yorker said he was "urbane, relaxed and congenial. ... He doesn't eat babies."

Still, he had his reputation. Look said in its '53 story that Addams' cartoons "give homey situations a horrible twist."

A few of those homey, horrible creations:

A man, briefcase in hand and newspaper under his arm, reads a note in a living room.  Around the corner is a scene of destruction -- chair overturned, gun on floor and legs protruding from under a torn curtain. The caption: "Dear Artie: Have gone to Mother's.  Sorry you find things in a mess.  Don't worry. Cold ham in icebox.  In haste, Maudie."

A vacuum cleaner salesman heading toward a mansion pauses in shock upon seeing a limp figure hanging from a noose on a tree -- the strung-up man is holding a vacuum cleaner.

A nurse leans out a hospital door and tells a man: "Congratulations! It's a baby."

ALSO:

Mark Twain, master of the insult

Google carves some awesome pumpkins

The evolution of the Google Doodle: Gumby gallery

-- Amy Hubbard

Image: From the book "The Addams Family: An Evilution," by Charles Addams. Credit: Pomegranate

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