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Review: "Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life" (Newsday)

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A Cartoonist’s Quirky Life

Special to Newsday

October 22, 2006

CHARLES ADDAMS: A Cartoonist’s Life, by Linda H. Davis. Random House, 382 pp., $29.95.

A celebrity cartoonist should be sure of these essentials: steady work, true love, a good dog, a stylish car and a clever lawyer.

Charles Addams, the iconic and much-beloved New Yorker artist whose work made a successful crossover to television and movies, had all those things — although more often than not, the lawyer had some deft maneuvering to do so the work, the spouse and the true love didn’t collide.

Linda H. Davis’ chronicle of Addams’ rowdy, randy life and times is a bouillabaisse of a biography, and there will be plenty of tidbits for anyone who loves Addams’ meticulously rendered, sinister drawings, the “Addams Family” franchise, or both. It’s also a tale of a time that will seem magically archaic to many modern readers, for whom this will be a foreign sentence: “Looking as stylish as a film star, she seemed to relish her public role as the cartoonist’s wife, which included posing for photographers and socializing with Hollywood royalty, including the Alfred Hitchcocks.”

Indeed, Davis’ book is a valentine as much to Addams’ genius for romance as to his draftsmanship, as well as a sometimes wincingly amusing testament to the hazards of marriage between highly dramatic people.

“But let Steinberg intellectualize,” writes Davis near the end of the book, after noting fellow artist Saul Steinberg’s insight about how Addams may have incorporated his strong feelings about modern architecture into his cartoons. And while she does engage in some close reading of Addams’ subjects and drawing style, she chooses to focus instead on the province of his peculiar and appealing form of domesticity.

Addams’ New York Confidential story begins with kind first wife Barbara Jean Day, succeeded by the gorgeous (there are photos) Barbara Barb, who creatively worked her way into a high-end law career and into Addams’ life and never quite got out of it; a canny attorney, she found ways to profit from and meddle in his work long after their almost campily dramatic divorce. Her equal in resolve was Harriet Pilpel, not a lover but his trusty lawyer, who seems to have dedicated much of her life to saving Addams from one terrible financial error (usually in the form of a Barbara Barb scheme) after another. That triangle, properly and intelligently filmed, could easily join “Capote” and “Joe Gould’s Secret” in the rank of great New Yorker movies.

Addams, who appears to have been able to see innumerable women at once (at one dinner party, he “switched beautiful women over cocktails”), also dated, at various times, Veronica Lake, Jackie Kennedy, Greta Garbo, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” inspiration Doris Lilly and Joan Fontaine. He finally married his great love, the formidable Tee Davie, who put up with him but let him know she was no fool.

It would be a mistake not to include Addams’ favorite dog, Alice, and Sam Cobean, Addams’ war buddy and fellow cartoonist, in this romantic list; Cobean’s death in a car crash seems to have hit Addams harder than Davis even explores. It seems a fitting tribute to their zany and generous friendship that the book reproduces some very funny and blue caricatures by Cobean of a big-nosed Addams at his most impish.

A necessary chronicle of the cartoonist’s life, this is a quirky one, too, and there are some mysterious gaps. Davis (who is also New Yorker editor Katharine S. White’s biographer) skims over Addams’ literary taste, his politics (Democrat, then Republican) and “a violent attack on his own life,” as well as a diagnosis of diabetes, all elements that surely influenced his work in some way. Davis barely mentions Addams’ depression and possible suicidal thoughts (“[Brendan] Gill served up the old apocryphal tales about the cartoonist’s mental breakdowns,” she writes evasively, but doesn’t elaborate).

Davis pursued the facts of Addams’ life with the seemingly enthusiastic cooperation of Tee, a collaboration that Davis reassures readers caused no undue bias. While there’s a whiff of source-pleasing to the book, intimacy with sources has its advantages. While the biography does not come across as strictly evenhanded, it benefits from Davis’ access to the smallest documents, from rare sketches to obscure letters to a datebook in which Jackie Kennedy has scrawled tender jokes.

In the end, perhaps love and lawyers (and paychecks) really are the stories of our lives. Davis knows and demonstrates — uncommon in a star biography — that every life intertwines with no end of other complete, often equally fascinating ones. Addams, a big personality, collected enough other big personalities around him to fill dozens of books. We’re lucky to have this one.

Emily Gordon is the editor of Emdashes.com, a blog about The New Yorker.

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