Friday, September 12, 2014

Charles Addams

Charles Addams might be an odd inclusion for literary New York, but I ask you this, have any of the authors profiled so far been able to so completely tell a story with just a line or two of text and an image? I should think not. Also, if we want to get technical, his work was complied into many books and he was given an honorary Edgar Award for his body of work, so there. Charles Addams was America's premiere cartoonist for all things dark and macabre. His unique sense of humor was able to tap into some deeply shared hive mind bleakness that made his work relatable to everyone. With his comics making the leap to television his name became famous overnight with The Addams Family. Because that kooky family literally couldn't be thought of as anything else then his own creations, hence his family.

Chas Addams published his first cartoon on January 13th, 1940. He would go on to draw more then 1,300 in his lifetime, many of which were published by The New Yorker. As I have previously mentioned, The New Yorker eventually moved from Hell's Kitchen to right across the street from The Algonquin, making it easier for many of the writers to slip out for "board meetings." Their new location was at 28 West 44th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenue.

The facade of the building was changed a little when new owners took over in the early nineties, but the trace of the offices that Addams would exclusively visit and was "often present on the premises" of remains with this lovely "Literary Landmark" plaque. Don't expect to find it hunting on google maps trying to make your imaginary visit as real as possible. Sadly you'll have to actually visit New York because this plaque is located in the building's vestibule. And if you look closely, a certain "Cartoonist" Charles Addams is mentioned on the plaque! Eat your heart out Dorothy Parker!

Because Chas's literature is a visual type of storytelling, he gets a few more pictures then the other authors profiled this month... and also because I seriously can't choose a favorite with his work.  Each and everyone one of his covers for The New Yorker could be framed and have pride of place on your wall. But what I think most interesting to point out here is that his work fit well with The New Yorker because there was something so specific about it that made you feel as if these comics could only happen in that thriving metropolis. A combination of the macabre and the urban that captured New York City's zeitgeist.

Addams also captured the fringes of society, the weirdness that is on the outskirts, right out of view, right at the transition from urban to suburban, he captured it with such deftness. If you look at these two covers, you'll realize that both are from 1961. Just think of Addams's popularity to do multiple covers in a single year!

I can not talk about Chas without talking about his cars, after all it was his passion and he had his fatal heart attack sitting in one in front of his apartment. He was able to capture this dichotomy from urban to suburban because he often travelled back and forth between his apartment in the city and his house in Sagaponack, New York. As he raced along the streets he was able to see this transition and then put it into images. That house in the Hamptons is now home to the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, where his studio remains intact, and the Foundation carries on works in his name.

But if you don't feel like leaving the city, then it's time for another stop on our stalking dead authors tour... between 5th and 6th Avenue directly behind MOMA if you are looking up the island, was Chas's home in the city. Here is an excerpt from Linda Davis's Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life describing her visit there:

"The Addams dwelling at 25 West Fifty-fourth Street was directly behind the Museum of Modern Art, at the top of the building. It was reached by an ancient elevator, which rumbled up to the twelfth floor. From there, one climbed through a red-painted stairwell where a real mounted crossbow hovered. The Addams door was marked by a "big black number 13," and a knocker in the shape of a vampire.

The apartment consisted of the top two floors of the building. It stood under a leaky ten-thousand-gallon water tank which had flooded the bedroom at least once, destroying the drawings, photographs, papers, and other mementos Addams kept in boxes under the bed, as well as on closet shelves. The layout was equally eccentric. The bedroom, where Addams worked most of the time, was upstairs, accessible to the downstairs living room and kitchen only by outside service stairs.

Inside, one entered a little kingdom that fulfilled every fantasy one might have entertained about its inhabitant. On a pedestal in the corner of the bookcase stood a rare "Maximilian" suit of armor, which Addams had bought at a good price ("a bargain at $700") from the Litchfield Collection at Sotheby's Parke-Bernet gallery thirty years earlier. It was joined by a half suit, a North Italian Morion of "Spanish" form, circa 1570–80, and a collection of warrior helmets, perched on long stalks like decapitated heads: a late sixteenth-century German burgonet; a German trooper's lobster tail pot helmet, circa 1650; and the pointed fore-and-aft helmet from the sixteenth-century Italian suit, which was elaborately etched with game trophies, men-at-arms, monsters, birds. There were enough arms and armaments to defend the Addams fortress against the most persistent invader: wheel-lock guns; an Italian prod; two maces; three swords. Above a sofa bed, a spectacular array of medieval crossbows rose like birds in flight. "Don't worry, they've only fallen down once," Addams once told an overnight guest. The valuable pieces of medieval weaponry, which would ultimately fetch $220,113 at auction, mingled with books, framed cartoons and illustrations, photographs of classic cars, gruesome artifacts, and such inexpensive mementos as a mounted rubber bat.

Everywhere one looked in the apartment, something caught the eye. A rare papier-mâché and polychrome anatomical study figure, nineteenth century, with removable organs and body parts captioned in French, protected by a glass bell. ("It's not exactly another human heart beating in the house, but it's close enough," said Addams.) A set of engraved aquatint plates from an antique book on armor. A lamp in the shape of a miniature suit of armor, topped by a black shade. There were various snakes; biopsy scissors ("It reaches inside, and nips a little piece of flesh," explained Addams); and a shiny human thighbone — a Christmas present from one wife. There was a sewing basket fashioned from an armadillo, a gift from another.

In front of the couch stood a most unusual coffee table — "a drying out table," the man at the wonderfully named antiques shop, the Gettysburg Sutler, had called it. ("What was dried on it?" a reporter had asked. "Bodies," said Addams.) The table had holes in each corner for draining the fluids, a rusted adjustable headrest, and a mechanism for raising and lowering the neck. There was also, Addams genially pointed out, "a rather sinister stain in what would be the region of the kidneys." The table was covered with the usual decorative objects — a Baccarat goblet, a couple of plates, a miniature castle, a bowl of ceramic nesting snakes."

As a final stop, I think it's time to see some of these works in person. Sadly, because the two times I was in this New York institution I had not heard of this gallery I can not verify if it is still there, but Neil Gaiman and the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation back me up, so there's hope... At the Main Branch of The New York Public Library at West 40th Street located right on 5th Avenue there is a gallery devoted to Charles Addams. As Gaiman said "[t]o this day, one of my favourite places in the world is the tiny Charles Addams art gallery on the third floor of the New York Library (follow the signs to the Mens' Toilets and it's just before you get there)." So follow those directions from Neil and revel in the artwork of a man who was a literary great and was somehow able to capture what it meant to be human and a New Yorker, in the most wickedly delightful way possible.


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