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Cartoonist Addams remains an enigma

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Charles Addams, the great creepy cartoonist and creator of the lovably fiendish Addams Family, was once asked by a reporter, "Are people disappointed when they meet you?"

"I suppose they are," Addams replied. "Aren't you?

To a biographer taking on a popular artist whose art may be more intriguing than his life, that's both a warning and challenge.

To his famous friends, who included Alfred Hitchcock and James Thurber, Addams was anything but disappointing. Charming, witty, but in public, shy.

Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life by Linda H. Davis will delight those interested in literary gossip and intrigue at The New Yorker. But the book has a tough act to follow: Addams' own cartoons (38 are included in the book).

Ultimately, what's of lasting interest are the cartoons, more than the cartoonist, who died in 1988.

Davis writes with flair, has done extensive, footnoted research and had the cooperation of Addams' third wife and widow who insisted that the biographer "put every wart in the book and ... not worry about her feelings."

In detail, Davis documents Addams' affairs, financial and romantic, including a second wife who he believed tried to kill him.

But Davis is less sure of how much of the cartoonist's life -- his fascination with cemeteries, crossbows and freak shows -- was legitimate and how much was a show for his fans.

The book details how much Addams loved women, and they loved him. What Davis calls Addams' "harem" included Jackie Kennedy, Greta Garbo, Joan Fontaine and Megan Marshack, who's more famous for being in the company of an undressed Nelson Rockefeller when he died.

Among the stories Davis tells is a small dinner party Addams threw to introduce Garbo and Kennedy. With vodka flowing freely, Garbo was over-served.

"Mister Addams," she kept saying in her formal way. "I must leave. I am intoxicated."

"Is she kind of stewed?" Kennedy asked Addams in her whisper.

Later, Addams told a friend, "Well, she was, and so she left before dinner."

He also told a friend, without elaborating, that Kennedy had told him how she felt during the assassination of her husband. Davis reports he told another friend, "Do you know she had his brains in her lap?"

The book describes how Addams slowly and, not easily, developed his cartoon family at the suggestion of The New Yorker's founder Harold Ross, "who thought there should be more characters in the delicious house."

Some names were invented for a line of dolls and the 1964 TV show. Addams came up with Morticia while looking in the telephone book for morticians. Young Pugsley was named for a stream in the Bronx. Addams' first choice, Pubert, was rejected by the dollmaker because it sounded dirty.

On television, The Addams Family, a softer version of the cartoons, lasted only two years but lived on in reruns. It made Addams more famous and richer than ever, but it strained his relationship with the magazine that had nurtured him.

The New Yorker's legendary editor William Shawn thought that "vulgar Hollywood had compromised Addams' evils," and stopped printing his drawings of Morticia, Gomez and the kids.

Only after Shawn's death did the magazine lift its ban, but by then, Davis writes, Addams' heart was no longer in it.

Addams once said of Jackie Kennedy: "One minute she is very sweet and tender, and the next minute she is an iceberg. She may be the moodiest woman I've ever met. Don't ask me what the real Jackie Kennedy is like because I really haven't the faintest idea."

Despite Davis' valiant efforts, the real Charles Addams may remain unknowable -- unlike his cartoons.

Charles Addams

By Linda H. Davis

Random House, 382 pp., $29.95

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© Copyright 2006 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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