Friday, June 29, 2007

Review of Linda H. Davis's CHARLES ADDAMS: A LIFE and Edward Gorey's Amphigorey Again, LATBR

By Ed Park

Charles Addams

A Cartoonist's Life

Linda H. Davis

Random House: 384 pp., $29.95

Amphigorey Again

Edward Gorey

Harcourt: 264 pp., $35

What could be more preposterous than the cartoonist as babe magnet? In a one-page riff by “Ghost World” creator Daniel Clowes, a lovelorn words-and-pictures man hopes that rebranding himself as a suave “ink stud” will change his luck with the ladies. Oddly enough, would-be ink studs have a real-life model in Charles Addams (1912-1988), the legendary New Yorker artist responsible for indelible scenes of blackly comic menace (and possibly Christina Ricci's career). As recounted in Linda H. Davis' new biography, “Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life,” the thrice-married penman had numerous affairs (with women who mostly indulged his concurrent flings and spoke fondly of him afterward), even romancing the rarefied likes of Greta Garbo and Jackie Kennedy in the '60s. “I love Pugsley and Lurch, but my favorite is Morticia,” the latter said in 1964 about the Addams Family, his popular clan of grotesques, which had just been translated to television. “She and I have a lot more in common than you might think.”

The family's raven-haired, pale-skinned, perpetually slender matriarch was Addams' erotic ideal. His first two wives bore a striking resemblance to her, and in 1943 he told an interviewer, “I think maybe I'm in love with the young looking witch,” whom he had introduced to New Yorker readers five years earlier.

Perhaps the attraction to her flesh-and-blood avatars wasn't just physical: Morticia is one letter away from the person who sees you to your grave -- death and sex in one neat bundle. The former First Lady shared details about her husband's assassination. (“Do you know, she had his brains in her lap?” he marveled.) The day after Nelson Rockefeller expired in the arms of his 26-year-old assistant, Addams (who lived in a neighboring building) bedded her and began an affair, despite the 41-year age gap. (Devotees of Anthony Powell's “A Dance to the Music of Time” might here recall Pamela Flitton's rumored deathbed romp, but the connection is in fact even more direct: Addams had an affair with the pale, dark-haired Barbara Skelton -- the British writer and “femme fatale of the first rank” on whom Pamela is thought to be partly based.)

Addams' colorful love life suggests an unruly force at odds with Davis' respectful tone. She catalogues his conquests and his collection of antique weaponry but emphasizes his warm side -- there are a few too many interludes in which Addams is shown to be good with kids. She avoids psychoanalyzing her subject, who attributed his own lack of therapist gags -- that New Yorker staple -- to his “arrested intellectual development.” Addams claimed to have had a happy childhood; one admirer said the cartoonist had “more friends than anybody I've ever known.” Davis doesn't hazard a guess as to what might have linked his serial womanizing, taste for fast cars and the gift for the sinister he distilled in nearly 5,000 drawings. Nor does she explicate, in any revealing way, why Addams' work stuck in the mind, then and now.

Nevertheless, the biography engagingly details Addams' meteoric rise (he sold his first illustration to the New Yorker at age 20 and was soon in the fold), and his working method comes to life in the early chapters -- his preferred brand of drawing paper, his extraordinarily supple “wash” technique. Most captivating is the glimpse of the magazine's communal spirit: Cartoon ideas often came from other staffers, and the vetting process could be impressively specific. (“[Put them] all in robes;…fix bulging eye; not all bald; suppressed merriment,” read part of one elaborate editorial critique.)

Addams' only flaw, as Davis sees it, was his masochistic relationship with his second wife, Barbara Barb, whom he married in 1954. (His third wife referred to her as “Bad Barbara” to distinguish her from her predecessor, “Good” Barbara Day). An aggressive lawyer who looked like a “bimbo,” Barb circulated a fictitious snooty pedigree, lied about her age and could become physically violent with Addams (an African spear once came into play). She rapidly took over Addams' financial affairs, to the alarm of Addams' lawyer, and acted as agent for his artwork , an arrangement that would have repercussions long after their 1956 divorce. This hopeless entanglement, this “terrible dark passion,” is a disturbing but invigorating counterpoint to the sunny portrait Davis otherwise paints. One finishes the book entertained but with the nagging feeling that another narrative wants to emerge, like the Addams cartoon in which a pumpkin is being carved, creepily, from the inside-out.

Along with Addams, Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is the last century's great American illustrator of the macabre. Though they share the same terrain and have enjoyed continued posthumous appeal, no one would confuse their work or approach. Addams was wedded to the single-panel format that was the hallmark of his employer, and each drawing had to score a direct hit as the reader encountered it amid the magazine's myriad attractions. Gorey's productions, full of mystery, were themselves mysterious -- an idiosyncratic array of small-format books, some published by his own Fantod Press, ranging from the 30-page novel “The Unstrung Harp” (his droll 1953 debut, in which an author endures compositional agonies) to “The Awdrey-Gore Legacy” (1972), a thoroughly deconstructed ersatz Agatha Christie novel. Fed by silent movies, eclectic literature, ballet and Surrealism, Gorey conjured topsy-turvy moral tales and inconclusive adventures, conceived of certain works as installments in nonexistent series and wrote ingenious poetry and prose that tasted of a much earlier vintage.

“Amphigorey Again,” the fourth gathering of Gorey's numerous books and occasional jeux d'esprit, has weaker material than the earlier collections: “The Raging Tide's” Max Ernst-meets-Choose-Your-Own-Adventure vibe somehow flags before its 30 scenes are digested, and the 36 contortions of an enigmatic, eyeless creature that comprise “Figbash Acrobate” will try even the hardcore Gorey fan. But most of what's here is worth having. “The Other Statue,” purportedly part of something called “The Secrets,” is a classic Gorey mood piece. The meticulous draftsmanship crowding every frame, along with the hilariously overloaded cast of characters, contrasts with the void that is the story's central mystery: not the disappearance of a cherished heirloom (a wax thingy known as the Lisping Elbow) but the absence of a coherent plot. A seemingly linear narrative reveals itself as a string of evocative non sequiturs. There's rarely a punchline in Goreyland, just an elegant withdrawal into artifice -- here, a title card touting the next installment of “The Secrets,” “The Night Bandage.”

Though it's the drawings that hold us -- the theatrical poses, the bespoke furniture in penumbral mansions, the malicious topiary -- Gorey was also a unique literary stylist. He recounts the escapades of stand-in Edmund Gravel (“the Recluse of Lower Spigot”) first as a parody of “A Christmas Carol,” then in quatrains. He returns to the abecedary form twice in “Amphigorey Again” (not counting the suitably unfinished, Z-fixated closer, “The Izzard Book”), with rewarding results: “The Deadly Blotter” is a tiny detective tale of exactly 26 words. (“Alarming behavior. Corpse. Detective enters.”) The “Neglected Murderesses Series” of postcards by one Dogear Wryde features deadpan one-sentence bios that mix precision and whimsy for maximum tension.

“Dogear Wryde” was one of Gorey's many pseudonyms, and “Amphigorey Again” is dedicated “in fond collaborative memory” to 30 other such alter egos he employed over the years. A good portion of these noms de plumes, male and female, are anagrams of “Edward Gorey” -- Ogdred Weary, Regera Dowdy, et al. This pseudonym business could simply be silliness. But it could also be that Gorey, a lifelong bachelor and presumed celibate -- the sexual antithesis of Charles Addams -- collaborated with phantoms drawn from his own private alphabet because he had no one with whom to share his most intimate life.<

Ed Park is a founding editor of The Believer.

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