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Arrested at the Age of Eight

They said that Charles Addams slept in a coffin and drank martinis with eyeballs in them. They said he kept a guillotine at his house and received chopped-off fingers in the mail from fans. It was once reported that he had been given a monogrammed straitjacket as a birthday gift-a garment that might have come in handy if the other stories were true, such as the one Patricia McLaughlin told about Addams moving around the living room at a party, “methodically and imponderably depositing” dollops of tooth powder in various corners. “A charm to ward off cavity-causing vampires?” she wondered. People said that Addams had married Morticia, the pale dagger in the spidery black dress from The Addams Family, that familiar band of subversives that included Gomez, Lurch, Pugsley, Wednesday, Uncle Fester, Grandma, Thing, and Cousin Itt.

The story most often heard concerned a Charles Addams cartoon about a ghoul in a maternity room, come to claim his offspring. “Don’t bother to wrap it; I’ll eat it here,” he tells the nurse. They said that Addams would have periodic mental breakdowns and begin drawing the gruesome maternity room cartoon. Or he’d redraw “The Skier,” his classic 1940 cartoon showing single ski tracks on either side of a tree, as though the skier seen vanishing down the hill has passed right through it. As Addams would begin madly sketching the skier or the maternity ghoul (depending on which version of the story you heard), his New Yorker employer had him carted off in an ambulance to the loony bin.

Everyone from Dick Cavett to medical illustrator Shirley Baty had heard the stories. George Plimpton heard them while he was still a student at Harvard during the 1940s; Wilfrid Sheed was told about them during his school years at Oxford.

And the Addams legend caught up with New Yorker staff members and contributors all over the world. What, people wanted to know, was Charles Addams really like? Even in places where people had never heard of The New Yorker, said Calvin Trillin, “eventually they’d get around to asking about Addams.” James Geraghty, Addams’s former art editor at The New Yorker, had been asked the question wherever he went. “In Avignon I was asked … the French for ‘What is Charles Addams really like?’” He had been asked the same question in Italian in Gergamo, and in Greek on the island of Rhodes. And he truly believed that if he had ever visited Timbuktu, he’d have been asked the question in Timbuktuese: “What is Charles Addams really like?”