Having driven one of the cars owned by the famous New Yorker cartoonist Charles Addams, (VeloceToday drives the Alfa 8C 2300) we thought we would follow up with two articles about Addams and the cars he loved.
By Pete Vack
Classic Addams: From a high perch of their haunted Victorian mansion, a chilly Morticia looks on as Lurch and Gomez prepare to pour a caldron of boiling oil onto an unsuspecting and cheery group of Christmas carolers three stories below.
Perhaps no cartoon better illustrated the wit, charm, style and macabre humor of Charles Addams than this New Yorker art from 1946 known as “Boiling Oil”. It is Addams at his best; the detail, the creepy mansion, the scary but lovable characters, the anticipation of a gruesome act which never actually transpires. His Addams Family™ cartoons inspired two TV series, two feature length movies and made him and the Addams Family™ household names.
Less well know was the fact that Addams had what he called a “long collection of rather good vintage cars,” which included two Bugattis, a 1933 Aston Martin, a supercharged Mercedes S, an Amilcar and the Castagna-bodied Alfa 2300 we reported on last week. It was no passing fad; an interest sparked in 1948 at Indianapolis lasted forty years until his death at age 76 in 1988.
Even less was known about the man himself. People wondered what kind of ghoulish creature was capable of producing cartoons like “Boiling Oil”. From where did he get his often warped ideas? Did he really hate children (or just Christmas carolers)? Charles Addams–he signed work “Chas” simply because it looked different—often liked to put on for his interviewers and public and act the part of a slightly mad cartoonist. Six foot tall and often mistaken for either Lyndon Johnson or actor Walter Matthau, Addams dated and married women who looked suspiciously like Morticia. He festooned his apartments and houses with medieval crossbows and suits of armor, (another hobby of his), Haitian voodoo facemasks, and a mechanic once found a small tombstone in the trunk of one of his cars with the epitaph “Our Little Orville”. He claimed it was okay since it wasn’t attached to anybody. He liked black cars. The Alfa 2300 Castagna avoided that fate, but the Type 35C Bugatti did not and it was painted black along with his much newer 1960 Bentley.
Surprisingly (other than to those who knew and loved Addams), he was said to be the gentlest of gentlemen. Michael Argetsinger (author of Walt Hansgen: His Life and the History of Post-War American Road Racing and Mark Donohue: Technical Excellence at Speed) recently spoke to his mother Jean about Addams. “My mother remembers him as a kind and gentle man,” he emailed. “My earliest memory of him is from the 1948 Watkins Glen where he raced his supercharged Mercedes Benz S. I was very young, but impressed by the Sherlock Holmes Deerstalker hat he wore.” Often imagined as a W.C. Fields type, Addams was the opposite. “I particularly recall his visits over the years to our summer home on Seneca Lake. He drew wonderful and fun sketches for us – my brother Duke and sister Louise still have the ones he did for them. He must have been fond of children because he is kindly remembered by all of us, and I think it’s difficult to fake interest and kindness with children.” At the time, Addams was married to the lovely Barbara Jean Day Addams but he would never have children of his own.
In 1947 Addams and Argetsinger’s father Cameron were both members of the Sports Car Club of America. When, at a cocktail party, Cameron wanted to know who would back him in starting a road race event around Watkins Glen. Addams raised his hand, entered his 1927 Mercedes in the race and placed 11th complete with that Sherlock Holmes hat. The Mercedes was no slouch. The S model was the most powerful in the Mercedes catalogue and the racing versions were said to have put out as much as 220 hp. “My father told me that Addams drove that big Mercedes extremely well,” recalled Michael Argetsinger. The race was won by Frank Griswold in the Alfa Romeo 8C2900 Touring coupe.
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Into this eclectic mix came another friend of Addams, a young cartoonist named Sam Cobean whose work, thanks to Addams, was just getting recognized by the New Yorker and other major magazines. Cobean and his wife Anne became good friends of Jean and Cameron Argetsinger and spent much time at their home on Lake Seneca. Cobean, along with Addams’ wife Bobby were enlisted at the pit crew for the Addams Mercedes during the 1948 race. Cobean also caught the sports car bug, and as his own art became more in demand, he was able to afford a new Jag XK 120.
On a summer day in 1951, Cobean saw Argetsinger at Smalley’s Garage, there to have his Cad-Allard prepared by Lester Smalley for the Grand Prix in September. (Addams biographer Linda Davis mistakenly wrote that Argetsinger was having his “Cadillac” repaired). Cobean offered him a ride home in his Jag and Argetsinger jumped in. On the way, trying to avoid a car turning in front of him, Cobean left the road and hit a tree. Argetsinger was thrown out with massive facial injuries, and Cobean was killed instantly.
Addams was devastated and said that he felt responsible. Cobean was one of his best friends and thought that it was his own interest in cars that got Sam started. It was a bad year, for two months later, a young boy would be killed at the Watkins Glen Grand Prix, and racing round the houses ceased forever.
Although a very good driver, Addams was never seriously interested in racing, and in the future took part only in rallies and the very beginnings of what would become known as vintage racing–old timer’s events held at Bridgehampton as a part of the SCCA events.
The big supercharged Mercedes (according to the Mercedes Benz Museum, the car was a 1927 12/120/180 supercharged Model S sports tourer) was used several times at Bridgehampton, an event right in Addams’ back yard. Certainly he was there with it in 1951. For the road, he tried out an Aston Martin DB2, moving up to a Mercedes 300 sedan in 1954, giving in trade an Austin Healey. But the class drive of the decade was an extremely rare Alfa Romeo 8C2300 that, despite the wishes of a previous British owner, found its way into the U.S.
Old Alfas are known best by their chassis number, and 2211072 was stamped into metal of the car that Addams found himself in possession of in 1957. It had been a citizen of the British Isles since 1936 after being raced in the 1935 Mille Miglia by the team of Catullo Lami and Pasquale Ermini. In the hands of Brit Guy Templer, 2211072 it did honor to itself and Italy by placing excellent times at Brooklands, Lewes, Brighton and Prescott until the start of WWII. Colonel Ronnie Hoare, later to be known as the UK’s Ferrari distributor, bought if from Templer’s widow after the war and happily kept it for almost two years. He sold it “to a man who promised never to sell the car to America”. That man didn’t but a few owners later, Allen George Dart, after repairing the rear end in 1957, indeed did sell the car to America. And that’s how it ended up with cartoonist Charles Addams sometime shortly thereafter.
There is a photo of Addams with some track officials or enthusiasts taken at Bridgehampton in 1957, another in 1958, and another in 1960, if we can believe the license plates. Rarely missing an event near his beach home in Westhampton Beach, Addams was apparently very happy with the Alfa and had little trouble with it. 1959 found him again at Bridgehampton, where he entered the Alfa in what was becoming the traditional running of the Vintage Sports Car Club race. Dan Donahue’s Bugatti took first, and Briggs Cunningham in a 1914 Mercedes came in second, and Addams finished third in the Alfa 2300, beating two big Bentleys to the finish.
But when automotive writer Ken Purdy decided one day in 1960 that his Type 35 C Bugatti had to go, it precipitated a four way deal that netted Addams a car he would keep for the next 46 years.
Our thanks to the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, Michael Argetsinger and the International Motor Racing Research Center, the Simeone Foundation and Tony Carroll of the VSCCA for their help with this article.
Next week: Bugatti Years, 1960-1988
Interview with Michael S. Argetsinger, 5-16-2010
Interview with Tony Carroll, 5-17-2010
Charles Addams: a cartoonist’s life, Linda H. Davis, Random House, 2006
The World of Chas Addams, Charles Addams, Randon House, 1991
The Legendary 2.3, Simon Moore, Parkside Publications, 2000
Watkins Glen 1948-1952, the definitive illustrated history, Philippe Defechereux, Beeman Jorgensen, 1998
The Spirit of Competition, Frederick A. Simeone, M.D., Coachbuilt Press 2009
Driving Us Crazy: The Cars and Car Toons of Charles Addams by Michael Solomon, Tee and Charles Addams Foundation, undated.
Bridgehampton Sports Car Races, Sports Car, July 1959
A Siren Song from Stuttgart: the history of the supercharged Mercedes Benz K and S by Griffith Borgeson, Automobile Quarterly, V16 N.3
A special thanks to Kevin Miserocchi at the Tee and Charles Addams Foundation for use of the previously unpublished Addams cartoon, Bill Giltzow, whose father photographed the big Mercedes at Bridgehampton, Michael S. Argetsinger for the photos taken at Watkins Glen and Phil Neff who sent us the color lead image from the Simeone Library.