The Addams Family: The Unusual Life of Lady Coylton, Wife of Baron Henry Hopkins
By Dan Rattiner
Elaine Benson, the late art gallery owner, came home from the beach one day some years ago to tell me a remarkable story about what had happened there. She was, at this time, married to Joe Kauffman. Her friend, Tee Addams, was married to the cartoonist Charles Addams. The Addams and Kauffmans had met only a few weeks earlier because of the art gallery, had hit it off and decided they would become friends. Thus, the day at the beach.
"We'd had a lunch on our beach blanket and usually, as you know, Joe doesn't talk much. But in this case, he just opened up. He really liked Charles. Kindrid spirits."
I knew Joe Kauffman as a sort of retired historian who read books while his wife ran the gallery in Bridgehampton. He had something of a British accent and at one time, I had asked him about his past. He told me he had been born to and raised by an American woman living at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, perhaps the most expensive and elegant hotel in the world at the time. His mother had fancied herself a member of high society, which she wasn't, but to stake her claim she had taken up residence at the hotel and was frequently seen on the arm of a prince, a duke or a marquee. Joe said he had been home-schooled as a boy, but in great circumstances there at the hotel. He was a sort of a European Eloise.
In any case, Joe inherited quite a fortune when his mother died, which she did when Joe was 20. Over the next 30 years, he married and divorced five times. Each time, he told me, his ex would get half of his fortune. When it got down to the fifth one, he gathered up what little remained, came to America and found Elaine. He was happy to be at peace here with Elaine and his history books for the rest of his life.
"What happened at the beach," Elaine said, "was that -- as Joe described all his wives one after another -- at a certain wife, Charles Addams perked up. By a remarkable coincidence, he too had been married to her. But then the conversation moved on."
Later that afternoon at the beach, it became apparent to Elaine that Charles Addams was trying to herd Joe down to the water's edge, alone. Finally, he succeeded, and there, with both men staring out to sea, he had spoken a few words to Joe and Joe had replied with a few words. Then they came back to the beach blanket.
"What did Charles say to you?" Elaine asked Joe when they were back at the gallery.
"He asked me what I thought of Barbara," Joe said.
"And what did you say?"
"I said WHICH Barbara? And that was the end of the conversation."
It is likely that the Barbara in question was Barbara Barb, and though she died at the age of 84 three years ago, she was in the news this past week. In Sagaponack, where Tee Addams, the widow of Charles Addams, still lives, it was announced that all the rights to the cartoons of Charles Addams and his other works would now be controlled by Tee Addams, not Barbara Barb, and that there would soon be an attempt to mount a Broadway Show of "The Addams Family" by Broadway producer Stuart Oken. There would be many other ways to market the legacy of Charles Addams. There had been "The Addams Family" TV show and movies that had been a great success, of course, when Barbara Barb was in charge, but not much else. Barbara Barb was married to Charles Addams for only two years, from 1954 to 1956. And yet, even when Joe and Elaine hosted Tee and Charles at the beach years later, Barbara Barb was still making all the decisions and pocketing 75% of everything that came in.
How in the world had she arranged that?
According to Tee Adams and those that represent her, Barbara Barb was born in Brooklyn in 1920 as Estelle Barb, taking the name "Barbara" during law school. She became Barbara Addams for the two years she was married to the cartoonist, and then shortly after they were divorced became Lady Coylton by marrying an English Baron named Henry Lennox D'Aubigne Hopkins, the first Baron Coylton, who had been a diplomat during the administration of Winston Churchill. And somewhere in there she was married to Joe Kauffman, living with him in post-war Paris.
How she talked Charles Addams into signing over 75% of the rights to his work is not known, but from the documents presented by Lady Coylton to Tee's lawyer after Charles' death in 1988, it happened while they were married. There was nothing that Tee could do, except to wait for checks to arrive from Lady Coylton for Tee's 25% share. There were substantial monies involved. For the film "The Addams Family," Tee got a check in the mail for about a million dollars. Lady Coylton apparently had received four.
Lady Coylton got considerable press during her lifetime, and those who wrote about her present her as a manipulative, seductive, attractive woman out for the money, no matter what she had to do get it. And she did.
After Lady Coylton died in 2002, Tee Addams and her lawyer decided to make an aggressive effort to buy the rights to Charles' Addams work from the heirs of Lady Coylton. Lady Coylton had no children, but there were cousins.
Tee and her attorney, Michael Solomon, looked into the dealings of Lady Coylton, which, as owners of 25% of the property, they had a right to do, and discovered that Lady Coylton, on several occasions, had shorted Tee Addams. It doesn't appear to have been malicious. But she did it, nevertheless. For example, Lady Coylton agreed to donate nearly $10 million to the University of Pennsylvania so that a lecture hall could be built there with Charles Addams' name on it and in the check she wrote she included Tee's share. But, she never asked her.
As the cousins of Lady Coylton were unfamiliar with what to do with Charles Addams' artistic rights, they decided to put what they had inherited up for sale. But now, there were leans on the property from lawsuits filed by Tee. So Tee Addams was the obvious buyer.
"Lady Coylton's estate is far richer than anything that Tee has, so we were reluctant to get into a court fight," said Solomon, "but we could have held up a sale with our liens for several years, and who knew how that might have come out? So when we made them an offer, which was just about every penny that Tee has, they took it."
Some say that in the movie "The Addams Family," there is a character modeled after Lady Coylton. It would be the gold digger wife of Uncle Fester. Rent it and see it for yourself.
"Which Barbara" indeed.
See related article: Lady Coylton by Senka Kovacevic