'Peanuts' creator Charles Schulz emerges as insecure and an emotionally distant father and husband in a new biography and documentary.
In the weeks before he died on Feb. 12, 2000, Charles Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts," had been reading a new biography of the American illustrator N. C. Wyeth. Wyeth's son Andrew, the American realist painter, was a fan of Schulz's, and once sent him a drawing of his dog; Schulz returned the compliment by "hanging" (with pen and ink) a Wyeth in Snoopy's doghouse. So when the author of a Wyeth biography, David Michaelis, called Schulz's widow, Jean, to ask for her cooperation in a full-length biography of the man everyone called Sparky, she agreed. For seven years Jean "unlock[ed] doors in the world of Schulz," recalls Michaelis, but left "me free to my own discoveries and conclusions." Virtually everyone Schulz touched—from his first wife and his five children, who provided Michaelis with family papers and encouraged Schulz's old friends and extended family to share their memories, to fellow cartoonists and the (real) Little Red Haired Girl who broke Charlie Brown's and Schulz's heart—cooperated with Michaelis. The result is the sweeping 655-page "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography," published next week. Later this month, PBS will air the documentary "Good Ol' Charles Schulz" as part of its "American Masters" series.
The film is kinder to Schulz than the book, but anyone expecting a Schulz in "happiness is a warm puppy" mode will likely be disappointed. NEWSWEEK's Sharon Begley spoke to Michaelis last month in his second-floor brownstone apartment overlooking a quiet street on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: You essentially lived with Schulz for seven years. Did you wind up liking him?
You write that Schulz created a myth of his childhood as
one where no one noticed the "bland, stupid-looking kid," as he
described himself, but in reality "the authority figures of his
childhood recognized Sparky as exceptional." Why did he cling to the
Another myth Schulz created about himself was that as a
child, as he put it, "I don't know what it was, but I certainly was not
happy and carefree." He also remembered that it was "almost impossible
to go to the playground and enjoy yourself without some older, bigger
kid coming and spoiling it," and he talked about "kids that push you
down and knock you over." But none of his childhood friends back that
You put Schulz on the analyst's couch, writing, "He
thought of himself as a thwarted innocent, a lonely, misunderstood,
good-hearted kid who wanted only to earn a little recognition for the
things at which he was somehow masterful"—namely, his drawing. His
perception that he never got that recognition gave him, you write, "an
energizing sense of injury." And you go into what I felt was
excruciating detail about his affair and how that was reflected in the
But the bitterness and competitiveness are striking. Early
on, when one of his fellow art school instructors—Charlie Brown, as it
happens—told Schulz that he himself was giving up his cartoon ambitions,
Schulz replied, "Good. That will make one less cartoonist I have to
compete with." Even later, when Peanuts reached $1 billion a year in
1989 and he was making tens of millions of dollars every year in the
1990s, he felt so competitive toward another cartoonist that he
threatened to draw a Peanuts strip so that "everybody will worry about
Snoopy, and nobody's going to read your stupid story, and I'll get more
publicity than you will! So there!"
What does the family think of the book? [Reached later by
NEWSWEEK, Schulz's daughter Meredith declined to discuss the book: "I
have absolutely nothing to say. No comment."] You have an awful lot of
negative stuff that will likely come as a shock to Peanuts fans—how he
was a completely non-involved parent, leaving to Joyce all the
unpleasant tasks of discipline and limit-setting, rarely kissing Joyce
hello or goodbye, not kissing his children goodnight, having an affair
with a woman decades his junior beginning in 1970, proposing to her
while still married to Joyce ...