A Dark and Stormy Life

The 'Peanuts' kids were vulnerable, poetic and ageless. A new biography reveals that their talented creator was much loved but unfaithful, drawing artistic inspiration from failure.

Fans of Charlie Brown and the rest of the "Peanuts" gang will not be surprised that Charles Schulz, "Peanuts"' creator, considered himself as bland and boring as his comic-strip alter ego, Charlie Brown. They won't be surprised that Schulz once told Johnny Carson that in high school he failed "everything" and was chronically lonely, nor that he had bitter memories of his childhood in St. Paul, Minn., of bigger kids who "push you down and knock you over and won't let you swing on the swings that you want to swing on." The experiences left such scars, writes David Michaelis in his 655-page "Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography," that Schulz "spoke of these bullies in the present tense."

Fans will be surprised, however, at something else Michaelis found during the seven years he worked on the biography, beginning just after Schulz—whom everyone called Sparky—died in 2000. Not one of the childhood friends Michaelis interviewed "could recall any instance where Sparky himself was picked on," he writes. Although talent going unrecognized was central to the legend Schulz created about himself, in fact his teachers and others regarded Sparky as exceptional. No matter. Schulz's "stubbornly held resentment had no ending," writes Michaelis. "He spent a startling amount of time over nearly sixty years polishing a cameo of boyish helplessness and frustration."

The portrait of the artist as flawed human being has become a clich?, and Michaelis admirably steers clear of it. What he gives us instead is both a dynamic character study and a penetrating literary analysis. For the first, he dispels the myth of "Saint Charles," recounting—with great sympathy, considering—how a father who created the best-known cartoon children in the world almost never kissed his own goodnight, how an evangelical Christian (he even did sidewalk preaching) cheated on his first wife and how the most successful cartoonist in history threatened to sabotage a competitor's strip. This is not the Schulz of "happiness is a warm puppy." Some of this dark side also emerges in "Good Ol' Charles Schulz," a documentary scheduled for later this month as part of PBS's "American Masters" series.

Not surprisingly, the clay-feet portrait has left Schulz's family somewhere between furious and stricken, even though they were Michaelis's sources for stories of Schulz's lack of fatherly involvement, the extramarital love letters and much else. Monte Schulz, the younger son, tells NEWSWEEK the book has a number of errors, though they appear to be on minor points such as where Schulz picked up the neighborhood kids for the school carpool and when a housekeeper worked for the family. More important, he says, he was shocked at the description of his father as an uninvolved parent. "Why would all of us [children] gather at his hospital bed for three months if we hadn't felt enormous affection from him?" he asks. The portrayal is deeply incomplete, he says, leaving out Schulz's love of books and music, his work with women's sports and his devotion to the senior men's hockey team he played on. "Had we known this was the book David was going to write, we wouldn't have talked to him," says Monte. As Craig Schulz, the eldest son, told Michaelis after reading the manuscript, "Well, I guess we were expecting vanilla, but we got rocky road."

Thankfully, Michaelis has packed much more than tabloid fodder into this overlong book. (We could do without the detailed backstory and genealogy of just about everyone Schulz crossed paths with, down to the woman who dreamed up the "Peanuts" licensing empire, even if that is now standard operating procedure for biography.) By plumbing Schulz's psyche, Michaelis has come up with a compelling explanation for the wellspring of his genius, the inspiration for the sweetly melancholic depiction of the human condition that marked "Peanuts."

Schulz had very real tragedies in his life, especially early on. He was deeply dependent on his mother for love and protection but received little of it. In one outing, she shooed him off to play with his loutish cousins, who pelted him with corncobs. His father was a corner barber, and the family's occasional poverty made a lasting impression: when Charlie Brown asks little sister Sally what would happen if their father lost his shop, she says, "We'd probably starve to death." The insecurity was more than theoretical. As his mother lay dying an excruciating death from cervical cancer and no longer had the strength to shop or cook, Schulz sometimes went hungry. "Security," he later wrote in a strip, "is knowing there's some more pie left."

Like most artists, Schulz found grief more inspiring than happiness, but in his case he saw through a glass much more darkly than it really was. He constructed a legend—or a myth—of himself as a loser, as "dumb, dull [and] meek," Michaelis writes. "To what degree he had actually been recognized for his talent or skills … he was not about to give a strictly honest accounting … He knew that hurt, and the anger that sprang from it … was the taproot of his life's work. He must do anything to protect, conceal, and maintain its sources." To concede that teachers admired his talent, or that he had friends and was deeply loved, would have destroyed that taproot.

In one telling incident, Schulz submitted drawings to his high-school yearbook, encouraged by a teacher-adviser who championed him and his work. The yearbook's student staff, however, was not inclined to reward a boy who gave off an air of superiority (stoked by the teacher's patronage) and never attended meetings. Worse, Schulz had submitted drawings of contemporary student life for a yearbook whose design motif was archaic-looking silhouettes. The drawings were not published. Rather than attribute the rejection to these mundane, and arguably reasonable, reasons, Schulz turned it into "his first major intellectual grudge," Michaelis writes, and remembered it for decades. Schulz "thought of himself as a thwarted innocent, a lonely, misunderstood, good-hearted kid who wanted only to earn a little recognition" for his drawing. The conviction that he never got what he deserved provided "an energizing sense of injury"—and the inspiration for Charlie Brown.

From early childhood Schulz doodled on any paper he could get his hands on, and said that his ambition "from earliest memory was to produce a daily comic strip." After high school and service in World War II, he began sending off cartoons to Colliers and the Saturday Evening Post; the magazines rejected every one. Disney told him he was unqualified to work as an animator. But in 1947, while supporting himself as an art instructor at a correspondence school in Minneapolis, Schulz sold a four-panel strip he called "Sparky's Li'l Folks" to the Star Tribune; it was soon running weekly. From the first, Charlie Brown was Schulz's stand-in, lamenting in one strip that no one loves him; when Violet tells him that she and Patty do, he fires back, "But nobody important loves me."

The objects of his unrequited affection included Donna Mae Johnson, the redhead who worked in the art school's accounting department. She dated Schulz at the same time she was seeing another boy, whom she eventually chose over Sparky. After he got the news from her one day on her stoop, Schulz returned a few hours later to ask if she'd changed her mind. That wasn't the end of it. Schulz "was determined never to put [the rejection] to rest," Michaelis writes. Schulz told friends that Johnson rejected him because her mother disliked him, but in fact the decision was Johnson's alone. She wanted only a "plain, decent Lutheran life" as a housewife, something marriage to a rising cartoonist did not exactly promise, and she married a machinist who had no higher ambition than to take a firefighter exam. For the rest of his life, Michaelis writes, Schulz "would pose as the unappeasable Gatsbyesque lover of the golden—or, in his case, red-headed—girl." Schulz's wistful recollection of Johnson decades later made his friends feel sorry for his wife.

Schulz married Joyce Halverson, a newly divorced mother whose sister Schulz had dated, in 1951, telling her on their honeymoon, "I don't think I can ever be happy." It wasn't so much a prediction as a choice, Michaelis argues. Joyce told him Sparky liked to be depressed: "He said he wouldn't go to a psychiatrist because it would take away his talent" (shades of Lucy's 5? psychiatry practice). Misery became a strategy, for happiness, as Schulz said, "is not funny at all." ("I have deep feelings of depression," Charlie Brown confides in a 1959 strip. "What can I do about it?" "Snap out of it," Lucy replies.)

By 1958, 400 papers were running "Peanuts," but Schulz remained intensely, even brutally, competitive. Around this time a fellow art-school instructor told Schulz he was giving up his cartoon ambitions, to which Schulz replied, "Good. That will make one less cartoonist I have to compete with." Even in the 1990s, when the "Peanuts" juggernaut (sweatshirts, MetLife ads, books, figurines …) was bringing in more than $1 billion and making Schulz $26 million to $40 million a year, graciousness didn't always come easy. When the cartoonist who drew "For Better or Worse" told him she was going to kill off a character Schulz liked, Schulz petulantly told her that if she did he would have Snoopy get hit by a car the same day her strip was to run, "and everybody will worry about Snoopy, and nobody's going to read your stupid story, and I'll get more publicity than you will!" That's the kind of anecdote that has deeply upset Schulz's family. They do not deny that it occurred, but feel Michaelis did not properly balance such stories with examples of Schulz's generosity. Cathy Guisewite, for instance, who draws the strip "Cathy" and knew Schulz for 20 years before his death, recalls him as "generous and gracious and kind, and so encouraging of new cartoonists," she told NEWSWEEK.

Another sore point is the affair Schulz had, beginning in 1970. He was 47; Tracey Claudius, whom he met when she photographed him for a magazine article, was 25. After Joyce discovered the months-long affair, Schulz agreed to break it off, prompting fatalistic notes about love in the strip: a bereft-looking Snoopy, atop his doghouse, asks, "What do you do when the girl-beagle you love more than anything is taken from you, and you know you'll never see her again as long as you live?" To which Snoopy, nose in food dish, provides his own answer: "Back to eating." In fact, Schulz did not give up his "girl-beagle" and go back to eating. He kept seeing Tracey and, a few months later, proposed (while still married to Joyce), saying that as his wife "you could have anything you want. I make $4,000 a day." But Tracey was put off by how he "didn't give a damn about people … he had no larger feeling for humanity," she told Michaelis.

It's always risky taking an ex-lover's word, and a number of Schulz's friends don't recognize him at all in that portrait. Guisewite recalls him as not only generous to young cartoonists, but also as honestly self-effacing. At meetings of fellow cartoonists, she recalls, Schulz always wore his name badge despite being the most famous face there: "He was never really ready to be 'Charles Schulz'; he was just a guy making sure people could say hello to him by name."

Michaelis is at his best articulating the appeal of "Peanuts" through the decades. In the 1950s it struck a chord with people feeling guilty over their vague discontent amid historic postwar prosperity (Linus watching a leaf fall: "Nobody's happy where they are"). In the 1960s it expressed the struggle of young people reaching for inchoate freedoms and pondering the meaning of existence (Snoopy, wondering why he was put on Earth: "I haven't got the slightest idea"). More than anything, "Peanuts" upended the belief that childhood is a time of innocence and happiness, for a child's pain is more acute than an adult's. "Charlie Brown reminded people … of what it was to be vulnerable, to be small and alone in the universe, to be human," writes Michaelis, "—both little and big at the same time."

Michaelis makes wonderful use of the strips, reproducing scores to emphasize points of connection between Schulz's life and work or between the strip and the times. (The syndicate that holds the rights to "Peanuts" sold him the permissions for five cents per strip—Lucy's fee for psychiatric advice.) Schulz's cartoon children never age, for they already suffer from adult disillusionment and angst. Charlie Brown exults at the prospect of finally flying a kite that won't be eaten by a tree, until he pauses and tells the foliage, "Here, take it. It's been a long winter, and I'm very tender-hearted." As novelist Umberto Eco wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1985, "The poetry of these children arises from the fact that we find in them all the problems, all the sufferings, of the adult."

That suffering, actual and mythical, remained until the end the well to which Schulz returned again and again. Even as he lay dying of cancer in 1999, his reminiscences were all "about being picked on as a boy," and how he still wanted revenge on the kids who had bullied him so long ago. "You could see the bitterness in him," a friend recalled. "Nothing in all of his 77 years had been resolved." He seemed "angry at God, angry with friends, angry with fate." Schulz had announced in late 1999 that the strip would end, and drew only another two months' worth. As it happened, he died on Feb. 13, 2000, the day before the final Sunday "Peanuts" strip. As soon as "Peanuts" ended, so did his life.