The Good and the Grief
'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?
David Michaelis: "Good grief" is the answer. There is a part of Sparky I like beyond like—I love and admire him. I love the boy who decided he would become a comic-strip artist—and did. He is Gatsby-esque in recognizing an extraordinariness in himself; he is surrounded by ordinariness [while growing up in Minnesota in the years before World War II] but sees in himself this spark of greatness and refuses to be swayed [when his early cartoons are repeatedly rejected]. Plus, the guy got up every morning, and gave his life to his work. He did a brilliant thing, recognizing his role in the world and sticking to it.
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 myth?
For a boy who grew up as he did [the son of a barber] to achieve what he did ... Ordinariness is how he lived his life. He had to back it up, including by telling everyone he was a loser. So he created this myth that he'd been put down, misjudged.
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 up.
I just couldn't find it. No one remembered any bullying. But with Sparky, it's a sense of being abandoned, a fear of abandonment, that he's talking about. When he rode the streetcar with [his mother] Dena, he was afraid that as more and more people got on at the stops, and crowded in between her and him, that she would get off without him. He struggled all his life with a package of anxiety, a sense of abandonment and of not being loved. His expression of that aloneness was continual, and in interviews he often said he felt alone—which is a strange remark for someone with five children. But for Sparky, it was a powerful myth, and very effective. Everyone I talked to said he was fun and funny, that he loved life, but it was complicated because he'd draw close to someone and then pull away. His children talk about how he never hugged them. On his honeymoon [with his first wife, Joyce Halverson, in 1951], he said to Joyce, "I don't think I can ever be happy." It wasn't so much a prediction as a choice.
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 strip.
It was time, historically, for the shrine to Charles Schulz to at least have an audio guide, to say there was more to him than what you'd guess from the [18,977] Peanuts strips. It was time to explain how the Joyce [Schulz's first wife]-Sparky dynamic was fuel for the Lucy-Charlie Brown dynamic, and how the Sally-Charlie Brown relationship mirrored that of his later life with Jeannie ... Even at the end of his life, he hadn't resolved the central issue of his life—"am I loved?" I wanted him to embrace some part of the love he received from his wife and children. Even friends were disappointed that he wasn't more accepting and grateful, but I think he did accept that he was beloved [by fans].
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!"
I wished for him that, in his 60s and 70, he would come to grips with some of this, the competitiveness and bitterness, his use of misery as a strategy. I asked friends, did Sparky ever grow up, did he become the man he could be and fulfill himself in an Aristotelian sense. I felt Charles Schulz never transcended himself as the boy Minnesota and the barber's son.
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 ...
"The family" is not a single entity. Craig [Schulz's son] said, "I guess we were expecting vanilla, but we got rocky road."