‘Good grief’: The life of ‘Peanuts’ creator Charles M. Schulz
For 50 years, Charles M. Schulz worked alone, drawing his 17,897 strips. With a few strokes of a quill pen — a squiggle there, black dot here — this barber’s son, this “nothing young man” from “the corner of Selby and Snelling” in St. Paul, desired nothing more than to be thought of as ordinary. At the time of his death, on Feb. 13, 2000, “Peanuts” appeared in more than 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries, yet the cartoonist continued to think it amazing that anyone liked his work: “I just did the best I could.”
His influence, wrote “Doonesbury’s” Garry Trudeau, can be seen everywhere: “stylistically, narratively, rhythmically.” Without “Peanuts,” summarizes David Michaelis, in “Schultz and Peanuts: A Biography,” “there would have been no Doonesbury, no Garfield, no Far Side, no Mutts, no Simpsons; without a comic strip ‘about nothing’ there would have been no Seinfeld.”
This is no exaggeration. Before “Peanuts,” comics consisted of action, adventure or slapstick. In a human way, “Peanuts” captured the ennui we all feel. With humor, it questioned life, explored our rage and our vulnerabilities. In so doing, “Peanuts” touched a national nerve.
Although Schulz “never wanted to be another Disney,” by the 1960s “Peanuts” had become a worldwide industry, involving stage, television, film, book, records and other subsidiary forms. Booksellers were not just hawking best-selling “Peanuts” books (300 million copies in 26 languages) but also sweatshirts, tote bags and dolls in an ever-expanding list of merchandise. (I still have my plush Snoopy, bought in 1969, the year NASA astronauts of Apollo 10 named their command module “Charlie Brown” and their lunar landing vehicle “Snoopy.”)
When Snoopy became an advertising icon for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company (“Get Met. It pays.”), the “Peanuts” phenomenon topped new heights, reaping $1 billion in annual revenues to United Features. Like no other cartoonist, Schultz was one of the highest-paid entertainers in the United States, with a personal income of $40 million a year.
Schulz admitted: “It’s never about the money.” It was about the satisfaction from a cartoon well drawn, being master of a universe of one’s own making. The drawing board gave him security and a reason for staying safely at home.
Darkly, the cartoon strip served another purpose: It showed he was “something, after all.” Depression, rejection and unrequited love plagued Schulz all of his life. Born on Nov. 26, 1922, “Sparky” Schulz (nicknamed for the horse in “Barney Google”) grew up the only child of Scandinavian immigrants never educated beyond the third grade. His parents were devoted to their son but withheld affection or any discussion of feelings.
Shy and timid, “Sparky” was bullied in school and felt underestimated by teachers and classmates. He ached to show his parents that his talent was worth something. After high school graduation, he enrolled as a home-study student in the Federal School of Illustrating and Cartooning (later “Art Instruction”). His struggles pained his mother, who never lived long enough to see his success. When he was 20, she died of colon cancer. Three days later, he entered the Army. He never recovered from the horrors of World War II and the shock of losing his mother.
Schulz took advantage of the GI Bill to enter night classes at the Minneapolis School of Art. But it was his old alma-mater, Art Instruction, that made his dreams come true. In1946 he became a teacher. More than a job, he said, it was “the start of a whole new life.” His coworkers (including one nicknamed “Good ol’ Charlie Brown”) provided Schulz not only with friendship but also with useful pointers for “Lil’ Folk,” a cartoon strip he had drawn of kids with big heads, voicing the neurosis of adults.
United Feature Syndicate took a chance with “Lil’ Folk,” renaming the strip “Peanuts” (a name its creator thought insulting). By the mid-1950s, “Peanuts” expanded from its vogue amonghipcirclestomorethan20million fans. With fortune now smiling, Schulz moved his wife, children, father and relatives to California. When in 1965 “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became a popular animated television special, “Peanuts” took off.
Despite his fame, Schulz never felt worthy or loved. He refused to go to a psychiatrist, thinking it would take away his talent. As he put it: “Unhappiness is very funny.” With his children, he was loved and respected. Even so, he was a lonely man, cut off by fame and able to trust few. At the end of his life, ravaged with colon cancer, his demons remained unresolved. The cartoonist Lynn John- ston, of “For Better or For Worse,” listened to him rant about how he would get even for grievances committed decades before.
Many found Schulz hard to know. But his body of work consists of, he said, “pictograms, with clues embedded in each panel.” The long-suffering, romantic Charlie Brown; domineering, shrewish Lucy; positive, genial Snoopy; religious and philosophical Linus; even “the Little RedHaired girl” — each is an extension of his creator’s personality and the people he knew. Mr. Michaelis has carefully woven the art into his narrative, “anchoring” it with such skill that these familiar cartoons not only provide insights but guarantee the reader will never view them in the same way again.
Credit must be paid to Joyce Schulz Doty, the cartoonist’s first wife, for being so forthcoming with her memories of a grim marriage. A perpetual optimist, she had little patience with Schulz’s depression. To her, there was only one solution: “Snap out of it.” Energetic, frustrated and angry, Joyce moved from project to project, endlessly cooking cream pies, sewing the first Snoopy costume, repeatedly bulldozing trees to expand the California home.
Eventually she was the initiator, designer, supervisor and business manger of the Redwood Empire Ice Arena, a popular, multimillion-dollar ice-skating emporium — a creative endeavor for which she never received ample credit and that pulled the marriage further apart. After 22 years, “Sparky” was fed up with Joyce’s bossiness, bickering and bitchiness, she with his depression, passivity and extramarital affairs. Their union officially ended in 1972. Incredibly, their children first heard the news on national radio.
It seems that Schulz found true love and marital happiness with another individualistic woman, 16 years his junior, Elizabeth Jean Forsyth, whom he met before his divorce. When Mr. Michaelis, also the author of a 1998 biography of the artist N.C. Wyeth, called Jean to seek her cooperation, she told him that the Wyeth book was the last one she and Schulz had been reading together before his death. Her cooperation, as well as that of son Monte Schulz and friends, makes for a remarkably candid portrait.
A few minor criticisms. The book rushes through the last years, without giving a full portrait of the marriage with Jean Schulz (intensely private, she has kept feelings — and frustrations — to herself). After being acquainted with so much of Schulz’s inner turmoil, I would like to have known more about the generous and decent side of his character — the charities to which he gave millions, the lives he affected by simply writing out a check.
Quibbles aside, “Schulz and Peanuts” is an amazing American success story. Thanks to David Michaelis, we see Charles M. Schulz for what he was: An intensely private, complex man who was also an extraordinary “master at portraying emotion.” With sensitivity and insight, Mr. Michaelis guides us through the life and the art, and in so doing demonstrates, as never before, how Schulz became a giant of American popular culture.
Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast,” rated one of the “Top Ten Biographies for 2005-2006,” now out in paperback.