I was invited to my first real birthday party when I was in first grade. My mother took me shopping to pick out a present for the little girl who was having the party, and in the toy store, I spotted "Lucy's Winter Wonderland" Colorform set (if you don't know what Colorforms are, well, lucky you for growing up in an era when there were better toys). The Lucy was Lucy Van Pelt, as in Charles Schulz's comic strip "Peanuts." I was a huge Peanuts fan—not just from reading the strip, but probably more importantly to me, from watching the holiday specials and movies. When I saw Lucy's Winter Wonderland, I knew that I desperately, desperately wanted it. So I told my mother that that was what I wanted to bring to the party as a present. Now I completely understood the concept of birthdays and giving presents; I knew that you were supposed to give presents away. But at the same time, I carried on some weird parallel idea that sure, I would give it to the birthday girl, but I would get my own set, too. I don't know what I was thinking. My birthday was months away and Christmas was even farther. But still, I was sure that I would get it somehow because I wanted it so much. When I didn't, I was crushed (I'm pretty sure I started crying as soon as we got home from the store). My parents were puzzled that I was upset—it had been clear from the very beginning that I was picking out a present for someone else, not me. There was no turning back. This is what I had said they should buy for the present. They weren't going to give it to me and buy something else. I had to wrap it up and bring it to the party, which I did. I sat there and watched as the girl literally tore through the huge stack of presents (this was one of those "everyone in the class is invited" parties), barely acknowledging any of them in her excitement. The present I had brought was, like most of the others, tossed aside quickly with a quick, "That's cool, thanks." It meant nothing to her, and at that moment, it meant everything to me.
Obviously, I got over that pretty quickly. I don't feel like I missed out on anything terribly important (I mean, it was a colorform set). But what I do remember about that incident, and why I bring it up now was the terrible sense of disappointment that I felt at realizing that just wanting something very, very much and wishing for it very hard, even wanting it so much that you want to give it to someone else as well—the girl was my friend, after all—doesn't mean you get it. And then you just have to get over it somehow. Or at least that's what most people do. After reading David Michaelis's biography of the cartoonist Charles Schulz, Schulz and Peanuts, it's apparent that Schulz's whole life and art seemed to be informed by this sense of wanting and never getting, and he never got over it, any of it.
Michaelis had access to all of Schulz's personal papers and the cooperation of his family. He interviewed seemingly everyone who ever knew Schulz at every stage of his life. This is all very impressive, but in a way it's almost redundant. As Schulz said, "If somebody reads my strip every day, they'll know me for sure—they'll know exactly what I am." Michaelis illustrates this by scattering appropriate strips on almost every page of his book, and it's astonishing to see how much they reflected not just Schulz's personality, but events that were going on in his life at the time.
Astrophysics is complicated. Creating true artificial intelligence is complicated. Understanding a cat is complicated. Then there is Charles' Schulz's personality, as described in this book, which makes all of the other problems of the cosmos seem like a game of tag. Schulz lived a seemingly placid life, spending most of it at his drawing board, and other than a stint in the army during World War II, rarely venturing far beyond any home in which he lived. This means that the majority of Michaelis's book is devoted to putting together clues to try to understand the mind of the man who brought us ever-failing Charlie Brown, domineering Lucy, and exuberant, creative Snoopy. Trying to understand him is a task for both reader and, I'm sure, author; many times I felt deeply sympathetic to Schulz, but at others, I felt like throwing up my hands and saying, "Can't anything make you happy? Anything?" The answer, it seems, was no.
Like Charlie Brown's father, Carl Schulz was a barber with a successful business, who managed to make it even through the Depression in reasonably good order. He was so popular in their corner of Minneapolis that there was even talk that he should run for the state senate. Schulz's mother, Dena, was the de facto head of a large Norwegian family, the sister who everyone turned to when something needed to be organized or a problem solved. Her marriage to Carl and life in the city was regarded as an impressive step up from their Wisconsin farm. When the Schulzes came to visit the Norwegian relatives, they were almost like visiting royalty; Charles was always dressed up in new clothes and Carl drove a big car. Back in Minneapolis, things were different, though. Despite Carl's popularity amongst his customers, the family rarely socialized and almost never came to any school events. Schulz later realized that his parents, who seemed so superior to the relatives on the farm, felt inadequate and undereducated compared to their neighbors in the city. What seemed like coldness or reserve in Dena was more likely a fear of her lack of sophistication being discovered. Carl worked constantly and seemed happy only in his shop; whenever there was any kind of problem, he retreated there. Schulz struggled with agoraphobia as an adult and felt that his father may have had the same problem; they both feared leaving the only situations where they were completely in control and in a familiar routine, Carl in his shop and Schulz in his studio.
Charles Schulz was born in 1922. He was nicknamed Sparky as a baby by one of his uncles, after a character in the comic strip Barney Google. The name stuck with him his whole life, which was somewhat odd, because he was hardly sparkling. Sparky suffered from a paralyzing shyness that didn't allow him to easily mingle with anyone (I've always been self-destructively shy, but compared to Schulz, I'm just an amateur); instead, as early as anyone could remember, he just sat and drew, on anything, anywhere (this seems to be a common disease amongst the artistically inclined; I come from a family of very talented artists—I was the exception—and trust me, they were always drawing, on any surface with any tool). He knew he was talented and knew he was good at what he did, and even knew he wanted to be a cartoonist as soon as he knew what that was. Yet it was impressed upon him by his family that he should never brag or show off, so while inside he quietly believed in himself and was always ambitious, he easily lost confidence in public and never used his art to any great effect; his father always warned him not to get "big headed" and so he strove not to put himself forth or stand out (and what is Charlie Brown's main physical characteristic? A big, round head. And he is the one who's always being deflated or put in his place. As Schulz said, it's all there in the strip).
Schulz faded into the background in school, not joining the art club, trying, but not really participating in the school yearbook staff, avoiding mixing with other students unless one of his few friends was there to make him comfortable. He said people didn't hate him, because that would have required them noticing him, which they didn't. He was very bitter, though, about this lack of notice and carried every slight with him forever, from the members of the yearbook staff which passed on the one group of illustrations he submitted (which, by the way, didn't fit the theme of the book; it wasn't personal, but he took it as such) to every pretty girl he longed for who never gave him a second look.
But Schulz was one of those people who remembered things as worse than they were. It was true that he didn't have many friends in high school. In his own neighborhood he had a large group of friends. He was small, but a good athlete, and played hockey and baseball with them. He was actually the number two golfer on the school golf team. And I can guarantee you, that for every man I have ever met who has said that in high school the girls ignored him because he was "too quiet…too much of a bookworm…too smart…too artsy" there probably were about a dozen girls sitting in a classroom just melting over him, precisely because he was quiet, a bookworm, smart, or artsy. Whenever a guy says all the girls in high school ignored him, he usually really means the prom queen and head cheerleader. Okay, rant over.
At home, things weren't much better in terms of feeling loved or wanted. Schulz was close to his father, but noticed that if he was visiting his father in the shop and a customer came in, his father would turn away from him, sometimes even turning him out of the chair in the middle of a haircut. Of course he should have realized that his father was just doing business with a paying customer, but if a child sees this at a young enough age, he or she will interpret this only as "I'm not as important as that guy." Schulz's mother, Dena, was very reserved (neither parent was physically affectionate) and he never seemed to really believe she loved him. She hardly ignored him, but the attention that she did give him was never enough to convince him; one of his earliest memories was riding on the streetcar with his mother and feeling fearful that she would lose him in the crowd and get off without him, that she would forget him (hey, try being the youngest in a family—I got left all over town by my family, and other youngest children I know had the same thing happen. You get used to it).
No one seemed to have any doubt that Schulz would become an artist, if for no other reason than that he couldn't do anything else. He was too shy to go to art school, though, and instead took an art correspondence course. World War II was on, though, and Sparky was drafted. The idea of being away from his family was difficult enough, but even worse, his mother was terminally ill with cancer. Schulz saw his mother one more time after he was drafted, in fact only a few days after he had to report for duty. He left to go back to Fort Snelling and she died within a day, devastating Schulz, who was haunted throughout his life by the feeling that he had never gotten a chance to show his mother that he was a success, that he was worth something (Dena did leave another legacy—not long before she died, she mentioned that if the family ever got another dog—their current one, rambunctious Spike, was alive and well—they should name him Snoopy, a riff on a Norwegian term of endearment, Snupi).
The army turned out to be good for Schulz. He was on his own and though lonely, benefited from a few other older soldiers who helped him out. He excelled at any job he was given and eventually was made an instructor for incoming troops. He learned he could handle responsibility. Luckily for him, he didn't go overseas until the war in Europe was basically over and didn't see any real action; even luckier, he would have been part of a force sent to invade Japan, but escaped that when the atomic bomb ended the war in the Pacific.
After the war, Schulz took a job at the art correspondence school, and expanded his horizons by getting to know other artists. He had had his first real girlfriend during the war, but it hadn't worked out. He embarked on a series of crushes on girls he couldn't quite approach, and a few that he could, most notably a red-haired girl named Donna Johnson. Donna was torn between the ambitious Sparky who had great plans for a syndicated comic strip, and another more stay at home boy she'd known since childhood. She chose the latter, breaking Schulz's heart forever. He never quite got over her, looking her up and contacting her over twenty years later just to check in and see if she would reconsider. She was immortalized as the elusive little red-haired girl who Charlie Brown never could bring himself to speak to.
Schulz also worked on refining his idea for a comic strip. He fell into drawing children after working on some comics for a church youth publication. He began to refine his drawing style, working to get the proportions of his characters right and find the right tone for the strip. He noticed that most of the comics of the day filled up every space in each square, so to make himself stand out, he worked on making his frames spare with lots of white space. He made trips to New York and Chicago to try to show his drawings to newspapers and syndicators. He finally got a strip he called "Li'l Folk" to a few Minnesota papers. Finally, he got the attention of United Feature Syndicate. They bought his strip, and due to a conflict with another comic that had the name "Little Folk," Schulz's strip was renamed—much to his eternal annoyance, "Peanuts," after the Peanut Gallery on the then popular Howdy Doody show.
With a contract in hand and good prospects for his future, Schulz also fell in love—again—with Joyce, young woman with a baby from a teen marriage that had quickly dissolved. The two didn't seem like much of a match—she was outgoing, vivacious, strong-willed, and tough, while he was shy, retiring, and although ambitious, lacking confidence. But they got married; around that time, the strip took off.
Peanuts featured children, but it was aimed just as much at adults. Schulz was constantly using the little kids of his comic strip to act out a 1950s kind of battle between the sexes, as seen by the mild cartoonist; in his world, girls were always bossy, strong, and pushy. The boys always lost, but always came back for more. Children recognized and commiserated with the petty humiliations of the schoolyard, while adults saw themselves and laughed at the idea of 8 year olds playing out 40something problems. Schulz's strips avoided the rim-shot, gag humor of other popular strips, and became known for their slightly melancholy, philosophical tone, something which made Peanuts—and Schulz—the darling of college students and intellectuals.
Schulz became one of the most popular and highly paid cartoonists of the time. At his wife's urging, they moved to California and built a huge estate, including a studio for Schulz to draw in. They had four more children in addition to the daughter from Joyce's brief marriage. Schulz had money, fame, a gorgeous house, and beautiful children. He received letters from people all over the country, and eventually the world, telling him how much they loved him and his work. The glitterati hobnobbed with him. A licensing deal orchestrated by an extremely clever marketing woman named Constance Boucher made his characters ubiquitous in stores and eventually ads. His first animated special, "A Charlie Brown Christmas" premiered in 1964 to instant acclaim and became a holiday perennial; more animated specials followed, until the calendar could be turned by the appearance of a Peanuts special. Yet Schulz was deeply unhappy.
His misery was centered around his faltering marriage. The disintegration of the marriage is in many ways the heart of Michaelis's book, because the troubles that took their toll on the couple and Schulz's way of dealing with them is his personality and life in shorthand. Schulz never believed he was really loved; Joyce wasn't the type to shower him with the affection he so desperately craved. But on the other hand, he wasn't good at showing her love either, leaving them both in a kind of vicious circle of failing each other. Joyce was the type to yell, boss him around, and belittle him in public. He was passive aggressive and faced—or didn't face—every problem by retreating into his studio. He was good to his children, although a bit remote; like his own parents with him, he wasn't good at showing them much physical affection. He didn't deal with their problems or discipline them—that became Joyce's job, making her always the bad cop, something which would wear on any parent. It seemed like outside of the studio, Schulz was unwilling to be effectual in any way; he was the type of man who if a fire broke out, would be more inclined to stand there and look than do something.
But as artists throughout history have done, he channeled his own turmoil into his work. Lucy, a stand-in for Joyce and every other woman he felt had pushed him around or withheld affection for him, energized his comic strip. And in a bit of cosmic payback for all the girls who he felt had ignored him, he made Lucy fall for someone, Schroeder, who could barely bother to look up at her from his piano. This also paralleled the state of the Schulz marriage—Joyce yelling and demanding attention while Schulz buried himself in his art.
Schulz also expanded the character of Snoopy, using him as a rogue to tweak Lucy, as the confident successful counterpart to his hapless "owner" Charlie Brown, and, as a chance to let his imagination run wild. Snoopy looked like a dog on the outside, perhaps even just a dog sleeping on a doghouse. But on the inside, he traveled a million miles and had adventures as an aviator, world famous golfer, Olympic skate, hockey player. Snoopy represented everyone who was mild-looking on the outside, but lived an endless life of dreams inside—like Schulz.
The cartoonist was lucky enough to get better looking as he got older and to his surprise, began to have what he always wanted—lots of young girls fawning all over him, this "cute" man who was so creative and sweet and shyly charming. He finally had an affair with one of them, Tracey, a young woman in her early twenties—about twenty five years his junior. At first she found him wonderful and terribly romantic, but then began to have a creeping sense of disillusionment; she began to doubt whether she (or maybe anyone) could love him enough to make him happy, and, despite the fame and wealth he offered her, wisely decided that she wanted something different from life than to eternally fail to make him happy. They broke it off, but Schulz's marriage was already over. Joyce had found happiness designing a huge ice arena and entertainment center, and after the couple separated, fell for one of her contractors. Schulz, meanwhile, who had continued to frequent the arena, fell for the young mother of one of the ice skating students there. Both Schulz and Joyce remarried soon after their divorce became final.
Schulz was happier with his second wife, Jean; she was more tolerant of his insecurities and more patient with him. She had her own life and identity, which Joyce hadn't really had when she and Schulz had married. So Schulz was happier, but still amazingly somewhat miserable. Asked about the value of his work to all the people who loved it, he denigrated it, shrugging off his cartoons as nothing, and a nothing job. The best he could say about himself was that he had made the most out of a limited talent, but he regretted that he was not a "real" artist, like Andrew Wyeth.
Schulz always remained competitive and fearful of the competition from other cartoonists. He dreaded some, like the rise of "Garfield" in the '80s, and admired others, such as "Calvin and Hobbes" and "For Better or Worse." He became a mentor to some of the younger artists, particularly Lynne Johnston, the creator of "For Better…"; he carried on a shy flirtation with her, and a number of other young women in his life, which Jean tolerated as just more of his need for some kind of validation.
He never hired any assistants to help with the production of his comic strip, and never took a break from it until late in the 1990s; he made sure he stockpiled two months worth of work before undergoing a quadruple bypass. Finally, though, in December 1999, he announced his retirement. He left enough daily strips to last into January, and some Sundays, including his final one; the day that last strip ran, Schulz, died.
I remember that day and thinking about the incredible number of people his work had touched, and feeling that to accomplish even one tenth of one percent of that would be astonishing. I felt at the time, like many, that I had lost someone I knew in some way—not really knew, but a comfortable daily presence, like a favorite tree you see first thing every morning. After all, I had grown up in the heyday of Peanuts and Peanuts merchandising—I never got the Charlie Brown watch I wanted, but I had a Snoopy lunchbox, a Schroeder piano and eventually a Snoopy dress up pup (I collected as many outfits as I could save up for, with the best one being the Flying Ace—my parents still have it all in one of their storage lockers). When I was about three or four, I dragged around a pillow as a security blanket, earning me the Linus nickname. My sister and I read big collections of Peanuts cartoons, tracing the evolution of the drawings from the beginning to the present, and marking our favorites (the library no doubt appreciated that). The Thanksgiving special still represents my ideal of what Thanksgiving dinner really should be (pretzels, toast, and popcorn!). I played Lucy in a children's theater workshop of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. And I have had enough days where I felt like Charlie Brown and was glad that he was out there, that at least I wasn't the only one failing at everything.
So with that in mind, I read Michaelis's book sometimes with a sinking heart. If the man who created all this and accomplished that much was so unhappy, what hope was there for the rest of us? And the blow by blow description of the Schulz's mismatched, unhappy marriage made me wonder how people can make such mistakes, how they can choose wrong people like that, and if anyone ever finds the right person—if there really is anything such as true love or true romance. I wonder how anyone can make it at all.
The psychological detective work and endless dissecting of every one of Schulz's moves or thoughts can sometimes be overwhelming. As interpreted by Michaelis, Schulz is an exhausting person on the page, with his constant array of contradictions, insecurities, and inaction (I say "as interpreted, because I believe the Schulz family was unhappy with the portrayal and disagreed with it). The numerous, infinitesimal details in this book can sometimes feel like too much, but maybe that's necessary. Maybe to readers such as myself they just seem excessive because it's like finding out too much about a teacher, or older relative. You don't really want to know that the icon is a real person. The use of the strips throughout the book is fantastic, not just because they so successfully underscore the points made about Schulz's life (he actually played out his whole affair with Tracey in the strip, under the guise of a crush Snoopy has on an unseen beagle he meets), but because they make you remember how ingenious and how good the strips were (there were a couple of sets of duplicates; I don't know if Michaelis intended this or if it was poor copyediting). The book isn't always pleasant, but it is quite readable--though you might be more comfortable reading a good collection of Peanuts strips.
Schulz spawned a whole spin off industry of books, cars, t-shirts, etc. when he put the phrase "Happiness is a warm puppy" into one strip. Some people criticized him for oversimplifying life. but he defended the idea, saying that for children, there was indeed happiness in the moment of putting their arms around a puppy. Schulz was a complicated person, and part of that came from striving for the simple things that you don't get back once you're an adult. He once described his happiest memory as when he and his parents would make the drive back from his mother's relatives' house. Lying in the backseat, with the dark sky overhead, but his parents firmly in front of him, he felt secure in a way he would never be able to recapture in life. That made him happy in a way that being the world's best known cartoonist never did.
The kind of joy found in such simple moments when you're a child are hard thing to recapture as you get older and life gets more complicated. But you know what? No matter how old you get, a warm puppy is a pretty good slice of happiness, and even if it doesn't last for more than a moment, I'll take that moment when it's there, because I don't know if I'll be lucky enough to have more than that.