Art from angst: the dark side of Charlie Brown

His cartoon strips brought joy to millions. But a controversial new biography claims Charles Schulz was a depressed and bitter man who struggled with his emotions. By David Usborne
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The Independent US

If Charles Schulz, the Peanuts cartoonist who gave us Charlie Brown and Snoopy, were still alive today he would probably be in a cranky mood. A sweeping biography of him is about to come out and it is barely complimentary. Cranky, apparently, was his normal state. But then Schulz specialised in making art out of angst and perhaps the book would have propelled him to new heights of creativity.

Speculating how he would have reacted – Schulz died in 2000 from colon cancer, aged 77 – will get us nowhere. Louder than a thunder clap, however, has been the response of his family. The long-awaited tome, Schultz and Peanuts by David Michaelis, to be released in America next week by HarperCollins, has seemingly caught them by surprise. "Preposterous," and "not true" are the verdicts of Monte, one of the late cartoonist's five children. Both his former wives are equally offended. It would be one thing if Michaelis had blown in from the blue and written his appreciation of Schulz uninvited. But that is not what happened here.

Michaelis had the family's blessing. They trusted him because of his earlier biography of the American illustrator N C Wyeth. Schulz himself had read it shortly before his death and liked it, as had Monte himself. He seemed just the man to memorialise the achievements of someone who remains one of the highest-earning dead celebrities of our time.

You may wonder at such naivety. They would hardly be the first family to have granted access to a biographer only to find that the outsider's assessment of a loved one barely coincides with their own. Yet, they might have guessed at the general direction the book would take. It is hardly a secret that the characters in the Peanuts strip were based on real people in Schulz's life, or that the endless travails, frustrations and disappointments of its main character, Charlie Brown – unrequited in love and never able to kick that darned football – were largely his own.

Indeed, Michaelis, who in recent days has set out to defend his words, pretty much advertised his take on the cartoonist in an appreciation of him in Time magazine shortly after his death. In it he laid out the premise that would later be expanded to make the book – that the genius of Schulz was driven (and he was surely not alone among artists in this) by his own inner discontent and anger at life. Moreover, Schulz himself had in his later years confessed to some of what troubled him. "I have this awful feeling of impending doom," he told 60 Minutes on CBS in 1999. "I wake up to a funeral-like atmosphere."

To back up his theory, Michaelis does not flinch in his descriptions of a consistently depressed and bitter man who held back affection from those who loved him, especially his children and his wives. He recoiled from physical expressions of love while at the same time constantly yearning for love from others, a flaw that led him to break up with his first wife of 20 years and mother of his children, Joyce Doty, in 1970, and to pursue other women. It was while departing on honeymoon with his first bride that he turned to her and declared: "I don't think I can ever be happy."

Michaelis has done his homework, studying every one of the nearly 18,000 strips penned by Schulz. The first appeared 60 years ago next year, an anniversary to be celebrated both by this book and by a television documentary about him on the PBS network in America. For Michaelis, every strip is another piece in the puzzle of who Schulz actually was and he distributes examples throughout the book as supporting evidence.

Thanks to the family, Michaelis had considerable additional access. They opened the doors not only to themselves but to nearly everyone who had known Schulz – nicknamed Sparky – including the real-life woman who in Peanuts became the Little Red-Haired Girl, who never looked at lovelorn Charlie Brown twice. She is Donna Mae Johnson, for whom Schultz fell in the 1940s only to see her marry another man. "You never get over your first love," Schulz was to say in an interview two years before he died. "The whole of you is rejected when a woman says: 'You're not worth it.'"

That the family is disappointed with how the book has turned out has not entirely surprised Michaelis, who is based in New York. "To their children, fathers are always heroes, and very few families can see beyond that paterfamilias," he told The New York Times. "This was the man I found. Did I get the story right? Absolutely. No question." He told Newsweek meanwhile: "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 Peanuts strips."

It is a story that begins in Minnesota where Schulz was born in 1922 to a German-born barber and Norwegian mother. The family is described as the quintessence of Midwestern reticence. A small child, he hated school. One slight was apparently more important than any. Schulz, who was already drawing, had submitted a strip for publication in the school yearbook. Without explanation the editors rejected it.

Still more affecting, however, was the death of his mother from cancer when he was still a teenager, just one week before he was shipped off by the army in 1943 for training in Kentucky and then combat in Germany. While at war, Schulz made friends by drawing illustrations on the letters sent home by his comrades.

On returning to the US, he got a job at a small art publishing company (where Donna Mae was also an employee). Frustrated with prospects there, he sent out examples of his strip, already populated with children and called Sparky's L'il Folks, to newspaper and magazine publishers. In 1948, the Saturday Evening Post finally published one of them.

Two years later he struck gold with a contract with United Feature Syndicate. To his never-ending disgust, the syndicate prevailed upon him to choose a new name for the strip – Peanuts – but the deal was the start of what would become a money-spinning empire. In quick time, Charlie and Snoopy would be delighting readers in hundreds of newspapers in countries around the world. By the end of the 1980s, thanks largely to marketing of rights to his characters' images, Peanuts was generating revenue of more than $1bn a year. But happiness remained elusive. Or at least according to Michaelis, who pinpoints the overlaps between Schulz's life and the cast of the Peanuts strip.

Featured large were both his first wife, Joyce (Lucy) and his second, Jean (Sally). "He was a complicated artist who had an inner life and embedded that inner life on the page," said Michaelis. "His anxieties and fears brought him Lucy and the characters in Peanuts. The strip was populated by children, because, Schultz once said, children are cruel."

For his book to work, of course, Michaelis also had to explain the unarguable appeal of the strip that catapulted it to such remarkable success. That too, he writes in the book, has much to do with giving it a cast of children and the way that, through their adventures and their disappointments, they also encapsulate the adult experience.

"Children are not supposed to be radically dissatisfied. When they are unhappy, children protest, then they move on. Schulz gave these children lifelong dissatisfactions, the stuff of which adulthood is made," he postulates, adding: "Readers recognised themselves in 'poor, moon-faced, unloved, misunderstood' Charlie Brown... because he is willing to admit that just to keep on being Charlie Brown is an exhausting and painful process."

Michaelis does not stint in describing his admiration for Schultz as an artist, if not as a person and family man. "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 recognising an extraordinariness in himself; he is surrounded by ordinariness but sees in himself this spark of greatness and refuses to be swayed. Plus, the guy got up every morning, and gave his life to his work. He did a brilliant thing, recognising his role in the world and sticking to it."

Yet it's the description of Schulz as a withdrawn, often mean and perhaps even clinically depressed man that may trouble his fans.

Amy Schulz Johnson, a daughter, believes she and her siblings were deliberately led down the garden path by Michaelis. "The whole thing is completely wrong," she said this week. "I think he wanted to write a book a certain way, and so he used our family. We were all really excited thinking we were going to get to say things about our Dad." (In the end, the voices of the children are rarely heard in the book.)

The first wife, Joyce, is withholding comment but is known to be upset by the book. Jean, wife number two, is speaking out. "It's not a full portrait. Sparky was so much more," she said. "Most of the time, he loved to laugh. Part of what puzzles people was that he talked about the actual physical sensation that he had from being anxious – the sense of dread when he got up in the morning. But he had a Buddhist acceptance of life and its ups and downs."

She notes also: "I think Sparky's melancholy and his dysfunctional first marriage are more interesting to talk about than 25 years of happiness. Every artist has to take a point of view but if David is going to say that Sparky is a consistently mean man, then you need to back it up."

"You're a good man, Charlie Brown," was the catchphrase that Schultz made famous. Armed now with this new book – and the response of his family – fans will have to decide whether they still agree.