Interviews by Bob Andelman


Peanuts Treasury was the first hardcover book I remember getting as a kid, somewhere around 1968, 1969. I spent hours reading and re-reading it, losing myself in the comic misadventures of Charlie Brown and Snoopy, wishing I could be like Charles Schulz, the strip’s writer and artist. My first dog, acquired around that same time, was not coincidentally a beagle, like Snoopy, whom we named Peppy, and I loved that crazy dog. I was so fond of Peanuts Treasury that it’s one of the few prized possessions from my misspent youth that followed me through college, half a dozen adult relocations, and is now on my daughter’s bookshelf.

It’s hard to find anyone who has anything bad to say about “Peanuts” or Schulz. The strip’s creator lived and thrived in the pre-Internet age where the world didn’t demand every detail of a celebrity’s life be preserved and shared. For the most part, we knew only his good works and the enduring cartoon series based on them. In his new book, Schulz and Peanuts, biographer David Michaelis introduces readers to the real cartoonist behind the daily strip. Michaelis’ previous biographical work includes a history of painter N. C. Wyeth.

(Incidentally, the Schulz family – led by Sparky’s widow, Jean – has aggressively come out against the book they once authorized and with which they cooperated fully.)

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BOB ANDELMAN/MR. MEDIA: You write in the book that different people called Charles Schulz by different names, depending, I guess, on their level of familiarity with him and his comfort level with them. What would you call him if you met him today?

DAVID MICHAELIS: In my dreams, and I do meet Sparky occasionally in my dreams, we’re on a first-name basis, meaning the time, as you know, you spend with a figure and you’re thinking about him and about his work and his life every day, you do occasionally meet up in a dream at night. And I’ve had a few where Sparky has called me “David” and I’ve called him “Sparky” and sometimes tried to judge his expressions. I’ve tried to make sense of what he thinks of all this, but in real life, I would call him “Mr. Schulz.” If I were opening the door of the Warm Puppy Coffee Shop at the Redwood Empire Ice Arena in Santa Rosa, I would walk in and walk up to his table and say, “Mr. Schulz, how do you do?” I think he had a certain level of formality and decency and a kind of calmness that inspired respect.

ANDELMAN: What was going on in your life professionally when this book came along, and how did it come along?

MICHAELIS: Well, I was two years away from a previous biography of an artist, N. C. Wyeth, and I felt very strongly when I saw that Charles Schulz had died that a piece of my childhood had just vanished. I was not unlike you in a very specific regard - I actually had a beagle, too. In fact, that dog came to us from the pound and was given to us as a dog named “Phooey,” and we thought that was a terrible name for a beagle, and so we renamed him “Pooey,” which is what stuck with us with this beagle.

I also had a Linus sweatshirt, and I was very much -- in that moment in 1967, 1968 -- of great self-identification with “Peanuts” characters. But actually, it was looking in these years of studying “Peanuts” as a biographer that I often came across one of Snoopy’s exclamations repeated frequently in the early years, “Phooey!” he would yell, and I figured that was probably why the previous owners had named our dog that.










I had a great, strong childhood feeling about “Peanuts”, and to find him now gone in the year 2000, which was in itself one of those years that people my age had been waiting for all our lives. The year 2000 was so far in the future and seemed so impossible that I wondered if I would even be alive. And to now find Charles Schulz gone within a month and a half of the turning of the millennium, it was a shock.

I remember thinking that when I saw “Peanuts” in its fullest accounting, in the New York Times, I remember there were small displays of the characters, small little introductions, sensing for the first time how these characters that I felt I knew so well might be connected to his work and to his life. And overall, my sense was, Gee, there is a moment here that maybe will close soon but in which Charles Schulz can be seen for the first time in the context of the times in which he grew up and in the times in which “Peanuts” was written and the times in which he himself changed and influenced through his work. I thought a big, full-length proper biography was not only due this American genius (but) I was still kind of mad at the Pulitzer Prize committee for not awarding Charles Schulz a Pulitzer Prize. He seemed not to ever have been undervalued as strongly as he felt he was, but I certainly felt he had been somehow overlooked in certain ways, and I thought if his life had been told perhaps in a more simplified way, then it might ultimately reveal greater complexity.

ANDELMAN: It’s one thing to have a thought in a vacuum that someone would make an interesting biography, and it’s another whole one to devote what, six, seven years of your life? How did you get the clearance early on to get the access to the people and the documents and everything else that you really needed to do something like this?



MICHAELIS: In thinking over Schulz, I put it aside thinking I had no business writing about Schulz, probably because I wasn’t known as or had not had adult professional training as a comics guy. I was not a writer about comics. I was a reader of comics but not a writer of them and never had written about comics in my professional life. But after I thought things over... As with some many of these things, I think the subject chooses you rather than you choosing the subject, two people came long in the next month or two after his death and said to me, apropos almost of nothing except it turned out my own inner doghouse thoughts, “Hey, did you know that Charles Schulz spent a good deal of his adult life wishing to meet Andrew Wyeth and hoping to know Andrew Wyeth or loved his work?” And I had just finished a biography of N. C. Wyeth and thought to myself, well, if there’s a connection to Andrew Wyeth, presumably there may be a connection to this whole world that I’ve just been living in of illustration, which was an undervalued art form in somewhat the same way that comics were.

I wrote to Charles Schulz’ widow, Jean Schulz and ten days later heard back, and Jean Schulz said that her husband, Sparky, she put it in the present tense, she said, “You’ll be glad to hear that my husband has your book, and it’s on the table beside the drawing table at home, and he was reading it in the last months of his life.”

It felt like not just a vote of confidence, but it almost had a “it was meant to be” feeling about it. I think Wyeth and Schulz are very different people, and there’s a very different story there, but to see this undervalued art form and relate it in some ways to comics was a starting point in some ways of understanding the comics of Schulz. But more than that, I felt strongly after looking into the images of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe, familiar images if you read those books and Scribner Illustrated Classics, and finding Wyeth’s life in them that this might be an approach to “Peanuts” and I felt strongly that there was more, there had to be more to “Peanuts” if it was as complex in nuance as it seemed to be, and it had to relate in some way to his life.

ANDELMAN: You heard back from Jean, and how much time went by before you actually got started?

MICHAELIS: I wrote to Jean in May, she wrote back, the month turned, and we were into June. We met in June, because I happened to be out in California at a wedding about two weeks later. She agreed to meet with me. We met. We spoke at length about the subject of a biography, and we both agreed to get started interviewing sooner than later, especially with the men who Schulz had known in the war. I think I learned recently from the Ken Burns documentary about WWII that now it’s up to 1,200 veterans a day dying off in 2007, so it was probably a slightly slower rate in 2000. But still, it was clear that to get to some of these men who knew him in the war, his neighborhood friends growing up, the folks who knew him at art instructioning would be a great thing for not only the book but also the archives of the Charles M. Schulz Museum, which was then pretty much still on the drawing board. I agreed that my notes and interview materials and research materials should all be placed into the research center at the Museum so that there would be a kind of nucleus in the archives there. I felt very strongly that that was a great thing to do and that it would be of some service to the whole idea of an archive.




I think that there was no question that people were still in grief about Schulz at the time, and my interviews began almost immediately. I still to this day wonder whether or not had I started a few years later, there might have emerged a different portrait. But people were really ready to talk to me about Sparky. I found in my earliest interviews that I almost couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and it’s true of interviewing, as you know; you go and see someone, and they have had a lifetime of experience with the person you are writing about, or they’ve had half a lifetime or anyway a long relationship usually, and there’s a lot to say. You really don’t need to say a thing. They want to tell their story.

Schulz had such a profound impact not only on all of us readers but those in his life, too, and that was the first awareness I had of some of Schulz’s, the nuances, the subtleties of Schulz’s character, but also, as I began to read the comic strip now in earnest, there was, to me, a whole world that was embedded and now was beginning to correspond to the things I was hearing about in his life. And then to go to his correspondence and his business papers with the syndicate, opening up those, there was a richness suddenly, a kind of three-dimensional -- I don’t know if you played it, but I remember as a kid, suddenly chess was played on Lucite on three, or checkers, in three levels at the same time. I always felt it was a little like that with the interviewing and the papers and the strip itself.

ANDELMAN: I suspect that a lot of the people that you interviewed, particularly the older people, found it easier to talk about Schulz shortly after his death than when he was alive, because he was very private, right?

MICHAELIS: Absolutely.

ANDELMAN: Did not want people talking about him, so they probably had decades of things that they wanted to tell.

MICHAELIS: Absolutely. Exactly. I think one of the complications that came up, the words I would hear about Sparky were that he was a wonderful man, as you and I would imagine, and that he was shy and that he was humble and that he was unchanged from his earlier days, usually, that he was generous and that he was fun and funny and had a sharp, edgy wit at times. There was always a moment in which someone would say, “But you know, there was more to it.” That’s all true, and there would be anecdotes and material presented along those lines and very warmly and very appreciatively.



ANDELMAN: Before we turned on the tape, we were talking, and I was telling you that I had done this biography of Will Eisner, another comics legend. And in doing that, I can still remember sitting at the dinner table with him one night when he started telling me about his children, something that he had never talked about before, and finding out -- I don’t want to make this about my book or Eisner -- at that moment that a lot of what had happened to him in the last thirty years had to do with the loss of his daughter as a teenager. I knew at that moment that that was going to be the electrifying moment of the book, and what I wondered about, was there a similar kind of an “a-ha” moment in researching Schulz and learning about Schulz, or was it a lot of things?

MICHAELIS: I think it was an accumulation, without question, but I had moment after moment where I was surprised to learn that Schulz was more complicated than I could have guessed and that I really was with everybody else, I expected a very specific kind of person, and my sympathies or my feelings about him grew and I became far more engaged with him as a man, as a person, than I had been before, because I found it fascinating. I found what I was hearing about him fascinating.

The whole theme of love, for instance. He had a very difficult time throughout his life, to hear the story told by those nearest him, to hear himself tell the story. Another great source for me was the interviews he had given to American newspapers over the years. He considered the newspaper his employer. He considered the managing editor of any newspaper who sent him a reporter to do an interview, he considered that person to be part of his job to respond to, so over the years, he made an account of his life. Sometimes it was day by day, week by week, and you could chart some of the changes in his views and his thinking as those went on.

Let me back up. I remember my first interview with Cathy GuisewGaryite (“Cathy”), the cartoonist, and I remember as I was leaving her office, she said, “You know, this is going to be fascinating for you because you are going to find out something right away. You are going to find out that Sparky is incredibly big and incredibly small at the same time.” Cathy, who had given a eulogy for Sparky some months earlier at his memorial service in Santa Rosa and clearly understood him and clearly was a trusted and beloved member of his. I’m not sure if inner circle is the right term, but she was a close friend and knew him. It wasn’t somebody looking in from the outside, she had known him, and I remember her saying to me in that first interview, “You know, he always wanted to know if he was loved. He would test you. He would test you to see whether you really loved him, and he wasn’t quite sure even then once you had made your declaration, even kiddingly, or even light-heartedly or even passionately or even with great depth of feeling, ‘I love you, Sparky.’” She wasn’t sure even then whether he could hear it.

I remember just before that seeing that last interview with Al Roker in which he, having had a stroke, in the context of his illness he was very vulnerable. The vulnerability of Charles Schulz was suddenly very much there for the whole world to see and that sense of vulnerability in which he was able to say, “I can’t believe that what I did, they loved what I did. I can’t believe that what I did, that they thought it was so good.” That even now, at the end, after all, wondering whether his work had been loved truly, whether he had been seen and understood, whether it was understood, that whole process that he had gone through in his entire life of becoming an artist, triumphing over doubts of all kinds in his background; his parents not thinking that a cartoonist would ever amount to very much; supporting him, trying to be the loving parents of an aspiring artist; his cousins being a little more cruel to him, saying, “You’re never going to make it. You’re never going to amount to anything,” but that he fulfilled expectations, that he exceeded all expectations and fulfilled himself but still could doubt whether or not what he had done was good. He would say to Gary Groth, the editor of The Comics Journal, very comprehensive interview at the end of his life, you know, “Have I had success? Do you think so?” and mean it. He wasn’t just jesting, he wasn’t being ironic, he really meant it. You hear it over and over again, Schulz doubting whether he’s loved, whether he’s seen clearly, whether he’s understood.

It goes back into some deep childhood stuff where he even said back at one point something the way Linus would be sent by Charlie Brown to talk to a little red-haired girl on the playground. I discovered that he had asked this Pudge Geduldig, stellar golfer on the St. Paul Central High golf team, to go back and talk to a girl that Charles Schulz, little Sparky Schulz, had been in love with, had a crush on on the Lake Street streetcar, and he just wanted Pudge to go back to St. Paul and ask her, “Did you notice him? Did you see him? Were you aware that there was this boy who had a crush on you?” Of course, this by then was the early 1970s, Charles Schulz, world-famous Charles Schulz could have picked up the phone and called Lila Bischoff and said “Hi, Lila, this is Charles Schulz. You probably don’t remember me. Ha, ha, ha, but gosh, I write the comic strip ‘“Peanuts”,’ and I just want to talk to you about the old days.” He would never have done that, and the whole feeling of being unseen and overlooked remained in his life. I felt very strongly, as I kept finding this out, as I kept learning, how he didn’t really want to free himself from a lifetime of yearning, longing, unfulfillment on the one hand, anxieties, fears, worries, in addition….


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© 2007 by Bob Andelman. All rights reserved.


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