Schulz, Part Two

Charles Schulz’s favorite movie Citizen Kane is, in part, about the impossibility of writing biography. In the film, newsreel reporters struggle mightily to uncover the meaning of the mysterious last words of the media magnate Charles Foster Kane: “Rosebud.” They interview many who knew Kane but fail to solve the riddle. The movie itself, a work of art, discloses the meaning of Rosebud in the last few frames. (Schulz did several strips where the ending of the movie is ruined by thoughtless people prematurely revealing the solution). In effect, the movie argues that art can get at truths denied to fact-scrounging biographers.

The problem with biography is made particularly clear in a scene where one reporter interviews Mr. Bernstein, Kane’s lifelong business partner. Bernstein offers the reporter a lesson on the tricky nature of memory: “A fellow will remember a lot of things you wouldn’t think he’d remember. You take me. One day, back in 1896, I was crossing over to Jersey on the ferry, and as we pulled out, there was another ferry pulling in, and on it there was a girl waiting to get off. A white dress she had on. She was carrying a white parasol. I only saw her for one second. She didn’t see me at all, but I’ll bet a month hasn’t gone by since that I haven’t thought of that girl.”

We can call this the Bernstein conundrum: our experiences are not weighed equally. A teenage fling that ends in heartbreak might mean more than many years of marriage; a year of soldiering could leave a stronger impression than decades of peace; the death of loved one can cast shadows on all subsequent events.  And in fact some of these key events could be utterly private and inaccessible to outsiders, undocumented but potently alive in memory, as with the girl “carrying a white parasol”.

All biographers deal with the Bernstein conundrum. One solution is to give equal weight to all facts, as we see in the long plodding multi-volume tomes like Norman Sherry’s life of Graham Greene or Martin Gilbert’s life of Winston Churchill, where we get a nearly day by day chronicle of the protagonist’s activities. The other option, the one taken by most biographers, is to be more selective, to highlight certain facts and events as pivotal and character-forming. In essence, a biographer has to be like a novelist, shaping the narrative for maximum effect. The danger is that the biographer’s choice of which facts to highlight might make his biography novelistic in a bad way: more a work of fiction than fact.

David Michaelis’s Schulz and Peanuts tries to solve the Bernstein conundrum through sheer writerly bravado, not so say overbearing presumption. Like Herman J. Mankiewicz and Orson Welles working on the script for Citizen Kane, Michaelis wrote his biography knowing the secret of both Rosebud and the untold story girl “carrying a white parasol.” Schulz’s Rosebud was the death of his mother, a lasting trauma. The girl with the white parasol is Tracey Claudius, a young woman who had an affair with Schulz in 1970.

No one, as far as I know, is disputing the importance of the death of Schulz’s mother, which took place while he was a young man about to head off to war. It’s an event that Schulz often referred to and left permanent scars. But the role of Tracey Claudius in Schulz’s life, and especially the prominence this affair is given in the new biography, can be questioned.

It’s a dramatic story. Like many reviewers I was seduced by it and gave it pride of place in my recounting of the book’s narrative. Here’s a quick summary (keeping in mind that the value judgments made here are from Michaelis’s disputed biography): Schulz married Joyce Halverson, a single mother, in 1951. Their marriage, which produced four more kids, became increasingly contentious over time, with Schulz’s aloofness, introspection and diffidence constantly clashing with his wife’s bossy adventurousness. By the late 1960s, the marriage becomes especially fraught as the couple quarreled over money spent on building an arena and on the best ways to raise their kids (Joyce was supposedly a hands-on mom while Schulz was allegedly more withholding and withdrawn). As their marriage soured, Schulz was increasingly attracted to other women, and in 1970s he had a fling with a young photographer who comes to interview him, Tracey Claudius. Although the relationship with Tracey quickly tapers off it does lead to a crisis in the marriage. In 1973, Schulz falls in love with Jean Forsyth Clyde, who was then also unhappily married. They divorce their respective partners and marry. The marriage of Charles and Jeannie Schulz lasts until his death in 2000.

To make the case for Michaelis: the importance of Tracey is that she came at a key moment in Schulz’s emotional life. Prior to meeting her he was thwarted in his search for love and awkward with women because of his unhappy marriage. Tracey thawed Schulz out, warmed by the affair with her he was more willing to take emotional risks. Tracey was the bridge between the end of Schulz’s first marriage and the beginning of his second.

The case against Michaelis: Considering how briefly it lasted, the affair is blown way out of proportion in the biography. As Jeannie Schulz noted in a comment to an earlier posting, Schulz didn’t seem to spend all that much time around Tracey: “If you look carefully at the timeline you’ll find: 1 weekend in Monterey, another possible night at Tracey’s when the roommate was gone, a dinner at the Tonga Room, a night at Jacques Brel, a lunch on the waterfront and a couple more meetings in book stores. The rest was telephone calls, notes, drawings, etc. Why does Michaelis give it so much space?” It could be argued that Schulz’s marriage to Joyce was already on the skids and that the fling with Tracey was simply one more milestone on the road to divorce. His affair with her was surely more a symptom of a broken marriage than a cause. And after Schulz marriage to Jeannie, it doesn’t seem he ever gave much thought to Tracey, who in any case had moved on.

If we grant the importance of Tracey in Schulz’s life, it’s still striking how much she overshadows almost everyone else in the biography. Aside from Schulz’s mother and his first wife, Tracey is the largest character that Schulz deals with (according to Michaelis). We’re given a nearly blow-by-blow account of the affair (the first meeting, the tentative signals sent out, the dates, and even when the couple first had sex). By contrast, Schulz’s marriage to Jeannie, which lasted 27 years, glides by quickly. It is Tracey’s somewhat unfavorable account of Schulz as a lover (he was allegedly selfish and given to romantic flights of fantasy while not listening to his partner) that leaves a strong impression; by comparison, Jeannie’s and Charles’s love for each other is only tepidly hinted at. Tracey also looms much larger in the narrative than any of Schulz’s five kids, not to say Jeannie’s kids from her first marriage (who are quite wraith-like in the book).

The questions we keeping running against are ones of balance, proportion, and selection. Yes, Schulz had the affair with Tracey. Yes, he was often melancholy. The question is, what weight to give these events and how to keep them in balance against other facets of Schulz’s life (like his love for his kids and Jeannie and her kids; even his happy early days in marriage to Joyce). Some fans of Peanuts are keen to emphasize the dark side of the strip, in order to counteract the syrupy “Happiness is a Warm Puppy” reputation it has. The dark side of the strip is there, but there is also joy in Peanuts: the Snoopy dance surely owes something to Schulz’s gratitude for being alive, when he could easily have died as a soldier. After the War, Schulz knew every day was a gift and intensity with which he lived his life was a testament to how much the gift meant to him. As a biographer, Michaelis seems to want to give us a “dark” portrait of Schulz, in the same way that DC Comics occasionally offers up a “dark” version of Batman or the Green Lantern (to shake things up and make the stories more interesting). But the darkness of the portrait hides some key elements of Schulz’s life. The shadows don’t just give character and create mood, they also obscure and distort.

6 thoughts on “Schulz, Part Two

  1. Accurate or not (and I’ve heard from enough people close to Schulz that I’ve come to believe “not”), the book seems so intent on being a psychological study of the man (and as you say, a dark one) that it fluffs over much more of significance. It’s rich in details of the early days, of handy things like when they lived where, but that’s more as formative material. It’s not just the family that’s skimped in the last third of his life, it’s just about everything but how much money was being made. The question of where he stood in his personal spiritual journey goes unanswered (and for those who don’t follow such things, everyone from the atheists to strict fundamentalist Christians tried to claim him as their own at the time of his death.)
    And so much about the cartoonist’s work itself is simply blipped over. The strip is of use to Michaelis when it can be shown to be biographical in some way… but even then, he seems to believe that because strip X reflects Sparky’s life and so does strip Y, therefor we know something about what’s really going on from strip Z. And that might be arguably true if the only strips that existed were the couple hundred included in the book… but that’s not 2% of the strips that Schulz did, and he spent a lot of days just putting something funny on the page.
    So Schulz starts a second newspaper cartoon (It’s Only a Game) in 1957, the book does cover that… but it doesn’t seem important enough to mention when (or even if!) that other strip came to an end. And even if he was looking at the work for psychological reflection of Schulz, how could he overlook the last few years of the strip, when it seemed to sparkle with new life primarily when dealing with Rerun – a little boy who wanted to be a cartoonist when he grew up? And whose desires – wanting a dog and a bicycle – are simply, appropriate, and yet unfulfilled?
    On reading, there are parts of this book that seemed interesting and rigorous, and those that seemed merely detailed… and as later testimony has shown, those interesting portions were not as rigorous as they seem.
    Ach, I’m rambling on this topic again.

  2. After pouring through two-thirds of Michaelis’ book rather speedily, I have only recently been able to complete my first reading of it. I share many of Jeet’s appreciative opinions of Michaelis as a communicative writer; I think the cartooning metaphor in Jeet’s analysis of Michaelis’ to be quite appropriate. Thanks to comments contained in blog sites such as Cartoon Brew, I have been made aware of the many historical inaccuracies, and plain outright omissions which color this dark portrait (aided by a similar but not nearly as stark treatment given in the recent PBS biographical film). Even with the awareness of the many off balanced faults of the book, I still find appreciation in the literary choices that Michaelis made, and I came away with a deeper appreciation of Schulz, than I had before, despite knowing that I was missing significant portions of the factual story.
    Jeet, I hope if any author pursues the biographical angle of Schulz as he relates to comics history (and in particular his tastes in the culture at large, movies, boooks etc …) then I hope that that author is you. Your biographical work on Frank King (so far), is exceptional.
    I do hope more biographical treatments of Schulz come. The portrayal of Schulz as a vibrantt and loving man, who adored his kids, should be given some voice, particularly in print. I feel that these points are not only of familial interest, but will prove beneficial to all people who appreciate Schulz and his work, and may yet push the overall historical recollection of him into a more finished painting of a brilliant man’s psyche.

  3. Well argued Jeet. Not having delved into the biography myself, I was sorely disapointed after reading about the various mischaracterizations and inaccuracies, which were only bolstered by talking to Rick Marschall, who knew Schulz. It’s a real shame; the book had so much going for it, and I’ll be damned if that Chip Kidd jacket design didn’t set the bar high, at least for me.

    Perhaps looking a bit deeper than ‘Kane’, Michaelis really comes across as something of that cherished literary staple – the unreliable narrator – so wonderfuly explored by Nabokov (no doubt impressed by his one-time countrymen, et al), who I can only imagine would get a real chuckle out of this all. In a way, a biography, like this one, can become as much about the biographer as the subject, intentionally so or not.

    I am reminded of something Fitzgerlad wrote: “There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.”

  4. I have not read the biography but I can understand why so much time would be spent on Tracey. I think the author wants to point out that Schultz’s unwillingness to change his flaws and get help was at the root of his problems and his work for the Peanuts. It underscores that the man let his emotions and lack of whatever get the better of him. It should also be a lesson to the chicks since in white urban America they have all the power and get things without having to prove themselves and can shoot down the men and so on. Just because a guy is famous and worth a lot of money does not mean he is cool. I’m kind of bummed out to learn that Shultz was such a loser who happened to have the genius to create the Peanuts because I don’t think anything else would have hit for him. I grew up on it and a different perspective of the guy but it turns out he was a panic attacked and nerdy version of a secular Humanist. I feel really sorry for his first wife. And it’s sad he was this way because underneath it all he was a great guy like how he wrote the responses to people including my father because the clothes for his Linus doll shrunk in the landury. What celebrity would do that today? Why do so many of my heroes let me down? The man was such a dork in so many ways? Why didn’t he trust Jesus and gain the strength of the Holy Spirit? Women so let me down- they have sex with the major twerp Prince Charles like he is their baby just because he is a Prince. Don’t you have enough morals not to do something dorky like that? I almost wished I could read the Peanuts without knowing these things about Shultz and think about him as the guy playing football with his kids and driving the kids around like he really did that- not because it was staged for the public.

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