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.