Above: the cartoonist and his creation
David Michaelis’ biography of Charles “Sparky” Schulz has been something of an obsession with this blog: it’s a big book and a challenging one, given the way it mixes facts (or apparent facts) with interpretation. Jeannie Schulz, the cartoonist’s widow, has sent along some comments she has on the Michaelis book (comments that will also appear on the Cartoon Brew site). Anyone interested in the subject should read Jeannie Schulz’s comments very carefully. They are extremely thoughtful and show a very close and attentive reading of the Michaelis biography, bringing to bear not just her 26 years of marriage to Schulz but also her unparalleled knowledge of his life prior to marriage (as an heir, Jeannie has done exemplary service in preserving her husband’s legacy, keeping both his work and memory alive). To my mind, they represent the most serious critique the Michaelis biography has yet received.
JS notes on the BIO
I wanted to get back to this blog when I could with a few more observations on Michaelis’ book.
Part of David Michaelis working thesis in the book appears to rest on the theory that Sparky suffered from his mother’s coldness and lack of attention.
Michaelis portrays Sparky’s mother, Dena, as a typically cold Norwegian and hypothesizes, from this and from an interview comment that as kids they were not invited into the Schulz’s house, that Dena was distant and unfriendly.
Michaelis weaves a story of Sparky’s cold Norwegian-German parents and goes on to portray Sparky as a cold and indifferent parent to his children. I wonder if he thinks that 1930’s ethnic Norwegians didn’t love their children as much as the latter 20th century love theirs. I grant this is silly, and I am not sure Michaelis means this, but it appears as though his frame of reference is skewed. Michaelis says “the Mainspring of his character had been the belief that no one would … love him if he did not get out into the world and perform”. (408)
I was married to Charles Schulz for 26 years, and in all that time together, plus in 45 years worth of interviews that I have read, and additional autobiographical material Sparky wrote for the 25th anniversary book, and subsequent books, I never heard Sparky express any doubt of the love both his parents had for him and he, in turn, spoke often of his love for his “little kids”, and his stories were full of games with them and normal parental memories. Unfortunately, David Michaelis took bits of information, and without double-checking it, printed opinion as fact and judgment. He quotes Meredith, the oldest daughter as saying her father was “afraid to love” (424), it is her opinion, she must account for it, but it is not the opinion of his other children, three of whom have written on “cartoonbrew”. And, I am sure Meredith told Michaelis how generous Sparky was to her, but it had not been reflected in the book.
Michaelis has given the impression and may have said outright, that Sparky couldn’t love and couldn’t believe that he was loved.
It is untrue that Sparky didn’t accept the fact that he was loved. I think I am a credible witness to that. He knew he was loved by me and by his children. (It was “just his way” when someone said “I Love You” and he said “Who, me?” It could almost be a game of sorts, some thought it was coy – but “so what” – it was a mannerism, I think he is allowed his unique expressions.) As a husband, he was the best. He loved me and accepted me as I was, and that made me a better person.
Another erroneous judgment in the book has to do with Sparky not going to St. Paul for his father’s funeral/memorial service. This has raised the ire of one of Sparky’s friends and I think I know where Michaelis got the story: There was a barber in Carl’s shop named Lloyd Newmann. I met Lloyd on one of the trips to St. Paul, and enjoyed talking history with him. He subsequently came to the museum in Santa Rosa to visit. Lloyd told me on at least two occasions that he had been so surprised that Sparky didn’t come to Carl’s funeral. He said he had told everybody that “Sparky would be there”. Lloyd didn’t forget it and when he told me the story he still carried the sense that Sparky had let him down. I know he spoke to David Michaelis. Unfortunately, Lloyd has since died.
The friend who is irate about the story is Bernetta Nelson, nee Barton, a friend from the Church of God. When Carl died while visiting the Schulz’s in California, Sparky called Bernetta to ask if she would sing at the service for Carl. Sparky explained to Bernetta that he regretted he couldn’t come to St. Paul, but that they had had prayers for Carl in Sebastopol and that Carl was in good hands. Bernetta sang “In the Garden” and “I Will Meet You in the Morning Over There” at the service.
Bernetta understood Sparky’s feeling perfectly. But she and Lloyd didn’t know each other – so there was no way for him to know that Sparky’s decision was a thought out one. I wonder if it occurred to the critics of his decision that Sparky couldn’t bear to be back in St. Paul for another parent’s funeral. (I know, we learn to do these things as part of maturity – I still say it is harsh to judge someone without asking some questions first).
There has been a blog posted or there will be, containing the errors and mis-judgments found by Art Lynch who supplied Michaelis with piles of documents of their army service. These aren’t the only errors.
There are many notes I have yet to look up, but with just a few questions I confirmed the following errors: Pat Lytle was not one of the original employees who opened up the studio at Number One Snoopy Place; the redwood trees at the ice arena were not transplanted from Coffee Lane; Sparky did not “go to live” with his Mother-in-law in 1972. Sparky told me, and I have no reason to doubt him, that Joyce told him when the his new studio was finished he should move into it. He may have spent a weekend or a few nights at Dorothy Halverson’s, on the street behind the studio, but he definitely didn’t go to “live” with her. Admittedly, these are small errors, but they abound in the book and they are symptomatic.
David Michaelis said in an interview that he couldn’t decide if Sparky had been happy his last 25 years. All he had to do was ask. The last two years of Sparky’s life were measurably different from the years leading up to them, as Sparky didn’t always feel well those last two years and the pressures on him from fans and business were a tremendous stress. But the 25 years I knew him he loved to laugh and tease, and did a lot of both.
Michaelis wrote a lot about Sparky not hugging. When he was in the hospital for 2 weeks following his surgery in November 1999, I spent the nights in his room on a futon and we always went to sleep together in each other’s arms in his hospital bed. We weren’t going to let the small bed and some IV lines keep us from our cuddling.
At our family service I said Sparky had taught me lessons to last a lifetime. I am still thinking about and processing his lessons.
Sparky lived a good life and he knew it. He got to do the thing he’d dreamed about, drawing a comic strip – the dream came true for him and he was true to his dream. And he had a good death: at home in his own bed, without pain, having realized his dream. He wasn’t one for platitudes and gushy sentiments, but his good friends understood the depth of his feelings.
Did I tell these things to David Michaelis? Of course. Did he choose to use them? Apparently not.