Sour Peanuts?

October 9th, 2007 | Posted in News

I mentioned a week or so ago about stopping in at the Charles M. Schulz Museum on our trip to the Sonoma County area of California and spending some time with Jeanne Schulz and other friends, and of course enjoying the exhibits. I read this article yesterday in my local paper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune (reprinted from the New York Times), concerning the release of a new biography of Charles Schulz by David Michaelis:

‘Peanuts’ creator cold, tormented, biography says

The article relates how the extended Schulz family is very unhappy about the book, which paints Schulz as “a depressed, cold and bitter man who was constantly going after different women.” Schulz family members were interviewed for the book, and gave Michaelis access to Schulz’s private papers and other assistance in his research. They were not expecting the portrait of Schulz that the author painted, and were “shocked by the portrayal” after reading his manuscript last December. The book, “Schulz and Peanuts” is due to be released next week.

I’m not going to pretend I knew “Sparky” at all, having only met him once about a year before his death, but that doesn’t sound like the man I’ve been told about for many years by those who knew him best. From the article it sounds as if the family feels ambushed by Michaelis, and who could blame them? The article quotes several family members, including Schulz’s daughter Amy Schulz Johnson , who said: “The whole thing is completely wrong” and “I think he wanted to write a book a certain way, and so he used our family.”

Here’s my Sparky story:

The Lovely Anna and I went to our first NCS Reuben weekend in San Antonio in 1999. MAD legend Mort Drucker sponsored me for NCS membership (this was a few years before I’d get my chance with MAD), and we were to meet he and his wife Barbara there. Mort’s mother fell very ill, in fact she died just a few weeks later, and he and Barbara had to cancel their trip. Mort called me beforehand to tell me the news and named off several people I was to look up and introduce myself to. Thus, Anna and I found ourselves at our first Ruebens knowing absolutely no one.

If you’ve ever been to a Reuben weekend, you’ll know that is it a big group of pro cartoonists who are old friends and know each other well. They don’t mean to, but that makes it a tough place for newcomers to feel at home, especially if they have no acquaintances to make introductions or if their work is not very well known. Anna and I did meet some new people and tried to mingle as best we could, but it felt like we were crashing someone’s party and it was a little awkward at times. We never felt unwelcome or snubbed, but everyone seemed to know each other so well it was natural to feel uncomfortable breaking in.

We were at the opening cocktail party on Friday night, which was held in a roped off area of a park right in front of the Alamo. We had our plates from the buffet line and our drinks, and found an unoccupied bench on the far side of the area to sit down. It was a beautifully set up party area, but there were few of these benches. We settled in and I began to point out famous cartoonists to Anna. I spotted Jack Davis right away, and a few others. Then on the very far end of the park I spotted a man in a dark sweater just getting to the end of the buffet line.

“That’s Charles Schulz”, I said to Anna.

He was one person we were told was very nice but very conscious of his fame, and doesn’t like to be approached or fawned over at all. We weren’t hopeful of being able to meet him without having someone introduce us.

Schulz started scanning the area, presumably looking for a place to sit. There was room for one more on our bench, and Anna joked that maybe he’d walk all the way across the park, about 60 yards, and sit down by us to eat his dinner. “No way,” I snorted.

He continued scanning, spotted our bench, and started walking towards us. “He’s just walking towards some people he knows,” I said. “No way is he going to sit next to us.”

He never slowed down. He walked right up to the bench, asked if this spot was taken, plopped down and offered his hand. “Hi. I’m Sparky,” He said to a wide-eyed Anna. We introduced ourselves and mentioned we were from Minnesota and lived for a time in St. Paul, only a few blocks from his childhood home. We talked for 20 minutes about Minnesota and St. Paul, the Mall of America, “Camp Snoopy” and other stuff. He was honestly interested in what we did, asking all kinds of questions like if we had kids, what we thought about the Minnesota North Star’s hockey team moving to Dallas and other things of interest. Of course we mentioned we were big fans of Peanuts, to which he responded with a smile and a wave of his hand, then asked more about us. He thanked us for sharing our bench, got up and tossed his empty plate in the trash can and was shortly in conversation with Jack Davis about golf nearby.

Just for fun I sauntered by them and, while Anna took some covert pictures I turned into the conversation and made to look like I was talking right along with them. These are the priceless results:

Jack and Sparky talk golf while I pretend to talk golf…

Good one, Jack!

That’s my story about meeting Charles Schulz. He seemed very genuine to me, and by all accounts from others who knew him for decades I was not wrong in my impression of him. I don’t think I’ll be reading this book. I prefer my brief but memorable meeting with the man to be my lasting impression of him… humble, unassuming, and more interested in others than himself.


  1. mengblom says:

    Awesome story, Tom. You’re a lucky man to have met such a (humble) giant.

    As for the book, I wonder what happened there. Not with Schultz himself (NEWSFLASH: ARTIST IS MOODY!), but the process of the book being written. It sounds like the family members all willingly participated and were lead to believe the book would be something other than what it turned out to be. I wonder what sort of final approval (if any) the family had as a precondition. If not, they certainly should have. Sure, that pretty much kills the “warts and all” fixation so many biographers have these days, but maybe those are details we don’t need to know anyway. Too bad they didn’t insist upon (or were legally prevented from) a final look at the manuscript.

    What was also a bit odd were the dramatically different assessments of the book from Sparky’s kids (those who were quoted were pretty outraged) and then his widow Jean…who seems somewhat neutral (or even vaguely supportive) on the whole thing:

    “David couldn’t put everything in,” she said, but added, “I think Sparky’s melancholy and his dysfunctional first marriage are more interesting to talk about than 25 years of happiness.” She quoted her husband’s frequent response to why Charlie Brown never got to kick the football: “Happiness is not funny.”

    I sense a little family tension there (which isn’t exactly a mindblowing revelation when it comes to blended “step” families….even moreso when you’re dealing with a multi-million dollar legacy to manage).

  2. Trevour says:

    That’s a wonderful story, and so amazing that you and Anna got to meet ‘Sparky’ himself! I’ve loved Schulz’s work as long as I can remember, and I would never think of him as ‘cold’ either. Your encounter, although brief, tells us otherwise. Thanks for sharing!

  3. cedricstudio says:

    Neat story. I felt the same way when I went to my first Ruebens this summer. By the time I was finally loosening myself up and warming up to everybody, it was over! Looking forward to next year, though.


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