Passages: The Life and Times of Charles Schulz

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A spare pen line and a subtle sense of humor: Schulz

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Charles M. Schulz became the highest paid, most widely read cartoonist ever. The only modern American comic strip artist to be given a retrospective at the Louvre, he was now in a class by himself. His characters cut a broad path across commerce and culture; Charlie Brown and Snoopy could go from being cartoon pitchmen for cars and life insurance, their huge heads and tiny bodies stretched across blimps at golf tournaments, to being the inspiration for a "Peanuts" concerto by contemporary composer Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, premiering at Carnegie Hall. At the peak of Schulz's popularity, "Peanuts" captured 355 million readers, and he was earning from $30 to $40 million a year.

He kept on drawing as he always had. He often said, "My main job is to draw funny comic strips for the newspapers." He didn't set himself up as a chaplain or philosopher or therapist to the millions. He made no statements about important issues. He sat on no commissions. He went straight on with his work, even though the world begged him to change from being a commentator for a minor constituency in the 1950s to a national observer who had a great deal to say to the world at large. He wanted to be no different than anyone else.

As part of his morning routine, he ate an English muffin with grape jelly and drank coffee from a Styrofoam cup, then sat down to his drawing table and the long, white Strathmore board with the five-inch-by-five-inch panels in which he drew the daily strip. "He attempted to be ordinary," recalls Clark Gesner, author of the musical "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown." He wanted to be what he thought he had always been — a regular person.

In later life, Schulz joked that he looked like a druggist. Genial, smiling, with straight white teeth and a head of silver hair, he dressed modestly in muted slacks and pastel golf sweaters. He stood a trim five feet eleven and a half inches ("I never quite got to six feet") and liked to sprawl after work in a big blue leather easy chair, his long legs pointing straight at the TV set. "People say 'Where do you get your ideas?'" he once recalled, "because they look at me and they think, Surely this man could never think of anything funny." But smiling silver-haired druggists know the town pretty well. They have the common touch, they dispense daily doses of medicine to the melancholy people of Mudville, and they are the last to have illusions about what's really happening in people's lives.

He dreaded becoming a prisoner of success, perhaps because it meant he would lose control. "I don't want to attract attention," he said in 1981. "I've always had the fear of being ostentatious of people thinking that these things have gone to my head." He didn't have any experience being a millionaire or a celebrity. He wanted to be free. When reporters came around asking questions about his success, he would reply, "Have I had enormous success? Do you think so?" He hated to talk about it. In 1967, he hotly told a writer, "Life magazine said I was a multimillionaire — heck, no cartoonist can become a millionaire."

Into the 1980s and 1990s, his fortune mushroomed. Forbes magazine regularly listed Schulz among the top 10 highest-paid entertainers in the United States, along with Bill Cosby, Michael Jordan and Michael Jackson. He took little interest in accumulating money, gave millions away to charities, insisting always that he was the same old Sparky Schulz. At his drawing table in his studio at One Snoopy Place in Santa Rosa, he drew with the same old pens, the same old nibs. He liked to say that he would stay at the desk until he wore a hole clean through it.

Schulz took professional pride in the achievements of the strip. But pride in one's work does not automatically override years of early disappointments to create pride in one's self, and Schulz struggled to the end of his life to believe that he himself was worthy of the respect and love his admirers showered on him. "It is amazing that they think that what I do was that good," he said on the "Today" show in 1999. His voice quavered and he seemed as if he might break down when he said: "I just did the best I could."

In November 1999, after a stroke put him into the hospital, doctors discovered that colon cancer had metastasized to his stomach. He had an operation to remove the cancer, and the doctors got most of it, but the stroke and the surgery robbed Schulz of the will to go on drawing. He couldn't see clearly, he couldn't read. He struggled to recall the words he needed. But all that might have been tolerable except that chemotherapy had begun to make him sick to his stomach, and the statistics for Stage-4 colon cancer gave him a 20 percent chance to live.

On December 14, 1999, at the age of 77, Schulz announced his retirement. "I never dreamed that this would happen to me," he said. "I always had the feeling that I would stay with the strip until I was in my early 80s, or something like that. But all of sudden it's gone. It's been taken away from me. I did not take it away," he emphasized. "This was taken away from me."

After nearly 50 years of drawing "Peanuts," the world-famous cartoonist put down his pen in January, his hand gone shaky, his vision blurred. Being a comic strip artist was all he had ever wanted. On February 12, 2000, a dark night of pouring rain in Santa Rosa, California, Schulz got into bed a little after nine o'clock. He pulled up the covers. At 9:45 p.m., just hours before the final "Peanuts" strip appeared in Sunday newspapers around the world, Charles Schulz died — his life entwined to the very end with his art. As soon as he ceased to be a cartoonist, he ceased to be.

David Michaelis, author of 'N. C. Wyeth: A Biography' (Knopf, 1998), is writing the first full-scale biography of Charles M. Schulz. He can be reached at

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