From the Archives: Beloved ‘Peanuts’ creator Charles Schulz is mourned worldwide
This article was originally published on Feb. 14, 2000.
The death of Charles M. Schulz, whose anxious and joyful heart infused the world’s most influential comic strip, dovetailed with the publication of his last original “Peanuts” on Sunday -- the way he might have scripted it. A master storyteller to the end, Schulz’s goodbye message to more than 355 million daily readers worldwide became his own epitaph.
On Friday, Schulz, 77, had a last skate around the ice rink he owns and died in his sleep about 9:45 p.m. Saturday at home in Santa Rosa, with his wife, Jeannie, by his side. In December, after being diagnosed with colon cancer, Schulz announced that he would no longer draw “Peanuts,” the most widely read comic strip in history. At the request of his five grown children, his syndicate contract stipulates that no other cartoonist draw it.
Son Monte Schulz said doctors gave his father another six or seven months. But his dad was drained by the chemotherapy and the effects of strokes that left him partially blind in one eye and unable to read or draw.
“He felt old at 77,” said Monte, 48. “He had already lived to an older age than either of his parents, and he felt like it was his time to go.”
The last daily “Peanuts” ran Jan. 3; previous “Peanuts” strips will run indefinitely (starting with strips he drew in 1974, a time when Schulz was at his peak and newer characters -- like Peppermint Patty and Woodstock -- joined the cast).
“I think in a lot of ways, this is probably what he wanted -- once the strip was over, he sort of figured that was that,” said Amy Lago, executive editor at United Feature Syndicate.
Said his friend, cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, the creator of “Mutts”: “ ‘Peanuts’ was so much him. . . . I think the two of them were so intertwined that in sort of a strange little way, it’s fate.”
Sunday was officially Charles “Sparky” Schulz Day in St. Paul, Minn., his hometown -- a tribute that had been planned before his death. In Santa Rosa, his Redwood Empire Ice Arena was closed for the day, its flag at half-staff. Fans left piles of flowers outside the Warm Puppy snack shop, where Schulz began most mornings with coffee and an English muffin with grape jelly before walking to his studio.
At Knott’s Berry Farm, home of the Camp Snoopy children’s area, flags flew at half staff. Martha Treadway, 52, who teaches first grade in Norwalk, headed for Knott’s when she heard Schulz had died. She came dressed in Snoopy socks, a Snoopy T-shirt and black-and-white Snoopy shoes.
“I thought it was the best place to go to say thank you for all he’s done for our country and me personally,” she said.
Schulz also received tributes from fellow cartoonists.
“He was a master of timing in every way,” said Hank Ketchum, creator of “Dennis the Menace.” “He named his deadline for quitting his column ... made the deadline ... and then left. His was an amazing life and career, and he will be sorely missed.”
By Sunday morning, a website by the National Cartoonists Society’s president had posted the news, with a cartoon of Snoopy weeping.
“Peanuts” touched nerves and reached intimate spaces in a way no comic strip ever had: It provoked an Italian Communist newspaper ("[Lucy] is a Fascist”); was featured in exhibits at the Smithsonian and the Louvre; and spun catch phrases (“security blanket,” “good grief,” “a Charlie Brown Christmas tree”). Snoopy emerged as an enduring 20th century icon, etched on children’s tombstones and stenciled on the helmets of U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
The cartoonist who inspired such whimsy and pathos was a loner. But Schulz made the world seem a little less lonely, with characters that people knew or saw in themselves -- woeful Charlie Brown, crabby Lucy, fanciful Snoopy, sage Linus. “Peanuts,” which was published in more than 2,600 newspapers and 75 countries worldwide, was his place.
“All of my fears, my anxieties, my joys, and almost, even all of my experiences go into that strip,” Schulz told “60 Minutes” in October.
Schulz cried when he decided to give up the comic strip. Tributes poured in, from President Clinton to the New Yorker magazine to Walter Cronkite just last Friday in the CBS-TV special, “Good Grief, Charlie Brown: A Tribute to Charles Schulz” (which Schulz reportedly watched).
“It’s ironic in a way,” said cartoonist Lynn Johnston, a close friend, “that all of his life, he has just wanted to be liked and at a time in his life when everyone in the world was saying, ‘I like you, I care for you ... ,’ he really couldn’t see it.”
Instead, in the hospital, he was Charlie Brown-like flabbergasted at his bad luck, having over the years weathered strokes, emergency abdominal surgery, a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery. How could he get so sick when he was active, didn’t smoke, drank no more than half a glass of wine at dinner and minded his own business?
“We were talking about schoolyard bullies,” said Johnston, creator of “For Better or for Worse.” “And he was saying, ‘It’s not fair. Here I am, sitting on the bench, having my lunch, and you come over and bop me on the head with a rock.’ ”
After 49 years of producing a daily comic strip, Schulz still talked about the joy of drawing a perfect pen line, of getting the depth and roundness to Linus just so. He drew each strip himself, and animation critics praised his groundbreaking style -- his graceful drawing, the richness of his characters. Schulz despaired that he could not do it better.
He would have marked the 50th anniversary of “Peanuts” on Oct. 2.
Poor Charlie Brown, Schulz told interviewers. He never gets to kick the football.
Schulz was also a grandfather, philanthropist and World War II veteran; he was a homebody who struggled with depression and agoraphobia. Friends say he adored his five kids, played hockey to win and liked to sit at home in an old blue leather chair with his dog on his lap and eat fish and chips and watch “Jeopardy.”
He once told a reporter that he wants to be remembered in the way E.B. White spoke of humorist James Thurber: “ ‘He wrote the way a child skips rope, and the way a mouse waltzes.’ ”
A public memorial service is expected to be announced in the next few days. Meanwhile, in lieu of flowers, his family asked that donations be sent to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation, (800) 351-DDAY. The money is expected to be earmarked for a gallery of World War II comic strips named after Schulz’s friend, Bill Mauldin.
On Sunday, Mauldin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist who chronicled World War II, said: “I am totally wiped out by this.”
From humble start to huge paychecks
His first paycheck was $32.
Forbes magazine put Schulz’s 1995-96 earnings at $33 million -- No. 30 on its list of the world’s top-paid celebrities, just ahead of Bill Cosby. Schulz won five Emmys and arts awards from the French and Italian ministries of culture. In Japan, where “Peanuts” is a serious pastime and industry, the official translator of the comic strip is the country’s poet laureate. “Peanuts” turned up on bedsheets, in Broadway musicals, as EBay.com collectibles (in December, bidding for a signed Charlie Brown children’s dictionary closed at $10,100).
Yet, despite this overwhelming success, Schulz still believed what he drew -- that happiness is simple: supper, a soaring kite, jumping in a pile of leaves. He could write “happiness is a warm puppy” and was guileless enough to get away with it. His worst obscenity really was “Good grief.”
What made “Peanuts” real was the way that Schulz hung his own raw psyche out for public viewing. He saw himself as the boy whose artwork was rejected for the high school yearbook, the loser who really was rejected by a little red-haired girl (Charlie Brown’s unrequited love). “I was a bland, stupid-looking kid who started off badly and failed everything ... ,” he once told a reporter.
He was an only child, born Nov. 26, 1922, to Carl and Dena Schulz. He grew up in St. Paul in an apartment above his father’s barbershop (Charlie Brown’s father was a barber too). All of his life, people called him “Sparky,” a nickname based on a character in the “Barney Google” comic strip.
As a boy, Schulz used to peer through the windows of the St. Paul Pioneer Press building, watching the Sunday funnies roll off the presses. He and his dad read the Sunday comics from four newspapers and worried about the characters together. At age 6, Schulz decided that he would be a cartoonist when he grew up.
His parents encouraged his drawing talents. In high school, he took a correspondence course for artists and got a C-plus in one subject: drawing children. At St. Paul’s Central High School, he flunked English and several other classes. He was too shy to ask girls out.
After high school, Schulz was hit hard: His mother died of cancer, before he sold any of his cartoons, and that year, in 1943, he was drafted into the Army.
Schulz was an infantryman, staff sergeant and leader of a machine gun squad, traveling throughout France and Germany. His father wrote him every day. Fifty years later, Schulz drew his first comic strip commemorating D-day -- June 6, 1944 -- with Snoopy in the part of a helmeted soldier making his way to shore.
“He is a man of real American core values,” said his friend Karen Kresge. “He grew up as part of the World War II generation. It is who he is. He believes in God and country and mom and apple pie.”
After the war, Schulz went home to St. Paul and took a job lettering comic strips for Timeless Topix, a series of Catholic comic magazines. He also worked as a teacher at the Minneapolis art school from which he had taken his first cartooning classes.
Crushed by the real red-haired girl
Back then, in the late ‘40s, Schulz “liked to have his bowl of soup and draw his comic strip,” said Linus Maurer, a fellow instructor at Art Instruction Schools Inc. and longtime friend. “Nothing changed. Everything around him changed.”
Schulz named “Peanuts” characters after Maurer and other friends from the school, including instructor Charlie Brown and Donna Johnson Wold, the inspiration for the little red-haired girl in “Peanuts.” Schulz would scribble drawings on her desk calendar at the school, where she worked in accounting.
Wold ended up marrying someone else, whom she is still with. Schulz never got over the blow.
When they dated, Wold thought of Schulz as a nice, funny guy but never dreamed that he would hit it big. She didn’t want “Peanuts” to end the way it did.
“I’d like to see [Charlie Brown] kick that football,” said Wold, who lives in Minneapolis. “And if he gets the little red-haired girl, that’s fine with me.”
Wold saved every “Peanuts” strip featuring the little red-haired girl in a bundle now held together with worn rubber bands.
After Wold’s rejection, Schulz met Joyce Halvorsen, a co-worker’s sister at the school, whom he eventually married.
Meanwhile, at a friend’s urging, Schulz focused on drawing cartoons featuring little kids. In 1947, the Pioneer Press bought his weekly cartoon, “Li’l Folks.” From 1948 to ’50, he sold 15 cartoons to the Saturday Evening Post.
In spring 1950, Schulz took new comic strip he had been working on to United Feature Syndicate in New York City. The syndicate bought the strip and dubbed it “Peanuts,” saying it was a catchy name. But Schulz always hated the name. “It was undignified, inappropriate and confusing,” he said, and no one ever called small children “peanuts.” On Oct. 2, 1950, “Peanuts” made its debut in seven newspapers and was a hit, with timeless characters who captured the human condition -- ones who pushed on no matter what.
Schulz thought his own face was forgettable, so he gave Charlie Brown a round, ordinary face.
“I worry about almost all there is in life to worry about,” Schulz wrote in his last book, “Peanuts: A Golden Celebration,” published in 1999 as an early salute to the comic strip’s 50th anniversary. “And because I worry, Charlie Brown has to worry.”
He based Snoopy on his childhood dog, a black-and-white mutt named Spike. By 1960, Snoopy, who started off as a sidekick, had his own thought bubbles and walked on his hind legs.
Schulz got many of his early ideas from his own children. In the mid-'50s, inspired by the sight of his first three kids dragging blankets around the house, Schulz dreamed up what he later would say was the best idea he ever had -- a “security blanket” for Linus. Once, when he hushed his daughter Amy at the breakfast table, she picked up a slice of bread and said: “Am I buttering too loud for you?” -- the line later made it into the strip.
He introduced Lucy into the strip in 1952. That fall, in what would be a running gag, she snatches the football away before Charlie Brown can kick it.
His images took on a life of their own: Snoopy and the Red Baron. Lucy and her 5-cent psychiatry booth. Pigpen and his puff of dirt.
Said cartoonist McDonnell, who picked the strips for the 50th anniversary book: “Before him, the comic strips were mostly gags. He gets his soul on the paper.”
“He deals with real human emotions and just has the magic to convey that to paper,” said McDonnell. “His characters are alive. He knows how to put life in them.”
Unlike most other daily cartoonists, Schulz did all of his own drawing, inking, lettering and story lines. He worked six weeks ahead of schedule and sometimes, like on the D-day strip, he started thinking a year ahead.
Schulz’s influence on cartooning is unmistakable -- stylistically, narratively and rhythmically, wrote “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau in a December 1999 tribute for the Washington Post.
“ ‘Peanuts’ was the first (and still the best) postmodern comic strip,” Trudeau wrote. “Everything about it was different. The drawing was graphically austere but beautifully nuanced. It was populated with complicated, neurotic characters speaking smart, haiku-perfect dialogue.”
By the mid-to-late ‘60s, “Peanuts” had become a mass media phenomenon. In 1965, the animated TV special, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” began its run as a holiday classic, with its hip jazz score by Vince Guaraldi.
“Peanuts” was featured in more than 50 animated TV specials, four feature films, at least 1,400 books selling 300 million copies and countless products around the world, including a solid gold Cartier statuette of Snoopy.
In recent years, a “Peanuts” backlash picked up steam. Some critics said Schulz was distracted by marketing demands, and his characters had become caricatures of themselves by shilling for Metropolitan Life Insurance, Dolly Madison cupcakes and others.
In 1993, a Chicago Tribune columnist wrote that “Peanuts” was past its prime and no longer funny or relevant.
Schulz had a casual and tidy look, with the bearing of a kind, sweater-wearing Sunday school teacher, which, in fact, he was when his kids were young. He had white hair and square glasses, a wide forehead, warm smile and tentative voice. In his last years, his hands shook. When he drew, he put one hand over the other to steady himself.
He liked to read, and he and Monte recommended books to each other. Schulz read Thomas Wolfe, Carl Sandburg, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck, Joan Didion -- and anything by his son. He told an associate that Monte’s latest novel was the best book he had ever read. He never told Monte.
Schulz and his first wife raised their kids on a horse ranch outside Sebastopol in Northern California, not far from Schulz’s studio in Santa Rosa. He said little publicly about their divorce in 1972. A year later, he married his second wife, Jeannie, whom he met at his ice rink.
The Schulzes usually gave money away quietly, writing unsolicited checks to friends in tight spots. In April 1998, they donated $5 million to support a new high-tech library at Sonoma State University, Jeannie’s alma mater.
Schulz rarely ventured beyond his house, studio and his ice rink. Schulz grew up ice skating, and so did his kids. Until his illness, he played in an ice hockey league with friends.
Schulz was a mentor for countless animators, whom he invited to his studio and wrote to on Snoopy stationery.
“The first time I met him I was overwhelmed with the thought that this was exactly what I hoped Charles Schulz would be,” said his friend, cartoonist Cathy Guisewite, creator of “Cathy.”
His sweet, boyish nature endeared him to friends, who overlooked his moodiness and withdrawals.
Even when he was in intensive care, recovering from a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery in 1981, he picked up a pencil to cheer a friend up. Coincidentally, Raul Diez, his buddy from the local hockey team, was in the same hospital for blood clot complications. Schulz scribbled a cartoon of himself in a hospital bed attached to intravenous tubes, saying: “Raul, what in the world are we doing here?”
The two used to kid each other about their bad health, but not during Schulz’s last bout with cancer.
“My God,” Schulz told Diez after his cancer surgery. “I’m just waiting around to die now.”
When he retired, he said he wanted to spend more time with family, including 18 grandchildren and stepchildren, and five kids: Meredith, Monte, Craig, Amy and Jill.
Schulz often said with glee that his kids decided that no one would carry on “Peanuts” after his death.
“My dad is Charlie Brown, inside and out,” his daughter, Amy Johnson, told the Deseret News in December. “Nobody else can be that.”
The difference between her dad and Charlie Brown is this: On Valentine’s Day, in a longtime “Peanuts” heartbreaker, Charlie Brown always stared into an empty mailbox.
On Valentine’s Day -- from the time he created Charlie Brown’s lonely heart -- Charles M. Schulz’s mailbox was always full.
Times staff writers Myrna Oliver, Robert A. Rosenblatt and Jeff Gottlieb, and special correspondent Sam Bruchey, contributed to this story.