Two weeks ago I wrote a story
on David Michaelis' new biography of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, "Schulz and Peanuts."
At the time I touched a little on the controversy of the book, mentioning that the cartoonist's family was upset about its perceived inaccuracies.
That article prompted an e-mail from Schulz' oldest son, Monte. I asked Monte whether he would be willing to talk to me on the record about the book, and he graciously said yes. Twice, in fact, when I discovered after our initial interview that my tape recorder had given up the ghost. For my column this week
I had to strip our conversation down to a few choice excerpts, but thanks to the magic of the Internet, I can post the whole transcribed shebang here for everyone to enjoy.
My thanks again to Monte for being so gracious in taking time to talk.Q: Succinctly, can you describe or talk about what you feel to be the most significant errors and omissions in the biography?
A: The biggest omissions are a huge part of dad’s life involving his activities, his life with his family, everything that was done with us. He spent tons of time with us, day after day after day. All of that was left out.
Essentially the kids are not in the book. As I understand that was a strategic choice by David in the editing. The book had to be cut. Apparently he decided the affair with Tracy Claudius was more interesting than Charles Schulz’s children.
The fact that the family is out of the book is a huge omission. It’s a huge omission because our absence and all the things we did with him distorts the view of our family life and allows David to say that my Dad wasn’t a good father. It gives the impression he had no interaction with us, when in reality, for example, Mom essentially did things with my younger sisters and Dad did things with me and my brother. Particularly with me. I was fully involved with him my entire life, from being a little kid. He taught me how to play baseball, we went bowling together, we went to baseball games — he took me to the '62 world series — played hockey and tennis, and he played in a golf tournament with my brother when my brother was younger. When I was an adult in my late 20s we played in a father-son tennis tournament together. For three years I coached his senior hockey team. He even watched me play the last year of his life. I’m 49 and he’s there up in the stands watching his 49-year-old son play.
So leaving all of that out was a huge omission. Then, if that’s not enough David left out all these things — because David’s not interested in sports — left out all these passions of Dad. Dad was a huge golfer. When he was an adult he got to play in the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. That was a huge part of his life. Every Friday afternoon he would play a pick-up hockey game at the ice arena. When he met my stepmother they did tennis lessons, they played tournaments, which led to Dad meeting Billie Jean King and getting involved with the Women’s Sports Foundation. Gigantic part of his life.
But David was not interested in games and sports, that part of his life at all. He even asked me at one point, “What were his joys besides sports?” Fair enough. He loved music. He was a huge fan of Eddy Arnold. Obviously he loved classical music -- Brahms, Beethoven, etc.
He loved going to shows. My sister was involved in the ice show. They put the ice show on every year. Huge thing with Dad. He influenced the nature of the show, the numbers they would do, the music they would choose. He was there on-hand for rehearsals day after day after day.
He was a huge reader. Read all the time. David left that out of the book. Why doesn’t David name Dad’s five favorite books? Dad would read passages in books. He got me interested in books. He was a big fan of Carl Sandburg. I introduced him to James Lee Burke and Cormac McCarthy. He thought one of the greatest novels of all time was “War and Peace” and he put that into the strip several times.
Think about this. None of this is in the book. David does mention how Dad visited Joan Didion and John Dunne a couple of times. but it’s interesting. He almost makes it sound like he wanted to make it sound as though Dad was flirting with Joan Didion. That’s the only impetus of that point in the book.
These are huge passions. He also liked cars incidentally. He had a Thunderbird and a couple of Lincoln Continentals and then he bought a Jaguar XKE because Bill Melendez and Dale Hale had ones. He had several jaguars. Cars, completely left out of the book.
These are filling in all the passions in Dad’s life. They are all left out of the book in favor of this impression of a person who was obsessed with his comic strip and really had no life and was a morose, depressing person. But if you put all of that in, it completely changes the view of the book. Those omissions completely change the nature of the book.Q: What’s the greater sin then? The errors that are made in the book or the omissions itself?
A: It’s hard to characterize that. Which is a greater omission? There are errors in the book, things that are factually false. David talks about how we had many people coming by to visit us, strangers just stopping by waving their Kodaks and autograph books expecting to be warmly received. That’s just not true. I asked my sister Jill, “Do you remember people dropping by?” She said no. I asked my mom, she goes “No.” I don’t know where he got that. Maybe some interview with Dad where he said people were stopping by but that must have been what, two people a year? Because since I was there all the time you’d think I’d have noticed if strangers were driving all around.
If you have to make me choose I would say the omissions in Dad’s character and what he actually did day to day is a stunning ommission, but that does not diminish the factual errors.
He leaves people out. Our housekeeper, Eva Grey. She came to us in 1959 or '60. Worked with us for about six or seven years. When David describes my mom as doing all the cooking and cleaning and taking care of the kids and disciplining them while Dad was just obsessed with the strip, it’s just not true. If you put Eva Grey in, suddenly you have to ask what my mom was doing. Well, she was building stuff around the property. But Eva was doing the cooking and the cleaning as long as she was there. And her ommission distorts the whole domestic picture.
And then again, when David does put her in, it’s in 1969, saying mom was baking pies for the arena while Eva was left to fix snacks. Well, Eva was gone for three years at that point.
So David has not only left her out in the most important part but when he does put her in, he puts her in an erronious notion. So it’s all kind of silly. There’s so many things that are so silly in this book. It all kind of makes me wonder what he did for six years. [I think] that David was kind of lazy.
He also says there were few if any hugs in the Schulz household. That’s not true. "He avoided physical closeness." That’s not true either. “He was not an affectionate man.” I don’t know who said that.Q: So how would you characterize your dad? Was he affectionate? Was he somewhere in between?
A: He was very loving and affectionate. My sister was talking about this the other day, talking about people who come up with a hug and a kiss. “Oh, hi, how are you doing?” And yet you don’t feel any warmth from them.
If the question is did he hug and kiss a lot? well I don’t really have memories of that. I do remember wrestling with him and him putting his arms around us and that sort of thing. The real question is did you, Monte, feel genuine love and affection from your father, and I would say absolutely. On a constant basis. Constantly.
My sister Meredith does what a lot of people do, she says “love ya” and then hang up. Dad hated that. it’s not genuine. Just tell the person "I love you," that sort of thing. He would use it more genuinely I would say.
But all of us felt affection from him. If not, then why would we be so close to him at the end of his life? I walked him around his ward when he had a stroke and terminal stroke and needed exercise. I walked him around the ward to get his strength up. Father and son, the way he had walked me when I was a little child.
There was just tremendous affection from him and this characterization is completely false. In David’s terms it’s also completely unknowable. ... He was a tremendous father. It’s not like I’m being protective. What am I supposed to say if it’s true? Cause I’ve heard some people say well he’s just saying that. It is what it is.Q: Well let me ask this question then. The response that’s been made when you’ve spoken out against the book is that you’re biased and you don’t have a complete picture or of course you want to say that about your dad. I guess the implication is you only saw one side of him and you don’t have as complete a picture. How do you respond to that?
A: I only have the picture of him that I saw. You don’t hear me talking about his relationship with his friends. Most of his friends will say what a wonderful, warm, funny person he was. Everybody’s moody now and then but they just displayed a tremendous affection for him. I saw his hockey buddies the morning after he died. They were teary eyed and very shaken and distraught by it.
As far as family life, I can comment. I don’t know how I can be biased. Nobody else can know that. There is no alternate opinion of our family life that has any validity at all. If a friend were to say “I don’t think Schulz was a good father” -- nobody lived in our house except for us. So anybody else who’s commenting on that is only seeing things in very brief slices and has no idea of what we’re actually really like.
A family friend Chuck Bartley was commenting on that. He said “Well, Sparky wasn’t the world’s greatest parent.” Well, how would he know? “I saw that at the house.” And then I told him all the things I did with my dad, all the time he spent with us. We’d be sick and he’d bring us toys, spend time talking with us, come up to my bedroom and watch W.C. Fields movies with me. When I told him all this he said “Oh, I didn’t know. I’m happy to hear that and I admit that we didn’t go there that much." So I said “Then why are you telling people all this stuff?”
David Michaelis writes how Robert Alba was a constant visitor at Coffee Lane. I don’t know. Let me ask you, if someone says “constant visitor,” how many times do you think they’re over there in a year.Q: At least once or twice a month.
A: He maybe was over there five times ever. There’s no friends of ours who were there once or twice a month, I can tell you that. That’s not so. I don’t remember Bob ever being there at all, but I presume he was. I remember visiting him in Oakland, but David makes it sounds like he was there all the time. He lived in Oakland, that’s almost an hour and a half drive. And he had family, so what was he doing up at our place all the time?
David says “I talked to friends.” Well, what does that mean? They weren’t there! "Well, that’s your sister Meredith told me." Well, that’s Meredith’s point of view. Mine cancels her out. Then go to the other kids.Q: Why do you think he took this point of view then? One of the things he said to me was “I just tried to understand him. I did not have an agenda. I just wanted to get under his skin and figure out what made him tick.”
A: He did have an agenda. He had a thesis that he follows through. He clearly does. He gives the impression that Dad was not ... look, he writes it repeatedly. He was not affectionate, he was distant. I don’t know what he’s saying, that doesn’t make any sense to me. Then why did he leave my relationship with dad out of the book? Because it contradicts everything he says in there. There’s no way he can write about my relationship with dad and maintain his thesis. it holds no water at all.
He didn’t discipline the kids, well I gotta tell you. Craig and I took a bath — we were young — and being little kids we could not help splashing water over the entire bathroom so it looks like the Titanic just sunk. He comes up and “Do you remember getting spanked by your dad?” Uh, yeah. And we completely deserved it. Entirely deserved.
We all had jobs around the house and when we didn’t do them we got into trouble. He didn’t beat us and neither did mom. Both of them had different ways of disciplining. Mom was more fiery. More strident. Dad had a calmer hand. But the idea that she did all the disciplining is completely false. That might have applied to Meredith, it did not apply to the rest of us.
On the other hand Mom -- I know David writes the book to make it sound like our lives at Coffee Lane were in constant turmoil -- she said we had a wonderful life. I’m sure there were fights between my parents, but not really when we were growing up. It was more toward the end. You could tell they fought, but we traveled around together.
His reasearch is not quite as pointed and accurate as he makes it seem. He is not as rigorously knowledgaeable as he gives the impression of being. He is not objective in this book. It is not an objective book. It is demonstrably false. That’s one of my big points for doing this interview, I can knock these points down.Q: Well then is there any accuracy at all, even to a small extent? Could he be given to melancholy at times? Is there any part of the man that is in the book that is in the dad you knew?
A: Yes, but I think it’s misinterpreted. Again, like my stepmother says, “He could be melancholy about an hour a month.” He could be moody, but the question is this, “Did he seem moodier than other people you knew at that time?” I would say no. David Michaelis himself is moodier than dad.
I know people who have nasty tempers, but I would have to say, and bear in mind I knew him better and saw him more, my mom was moodier than dad, to be honest. If she didn’t say that she was than she wasn’t being honest. Mom was much moodier than dad. And she still is.
This is kind of an example of what dad could be like. He was going to fly over to Wimbledon in 1977. It’s a long flight. In June, dad’s going over to Wimbledon with Jean, for his first time over. I get a phone call, “Monte you’ve gotta come up to the house.” “Why?” “Dad’s not going.” So I drive up there and I’m there, Amy’s there, Jill’s there and Craig’s there. And they said Jeannie has already left and he just couldn’t do it. He was depressed about it. He just couldn’t get himself to go.
I said well look dad, you can still go. I’ll tell you what. If you change your mind in the morning, call and I’ll fly over with you.” Ha-ha, because he’ll never change his mind. So Amy calls me at six o’clock the next morning. "Monte, pack your suitcase you’re going to London."
Of course I had to do it. I go to the airport with him at San Francisco, and we go to the gate and Dad has to go to the bathroom and I’m waiting and waiting and waiting. And dad shows up and he’s got this wry smile and he goes "I bet you thought I was going to take off." I said "No, because what am I going to do here?"
So we get on the plane and we fly over there and we had a really good time on the flight. And we landed and dad was busy doing stuff with Jeannie right away and we went to Wimbledon right away. And I had just been in europe so I knew the jet lag hits you. I go back to the hotel and dad doesn’t. Then in the middle of the night he feels horrible and he’s mad at Jeannie for having him fly over. But then the next day he’s fine again and they’re having a good time and they ditch me completely. I decided I’m just going to go home because they don’t need me anymore.
I think it’s more like what my stepmother said. what he would dread more is the idea of the trip but he would always go and would always had a good time. Maybe the trips with mom he would cancel, I dunno, but this one he did go. He bailed out on her and went over with me just twelve hours later. And he had flown me many places as well.Q: That’s a good example because it deals with what I was asking about, which was his actual anxieties and the family’s response to it. It cites the sort of thing David’s talking about, but there’s also a leveling in it in that anecdote
A: Yeah. What I’m saying is, this is the real way it manifested itself. He always had fun. What he didn’t like -- he felt this obligation to plan for everybody well in advance. And then he would see that on his calendar as something to dread. I always felt it was a symptom of him having to go away on the troop train after his mother died. And that’s what he said it was. He said it would remind him of having to be sent away from home. But someone would point out he wasn’t going away anymore on the troop train. He was going away on trips.
What’s very deceptive in this book is how many trips dad took. You’ll see in this book where David lists all the trips that Jeannie took over a 10 year period. What he doesn’t indicate is how many trips dad went with her in that time period.
He talks about dad going river rafting and they did that but he also leaves out that six months earlier they went on another trip with me white water rafting. How about our trip to the all-star game in St. Louis? Doesn’t take that into account. He basically downplays the fact that my brother would fly dad places. they flew up to Grass Valley to come to my house for Thanksgiving several times.Q: Ok, so let me read to you a little bit of a quote Michaelis gave to me that didn’t make my story. "How could I write a book about a comic strip genius, how could he not be perceived as a complex person? Maybe it’s an overly complex portrait. Maybe it should be simplified. I should have stepped back and let the sun shine in and lighten up a little. That may be an area where the book could have been greater.”
A: Yeah, I think that if he had let dad ... this is something we talked about 10 months ago when we first saw the book. If he had just let dad's life reveal itself, and it’s interesting because David uses this line, “a live reveals.” But he doesn’t do that in this book. He doesn’t allow a life to be revealed. He makes judgements, he interprets, he mythologyzes, he psychoanalizes. David really didn’t have an interest in telling dad’s life story. He had an interest in analyzing dad’s life and that’s different. Because in doing that he becomes very selective with his wiritng. And I think that’s where the error of the book is.
Yeah, he should have simplified this whole thing. You know what he ought to have done, he ought to have taken himself of the book. If David had removed himself and just let dad’s life reveal itself then he could have alowed his readers to make their own interpretations. In fact, David tells you what to think. He is just not content to let the story reveal itself. Q: Well then, what do you think he got right?
A: The first half of the book, before I’m alive, it’s hard for me to comment on. I don’t know enough facts. I don’t know what he got right. Because it’s so incomplete. It’s like I said, the book is like a big slice of swiss cheese, the holes being the omissions and the errors. Obviously there are many facts that are true. Some of his intepretations are true. It’s just everything is tainted by these omissions and these factual errors and the erroneous judgements. There are no huge sections where everything is correct. Maybe the quotes are correct. I don’t know that he ever tape recorded stuff. It’s just silly. It’s got so many mistakes it’s hard to know what’s right. I don’t really believe a lot of it.
What goes into the book is what really interests David, and it is not determined by dad’s life.Q: It’s determined by what he’s interested in?
A: Exactly. It’s what he wants in the book, what interests him. This puts it in perspective. He has one sentence about a hockey tournament. He has twenty-eight pages about the year and half affair with Tracy Claudius. Where’s the balance in that? He didn’t marry her. Maybe they had slept together once or twice if that. He probably spent more time in one tournament with his hockey player teammates than he did that entire affair with her, hourwise. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s imbalancing dad’s life.
You could argue, well the affair was a bigger thing. How can you say that? He didn’t marry her. Mom and dad were probably going to get a divorce anyway. It doesn’t make any sense any way you could argue it. It’s just that David is more interested in people having affairs than he is in having people involved in hockey tournaments.
I like this when he writes “He did not want his children to be children again, he wanted to go back to being a child, an only child.” Maybe David thinks geez, I hated my childhood, but wouldn’t you like to go back to being a kid again?
It’s a constant theme throughout American literature. But david saw it as a psychological problem. Who wants to go back to when their kids were small? My kids are six now and I wouldn’t want them to be three again. It’s always more fun when they get older.
He makes that to be a pejorative as though that’s a real problem. He seems to think that dad was deficient because he didn’t go into psychoanalysis. ... David is obsessed by this. He’s spent so much time on this. And of course he says that dad didn’t analyze his own life, which is not true. First of all the strip is a way of self-analysis.
That is definitely a psychological point of view, that we have to come to grips with ourselves. It’s very in vogue in this time period which I think is interesting. You can’t change the world until you change yourself. You gotta get yourself right first. Well that’s just a lazy way of viewing things, because if you read writing before the 1950s, before what a friend of mine calls the psychological era, you see that people were trying to be more concerned with their place in society and their role as citizens. the philosophy of how to live. And not how we should understand ourselves.
He talked about himself and understanding his problems incessantly but he understood that’s just part of life. the idea that everyone should get professional analysis, really seems to me to be an East Coast thing.Q: I think reading the book and being a long time Peanuts fan, there’s a tendency, I think especially among my generation, to focus on the darker elements of Peanuts, the fact that it was a strip frequently about depression or sadness. And I’m completely hypothesizing here, but do you think that maybe the book has been so well received is that people are focusing more on the darker aspects of the strip and not so much on the cute and happy? I remember this essay in The Comics Journal a few years ago where the author castigated graphic novelists for trumpeting the strip for its dark aspects and saying they were focusing on one element of the strip too much and not enough on the others.
A: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think everything you’ve said is true. And I think that David has steered readers in that direction. He has steered readers into a recognition of something they already believed. And away from the larger aspects of dad’s life.
When I talked to David I said “Don’t write about dad being depressed all the time.” Everybody writes it, it’s such a cliche. “Oh, no, I’m not going to do that, blah blah blah” and he ends up doing it anyway. It’s so phony in so many ways. Q: Are you going to take him up on his challenge to write a memoir?
Q: Why not?
A: Beause it’s not the kind of thing I write. I don’t have any interest in that kind of writing at all. It’s not the kind of thing that interests me as a writer. I guess I don’t really know how to write that. I’ve got this memoir thing to write for Salon and I don’t really know how to write it. It’s so much easier for me to write fiction.
I can tell you this. Those six years I spent talking to David were a complete waste of time. And that’s not hyperbole. Because nothing I told him went into the book and had any affect on what he wrote clearly. He disregarded everything I said. And I can also tell you nobody spent more time talking to him than I did. It’s impossible that anyone spent as much time with him. And I know this because my stepmother Jeannie did, but he told me there would be long periods of time where he didn’t talk to her at all. But I talked to him constantly.
That’s why this falling out that David and I had is sort of amusing in a way. Because I thought we were really good friends. Q: Are you hurt then?
A: I’m disappointed. I’m not hurt. I sent David an email a while ago saying maybe we’ll be friends some other time, maybe. But if he’d just written about my dad, that would be one thing, but he wrote about our family. He wrote about me yet left me out of the book and it’s insulting in a way. It’s almost like too personal.
I really like David. His emails are really interesting. His email writing was much better than the writing in the book and I found that to be very odd. I thought he was very articulate. And I don’t find him, except in patches, to be as articulate in his book as he was in his emails. When I said on CartoonBrew that he writes wonderful emails, I didn’t mean that facetiously at all. He writes really wonderful emails.
I really admired him in many ways. I’m very disapponted in the book and I’m disappointed in him. I believe David had it in him to write a much better book than this.That’s the greatest disappointment.
Labels: comic strips, Peanuts, Schulz