Sunday, April 28, 2013

Did Charles Schultz kill a Peanuts child? The life and times of Charlotte Braun.

When I was a very tiny tot, I used the comics in the newspaper as a way to better my ability to read. I remember at just-turned-four being very proud of myself for reading an entire Beetle Bailey strip by myself AND understanding the war related humor.

It shouldn't be a surprise that I also read The Peanuts. When I became serious about being a cartoonist, I drew (pun not intended) inspiration after reading a book by Charles Schultz, about his struggles with being accepted in the world of cartooning. Every time I've had a rejection letter sent my way, I remember his struggles getting into the newspaper, and stop feeling sorry for myself.

But around the time that I was learning to read AND understand bigger and bigger strips (I was probably the only toddler following Doonesbury and Bloom County) I started noticing that many of the comic strip characters started popping up on TV specials. Family Circus, For Better or for Worse, Garfield, Dennis the Menace and of course, The Peanuts gang, didn't just have TV shows, they had specials. And some of them were unsettling.

In 1990's "Why Charlie Brown Why" Linus befriends a little blonde girl named Janice, who has cancer. Pretty hefty stuff for kids' television. She comes close to dying, but ends up going into remission.... but then she never appears again. She's never spoken of again, never even appears in background scenes, and her ultimate fate is left to your imagination. This little episode garnered me a depressing and morbid view into the minds of those involved with Peanuts, and started making me question things.

Now for years, I've always just accepted that some of the kids in Charlie's life just move away, but I do have a morbid curiosity (thank you Disney >_O) with children's cartoons, and I started to wonder, did any of them die?

After all, Doonesbury has always been quick to kill characters, as has Dick Tracy and Funky Winkerbean. And Charles Schultz once voiced his angry disapproval, when the cartoonist behind For Better or for Worse had beloved dog Farley die, trying to save April, my least favorite character. (As a tween, I secretly hoped that it was April meeting her end instead of the dog. Probably not my finest hour reading the newspaper.) But could he have been a hypocrite when it comes to sketching the death of a comic strip character?

Well the firm answer is YES.

On November 30, 1954, Charlie Brown met up with a sassy little girl named Charlotte Braun.
Charlotte Braun was a loudmouth, who couldn't control the volume of her voice. Charlie Brown even remarks in one strip "She's the only girl I know who has a built-in High-Fidelity speaker" after a short exchange with her, left him wincing. 
Little did anybody know that her tenth ever appearance in the February 1, 1955 Peanuts strip... would be her final appearance alive....

Other children shunned her, because she was just too loud. Linus would hide under his blanket to avoid her. She was also bossy, rude and a bit of a bully, not unlike Lucy, who at the time still had a limited vocabulary, and was far younger than Charlie. Many readers disliked her. She was too serious, too brash, far too harsh for the series at that point.

Charlotte's loudmouth antics also peeked the ire of a reader named Elizabeth Swaim.

Elizabeth and her friends bombarded Charles Schultz with hate letters about Charlotte Braun. Elizabeth was the loudest voice among her group, pleading for an end to this little girl.

But as the hate letters were rolling in (Charles already had a second batch from unrelated people, many claiming to be in his business, insisting he would never be a "real" cartoonist and should hang it up now) Schultz realized that he was out of ideas for Charlotte Braun. All of the jokes he wanted to tell had been told, and he had already decided to age Lucy, and consolidate some of Charlotte Braun's mannerisms into Lucy, starting with the plain, blue dress.

So finally, having had enough of the letters about her, Charles sent Elizabeth a very dark letter:

                                                                                                               Jan, 5, 1955
Dear Miss Swain,
       I am taking your suggestion regarding Charlotte Braun and will eventually discard her. Remember, however, that you and your friends will have the death of an innocent child on your conscience. Are you prepared to accept such responsibility?

Thanks for writing, and I hope that future releases will please you.
Charles M. Schultz

He ended the letter with a new drawing of little Charlotte Braun, standing straight up on a grassy plain, looking very sad... with an ax, firmly placed deep inside of her skull.
Charlotte was about five or six at the time of her death, and being murdered made her very sad.

Her final appearance wouldn't be run until the following month, but Schultz had drawn the "High-Fidelity" strip at the same time he wrote this letter. With that said, there is a mystery as to who gave her the ax exactly, the world famous cartoonist Charles Schultz? Or was it Charlie Brown, just tired of this loudmouth following him everywhere, shattering his eardrums for her own, sick amusement.

But then she also had no control over her voice, making her death even worse, as this could have been her disability.

With that said, Charles Schultz killed a special needs Peanuts child off, just to make a women he did not know, shut up.

And shut up she did.

Two months after Schultz died in 2000, she donated the letter to the Smithsonian. As ABC reported:

“I am now enrolled in a hospice and do not expect to live much longer—and want to place what might loosely be called my treasures,” Swaim wrote. “...I would not be sending the letter until somewhat closer to my death, but I’d like to save my executor the trouble of disposing of it.”

Swaim died of cancer three weeks later, at the age of 66. Her younger sister, Kathleen Swaim, said that the framed response had hung in Elizabeth Swain’s bathroom.

“She was very pleased that he had answered,” Kathleen Swaim recalled. Elizabeth Swaim went on to become librarian of rare books and archivist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. Her first library job, ironically, had been at the Library of Congress.

But for the rest of her days, she had it hung over her head, that she was responsible for the death of a child in Peanuts. Friends, family, total strangers researching the little Peanuts character would be told of Charlotte's final days, and how Elizabeth's letters ended a member of Charlie Brown and Snoopy's team.

And now for the rest of eternity, the letter and envelope Schultz sent her are on display at the Smithsonian. Her family's descendants will forever be reminded of who killed Charlotte Braun.

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