A tale of two Linuses
Linus Maurer leans on his namesake, Peanuts character Linus Van Pelt, at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa, California. Statue hand-painted by Ann E. Judkins and purchased for the museum by Jean Schulz, Charles’ wife.
Linus the Cartoon: Comic strip characters never grow up. For 50 years Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang remained moody little six- and eight-year-olds. There may have been existential crises and pinings for a redhead, but come dinnertime they still had to drink their milk and be in bed by eight.
Their creator, the late Charles Schulz, once speculated what would happen to Charlie Brown, Lucy and the bunch if they were to become adults. Linus, the blanket-toting, stripe-shirted sage, would probably fare the best, Schulz wagered: One day he’d shed his blankie and go on to lead a sane and productive life. His bet proved true, at least for Linus’ real-life counterpart.
Sonoma’s own Linus Maurer, for whom the Peanuts character was named, has indeed created a successful life for himself. At 82, he still makes his living as a cartoonist and fine artist. But the truth about this Linus? Take one look at his waggish grin and those enormous, bespectacled owl eyes (all the better to see the world with), and you’ll wonder if he truly has grown up.
The fact that Linus Maurer even has an alter ego in Linus Van Pelt was more or less a fluke. Maurer grew up in the aptly named hamlet of Sleepy Eye, Minnesota, population 3,000. After a stint in the Navy when he was the ship cartoonist on the U.S.S. Corregidor, he attended art school in Minneapolis. Upon graduation, he answered an ad to fill a teaching position for cartooning at a correspondence art school, Art Instruction Inc. The man who interviewed and hired him was Charles Schulz.
At the time, Schulz was just beginning to develop the characters we’d later come to know as the “Peanuts Gang.” He and Maurer became fast friends.
Said Schulz in 2000, “Linus came from a drawing that I made one day of a face almost like the one he has now. I experimented with some wild hair, and showed the sketch to a friend of mine who sat near me at Art Instruction, whose name was Linus Maurer. It seemed appropriate I should name the character Linus.”
This apparent inconsequential gesture changed Maurer’s life forever. After its syndication, Peanuts ran for 50 years and in more than 2,000 newspapers at its peak, with Linus and his blankie immortalized and thrust onto a global stage. For Linus Maurer, the kid from Sleepy Eye, it’s been quite a ride on those coattails.
Those coattails have a story too, which may, or may not, be apocryphal. Maurer has had a lifelong practice of carrying a supply of blankets and jackets in his car to ward off the winter chill. Some have suggested Schulz was amused by the image of a grown man with a security blanket, and thus was born the inspiration for Linus Van Pelt’s infamous blankie.
Schulz moved to California in the 1950s, and Maurer followed in 1962. They remained friends until Schulz’s death in 2000. Characteristically, they would meet at Schulz’s Ice Arena in Santa Rosa, reminiscing about old times and the practical jokes they played on their colleagues and bosses at Art Instruction.
Since Schulz’s death, Maurer has participated in many tributes to him, the most memorable culminating in a speech about Schulz at the PBS premiere of “Good Ol’ Charles Schulz,” which took place last fall at New York City’s Hudson Theater, and to a packed house. He and his longtime companion and comedic muse, Mary Jo Starsiak, were flown to NYC and chauffeured around in grand style. For Maurer, standing on stage answering questions about “Sparky” was a goosebump moment he treasures.
Earlier, another thrill came in the form of “Linus Blankets St. Paul,” a 2003 charity event entailing 90 statues of Linus—all hand-painted in different styles by local artists—that ‘blanketed’ the landscape of St. Paul, Minnesota.
Linus the cartoonist: The thing is, even if he weren’t the cartoon Linus, Maurer would still be Linus the cartoonist, a celebrity in his own right. With odds heavily stacked against them, both Schulz and Maurer accomplished what they set out to do—earning their living through their art. Maurer himself created several strips that ran five years or more, including Old Harrigan in the 1950s and Abracadabra in the 1960s—both of them dailies and syndicated to many papers. For 20 years his political and social satire cartoons have run in every issue of the local paper, The Sonoma Index-Tribune. On top of all this, Maurer also creates puzzles. His “Wheel of Fortune” puzzle, commissioned by Merv Griffin, ran in newspapers for many years. And long before the current Sudoku rage, Maurer’s mind-twisting numbers puzzle, “Challenger,” has been running in worldwide circulation, including London’s Daily Mail, and with a devoted international following. Every month he devises 28 new puzzles for distribution.
He says he admires Linus Van Pelt and wouldn’t mind being like him—levelheaded and philosophical, a straight shooter. But alas, Maurer is three-dimensional after all, and so much more than the little thumb-sucking, binky lover. For one thing, he’s just plain funnier, his eyes full of mischief as he pedals off-the-cuff asides, deadpan self-mockery, absurd theories and political satire. His brain feeds on the kernels of daily life, then churns out ideas like a popcorn machine—they just pile up and up until he scoops one out and puts it down in black and white.
That artistic fervor has paid off. Maurer is listed in Who’s Who of Cartoons and won the top cartooning award from the California Newspaper Publishers Association in 1990. He was selected Sonoma Treasure in 1991.
Drawing since age 4, he prides himself on being adept at many different styles—figures in his cartoon Abracadabra, for instance, were in abstract shapes. He’s done numerous magazine covers and commercial animation for a Forbes list of premier companies.
And speaking of Forbes, in 1989, one of Maurer’s cartoons was plucked from The Sonoma Index-Tribune and printed in Forbes magazine among comments from moguls of much bigger media. When the Index-Tribune receptionist told Maurer “Mr. Forbes” had called, he had no idea who it was and started to try to find Mr. Forbes by looking up “Forbes” in the Sonoma phonebook.
And then there are his paintings. They are very large; some are abstracts but most fall into a classification Maurer dubs “whimsical.” With such names as “Summertime,” “Couple with Beach Ball,” “Valley Girl Tourist,” and “Ladies Cocktail Hour,” they depict people, especially women, flaunting zaftig—OK, make that elephantine—figures, with massive breasts and continent-shifting thighs. Atop their mountainous flesh sit small, pointy heads, whose mouths have slid off to the side and whose eyes have shifted to the summit of their faces.
“I thought he needed to have his glasses adjusted,” Starsiak said about the first time she saw Maurer’s paintings. Starsiak herself is small and delicate, the antithesis of Maurer’s fantastical drawings.
When asked why he draws big, bulbous people (and they show up in his cartoons, too), he has no profound answer. He simply says he likes form-—big rounded forms—and he doesn’t like to paint backgrounds. The subject in his canvases are so colossal there’s little room left for any scenery, usually just a lazy sun as the characters repose on the beach or sip wine from diminutive glasses. Art therapists would have a field day.
The paintings are done in acrylics straight from the tube (not mixed), and Maurer claims to love the pure bright colors after working so predominantly in black and white. He sees no reason to elaborate on the stock answers he gives to most “Why?” questions about his work. “Because I like doing it,” or “It’s fun.”
Having been exhibited in numerous galleries, the paintings have commanded a following and fetch quite good prices. Right now many can be seen at the Showcase Gallery on Arnold Drive in Glen Ellen.
These pictures are so overflowing with bright, happy life that it’s a bit shocking to see where they are created. Maurer lives and works in a simple, all-white condominium in Sonoma. It is dim, “furnished” with one pink and three green $4 garage-sale chairs. There’s only one light—the black lamp clipped to his drawing board in the corner. The oak board, big and beautiful, wears the patina from years of bearing Maurer’s arms, hands and careful work. The lamp gives it a golden aura. Day in and day out, he sits before the board in a worn leather chair, alone, in total silence. There’s enough going on in his head to keep him company.
“I want to concentrate 100 percent on what I’m doing. Music would take me away from that. I don’t get bored. Even when inking in a drawing, I’m still delighted that I made it.”
How many could say that after more than 50 years at their craft? And Linus is happy to have things stay pretty much as they are.
Travel? “Traveling would be just fine if I didn’t have to go somewhere.”
Retirement? “If I retired, what I’d do is write, paint and make puzzles,” he says, and there’s that twinkling eye again.
Greatest accomplishment? “ Doing what I intended to do—to make art my livelihood, to stick it out.”
Security blanket? “My drawing board. It’s my own little world; it’s the cockpit of my airplane. I sit there and I’m in control of my life.”
So maybe Schulz was right in the end—Linus did turn out sane and responsible. But like most of us, he still needs his blankie.
From the Summer 2008 issue of SONOMA