If I stand here, I can see the Little Red Haired girl when she comes out of her house… Of course, if she sees me peeking around this tree, she’ll think I’m the dumbest person in the world… But if I don’t peek around the tree, I’ll never see her… Which means I probably AM the dumbest person in the world… which explains why I’m standing in a batch of poison oak. – Charles M. Schulz
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary defines unrequited as “not reciprocated or returned in kind.” Such was the theme in many a character’s affection in the Peanuts comics strip. Lucy loved Schroeder. Sally loved Linus. Linus loved Miss Othmar. Peppermint Patty and Marcie loved Charlie Brown. As for Charlie, he was in love with an unnamed and unseen character: The Little Red-Haired girl.
The amount of unrequited love going on the cartoon is enough to remind anyone of their High School prom. Even one of the few relationships that did work – Linus and Lydia– was characterized by “one attempting to get the other’s attention and the other acting cool and indifferent. Sometimes Linus is the uninterested party, sometimes Lydia.”*
What was it about creator Charles Schulz’s past that inspired such a theme throughout the lifetime of his comic? A Wikipedia entry** on the Little Red-Haired Girl proves instructive:
A former coworker, Donna Mae Johnson (born circa 1929 in Minneapolis, Minnesota), was Schulz’s inspiration for the character. A 1947 high school graduate, Johnson was working in the accounting department of the Art Instruction, Inc., a correspondence school where Schulz worked. Johnson and Schulz eventually became romantically involved and dated for three years, but in 1950 when Schulz proposed to her, she turned him down, saying she was already engaged to fireman Allan Wold and married Allan on October 21, 1950.
Said Schulz of the relationship, ‘I can think of no more emotionally damaging loss than to be turned down by someone whom you love very much. A person who not only turns you down, but almost immediately will marry the victor. What a bitter blow that is.’ This experience became arguably the most poignant of all story lines for the entire Peanuts strip.
The Wikipedia entry also notes that Charlie fell in love with her during a school lunch period on November 12, 1963 remarking, “I’d sure like to eat lunch with that little red-haired girl..” Although he first catches sight of her during the November 19, 1961 strip declaring he would, “give anything in the world if that little girl with the red hair would come over and sit with me.” He continued to love her until the end of the strip in 2000.
Despite all his affection, Charlie can never quite muster up the courage to speak to his little sweetheart. He most often notices her eating lunch outdoors, but never goes near her. He tries on a number of occasions to send her a Valentine’s Day card, but either gives up or sends it anonymously. The Wikipedia entry continues, “Anything touched by her or associated with her is precious to him. For example, in one strip he finds her pencil dropped in the hallway, notices that it has been chewed and declares, ‘She’s human!’ Presumably, this common habit makes her seem more approachable, but, typically, he is prevented from following through when Lucy snatches the pencil and returns it to the Little Red-Haired Girl with a brisk, ‘Hey, kid! Here’s your stupid pencil!'”
At one point after the little girl moves away, Linus is so fed up with Charlie’s inactivity, he exclaims, “She’s gone! You didn’t do anything! You just stood there! You never do anything! All you ever do is just stand there! You drive everybody crazy, Charlie Brown! I’m so mad I could scream! I AM screaming!!! (to Lucy) And don’t YOU give me any trouble!!!!”
Though Schulz was devastated by the loss of his real-world little red-haired girl, he and Donna Johnson-Wold remained friends for the rest of his life. And even though Charlie Brown never quite got the attention of his little sweetheart, Johnson-Wold did have this to say around the time Shulz announced his retirement in 1999:”I’d like to see Charlie Brown kick that football, and if he gets the little red-haired girl, that’s fine with me”.
While Charlie Brown might have been a nobody to the Little Red-Haired Girl, he was somebody to the person she represented. Somehow, I think that was enough.
Part 1 of Randall Goodgame’s Peanuts tribute and the song which inspired this post. Listen for the mention of the Little Red-Haired Girl:
Part 3 of Goodgames’ Peanuts tribute: