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Geisel, Theodor Seuss (“Dr. Seuss”)

Geisel, Theodor Seuss (“Dr. Seuss”)

(b. 2 March 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts; d. 24 September 1991 in La Jolla, California), author and illustrator of forty-seven children’s books and creator of fabled characters, including the title characters of Horton Hatches the Egg! (1940), The Cat in the Hat (1957), and How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1957).

Geisel was the only son of first-generation German Americans Theodor Robert Geisel, a brewery owner before Prohibition forced the brewery’s closure in 1920, and Henrietta Seuss, a spunky, six-foot-tall homemaker. “Ted,” as young Geisel was called, had an older sister to whom he was devoted in childhood. A younger sister was born in 1906 but died of pneumonia eighteen months later; Geisel never forgot the image of her tiny casket in the music room of the three-story home at 74 Fairfield Street in Springfield. Yet most of his childhood was happy, rich with family encouragement for his loopy, lopsided drawings of animals and his flair for nonsense and exaggeration. He gave credit for “Seussian” rhymes and rhythms to his mother, who recited poems and read him bedtime stories. Geisel’s father, a champion marksman and member of the city parks board, instilled in his son a drive for perfection and led behind-the-scenes tours of the Springfield Zoo, which would influence the work of “Dr. Seuss.”

Also evocative for Geisel were the bustle and clatter of Springfield streets in the early 1900s: the rattle of trolleys, ice wagons, and grocers’ delivery vans, the horse-drawn carriages, three-wheeled bicycles, and horn-honking Hudson Six motor cars. A fascination with inventions characterized this western Massachusetts city, and Geisel carried such tinkering into his writing—adding new letters to the alphabet in his 1955 book, On Beyond Zebra. Names of Springfield citizens and streets appear in his work, including his first children’s book: And to Thinly That I Saw it on Mulberry Street (1937).

After graduating from Central High School in 1921, Geisel entered Dartmouth College, a train ride north to Hanover, New Hampshire. He struggled for grades as a literature major, preferring his hours on the staff of the school’s comic magazine Jack-O-Lantern. His easiest course was German, widely spoken in Springfield prior to World War I. While he managed to graduate with a B.A. in 1925, he was stripped of the Jack-O-Lantern editorship in his senior year for drinking bootleg gin with friends on Easter weekend. This ignominy led to the subterfuge of submitting cartoons using only his middle name, Seuss.

That autumn Geisel found himself at Oxford University’s Lincoln College. It was one of many times that his rampant imagination skittered beyond the truth. He had boasted to his father that he had won a scholarship to Oxford; in fact, he had only applied. But having made a proud announcement in the Springfield newspaper, Geisel’s father helped pay the tuition. Geisel was not prepared for serious study. While he failed to earn a degree, he met a charming, willful Wellesley graduate, Helen Marion Palmer, who was five-and-a-half years his senior. After watching him doodle in a Chaucer notebook, she blurted: “You’re crazy to try to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw!” They were married in New Jersey in 1927, and she remained his booster, editor, prod, and shield until her suicide in La Jolla, California, in October 1967.

The couple’s early years were heady ones, spent in New York City. Geisel sold cartoons and satire to the popular Judge magazine, where he first used the pseudonym “Dr. Seuss” by adding the degree he did not get at Oxford to his mother’s maiden name. He was hired by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey to illustrate advertisements for Flit insect spray, vital in American households before air-conditioning. The slogan “Quick, Henry! the Flit!” entered the lexicon, allowing the Geisels plentiful funds for foreign travel. It was before the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, an era of speakeasies, optimism, and outrageous practical jokes among the young creative set in New York. Such humor and their shared sense of privacy helped mask the Geisels’ anguish that Helen could not have children. Their charade included an imaginary child, Chrysanthemum-Pearl, whose outlandish feats were legend and to whom the second Dr. Seuss tale, The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938), was dedicated.

But the launching of Dr. Seuss as artist and writer was not smooth, and Geisel’s confidence wore thin. In 1937, after twenty-seven publishers had rejected his rhyming story of Mulberry Street, he decided to return to his apartment and burn the manuscript. En route, on Madison Avenue, he met a Dartmouth classmate who had just been named juvenile editor at Viking Press; within the hour, a contract was signed. From then on, Geisel swore that he owed his success to luck.

After Mulberry Street and The 500 Hats the new firm of Random House published all of Dr. Seuss’s works, and its founder, Bennett Cerf, became a lifelong friend. Cerf, who called Geisel the only true genius among his authors, even went along with his dogged attempt at an adult cartoon book, The Seven Lady Godivas, which failed both in 1939 and when it was reissued fifty years later. (“When I tried to draw naked ladies they ended up looking ridiculous,” Geisel said.) He returned to children’s books until 1940, when war headlines from Europe provoked him into drawing savage political cartoons for the liberal New York tabloid PM. A lifelong Democrat, he skewered Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito as well as American isolationists, such as Charles Lindbergh. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Geisel, then forty years old, signed on as a U.S. Army captain and was assigned to director Frank Capra’s Signal Corps film unit in Hollywood. Throughout World War II he made propaganda documentaries and recruitment cartoons with a team that included composer Meredith Willson (“The Music Man”), historian Paul Horgan, and the pioneering animator Chuck Jones, with whom he later collaborated to bring How the Grinch Stole Christmas! and Horton Hears a Who! to television.

A brief fling with Hollywood filmmaking in the 1950s was a disaster—Geisel always worked best alone—and The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, his tangled attempt at musical fantasy, did not become a cult classic for years. Irked with movies, the Geisels bought an abandoned observation tower on a La Jolla hilltop and built their home around it. There, in a tile-roofed studio overlooking the Pacific, Geisel wrote every Dr. Seuss book from If I Ran the Zoo (1950) to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! (1990).

After a 1954 article in Life magazine lamented the illiteracy of American youth, Dr. Seuss was challenged to write and illustrate a reader with a vocabulary of only 225 words. The hard-fought result was The Cat in the Hat (1957), an immediate success that led to a series of Beginner Books and changed the way Americans learned to read. The Cat in the Hat was fun and feisty; critics and teachers applauded its hypnotic merit. Children seized on it instead of their bland primers. That December, he followed with How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Two Seuss classics appeared in 1960: One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish and Green Eggs and Ham, the charming result of a bet with Cerf that he could not write a book using only fifty different words. Rollicking couplets, such as this one from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, became instantly recognizable as “Seussian”:

The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

Geisel won Academy Awards for Hitler Lives? (1946) and Design for Death (1947), and an Emmy Award for Halloween is Grinch Night (1977, 1982), as well as honorary degrees from a dozen universities, including Princeton in 1985, where the senior class rose to chant the full text of Green Eggs and Ham. Yet he grew increasingly shy of crowds and fearful of public speaking. He remained happiest during long hours in his studio, striving to meet his own rigorous standards to get words and meter right.

Less than a year after Helen’s death in 1967, Geisel married Audrey Stone Dimond, who was seventeen years his junior and the recently divorced wife of a former best friend in La Jolla, and abruptly changed the direction of his writing. Over editorial arguments at Random House, he took on tough issues: environmental threat in The Lorax (1971); the arms race in The Butter Battle Book (1984); and, on his eighty-fifth birthday, the medical establishment in You’re Only Old Once! (1986). By then he was battling cancer. In 1984 he received a Pulitzer Prize for his “special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.” The Pulitzer brought a flurry of media exposure for the tall, thin, white-bearded author. Still he lived simply, refusing to complicate his life with a fax machine, word processor, or electric typewriter. He had no back-up artists or writers; one secretary in La Jolla handled fan mail. He firmly refused all efforts at franchising Dr. Seuss, whether toys, T-shirts, or theme parks.

Geisel’s final book, Ok, the Places You’ll Got, was a valedictory, a summing-up of optimism and courage. He exulted that he had finally made the adult best-seller list of the New York Times, where the book remained for more than two years and reappeared annually at graduation time. It was the closest he came to an autobiography, since he was unable to manage either facts or prose.

Geisel died of cancer at his home in La Jolla, a frugal millionaire, stretched out on the same threadbare couch where he had flung himself over the years when ideas would not come at his desk or drawing board. He was cremated and his ashes placed in a sealed box in Audrey’s living room; there was no funeral or grave marker. Tributes came from throughout the English-speaking world: “Dr. Seuss, Modern Mother Goose, Dies at 87,” was the frontpage headline of the New York Times. He was eulogized in the U.S. Senate. Read-aloud vigils were held on college campuses as fan clubs formed to remember the man who spoke to their fears and dreams.

Dr. Seuss, who sold more than 400 million books in his lifetime, was a unique mentor for four generations of Americans, championing children’s rights before that phrase was familiar and revolutionizing the way children learn to read. His forty-seven books are recognized for their whimsical, tongue-twisting honesty and ebullient art, as he sought to stretch young imaginations and make the incredible credible.

Geisel’s papers, manuscripts, and drawings are in the Special Collections of the Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego. A biography by Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (1995; reissued in paperback, 2000), has extensive footnotes. His work and its lasting effect are discussed in Barbara Bader, American Picturebooks from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (1976). A revealing profile by E. J. Kahn appeared in the New Yorker (17 Dec. 1960). Dr. Seuss’s contributions to the English language were cited in two reference books published in 1992: The Oxford Companion to the English Language and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (16th ed.). Lengthy obituaries ran in the San Diego Tribune (25 Sept. 1991), and the San Diego Union and the New York Times (26 Sept. 1991). Dr. Seuss was the only American among six authors of twentieth-century children’s literature featured in a BBC series, An Awfully Big Adventure (1998).

Judith Morgan

Neil Morgan

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