Everyone knows that Dr. Seuss was not a real doctor, but everyone pronounces his name wrong. It's true - by all rights we should call the beloved creator of children's books "Dr. Soice," not "Dr. Soose." However, this man with a strong personality and expansive imagination chose to embrace his admirers' pronunciation error, giving us the iconic "Dr. Seuss."
I like nonsense; it wakes up the brain cells.
Dr. Seuss was born as Theodor Seuss Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts; Seuss was his mother's maiden name. Surprisingly little is known about Geisel's childhood. His father was a brewmaster, until Prohibition ended that career; he subsequently supervised Springfield's public park system, including a zoo.
Geisel's fear of public appearances began when he was fourteen. As a top seller of war bonds as a Boy Scout during World War I, he was onstage to receive an award from former president Theodore Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the president had been given only nine awards for ten boys. When Geisel's turn came, the president had no award to give, so he asked what this boy was doing there. Geisel was humiliated.
While a student at Dartmouth College, Geisel became the editor-in-chief of its humor magazine, "Jack-O-Lantern." Sadly, Dartmouth officials had no sense of humor when Geisel was caught drinking in his dorm room with friends - during Prohibition. They banned him from the magazine entirely. Geisel continued to write for "Jack-O-Lantern," however, using the pseudonym "Seuss."
After graduating from Dartmouth, Geisel went to Lincoln College at Oxford. He planned to earn a Ph.D. in English Literature, then become a professor. He didn't complete his studies in London, but he did find love. He and Helen Palmer returned to the United States and were married in 1927.
The couple never had children - his wife was unable to conceive, and, in fact, Geisel was uncomfortable around youngsters. However, they invented a daughter, Chrysanthemum Pearl, to talk about whenever friends were touting the accomplishments of their children. The Geisels included Chrysanthemum Pearl when signing their Christmas cards, and the dedication of Dr. Seuss' "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" reads, "To Chrysanthemum Pearl, age 89 months, going on 90."
With his new wife's encouragement, Geisel pursued a career in cartooning. His first nationally published cartoon appeared in "The Saturday Evening Post" in 1927. Soon other articles and cartoons signed "Seuss" appeared in "LIFE" and "Vanity Fair." Geisel joined the staff of a New York weekly, "Judge."
Geisel worked in the advertising industry during the Great Depression. To sell motor oil, he drew a cartoon of an engine-destroying creature, captioning it with the phrase, "Foil the Moto-raspus!" He also created a well-known catchphrase for an insecticide called Flit: "Quick, Henry! The Flit." The iconic Dr. Seuss style is evident in both the illustrations and the captions for his Depression-era ads. Regarding humor, he once said, "I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it's a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do, and that enables you to laugh at life's realities."
Any would-be author who has experienced the sting of a rejection letter should take heart in this fact: the first Dr. Seuss book was rejected nearly thirty times prior to its publication in 1937. Geisel had even considered burning the manuscript. Luckily for the child in all of us, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" survived and thrived.
Amazingly, the rhyme scheme Geisel used in many of his books, including "Mulberry Street," came to him while he and his wife were traveling by cruise ship to Europe - the rhythm of the engines inspired him.
Geisel discussed the difficulties involved in creating so-called simple rhymes: "The main problem with writing in verse is, if your fourth line doesn't come out right, you've got to throw four lines away and figure out a whole new way to attack the problem. So the mortality rate is terrific."
The Politics of Dr. Seuss
During World War II, Geisel served in the Signal Corps under Frank Capra, the famous director of "It's a Wonderful Life" and other classic movies. Geisel helped to create films and posters for the Treasury Department and War Production Board. One animated film series featured Private Snafu, a character voiced by Mel Blanc of Warner Bros. fame. Geisel wrote or co-wrote many of the episodes. The private's mishaps were meant to entertain the troops while educating them about military protocol, sanitation, and other issues.
Geisel wrote and illustrated a booklet to warn soldiers about Anopheles, the mosquito that transmits malaria, after Germany blocked delivery to the Allies of drugs used to treat the disease. Geisel wrote, "This is Ann... she drinks blood! Her full name is Anopheles Mosquito and she's dying to meet you!" Ann was a Seuss-style mosquito creature with eyelashes and an evil grin.
In 1945 Geisel and his wife began work on a short film, "Our Job in Japan," which was expanded and released in 1948 as "Design for Death." The film, which explored Japanese culture and some of the causes of World War II, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
Geisel also contributed political cartoons to a liberal publication, "PM Magazine." He disliked isolationists, including Charles Lindbergh, who wanted the United States to stay out of World War II. Geisel supported the internment of Japanese-Americans at the time, but he later softened. 1984's "Horton Hears a Who!" featured veiled references to America's occupation of Japan after the war, and the book was dedicated to a Japanese friend, Mitsugi Nakamura.
Other Dr. Suess books which are frequently analyzed for their political allegory include 1958's "Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories" and 1971's "The Lorax."
In 1986, a mellower Geisel said, "I stay out of politics because if I begin thinking too much about politics, I'll probably... drop writing children's books and become a political cartoonist again."
After the war, Geisel purchased an old observation tower in La Jolla, California, then built a house around it. The living room wall featured a portion of the old tower. Geisel and his wife filled the tower with stuffed Seuss creatures, some wearing horns collected from animals that had lived and died in the zoo run by his father back in Massachusetts. The Geisels also had a closet full of hats, in remembrance of 1938's "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" - one of the few Dr. Seuss books written in prose.
Geisel enjoyed working in his office in the old observation tower, finding inspiration in his 180-degree view of the Pacific Ocean. He worked for at least eight hours a day, seated at a drafting table or in a recliner, depending on the task at hand. He pinned his papers on walls lined with cork. During work breaks, Geisel puttered in his garden, but presumably he couldn't grow truffula trees, as seen in "The Lorax."
One Book, Two Books, Rhymed Books, New Books
Geisel was a proponent of individuality and independent thought. "Today you are you!" he wrote, as Dr. Seuss. "That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!"
Independent thought requires education, of course; it all boils down to being a good reader. Geisel noted, "You can get help from teachers, but you are going to have to learn a lot by yourself, sitting alone in a room."
In 1954, an article in "LIFE" magazine about children's low reading levels created controversy and concern. William Ellsworth Spaulding at Houghton Mifflin asked Geisel to write a primer, using vocabulary words that all first graders should know. To meet that challenge, Geisel created the famous Dr. Suess book, "The Cat in the Hat."
In 1960, a $50 bet proposed by Bennett Cerf, Geisel's publisher at the time, inspired Geisel to write "Green Eggs and Ham" - using only 50 different words.
Although Geisel enjoyed writing with a simplified vocabulary, he also loved to create new words. His books are populated with fabulous creatures and fantastic objects with made-up names: the seven-hump Wump, the Grinch, truffula trees, and the Bar-ba-loots. Most etymologists credit him with the first use of the word "nerd," in 1950's "If I Ran the Zoo."
All in all, Geisel wrote more than 60 children's books, mostly under the pen name "Dr. Seuss," but also a few as "Dr. Theophrastus Seuss," "Rosetta Stone," and "Theo LeSieg." The latter is "Geisel" backwards and Frenchified. "I was saving the name of 'Geisel' for the Great American Novel," he once said.
Geisel won many awards and honors as Dr. Seuss, including two Academy Awards, two Emmy Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 1955, Dartmouth even awarded him an honorary doctorate. So Dr. Seuss was a doctor of sorts, after all!
The final Dr. Seuss book, "Oh The Places You'll Go," published in 1990, is still a popular gift for college and high school graduates.
Geisel's wife, Helen Palmer Seuss, committed suicide in 1967, perhaps to put an end to her struggles with cancer, or perhaps because she thought her husband was having an affair with a nurse named Audrey Stone Diamond. In any event, the widower Geisel married Diamond in 1968. Diamond moved into the famous Seuss house with the observation tower, then sent her children to live with her ex-husband, because she believed that Geisel and her children could not be happy, living together.
Geisel and Diamond donated money to many causes, including Dartmouth College. Dartmouth eventually changed the name of its medical school to the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine.
Geisel felt that his greatest accomplishment - in a life full of them - was paying for the lions' wading pool at the San Diego Zoo.
Theodor Geisel died of oral cancer in 1991. His widow worked to preserve his possessions and his legacy.
The legacy of Theodor Geisel, or Dr. Seuss, lives on, as new generations of children discover his playful rhymes and whimsical illustrations. Several books have been published posthumously, and more manuscripts found by his widow are scheduled for publication, beginning in the summer of 2015.
Geisel perfectly summed up his accomplishments as a children's author: "I think I proved to a number of million kids that reading is not a disagreeable task. And without talking about teaching, I think I have helped kids laugh in schools as well as at home. That's about enough, isn't it?"