Dr Seuss: Inside the weird, wonderful world of Theodor Geisel

Meet Dr Seuss Take a look inside the weird, wonderful world of Theodor Geisel

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Dr Seuss: Horton lives at Soledad with Nerkles and Nerds

By Norman Bell – Cedar Rapids Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa) July 1, 1956

The home of a strange elephant named Horton is on top of a mountain called Soledad. It means “lonely place” in Spanish, but it isn’t lonely.

That’s what 4-year-old Lucinda discovered when she called on Horton.

His keeper — who also has a fantastic collection of other creatures, such as Ziffs and Zuffs and Nerkles and Nerds, as well as a hospitable moose known as Thidwick — welcomed the child with grave courtesy.

For, after all, as Horton himself says: “A person’s a person, no matter how small.” That also explains the keeper’s success.

Dr Seuss illustrations from 1964 (3)

He creates picture-word-sound stories aimed at grownups to captivate children. He is known to his public as Dr. Seuss. His real name is Theodor Seuss Geisel.

Lucinda and her adult escort were invited to enter his mountain menagerie. It is actually a spacious home built around a former lookout tower, from which there is an unbroken view of ocean and shoreline and mountain ranges. The “village” of La Jolla nestles below and the mushrooming city of San Diego sprawls all around.

The menagerie, being entirely make believe, consists of figures on drawing paper at the artist-author’s desk or papier-mache models on the walls.

Geisel treated Lucinda and her escort with equal consideration during the tour of the tower. He made it clear that he shares Horton’s view — he doesn’t underrate a person — “no matter how small.”

“I write all my books on simple, adult level,” he said. “I do it on the theory that a child can understand anything — you can even explain an atomic pile to a 6-year-old, if you are able to put it down in the right form.”

He uses simplicity — the modern method of reaching the mass mind — and capitalizes on the wonderful, unspoiled imagination of childhood.

What if Umbus, a cow, has 98 faucets or if another of his creature’s knees are on wrong?

“I draw the best I can,” says Geisel, who makes a point of the fact he never took an art lesson. “If things come out wrong, the child doesn’t care. Legs on backwards are even more fascinating.”

Thus, a 4-year-old like Lucinda has no trouble accepting the idea that infinitesimal beings — queer little “Whos,” who only Horton, the elephant, can hear — inhabit a dust speck which, when magnified by Geisel’s illustrations, appears something like a curved section of the world.

Dr Seuss Ted Geisel drawing a grinch 1957

Geisel, whose kindness is reflected in his quiet, brown eyes, wouldn’t sadden even adults with a tragic ending to any of his stories.

He goes so far as to offer hope that America can be saved from what he and the La Jolla Town Council, Inc., a civic group in that “village” section of San Diego, say is the threat of being “messed up” by uncontrolled advertising signs.

Geisel and the town council, of which he is a member, use Dr. Seuss pamphlets in their war against oversized, gaudy or flashy signs which exceed the limits of “good taste.” The pamphlets blame a couple of stone-age “guys” named Guss and Taxx for originating such advertising to market rival products called “Gus-Ma-Tuss” and “Zaxx-Ma-Taxx.”

The La Jolla campaign is catching on elsewhere, says Geisel. He hopes it will spread and spread.

Yet, it was advertising of a commercial product that started Dr. Seuss on his way to fame and fortune, and his current commitments include some billboard illustrations for sugar.

It was in the ’20s that Geisel, who had been editor of the Dartmouth Jack O’Lantern, gave up his ambition of becoming a highbrow professor after studies at Oxford and the Sorbonne in favor of “noodling” pictures for a living.

A girl he met at Oxford, Helen Manon Palmer, now his wife and collaborator, encouraged him. One of his cartoons, appearing in the humor magazine Judge, showed a knight in armor facing a dragon with a spray gun. By toss of a coin, Geisel chose one of two rival products for the caption, which said: “Quick Henry, the Flit.”

The manufacturer was enraptured and engaged the talents of Dr. Seuss for a campaign that continued through the 1930s without lapse.

Geisel also credits luck for leading him to a publisher, after 25 rejections, of his first children’s story, in 1937. It was a rhythm tale, later set to music by Deems Taylor, of a little boy whose imagination runs away with him on “Mulberry Street.”

His father admonishes:

“Your eyesight’s much too keen.
“Stop telling such outlandish tales.
“Stop turning minnows into whales.”

vintage seuss mulberry street

The Geisels, with Mrs. Geisel in the role of Dr. Seuss’ severest critic, say that the first fantastic premise of a story is the one to get across. Once it is accepted by the reader, anything goes — as in the latest Seuss volume, in which the alphabet begins with “Z” for zebra.

“On Beyond Zebra,” the reader finds winn, um, humpf, fuddle, glikk, nuch. snee, quan, thnad, spazz, flobb, vroo, yukk and so on to yuzz, which is short for yuzz-a-ma-tuzz. This book of nonsense and another,

“If I Ran the Circus,” also to be published by the fun-loving Bennett Cerff of Random House, demonstrate Dr. Seuss’ talents which now are being directed to a serious enterprise. The Geisels are working on helping Johnny to read with three supplementary textbooks, for the first, second and third grades, to be published by Houghton-Mifflin.

Each tells a story in simple vocabularies of the respective grade ages, with phonetic pronunciations and Seuss’ animal illustrations to help the small pupils. “The aim is to make their first experience in reading pleasurable,” said Geisel, “not difficult.” He is doing the hard work for them, he explained. His rate of production is about four well-polished lines a day.

Geisel says his fantastic creatures spring from a genuine interest in real animals, which runs in the family. His father is park department and zoo superintendent in Geisel’s native Springfield, Mass.

He also likes children in person, although he and Mrs. Geisel have none. Geisel, in his role as a trustee of the San Diego Fine Arts Museum, would like to introduce a new sort of children’s section, with equipment for their use in various types of creative artistry.

During World War II, he served with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps motion picture unit as producer in animation of intelligence and educational films. He was awarded the Legion of Merit.

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His postwar film creations, including the cartoon character Gerald McBoing-Boing, have won four Oscars for the producers. He smiles when he remarks that his textbook project is finally achieving, in a limited way, his old ambition to be a professor.

An honorary degree at Dartmouth, awarded last year, made him a doctor of humane letters and, he says, an honest man out of Dr. Seuss.

He might like to know that Dr. Seuss’ illustrations aimed at pulling a stop to the advertising excesses of Guss and Taxx didn’t get the message over to Lucinda. Now she scolds them, but in a tolerant way that indicates her first impression still stands.

The weird, wonderful world of Dr Seuss (1964)

By Art Seidenbaum in The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky) January 19, 1964

THEODOR SEUSS GEISEL, who carries his pen name in the middle, looks a little like a “sneetch,” which is a kind of long-snouted, beach-living animal of his own invention,

He dropped the Geisel when he started to write children’s books, because he wanted to save it for later when he would write the great American adult novel.

He stuck on the Dr. by himself, because it would have cost his father another $10,000 in tuition before the real Geisel could have earned the real thing. Originally, he planned to use the pen name for only a short time. That was three decades ago.

Meanwhile, counting Carroll and allowing for Milne, Dr. Seuss has become the most important name ever pressed upon a children’s book jacket. His two dozen volumes sell in the millions and have made him a millionaire.

An entire division of Random House — Beginner Books — was launched on the tail of the meteoric success of one 1957 Seuss book, “The Cat in the Hat.”
Dr Seuss illustrations from 1964 (1)

There are Seuss books for ages 9 and 10. There are Seuss books for ages 5 and 6. There are Seuss books for parents to read to children who can’t. What they all have in common is a non- chronological capacity to delight. They rhyme with repetitive wit, explode with humor.

Next hero in the works

These success stories are of such historic moment that the manuscripts and illustrations of every Seuss book, save one, are part of a permanent collection at the U.C.L.A. Library, available to any serious student of juvenile literature.

Meanwhile, within the cork-lined walls of his studio overlooking the Pacific, Theodor Geisel is even now preparing new assaults against the dullness that has dominated the children’s field.

In story-board fashion, he pastes words against pictures sequentially around the room, carrying his next hero through a harrowing set of misadventures –the hard work that makes child’s play.

Ted Geisel Dr. Seuss half-length portrait

And lining the other walls of his ever-expanding Spanish house are more samples of Seuss art. “Great Cat in the Uleaborg, Finland Subway” is, by the doctor’s own description, as close as he comes to serious painting.

In deep, dark perspective, it shows an animal approaching from an incredible distance: Tunnel vision. The technique is polished, strong.

There is “Cat in a Cradle Making a Cat’s Cradle” which says all that needs saying about a small painting. And “Chinese Cat.” And “Alley Cat for an Extra-Long Alley.” And other cats in other rooms, all of which are part of a personal project –“101 Cats for Helen” — which Geisel is doing for, and dedicating to, Mrs. Geisel.

Mrs. Geisel also has a writing name, Helen Palmer, which was her real name until she married the young Dartmouth man in 1927. She is the editor-in-chief of Beginner Books, and writes some of them herself. Ted Geisel is president of the division, and sometime editor of the editor-in-chief.

“Ted will say to me, ‘A child would never like that,’ and he’ll be right,” allows Mrs. Geisel. “He has an instinctive knowledge of what a child would like.”

MORE: Here’s how you can turn your kids into big readers

Vintage Dr Seuss Green Eggs and Ham book

Each of the authors has his own studio. Each looks and works like 15 years younger than his years.

One of their mutual troubles is finding a stable of other authors who can dream and draw up additional Beginner Books. In a juvenile market of some 2,000 titles, there are less than three dozen Beginner Books on the shelves.

However profitable (100,000 copies is the low for any product of the division), good writers are hard to find. The Geisels can count on less than six regular contributors.

“A major problem,” says the doctor, “is to get the pictures and story together on the same page.” ‘The words must always match and, unless the author and illustrator are the same person, a book usually has to be replotted and repictured several times.

Then there is the matter of vocabulary. There are books with as few as 50 words, still telling a story that is more exciting than the run-of-the-mill “Run, Spot, Run” brand of routine primers.

Usually, the paring of words is not done until after a manuscript has been delivered. For many writers, the simpler the language, the longer and harder the project.

Looking at the broad field, Geisel admits that there has been a general raising of juvenile standards, “but primarily in illustration. Like the movies, the machinery of the thing is great.”

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The stories, less so. “I think it’s harder writing for a children’s audience because if you try to fool them with a phoniness of plot, they’ll throw the book down. With adults, sometimes style will keep them reading.”

By one measurement, even “The Cat in the Hat” was a disappointment. Geisel wrote it for First Graders, discovered that the bulk of the fan mail came back from second and third Graders.

“Philosophically, we’re against the whole idea of writing books only for beginners,” says Geisel, “but they are necessary to get kids started. We’re going as fast as the schools are going.”

To ignite that excitement for reading words, the Geisels have been going farther and farther back, even have an alphabet book out now that manages to be funny in A-B-C order. “We may have to do a prenatal book next,” grumbles the doctor whose usual hearthside manner is cheerful.

But his wife describes him as a man who isn’t happy while he’s working on a book and who is even less happy when he isn’t.

“I think,” says the woman who will one day have all 101 cats hanging around the house, “he’s truly happy when he paints. He’s happier when he’s drawing than when he’s writing.”

The painting hour is midnight (“because Bennett Cerf stops phoning us from New York about midnight”) and with Random House away, Seuss will play.

Dr Seuss illustrations from 1964 (2)

Classroom mail is answered

They have no children of their own, but both Geisels are good workers — deep in local educational efforts, from the real wildlife of the San Diego Zoo to the more abstract wilds of the La Jolla Art Center.

The doctor has isolated one unique species, which he calls the La Jolla Birdwoman, a social animal he paints in full plumage as a local joke.

Each week, some 500 letters are mailed to the doctor from around the country. Whenever one of them is inspired by the collective curiosity of an entire classroom, he answers it personally.

But even constant readers do not know all the places the doctor has practiced. He has been a magazine illustrator, as far back as Judge and College Humor.

He has played ad man; for 15 years, Geisel was an exterminator-cartoonist working for the vice-president of Standard Oil in charge of Flit (“Quick, Henry, the Flit” was his contribution to de-bugging the world). He began to do children’s books only because his Flit contract forbade him to write/paint for adults.

Quick Henry - The Flit - Early Dr Seuss in the Brooklyn Times-Union (NY) - July 31, 1933
Quick Henry – The Flit – Early Dr Seuss in the Brooklyn Times-Union (NY) – July 31, 1933

During World War II, Geisel made propaganda films for the Government and won prizes in the process. Many of his stories have been converted to movie animation, including the Oscar-winning “Gerald McBoing-Boing.”

He spent hitches as a political cartoonist for newspapers, is probably the first man ever to have pictured an elected official as the after-end of a horse.

He has traveled the world, often with a shovel as an amateur archaeologist. And there are artifacts and art objects in the house from each of these epochs.

On one wall in Helen Geisel’s office is a framed piece of needlepoint of a familiar cat in a high, flopping hat. Phyllis Cerf, Bennett’s wife, did the handiwork herself. Under the image, an inscription reads, “This cat started a publishing house. No other cat can make that claim.”

Some people find it difficult to believe there is a real Geisel behind Dr. Seuss. “Sometimes they’re disappointed when they see me,” he says. “My nose doesn’t light up, I don’t wear baggy pants.”

Alas, it’s true. Dr. Seuss smokes and drinks just as do other agreeable men. When he talks, however intelligently, it rarely even rhymes. And unless you know a “sneetch” when you see one, you’d hardly recognize the tall, trim white-haired man as being at all unlike everyone else.

What light up instead are the lower shelves in the school library.

MORE: Long-lost Dr Seuss book found: ‘What Pet Should I Get?’

Dr Seuss: Kids’ best friend (1972)

By Martin Kasindorf in the Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, New York) June 10, 1972

LA JOLLA, Calif. — Once upon a dry time, a brewer was put out of business by Prohibition, and became director of the zoo in Springfield, Mass. It wasn’t much of a zoo: The brewer’s son sometimes wished that it had more of a variety of animals.

Now that brewer’s son — who grew up to be Dr. Seuss — has all the animals he ever dreamed of.

He has grinches and sneetches and nerkles. He has a who and one slightly neglected fessendenopod. And most of all, he has a large and rather ungainly cat in a hat.

Theodor Seuss Geisel is the nicest thing that has happened to children since the invention of the lollypop. His 32 books have sold by the millions; his rare animated movies (he wrote the first “Gerald McBoing-Boing” cartoon) have become classics; and his television special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is an annual part of the holiday season.

YouTube video

It has all given the 67-year-old cartoonist worldwide fame, a mountain-top house overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a total unwillingness to take any of the acclaim seriously.

‘My style is made up of mistakes,” he says with a twinkle that Yertle the Turtle would recognize. “When I draw an elephant like Horton, I’m really trying to draw the best elephant I can. Anyway, I think I sell my writing and throw in the pictures for free.”

EVEN HIS ENTRY INTO THE children’s book field was accidental, according to Geisel. He had been working for 12 boring years in the advertising department of the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, drawing some 8,000 cartoons, all with the famous caption he himself invented: “Quick, Henry, the Flit.”

His contract prohibited any outside. work, until he spotted a loophole: It had no provision against his writing for children.

“I could finish my yearly quota for Flit in six months — which left me sitting around with nothing to do for six months,” he says. “I got into children’s books primarily to keep from going nuts, not for any idealistic purpose.”

ALSO SEE: Dr Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas: The animated holiday classic that premiered in 1966

Like most first books, Geisel’s raised few ripples. Published in 1937, it was called “… And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” More than a decade was to pass before he got seriously into the children’s book market.

In the interim, he wrote film documentaries, first for the Army, then for Hollywood. In 1947, he and his late first wife, Helen Palmer Geisel, wrote the script for a film which won an Oscar for the best feature-length documentary of the year.

Then in the 1950s, the children’s book market began to boom. It was the why-Johnny-can’t-read era, and Geisel’s personal breakthrough came after John Hersey suggested in a Life magazine article that the school system be turned over to Dr. Seuss.

Theodor Geisel Dr Seuss The Cat in the Hat Random House 1957 via LOC

PUBLISHERS TOOK THE suggestion seriously, and Geisel was commissioned to write and illustrate a supplemental first-grade reader — with a 50-word vocabulary. It took 16 months to produce but the result was “Cat in a Hat.”

The formula for success was set.

Geisel still occasionally thinks of getting back to “serious” themes. His earliest ambitions were to write novels (he tried to write one for years) and to be an English professor. (After Dartmouth, he studied at Oxford and the Sorbonne.)

As a collegian, he began signing “Dr. Seuss” to his cartoons. “I decided to save my father the $10,000 a doctorate would have cost,” he quips.

Geisel has also done some angry cartooning in his time. He was an editorial page cartoonist on the left-wing New York tabloid PM in the early ’40s.

He paints, too, but about as you would expect Dr. Seuss to paint. Pictures in his house here have titles like “Green Cat in the Uleaborg, Finland, Subway.”

Dr Seuss with Horton the Elephant in 1972

His recent CBS-TV cartoon special, “The Lorax,” was a departure — an angry preachment for conservation.

The message was heartfelt. Within yards of his mountain-top home, bulldozers are grading an area for a 172-unit housing development. “You see why I’m an ecologist,” he says, gesturing out of his picture window in disgust.

MOSTLY, HOWEVER, GEISEL IS as easygoing as the books he writes. He has even given in on the pronunciation of his pen name, which was his mother’s name and should be said in the German fashion, “Soyce.”

“But everyone says Soose,” he says, shrugging, “so now I go along.”

Surprisingly, the world’s most successful living writer of children’s books has spent most of his life without children. His first marriage was childless, and the teenage children of his second wife (by a previous marriage) are usually away at boarding school.

Nevertheless, Geisel communicates with children as no other writer. “I go by my instincts. If I like something, the kids usually do.”

How a hand, an ear, a man who can moo and some bike-riding bears may start your 2 to 6-year-old on reading (1972)

“Dr Seuss’s ABC” is yours free from The Beginning Readers’ Program with these 4 Bright and Early Books, all for only $1.95.

Now, some of the most unusual creatures ever to frolic through the pages of a book are here, to show your child how much fun learning to read can be. Your little one will meet them in Bright and Early Books, the remarkable books created by Dr Seuss and his friends for 2 to 6 year olds.

  • Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb
  • Bears on Wheels
  • The Ear Book
  • Mr Brown Can Moo! Can You?
  • Dr Seuss’s ABC

Bright and Early Books for kids from Dr Seuss (1972)

Dr Seuss’s Beginning Readers’ Program (1965)

Four is too early… Eight is too late to discover the fun of BOOKS THEY CAN READ BY MYSELF

1965 Dr Seuss books

Dr Seuss’s book club for kids (1988)

1988 Dr Seuss book club for kids

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03/11/2024 10:20 pm GMT

Dr Seuss – Go Dog Go

Vintage Dr Seuss - Go Dog Go

Dr Seuss – I Wish That I Had Duck Feet

Vintage Dr Seuss - I Wish That I Had Duck Feet

Cat in the Hat Song Book – Dr Seuss

Vintage Cat in the Hat Song Book - Dr Seuss

Vintage Dr Seuss book On Beyond Zebra

Vintage Dr Seuss book On Beyond Zebra

Vintage Dr Seuss book In a People House

Vintage Dr Seuss book In a People House

Vintage Dr Seuss toys (1970)

Now your little ones can play with these wonderful, wacky Dr Seuss characters

Nov 13, 1970 Dr Seuss toys

MORE: See the vintage Magic Slate paper saver toys that almost every kid used to have – with characters like Donald Duck, The Incredible Hulk, Tom & Jerry and more

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