Theodor (Ted) Geisel, whose whimsical “Dr. Seuss” books entertained generations of children and parents, died Tuesday night at the age of 87.
Geisel, who never had any children of his own and who would quip, “You have ‘em, I’ll amuse ‘em,” died at his hilltop home on Mt. Soledad, with his wife, Audrey, at his side.
For the last nine years he had been undergoing radiation and chemotherapy for cancer of the palate, which had greatly diminished his ability to speak.
Geisel was one of the best known, most highly imitated and most prolific children’s writers of all time. His 47 books were translated into 20 languages and have sold more than 200 million copies.
In 1984, his contributions to children’s literature were honored with a Pulitzer Prize that took note of his “books full of playful rhymes, nonsense words and strange illustrations.”
“If you asked people today to name one children’s author, I’d venture it would probably be Dr. Seuss,” said Julie Cummins, the New York Public Library’s coordinator of children’s services.
Publishers Weekly noted that of the top 10 best-selling hardcover children’s books of all time, Geisel wrote four: “The Cat in the Hat,” “Green Eggs and Ham,” “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” and “Hop on Pop.”
His latest, “Six by Seuss,” released this year, was a collection of six of his favorites--"And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” “The Lorax,” “Horton Hears a Who!” “Yertle the Turtle” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
His last new story, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” was published in 1990.
That book deals with the highs and lows of human experiences and cut across generational lines to become the longest-running of the current fictions on the New York Times bestseller list.
Its appeal to both children and adults was a particular personal triumph for Geisel, who told friends: “Finally I can say that I write not for kids but for people.”
The title itself was indicative of the Seuss genre, for his books were whimsical journeys--forays into the world of nonsense and fantasy, with characters who captivated children through humor, rhyme and mischief. Especially mischief.
While so many children’s authors worked to convey a message of good behavior, Seussian characters refused to be “good.” And his millions of young readers loved his loraxes and yopps, grinches grouching in grickle-grass, sneetches lurking in lerkims, the green-headed Quilligan quail and the Cat in the Hat, who misbehaved and ignored the rules of the house.
Geisel was an illustrator first and writer second. He would tack his drawings onto the corkboard of his studio walls in storyboard fashion, muse over them and then write the accompanying nonsense rhymes. Sometimes an illustrated story line would befuddle him for two years before he could marry it to words; other times, he would crank out his verses in just a few days.
“If all our authors were as he was, we wouldn’t need editors,” said Janet Schulman, publisher of the children’s book division at Random House and his personal editor. “Occasionally he’d give us a rhyme that was a little off, or a word that might not work. He’d think about it and sometimes he’d change it--but usually he wouldn’t, and that was fine.
“There will never be another Ted Geisel.”
Friends said Geisel painstakingly separated his close-knit social life from his work--a self-disciplined 9:30 to 5:30 job in which he would sequester himself in a studio that provided him with a 180-degree view of the Pacific coastline from Mexico to Oceanside.
But what linked Seuss and Geisel was humor.
“He never, quote, told jokes, but he’s funnier and more spontaneous than anyone I’ve ever known,” said close friend and fellow author Jeanne Jones. “He was, without a doubt, the brightest person I’ve ever known. He had the quickest wit, absolutely sharp and brilliant. If he had the inclination, he could have been the world’s greatest stand-up comic.”
It was through his finesse of nonsense and humor that Geisel helped introduce a new order to traditional children’s literature.
In an interview in 1984, Geisel pulled off the shelf “The Riverside Reader,” a dusty, dogeared primer he used in 1909 when he was in the first grade. As he turned the pages, he pointed out the dull passages and mundane story line.
“I wanted to get rid of primers like this,” he said. “I feel my greatest accomplishment was getting rid of Dick and Jane and encouraging students to approach reading as a pleasure, not a chore.
“The old readers were the most stultifying, stupid way to teach kids. That constant repetition just turned them off to reading. I tried to turn them on.”
Geisel won acclaim from his audience long before he received it from the critics.
“He went through a long period of being a bit condescended to by the children’s literature critical Establishment,” said John Donovan, president of the Children’s Book Council, a New York-based national trade association of children’s book publishers.
“For a long time, there was a kind of dismissive view of him because he was too popular . . . and because his vocabulary was so simple. But as time has worn on, they’ve done a complete about-face,” he said.
Geisel never published a book under his real name. Seuss was his middle name, to which he added an authoritative “Dr.” He said he was saving his own name for the great American novel. But when he finally wrote that novel--"The Seven Lady Godivas"--he was not satisfied with it. It became his only flop.
“I had no ability as a novelist,” Geisel said. “I spent all my time trying to get rid of extraneous words and boiling the thing down to the essentials. But a novelist’s technique is putting those extraneous, nonessential things back in.”
Indeed, Geisel’s style was simple even when addressing conventions of librarians or booksellers, where he would be asked to make a speech.
“When others would make these long speeches, Ted would write a little poem that was appropriate for the occasion, one that would just take three or four minutes to read,” said Donovan.
He never attempted a second novel, although he did write a Seussian book on the travails of aging that he uncharacteristically directed to an older audience: “You’re Only Old Once!: A Book for Obsolete Children.”
It was inspired by his own ordeals with getting older--batteries of medical tests and hours spent staring at fish aquariums in hospital waiting rooms.
He vented his frustration at the whole medical process this way:
When at last we are sure you’ve been properly pilled, then a few paper forms must be properly filled so that you and your heirs may be properly billed.
The book quickly sold out a first printing of 200,000 copies and shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction.
Geisel’s own reading tastes were admittedly “trashy.” He preferred a bestseller or a Reader’s Digest condensed book to a well-written novel.
His tastes in painting, however, were much more sophisticated, and he could discuss obscure British painters and French museums authoritatively. The one great regret of his career, Geisel said, was that he never refined his skills as a painter.
“I’m honest enough with myself to know I wouldn’t have written the Great American Novel, but I think I could have created some fine paintings . . . if I would have had some proper training and the time to pursue it.”
Not that Geisel the artist wasn’t recognized. While he never was awarded the Caldecott Medal, considered the nation’s highest award for illustrators (he did win a Caldecott for writing), a Dr. Seuss retrospective at the San Diego Museum of Art in 1986 attracted 200,000 visitors.
Geisel grew up in Springfield, Mass., where his father ran the park system, including the city zoo. Many of his wild characters were conceived as he sat on a zoo bench, conjuring up visions and variations of the exotic animals.
He studied literature at Dartmouth College, and then attended Oxford University and planned to get his doctorate and teach English literature. But he soon tired of the academic life and decided to return home.
The famous Seuss verse and meter were born in the Atlantic Ocean on the liner Kungsholm. He became preoccupied with the rhythm of the ship’s engines and began experimenting with words to fit the meter. Those early scrawlings led to his first book: “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.”
It was rejected by 27 publishers before it was picked up by Vanguard Press.
Geisel had a full career before he began writing Dr. Seuss books full time. He was a political cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM, and during World War II was attached to Frank Capra’s documentary filmmaking unit.
After writing and directing indoctrination movies for American troops, he won an Oscar for best documentary short for a troop film that was released after the war by Warner Bros. Geisel won another Academy Award in 1947 for “Design of Death,” a documentary film about Japanese warlords. He won a third Oscar in 1951 for an animated cartoon--"Gerald McBoing-Boing.” Many of the techniques that Geisel learned in Hollywood were useful when he began writing children’s books.
“I learned a great deal from Capra (who died earlier this month) that still helps me in my writing. He showed me how to edit a script. Anything that hastened the plot, or told the story, he underlined with a blue pencil. You’d be surprised how few blue pencil marks most manuscripts have. I’ve tried to ensure that the majority of my manuscripts merited blue pencil marks.”
After a brief, but successful, film career, Geisel moved to La Jolla, having tired of the hustle and hassle of Hollywood. He wanted to work alone and have the freedom of “making my own mistakes without the help of committees.”
He met his first wife, Helen Marion Palmer, at Oxford, and they built their La Jolla workplace-retreat on 6 1/2 acres after moving from Los Angeles in 1948. She died in 1967 after nearly 40 years of marriage. Geisel married the former Audrey Stone Dimond in 1968.
He had no children and professed no universal love for the younger generation. He said impatiently that children are no different than adults--he liked some and disliked others.
For a man who had so many young readers, Geisel rarely spent time with children.
“I don’t think spending your days surrounded by kids is necessary to write the kind of books I write,” he said. “I don’t write for children, I write for people. Once a writer starts talking down to kids, he’s lost. Kids can pick up on that kind of thing.”
Geisel was described by acquaintances as a shy, sometimes cranky man who had a pathological fear of audiences. He refused numerous speaking engagements and offers to appear on television talk shows--though he softened his resistance somewhat after winning the Pulitzer Prize.
“I don’t like audiences,” he said. “I prefer to make my mistakes in private. I enjoy giving a one-on-one interview, but I do not like being on a platform; it makes me very nervous and uncomfortable.
“Some writers like having double careers--writing and being public figures. I do not. I’m a writing author, not a talking author.”
Most of his books were “mildly philosophical,” leavened with two Dr. Seuss trademarks: nonsense and humor. But occasionally, Geisel grew irritated with the course of current events and wrote a children’s book with political overtones.
“The Lorax,” a tale about the evils of pollution, was his favorite book, he said, and one that was nearly removed from the second-grade reading list in the tiny Northern California logging town of Laytonville in 1989 because, critics said, it was a thinly veiled attack on the timber industry.
In his 1984 bestseller, “The Butter Battle Book,” Geisel offered a parable for the atomic age. It chronicled the escalating arms race between the Yooks, who eat their bread butter-side down, and the Zooks, who do just the opposite.
It ends with the two sides at the Yook-Zook border, each armed with the ultimate weapon--a Big-Boy Boomeroo bomb.
A boy asks his grandpa: “Who’s going to drop it? Will you? Will he?”
“Be patient,” grandpa says. “We’ll see. We will see.”
In addition to his books, Giesel left his country a final challenge.
Neil Morgan, a close friend and editor of the San Diego Tribune, had been taping with his wife, Judith, an oral history of Geisel.
Geisel was on his deathbed, Morgan said, when they completed the tape recordings and asked the author-illustrator if he had any final thoughts.
Morgan recalled that “he smiled and said, ‘Let me think about it.’ Then he handed Judith a yellow piece of paper on which he had scrawled:
“Whenever things go a bit sour, in a job I’m doing, I always tell myself, ‘You can do better than this.’ The best slogan I can think of to leave with the U.S.A. would be, ‘We can . . . and we’ve got to . . . do better than this.’ ”
Geisel’s remains will be cremated. A memorial service is pending.
THIDWICK THE MOOSE: Readers saw real people in the menagerie of Dr. Seuss. B7
BEFORE SEUSS: In the days before Seuss, remembers one author, “there were only books for adults and for little adults.” E1