From the Archives: A visit to Theodor Geisel’s La Jolla mountaintop
Imagine Dr. Seuss, beloved writer of wry and whimsical children’s fables, stepping into the public forum to take sides in the country’s greatest crisis of government. Unlikely? Nothing is unlikely in the land of Dr. Seuss, where what he calls “logical insanity” rules.
During the Watergate scandal, the man best known for his fanciful books about oobleck and grinches publicly called for the President of the United States to resign. In July, 1974, he sent newspaper columnist Art Buchwald a copy of his book “Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now!” In the text, Dr. Seuss had scratched out each reference to Marvin and substituted “Richard M. Nixon.”
This typically Seussian book tells of a pestilent brat who has overstayed his welcome. The narrator’s demands that the kid scram escalate in fury until the conclusion:
You can go by balloon . . .
You can go by camel
in a bureau drawer.
You can go by Bumble-boat
. . . or jet.
I don’t care how you go.
Richard M. Nixon!
I don’t care HOW.
Richard M. Nixon
Will you please
And Nixon did, just a week after Buchwald ran Seuss’ revision in his nationally syndicated column. Seuss would say it was just coincidence.
In real life, the good doctor is Theodor Seuss Geisel, a man whose private world seems as full of contradictions as the notion of an author of gentle children’s books firing off a tirade against the nation’s chief executive.
With more than 100 million of his books sold, and with kids all over the globe disciples of the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch who stole Christmas, Seuss at 82 has uncharacteristically leaped into books for adults. Published in March, his 45th book, “You’re Only Old Once!: A Book for Obsolete Children,” quickly sold out a first printing of 200,000 copies and shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list--for nonfiction .
Now comes a retrospective at the San Diego Museum of Art that covers almost 60 years of Dr. Seuss’ work and highlights aspects of his personality not easily discerned from such mainstays as “Horton Hears a Who” and “Green Eggs and Ham.”
The exhibit, which runs through July 13, includes a well-doodled notebook the future author kept while studying at Oxford University in England (he dropped out before earning his doctorate), as well as early illustrations for humor magazines. The exhibit also showcases his book art, with one section following, step by step, the process used to illustrate “You’re Only Old Once!”
But fans of his quirky drawings might be surprised to find among his early work a more baldly commercial Seuss, in addition to the one with a decidedly political bent. There amid the likes of Horton the elephant and Yertle the turtle are Seuss’ advertising campaigns for motor oil (with the slogan, “Foil the Moto-raspus!” and a drawing of an engine-wrecking creature) and bug spray (“Quick, Henry! the Flit”), next to tough-minded editorial cartoons from his days at the long-defunct New York newspaper PM.
These are sides of Geisel familiar to the tight social circle that knows him not as the recluse often depicted by the media but rather as a playful raconteur and something of a screwball. But these faces of Geisel emerge less often from his mountaintop perch above the Pacific in La Jolla, where the nation’s most renowned children’s author toils amid yet another contradiction: no children or grandchildren. “You have ‘em, I’ll amuse ‘em” has long been his curmudgeonly motto.
It is almost easier to get to Dr. Seuss’ mythical land of Solla Sollew than to Geisel’s real-life lair on Mt. Soledad. A narrow road corkscrews up the mountainside; rounding a bend, one almost expects to meet an outrageous figure careening downhill astride a one-wheeler wubble, or at least to spot some of the author’s imaginary menagerie: loraxes, yopps, grinches grouching in grickle-grass, sneetches lurking in lerkims or a covey of green-headed Quilligan quail.
Tall, slim and energetic, with eyes that really do twinkle, the white-bearded Geisel suggests an attenuated Cat in the Hat as much as someone’s kindly grandfather. By turns droll and gracious, he welcomes visitors, who on this day arrive at the same time as the mailman. “God, what do you suppose is in my mail today?” he says, warily eyeing stacks of packages and fan letters, including several hundred birthday cards from children around the country.
Each spring, birthday greetings ranging from hand-lettered cards to rolls of decorated butcher paper pour in, littering the floor of his study between twice-weekly visits of his secretary. (“Don’t ever have a birthday,” he grumps good-naturedly.) This room--he refers to it as “The Office"--is the nerve center of his world. Its walls are covered with cork, on which he pins book illustrations as he completes them. Bookcases filled with the mysteries and biographies he devours late at night stand against one wall. But the focus of the room is his draftsman’s desk and reclining chair, from which he commands a spectacular 180-degree view of the coastline from Oceanside to Mexico.
“I can’t imagine Ted really being productive without that view, and the way his seat knocks back and his feet go up and he gets a thought and slaps forward,” says his wife, Audrey. “That all is part of his creativity.”
It is a life far removed from Prospect Street in downtown La Jolla below, with its gridlock of trendiness. And it seems well suited to an author who insists on the privacy of home instead of cross-country book tours or even the occasional trip to his publisher’s office in New York. Yet for all their privacy, the Geisels hardly shirk from San Diego society--their social calendar often keeps them out and down the hill until 2 a.m. Audrey has cut it back a bit in the wake of Geisel’s heart surgery and cataract operations of the last few years. But still they go out--"to stay rounded,” she says.
“Ted works very hard and has more discipline than anyone I know,” says the Geisels’ friend, nutrition writer Jeanne Jones. “And yet when he cuts loose and walks out of that office, he plays hard. He is the silliest person in my life and my favorite playmate, along with Audrey. I look at him as the kid on the block I most like to play with.”
That “kid” is Dr. Seuss’ inspiration, his wife says. “He maintains something terribly worthwhile that most other people no longer have after maturity. . . . After the children’s hour, the crazy little kid grows up, and he’s a crazy grown-up. (Ted’s) mind just keeps flipping out . . . getting kind of crazier all the time.”
But age has inevitably taken its toll. That’s reflected in “You’re Only Old Once!” a charming guide through the daunting maze of geriatric medicine, which Geisel knows well. A former chain smoker, he was forced to give up cigarettes five years ago. And the author of “Green Eggs and Ham” can no longer eat his favorite breakfast. Says Audrey: “Ted once was an egg man, with all the accouterments that go with eggs.” Now, she adds, he is getting used to life as a cereal man. “He rants and rails at the change, but man does not live by cholesterol alone, although he sometimes dies by it.”
Illness has also slowed Geisel’s literary output. Accustomed to turning out one book annually, he has published three in the last six years. Even so, he continues to maintain a disciplined schedule. After a 9:30 breakfast, he opens “The Office” and works steadily--with a break for lunch--until 5:30 p.m.
“Some days he’s in a state of flux, on his back looking at the ceiling,” his wife observes. Geisel calls that process “puzzling my puzzler.” It is often interrupted by calls to and from his publisher, Random House (Geisel is also president of Random House’s Beginner Books division). He conducts virtually all of his business by telephone from his mountaintop.
The La Jolla aerie is both workplace and retreat. Geisel and his first wife, Helen, moved there from Los Angeles in 1948. They built the home, which sits on 6 1/2 acres, around what he facetiously calls “a derelict observation tower used by the Marine Corps as a seduction chamber for innocent Maedchen .”
The tower, actually built by a real estate firm, is now part of the living room wall. In it are mounted stuffed Seussian creatures, often wearing horns of real animals--animals that died in the zoo Geisel’s father ran in Springfield, Mass. Just off the study is a closet bulging with a collection worthy of Bartholomew Cubbins, the Seuss hero who owned 500 hats. And there may be that many here, ranging from an Ecuadorean fire chief’s helmet to a top hat that Geisel swears was a gift from the Duke of Luxembourg.
Within a year of Helen’s death in 1967, Geisel married Audrey Stone Dimond, a nurse about 20 years his junior. She and her ex-husband, a cardiologist, had been close friends of the Geisels. “The feeling was that at his age you grab for the gusto. You don’t wait,” Audrey said. “You don’t think you have that much time. Now we’ve had 17 glorious years.”
The two complement each other. Audrey, a gracious hostess who devotes much of her time to San Diego-area charities, is an easy conversationalist. Geisel brightens noticeably when she enters the room. Although friends describe him as garrulous, he tends to be reticent with strangers, shooting pithy one-liners often punctuated with a questioning “Hmmph?”
Geisel suffers interviews politely, but carefully steers clear of controversy. “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.” But he freely acknowledges that, from time to time, his books veer in that direction. “The Lorax” (1971) was “propaganda” for environmental concerns, he says. And “The Butter Battle Book” (1983) was an attack on the arms race. But those are exceptions, he insists, and any social messages that emerge are simply byproducts of a workable plot.
He attributes most of his success to the rhyming format of his books, and, in general, avoids analyzing the muse that drives him. “I prefer to look at things through the wrong end of the telescope,” he offers. “I see things more clearly with a little astigmatism.” He bridles at people who accost him at parties and say they could knock out a kids’ book in a few hours.
Geisel’s breezy style just makes it look easy. His success affords him an autonomy rare in publishing: He writes, designs, lays out and selects the colors and paper of each book.
But when a visitor asks Geisel to draw a self-portrait, he refuses, protesting that he “can’t draw things the way they are. I just get at the soul of things, like that sculpture.” He points to a small, bosomy figurine in his bathroom. Geisel sculpted it when he was a young man, and although the face does not resemble the woman who inspired it, the figure must have caught her essence--because when his employer found Geisel working on the sculpture, he recognized it and cried, “You’re doing my wife!” The future children’s author was out of a job.
But the illustrating is fun compared to the writing, he says: “The problem with writing a book in verse is, to be successful it has to sound like you knocked it off on a rainy Friday afternoon. It has to sound easy. When you can do it, it helps tremendously because it’s a thing that forces kids to read on. You have this unconsummated feeling if you stop. You have to go right through to the end--to the final beat.
“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.”
At 5:30 p.m., the publishing phenomenon leaves these travails behind and ends his workday. “I have now left the office; now hear this,” Geisel announces, ignoring his ringing telephone. It’s the cocktail hour, and with great relish he settles down with Audrey and a vodka to watch the evening news. His wife says that he has a great deal to say about each item.
He also has several ideas for his 46th book, but balks at saying just what it will be. “It might be on chipmunks,” he says. Or it might be an autobiography or a musical adaptation of his single publishing failure, “The Seven Lady Godivas,” written almost 50 years ago. “It has occurred to me that it would make a good musical, if I could solve the problem of the naked women and the horses. The naked women are easier today; the horses make more of a problem.”
He has a Pulitzer Prize (a special citation in 1984), three Oscars (for two documentaries he made in the 1940s and for the 1951 animated short subject, “Gerald McBoing-Boing”), an Emmy and a Peabody Award, and the adoration of millions of children. But the owner of these laurels is characteristically terse in assessing his life’s greatest satisfaction: “I think I had something to do with kicking Dick and Jane out of the school system. 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?
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