Theodor Seuss 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. "Ted," as young Geisel was called, had a mostly happy childhood, 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 instilled in his son a drive for perfection. A fascination with inventions characterized his western Massachusetts city, and Geisel carried such tinkering into his writing—adding new letters to the alphabet in his 1955 book, On Beyond Zebra. After graduating from Central High School in 1921, Geisel entered Dartmouth College, graduating with a B.A. in literature in 1925. That autumn Geisel began attending Oxford University's Lincoln College. It was one of many times that his rampant imagination skittered beyond the truth. 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 wife until her suicide in La Jolla, California, in October 1967. In New York City Geisel sold cartoons and satire to the popular Judge magazine, where he first used the pseudonym "Dr. Seuss."
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, 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. In 1940 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. 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. A brief fling with Hollywood filmmaking in the 1950s was a disaster—Geisel always worked best alone. 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 his publisher Bennett Cerf that he could not write a book using only fifty different words.
Geisel won 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 abruptly changed the direction of his writing. Over editorial arguments at Random House, he took on tough issues: the arms race; and, the medical establishment. 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 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 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.
On the season premiere of Saturday Night Live following Dr. Seuss' death, the Reverend Jesse Jackson was a special guest during the News segment. He declared that "rather than reading from First or Second Samuel, I will read from 'Sam I Am'," whereupon he read Green Eggs and Ham in the style of a preacher giving an impassioned sermon.
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