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Dr. Seuss at 72 — Going Like 60

Published: February 10, 2016

In a Post interview from 1977, Theodor Geisel — better known to the world as Dr. Seuss — looks back on his life and legacy, musing on his successes, his failures, and the sometimes unbelievable reactions readers have had to his work. But even at 72, Geisel has no plans to slow down. “People of my age are all retiring,” he says, “I’ve got more things I want to do now than ever.” Those plans go beyond bookmaking and into movies, television, and even, of all things, a rock opera.

Dr. Seuss at 72 — Going Like 60
By Don Freeman

March 1, 1977 — The Who behind Who-ville is busier than ever, hurling papers and tossing drawings like a tormented Grinch, until he has wrought his next 50 pages of spellbinding magic.

With his crinkly-soft eyes, his grandly equine nose, and the loping mooselike walk, he looks for all the world as though he had sprung full-blown from his own drawing board. When you see Theodor S. Geisel plain, all that seems to be missing is his signature below, two words warmly familiar to millions of children the world over and their grateful parents. The two words are — Dr. Seuss.

They are, of course, one and the same — Ted Geisel of La Jolla, California, and Dr. Seuss, the pseudonym he has employed for over 40 years while writing and illustrating, very slowly and with the deepest pains of creation, his forty-odd children’s books that have sold over 70 million copies. A number of the Seuss stories have been adapted by Geisel himself into animated television musicals, one having brought him the prestigious Peabody Award.

“Counting Lewis Carroll and allowing for A.A. Milne,” an observer once noted, “Dr. Seuss has become the most important name ever pressed on a children’s book jacket.” The late Bennett Cerf, Seuss’s publisher at Random House, once declared: “I’ve published any number of great writers, from William Faulkner to John O’Hara, but there’s only one genius on my authors’ list. His name is Ted Geisel.”

Geisel shrugs off the compliment, whipping a hand through his unkempt silver-gray hair. “If I were a genius,” he demands, logically, “why do I have to sweat so hard at my work? I know my stuff all looks like it was rattled off in 23 seconds, but every word is a struggle and every sentence is like the pangs of birth.” Geisel, in the jargon of the writer’s trade, is a bleeder. Each of his illustrated books, none over 50 pages, requires a year or more of intense Seussian gestation.

Unconcerned about his genius standing, Dr. Seuss’s juvenile readers have responded through the years with their own brightly turned words of praise. “Dr. Seuss,” wrote one admiring child, “you have an imagination with a long tail!” (“Now there,” says Geisel, “is a kid who’s going places!”) “This is the funniest book I ever read in nine years,” a nine-year-old wrote to Seuss. Another wrote about a Seuss book: “All would like it from age 6 to 44 — that’s how old my mother is.” An eight-year-old wrote the letter that Geisel finds most perplexing: “Dear Dr. Seuss, you sure thunk up a lot of funny books. You sure thunk up a million funny animals . . . Who thunk you up, Dr. Seuss?”

Geisel admits that he thunk up Dr. Seuss with relative ease — Seuss is both his mother’s maiden name and his own middle name. The “Dr.” he lightly assumed in view of his postgraduate pursuit of a doctorate in literature, which he never obtained. The “Dr.” preceding Seuss still bestirs some confusion among those who are uncertain of his profession. Invited to a state dinner at the White House in 1970, Geisel was nonplussed to see himself on the guest list as Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel.

The world of Seussiana, however, he thunk up only by that inexplicably mysterious process from which, over four decades, have flowed such classics as And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street and How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat and Horton Hears a Who and I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew and on and on and on to his latest, and one of his funniest, There’s a Wocket in My Pocket.

 The years have also brought from Seuss such wildly fanciful creatures as the Drum-Tummied Snumm, who can “drum any tune you care to hum,” and Yertle the Turtle and Thidwick the Big-Hearted Moose and the sneetches and nerkles and nutches, “who live in small caves known as nitches for hutches,” and the Hippo-no-Bungus from Hippono-Hungus, not to mention Mrs. McCave and her 23 sons named Dave and the Tufted Mazurka from the Isle of Yerka and the Scrooge of a beast known as Grinch who very nearly stole Christmas. And, with the Seussian juices turned to fierce invective, in his musical version of The Cat in the Hat, on TV, a goldfish named Karlos K. Krinklebein sings out with soaring, yeasty chunks of language: “I’m a groffulous, griffulous groo. I’m a schoosler! A schminkler! And a poop-poodler, too! I’m a horrendous hobject which nobody loves … I’m untouchable unless you wear antiseptic gloves … I’m a punk! A kartungulous schnunck. Nobody loves me — not one tiny hunk!”

For another slice of Seuss invective, in the award-winning TV production of his How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he has a chorus lash out with: “You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peel. Your brain is full of spiders; you’ve got garlic in your soul. Your heart is full of unwashed socks; your soul is full of gunk.” And then the gleefully malevolent topper: “You’re a three-decker sauerkraut and toadstool sandwich with arsenic sauce!”

The style of his words, as with most writers, reflects the man himself, for inside Ted Geisel there resides a full complement of wry, restlessly impish demons that help him view the world from a special, charmingly eccentric tilt. What is the Seussian wellspring, the source of his ideas? Geisel shrugs. “I get my ideas,” he confides, mischievously, “in a little town near Zybliknov where I spend an occasional weekend.”

With his wife, Audrey, who has a smile that would surely bedazzle a snerkle or a grinch, Geisel lives and works in a pink stucco showplace of a home, once a World War II watchtower atop the highest hill in La Jolla, overlooking the Pacific. The Geisels have no children of their own, and kids, says Geisel, are invariably disappointed when they encounter him in the flesh. A shy man, although not as shy as the legend he has nurtured, Geisel tends to be at his shyest and most uneasy in the presence of children.

“Kids expect Dr. Seuss to be a baggy pants character,” says Geisel. “They expect big whiskers and a nose that lights up. Instead, I come to the door, a normal old poop. Some of the kids say, ‘Go on, you aren’t Dr. Seuss.’ It can be embarrassing. Frankly, I’m terrified of kids in a mass. Individually, some kids are nice, some are little stinkers. But I don’t hold with that nonsense that children are all little angels.”

At 72, still coltish and youthful, Ted Geisel says that he has heightened his pace with age. A late riser, he usually puts in an eight-hour day at the desk and drawing board in his expansive studio, with illustrations for his current project lining the walls. If the work is going well, he may press on for 10 or 12 hours, slowly, meticulously, painfully, and usually into the night. “At night,” he explains, “nobody calls you on the phone and tries to sell you insurance.”

Geisel views himself essentially as a writer who draws. “I’m a writer who throws in the drawings for free,” he says. “The drawing is fun, the writing is murder.” When the words won’t come, Geisel will stare morosely out at the Pacific. And if the creative well turns temporarily to dust, he may topple his lean, 6-foot frame on a nearby couch, groaning and thrashing the air. For every 60 pages of manuscript he deems usable, he hurls at least 500 pages into the wastebasket. Ninety-five percent of his drawings he tosses angrily on the floor. The efforts he would formerly throw away he now dispatches, at the university’s request, to the UCLA library, which also contains the original drawings and manuscripts of most of Seuss’s works.

He bristles at talk of retirement. “People of my age are all retiring,” he says, “which is something I would never want for myself. I’m afraid the average guy enjoys his retirement because he never enjoyed his work. I’ve got more things I want to do now than ever.”

Juggling several careers at once, Geisel laboriously churns out his children’s books — on the wall now were preliminary sketches for three new stories — and he’s an editor of the Beginner’s Books division of Random House. He administers charitable works through his Dr. Seuss Foundation, which provides money for various zoos and scholarships for worthy students and has underwritten the salary of a professor of humanities at his alma mater, Dartmouth. As a relief from the delicate drudgery of authorship, he paints with serious intent.

One of his future projects is the writing of a rock opera, a musical form he finds intriguing. Television also fascinates him, and recently one of the networks presented his animated TV rock musical called “The Hooberbloob Highway.” Geisel says: “Television is the biggest, the most exciting medium there is. I just want to live long enough to do something terrific on TV.” With his television commitments, Geisel must commute frequently by shuttle flight from San Diego to Hollywood. Recently, at the Los Angeles Airport, he was returning home after a working day at the TV studio and a Los Angeles Library Association luncheon at which he was presented a bronzed Flit gun, a vintage device for spraying insects.

Years ago, in the 1930s, Geisel worked in advertising in New York, and he conceived of one of the big promotional slogans of the day, with an accompanying Seussian drawing: “Quick, Henry, the Flit.”

“So I’m at the airport,” Geisel relates, “and the guard says, ‘What’s that you’ve got there?’ I said it was a bronzed Flit gun. ‘A gun?’ he said, ‘You can’t pass through here with a gun in your possession.’ He was about 20 years old and had never heard of Flit. I told him to call the next man in charge, who turned out to be about 25, and he hadn’t heard of Flit, either. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘there must be some old poop in charge here.’ They brought out the supervisor, who was an old poop. ‘Why, that’s a Flit gun,’ he said. ‘Haven’t seen one of them in years.’ Then he laughed and sent me on my way.”

Lately, to his bemused astonishment, Geisel has been the target of several women’s lib groups. At once, he says, he began receiving almost identically phrased letters (“with the same words misspelled”) from 15 cities scattered across the country. All complained about a line in his book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937. The story, a testimony to the power of a child’s imagination, dwells on a young boy who walks along Mulberry Street and sees a car and a horse. He continues to imagine other improbable occurrences, but one flight of fantasy he dismisses as too pedestrian. Referring to his little sister, the boy says: “Even Jane could think of it.”

“Suddenly, after all these years, I’m deluged with protests over that one line,” says Geisel. “They say that line will cause boys to grow up feeling superior to their sisters. They demanded that I change the line. I wrote back saying that I agree with some of their goals and I know their request may be well-intentioned. But the boy in my story did feel that way about his sister and I wasn’t about to change a word.”

Another letter brought a similar feminist complaint. It seems that the works of Dr. Seuss had been put through a computer and it was concluded that 99 percent of the animal creatures he drew in them were male. “The woman who wrote to me said this was demeaning and why didn’t I draw females?” says Geisel. “I wrote back that I was ashamed of my oversight but I’ve got this problem — I asked her, did you ever try to draw a female hippo-griff?”

Geisel concedes that he has never had the knack of drawing females of any kind. In 1939, he wrote a humor book for adults called The Seven Lady Godivas. As he recalls, thumbing through the pages, “I tried to draw my Godivas as very sexy babes. But look at them here — they’re neuter and sexless and they have no shape at all.”

On the door to the Geisels’ home is a small printed sign that warns, with typical Seussian waggishness: Beware of the Cat. There are no cats in the Geisel household unless one counts the 400 or so feline specimens in his various paintings. One painting contains 200 faces of cats in a cluster. Geisel calls it appropriately “A Plethora of Cats.” In contrast to another cherished writer-illustrator, the late James Thurber, whose specialty was wistful dogs, Geisel leans to cats, although he admits he has no particular affection for them. “The truth,” he says, “is that I like dogs better than cats but I don’t know how to draw a dog.”

It was a cat drawing, in fact, that led Geisel into a hitherto uncharted area of children’s books. In the mid-1950s, when parents were concerned that Johnny was unable to read, Geisel’s publisher urged him to fill the void with a book for six-year-olds. The story would be limited to a prescribed list of words, all of one syllable. After months of helpless thrashing, Geisel was rummaging through his discarded sketches one day when he saw a drawing of a roguish-looking cat. It was a true Seussian cat, wearing a stovepipe hat. Since both cat and hat were on the word list, and rhymed, Geisel parlayed them into The Cat in the Hat, a comic masterpiece now a supplementary text for first-graders.

Geisel’s feeling for animals can be traced to his boyhood in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he was born of German stock on March 4, 1904. His father’s duties as supervisor of public parks included the overseeing of the city’s zoo. Young Ted and his sister often romped with the animals, and they would listen to animal stories related by their mother.

One incident in his boyhood left Geisel with a permanent dread of audiences. He rejects all invitations to give speeches and he refuses to appear on television talk shows. There is still a haunted look in his eyes as he recalls the day when he was 13 and Theodore Roosevelt came to Springfield to address a World War I bond rally and to present medals to Boy Scouts with the best bond-selling records.

With the other boys, Geisel sat nervously as the names were called out and the medals given. Finally, young Ted was sitting alone with Roosevelt on the platform. Sadly, Ted Geisel’s name had been inadvertently omitted from the list. “I can still hear it now,” Geisel says. “Teddy Roosevelt looking around and asking, ‘What is this little boy doing here?’ And all those eyes from the audience staring right through me, people whispering, ‘Ted Geisel tried to get a medal and he didn’t deserve it.’ I can still hear them saying, ‘What’s he doing there?’ Even today, I sometimes find myself asking, ‘What am I doing here?’”

At Dartmouth, Geisel majored in literature and went on to Oxford for graduate work. His plan was to return to his beloved Dartmouth as a professor. At Oxford, he was chagrined to learn that he knew much less than his fellow British students, and he casually devoted his time to drawing. Subsequently, he spent a year at the University of Vienna and at the Sorbonne. In 1927, he returned to the United States, and his cartoons, with funny two-line captions, began to appear regularly in the top magazines, including The Saturday Evening Post. He chose to sign them “Dr. Seuss.”

“I used to tell myself I used ‘Dr. Seuss’ to save my own name for when I write The Great American Novel,” Geisel says. “What isn’t generally known is that I already wrote my Great American Novel. I wrote it over 40 years ago. It went unpublished and deservedly so. First, I wrote it in two volumes. Then I cut it to one volume, then to a long short story, then a paragraph. In the end, I sold it as a two-line caption for a cartoon.”

While he was involved in the advertising campaign to promote the Flit spray-gun, he learned that his contract specifically forbade outside writing. There was one exception— he could write for children. “It was not through any love of children that I began to write for them,” Geisel says. “It all happened through a loophole in my contract.” Then he wrote and illustrated And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, which was turned down by 27 publishers. The 28th was much more perceptive, and the book, by now accepted as a classic, has since appeared in over 20 editions. All of Geisel’s books are printed in a number of foreign languages and enjoy a vast international popularity, from Germany to Brazil to Japan.

In contrast to the heavy-handed sermonizing found in so many children’s stories, the Dr. Seuss tales reveal Geisel as a master of the subtle moral. “It’s impossible to write anything without making some kind of statement,” he insists. His tale of the Star-Belly Sneetches who are snooty to the Plain-Belly Sneetches is clearly a blow at snobbery. In How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the nasty Grinch makes off with all the presents in Who-ville, but the resourceful Whos celebrate without presents, saying for Seuss: “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas . . . means a little more.”

Aside from his Yertle the Turtle, a parable on Hitler, Geisel rarely aims for a moral. Shortly after producing a film documentary on Japan — it brought him one of his three Academy Awards — Geisel wrote Horton Hears a Who, wherein the tiny Whos symbolized the Japanese people, humiliated in World War II and searching now for their own kind of democracy. One line from the story: “A person is a person no matter how small.” Another exception was The Lorax, in which he lambasted the spoilers of the land.

Several years ago, Geisel campaigned against what he termed “linguistic untidiness” with a book called Fox in Socks, which included the following tongue twister: “Clocks on fox tick. Clocks on Knox tock. Six sick bricks tick. Six sick chicks tock.” An eminent English professor wrote in admiration: “Peter Piper has picked his last peck of pickled peppers.”

As a craftsman, Geisel has never set out consciously to write for children. He treats his young readers as equals. “Too many writers have only contempt and condescension for children, which is why they give them such degrading corn about bunnies,” Geisel says. “When you write for kids, you can’t lose them for one second. If you don’t take the child forward with each turn of the page you’re cooked. I write for myself at my own level first; then I go back and shorten and simplify the sentences. A kid can understand anything.”

As he looks back on a lifetime of creativity, Ted (Dr. Seuss) Geisel, a perfectionist with every stroke of the pen, sums up the body of his work with characteristic humility. “I just wish it were better,” he says. “But it’s all as good as I could do.” Is there anyone who could have done better, this side of Who-ville, not far from the River Wah-hoo, near the wilds of Hippo-no-Hungus, on the way to Solla Sollew?

The Post featured a number of stories about the great Dr. Seuss. Read more about the man and his work in “The Unforgettable Dr. Seuss.”

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