The Life and Times of Dr. Seuss

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The Life and Times of Dr. Seuss

No American writer has had as great an impact on children's literature as
Dr. Seuss. His imaginative characters, vivid illustrations, and catchy rhymes are instantly recognizable to anyone who grew up reading his stories. The author himself is less well-known; while he worked tirelessly at his craft, he didn't seek personal fame. Most of the details of his private life aren’t common knowledge to fans of his books. For instance, it’s a little-known fact that Dr. Seuss wasn’t actually a doctor—he added the prefix to his pseudonym as a goofy way to lend credibility to his menagerie of characters.

Dr. Seuss and His Friends Club

A Prosperous & Patriotic Childhood

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born on March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Massachusetts. The town was booming, with several large manufacturing companies and a thriving population of German immigrants. Ted's grandfather and father owned a successful brewery, and the future Dr. Seuss grew up in the midst of a bustling, prosperous extended family. A child during World War I, Ted acquired a sense of patriotism that would remain with him his entire life. As a Scout, he worked to sell U.S. War Bonds. In an oft-told story, he sold so many that he was supposed to receive an award, along with 10 other boys, from President Theodore Roosevelt. However, during the awards ceremony, Roosevelt found that he had only nine medals to give, and when he got to Ted, standing at the end of the row, he asked, "What's this boy doing here?" For the rest of his life, Geisel suffered from acute stage fright, and sometimes skipped speaking engagements altogether.

Ted Geisel at his desk

Trading Academia for Storytelling

As Prohibition loomed and threatened to put his father out of business, Geisel was accepted into Dartmouth College. Enrolled as an English major, he proved to be only a mediocre student. Ted divided his time between his studies and writing for the Dartmouth humor magazine, Jack-o-Lantern. It was there that he discovered his love of designing books with pictures and words, though he said it took him "almost a quarter of a century" before he felt he had succeeded.

As Geisel's senior year came to a close, his father asked where he'd be going next. When Ted answered that he'd gotten a scholarship to study at Lincoln College in Oxford, his father immediately passed the news on to the town newspaper, who published it the next day. Unfortunately, Geisel was exaggerating a bit when he said he'd "gotten" the scholarship; he’d applied, but ultimately was rejected. Nevertheless, his father sent Geisel to England in 1925 for a three-year stay.

Ted Geisel and the Cat in the Hat

An Innovator Finds His Muse

It was during his time in Europe that Ted met his first wife, another American student named Helen Palmer. Geisel often told the story of how he and Helen broke the news of their relationship to Helen's mother. The first night Mrs. Palmer met Geisel, Helen, out of the blue, said, "Mother, what do you think of 'this' as a husband?" "But I don't even know his name!" her mother exclaimed. Geisel reached into his billfold and pulled out a piece of paper. "Madam," he said, "my card."

After Geisel and Helen married and moved to New York City, he started to get work in magazines and advertisements. His “Quick, Henry, The Flit!” campaign for Flit bug spray was legendary, and he soon branched out into other Standard Oil products, where his unique illustrations seemed to have the power to sell virtually anything. During this time, he published his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.

Words in the Midst of War

As World War II loomed, Geisel found himself increasingly drawn to the war effort. He had no sympathy for isolationists, and criticized them copiously along with the leaders of Japan, Germany, and Italy. He wound up in Hollywood, doing animation and screenplays for Colonel Frank Capra’s propaganda unit. At one point, while taking a film to Europe to present to various generals, he found himself stuck behind enemy lines. Thankfully, he was rescued soon after by U.S. troops.

Well-known children's book author Theodor Seuss GeiselAfter the war, the Geisels, who were now living in La Jolla, California, took a trip to Japan to work on a cultural piece for Life magazine. Tiring of the movie business, Geisel wanted to spend more time on his children’s books. With the advent of the baby boomer generation, children’s books were in high demand, and “Dr. Seuss” became the acknowledged master. He held exceptionally high standards for himself and the people he worked with, including his wife, Helen, who authored the Beginner Book A Fish Out of Water. Geisel was well-known at the publisher’s office for paying close attention to the details of printing, particularly with regard to the colors used in his illustrations.

A Legendary Partnership Ends

After a long illness, Geisel’s wife Helen died in 1967, a year after his first TV cartoon aired. Geisel was grief-stricken. In addition to overseeing his business functions, his wife had served as his primary companion, collaborator, and motivator.

An older Theodor Seuss Geisel aka Dr Seuss at his desk

Prolific Later Years

After remarrying to Audrey Stone Diamond, he resumed his hectic schedule. Geisel produced films nearly every year through the 1970s, and two to three books a year almost without pause between 1957 and 1976. After 1980 he slowed down, publishing one book a year, then every two years, until his final book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, was published in 1990. At the age of 87, Theodor Seuss Geisel passed away on September 24, 1991 in California.

Photos © Seuss Enterprises

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