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Dr. Seuss

A Biography of Children's Author Theodor Geisel, Who Wrote as Dr. Seuss

By Shelly Schwartz, Contributing History Writer

Picture of Dr. Seuss holding a copy of The Cat in the Hat.

American author and illustrator Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel) sits at his drafting table in his home office with a copy of his book, "The Cat in the Hat," in La Jolla, California. (April 25, 1957)

(Photo by Gene Lester/Getty Images)

Who Was Dr. Seuss?

Theodor Seuss Geisel, who used the pseudonym "Dr. Seuss," wrote and illustrated 45 children’s books filled with memorable characters, earnest messages, and limericks (silly, witty poems). Many of Dr. Seuss’s books have become classics such as The Cat in the Hat, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Horton Hears a Who, and Green Eggs and Ham.

Dates: March 2, 1904 -- September 24, 1991

Also Known As: Theodor Seuss Geisel, Ted Geisel

Overview of Dr. Seuss

Ted Geisel was a shy, married man who never had children of his own but found a way as the author "Dr. Seuss" to spark children's imaginations around the world. With the use of silly words that set an original theme, tone, and mood for his stories as well as curlicue drawings of rascally animals, Geisel created books that became beloved favorites of children and adults alike.

Wildly popular, Dr. Seuss’s books have been translated into over 20 languages and several have been made into television cartoons and major motion pictures.

Growing Up: Dr. Seuss as a Boy

Theodor Seuss Geisel was born in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, Theodor Robert Geisel, helped manage his father’s brewery and in 1909 was appointed to the Springfield Park Board. Geisel tagged along with his father for behind-the-scene peeks at the Springfield Zoo, bringing along his sketchpad and pencil for exaggerated doodling of animals. Geisel met his father’s trolley at the end of each day where he was handed the comic page full of eccentric humor from the Boston American.

Although his father influenced Geisel’s love of drawing, Geisel credited his mother, Henrietta Seuss Geisel, for the most influence on his writing technique. Henrietta would read to her two children with rhythm and urgency, the way she had sold pies in her father’s bakery. Thus Geisel had an ear for meter and loved to make up nonsense rhymes early on.

While his childhood seemed idyllic, all was not easy. During World War I (1914-1919), Geisel’s peers ridiculed him for being of German ancestry. To prove his American patriotism, Geisel became one of the top U.S. Liberty Bond sellers with the Boy Scouts.

It was to be a great honor when former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt came to Springfield to award medals to the top bond sellers, but there was a mistake - Roosevelt had only nine medals in hand. Geisel, who was child number ten, was swiftly escorted off-stage without receiving a medal. Traumatized by this incident, Geisel had a fear of public speaking for the rest of his life.

In 1919, Prohibition began, forcing the close of the family's brewery business and creating an economic setback for Geisel's family.

Dartmouth College and a Pseudonym

Geisel’s favorite English teacher urged him to apply to Dartmouth College and in 1921, Geisel was accepted. Admired for his silliness, Geisel drew cartoons for the college humor magazine, Jack-O-Lantern. Spending more time on his cartoons than he should, his grades began to falter. After Geisel’s father informed his son how unhappy his grades made him, Geisel worked harder and became Jack-O-Lantern’s editor-in-chief his senior year.

However, Geisel's position at the paper ended abruptly when he was caught drinking alcohol (it was still Prohibition and buying alcohol was illegal). Unable to submit to the magazine as punishment, Geisel came up with a loophole, writing and drawing under a pseudonym named "Seuss."

After graduating from Dartmouth in 1925 with a B.A. in liberal arts, Geisel told his father that he had applied for a fellowship to study English literature at Lincoln College in Oxford, England. Extremely excited, Geisel's father had the story run in the Springfield Union newspaper that his son was going off to the oldest English-speaking university in the world. When Geisel didn’t get the fellowship, his father decided to pay the tuition himself to avoid embarrassment.

Geisel didn't do well at Oxford. Not feeling as intelligent as the other Oxford students, Geisel doodled more than he took notes. Helen Palmer, a classmate, told Geisel that instead of becoming a professor of English literature, he was meant to draw. After one year of school, Geisel left Oxford, traveled Europe for eight months, doodling curious animals, wondering what kind of a job he could get as a doodler of zany beasts.

Dr. Seuss Has an Advertising Career

Upon returning to the U.S., Geisel was able to freelance a few cartoons in The Saturday Evening Post. He signed his work “Dr. Theophrastus Seuss” and then later shortened it to “Dr. Seuss.” At the age of 23, Geisel got a job as a cartoonist for Judge magazine in New York at $75 per week and was able to marry his Oxford sweetheart, Helen Palmer.

Geisel’s work included drawing cartoons and advertisements with his unusual, zany creatures. Luckily, when Judge magazine went out of business, Flit Household Spray, a popular insecticide, hired Geisel to continue drawing their advertisements for twelve thousand dollars a year. Geisel's ads for Flit appeared in newspapers and on billboards, making Flit a household name with Geisel’s catchy phrase: "Quick, Henry, the Flit!"

Geisel also continued to sell cartoons and humorous articles to magazines such as Life and Vanity Fair.

Dr. Seuss Becomes a Children’s Author

Geisel and Helen loved to travel. While on a ship to Europe in 1936, Geisel made up a limerick to match the grinding of the ship’s engine rhythm as it struggled against rough seas. Six months later, after perfecting the story and adding drawings about a boy’s untruthful walk home from school, Geisel shopped his children's book to publishers. During the winter of 1936-37, twenty-seven publishers rejected the story, saying they only wanted stories with morals.

On his way home from the twenty-seventh rejection, Geisel was ready to burn his manuscript when he ran into Mike McClintock, an old Dartmouth College buddy who was now an editor of children’s books at Vanguard Press. Mike liked the story and decided to publish it.

The book, renamed from A Story That No One Can Beat to And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was Geisel's first published children's book and was praised with good reviews for being original, entertaining, and different. While Geisel went on to write more books of exuberant Seuss lore for Random House (who lured him away from Vanguard Press), Geisel said that drawing always came easier than writing.

WWII Cartoons

After publishing a large number of political cartoons to PM magazine, Geisel joined the U.S. Army in 1942. The Army placed him in the Information and Education Division, working with Academy Award-winning director Frank Capra at a leased Fox studio in Hollywood known as Fort Fox. While working with Capra, Captain Geisel wrote several training films for the military, which earned Geisel the Legion of Merit.

After the war, two of Geisel's military propaganda films were turned into commercial films and won Academy Awards. Hitler Lives? (originally Your Job in Germany) won an Academy Award for Short Documentary and Design for Death (originally Our Job in Japan) won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

During this time, Helen found success by writing children’s books for Disney and Golden Books, including Donald Duck Sees South America, Bobby and His Airplane, Tommy’s Wonderful Rides, and Johnny’s Machines. After the war, the Geisels remained in La Jolla, California to write children’s books.

The Cat in the Hat and More Popular Books

With World War II over, Geisel returned to children's stories and in 1950 wrote an animated cartoon titled Gerald McBoing-Boing about a child who makes noises instead of words. The cartoon won an Academy Award for Cartoon Short Film.

In 1954, Geisel was presented with a new challenge. When journalist John Hersey published an article in Life magazine stating that children’s first readers were boring and suggested that someone like Dr. Seuss should write them, Geisel accepted the challenge.

After looking at the list of words he had to use, Geisel found it difficult to be imaginative with such words as "cat" and "hat." At first thinking he could pound the 225-word manuscript out in three weeks, it took Geisel more than a year to write his version of a child's first reading primer. It was worth the wait.

The now immensely famous book, The Cat in the Hat (1957), changed the way children read and was one of Geisel’s biggest triumphs. No longer boring, children could learn to read while also having fun, sharing the journey of two siblings who get stuck inside on a cold day with a troublemaker of a cat.

The Cat in the Hat was followed that same year by another big success, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which stemmed from Geisel's own aversion toward holiday materialism. These two Dr. Seuss books made Random House the leader of children’s books and Dr. Seuss a celebrity.

Awards, Heartache, and Controversy

Dr. Seuss was awarded seven honorary doctorates (which he often joked made him Dr. Dr. Seuss) and the 1984 Pulitzer Prize. Three of his books, McElligot’s Pool (1948), Bartholomew and the Oobleck (1950), and If I Ran the Zoo (1951), won Caldecott Honor Medals.

All the awards and successes, however, couldn't help cure Helen, who had been suffering for a decade from a number of serious medical issues, including cancer. No longer able to stand the pain, she committed suicide in 1967. The following year, Geisel married Audrey Stone Diamond.

Although many of Geisel's books helped children learn to read, some of his stories were met with controversy due to political themes such as The Lorax (1971), which depicts Geisel’s repulsion of pollution, and The Butter Battle Book (1984), which depicts his disgust with the nuclear arms race. However, the latter book was on the New York Times bestseller list for six months, the only children’s book to achieve that status at the time.

Dr. Seuss Dies

Geisel's final book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go (1990), was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years and remains a very popular book to give as a gift at graduations.

Just a year after his last book was published, Ted Geisel died in 1991 at the age of 87 after suffering from throat cancer.

The fascination with Geisel's characters and silly words continues. While many of Dr. Seuss's books have become children's classics, Dr. Seuss's characters now also appear in movies, on merchandise, and even as part of a theme park (Seuss Landing at Universal's Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida).

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