Theodor Seuss Geisel, who was called Ted as a boy but would one day be known to the world as Dr. Seuss, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, in 1904. His father, Theodor Robert Geisel, who co-owned a brewery, often took young Ted to the city zoo. Perhaps inspired by these visits, Ted – with the encouragement of his mother, Henrietta – drew animal caricatures on his bedroom walls.
Dr. Seuss produced some 66 books in all, counting those he wrote but didn’t illustrate, those he co-authored or wrote under a pseudonym, and those that were published posthumously. He is the world’s best-selling children’s author, and according to some sources either the ninth or 11th most popular fiction writer of any kind in history. His books, which have been translated into 30 languages, have sold somewhere between 500 million and 650 million copies.
Variously hailed as the American Poet Laureate of Nonsense and the Modern Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss has brought pleasure to (and encouraged reading comprehension in) four generations of children around the world. But not everything about him was family-friendly. Here are some surprising facts about this prolific author and illustrator.
His grandfather was a partner in the Kalmbach & Geisel brewery, known familiarly as “Come Back and Guzzle,” which later morphed into the Springfield Brewing Co., one of the largest such operations in New England.
Former President Theodore Roosevelt once humiliated him on stage, exclaiming “What’s this boy doing here?” instead of giving him the award for selling war bonds that he was expecting.
His first published work was a parody of Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!,” composed as a plaint about the difficulty of Latin class for his high school newspaper.
He wrote a minstrel show called “Chicopee Surprised” as a fundraiser for a school trip, and he performed in it in blackface.
He was fired from the college humor magazine at Dartmouth College for drinking gin with friends in his dorm room – during Prohibition!
“Seuss” is pronounced “zoice” in German, but Geisel preferred to rhyme it with “Goose,” as in Mother Goose.
He wasn’t really a doctor. He began using the honorific in an attempt to mollify his father, who had wanted him to study medicine.
“Oh, the places you’ll go!”, which became the title of his last book (published in 1990), was a Dartmouth catchphrase in the 1920s.
He was voted “Least Likely to Succeed” by Casque & Gauntlet, the senior society to which he belonged at Dartmouth.
He attended Oxford University in 1926, pursuing a master’s degree in English, but he left after less than a year.
Helen Palmer, a fellow student at Oxford who was to become his first wife, encouraged him to give up the academic world to concentrate on his art.
He and Helen were unable to have children, but he sometimes pretended humorously to have offspring, with names like Chrysanthemum-Pearl, Wickersham, Miggles and Boo-boo.
His first published cartoon appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1927.
In 1929, he drew a four-panel cartoon for the satirical weekly Judge that included a blatantly racist image, complete with the N-word.
When it ran into financial difficulties, Judge began paying him in merchandise, including 100 cartons of shaving cream on one occasion and 13 gross of nail clippers on another.
He was subsequently hired to create ads by the makers of Flit, a DDT-laced bug spray produced by a subsidiary of Standard Oil of New Jersey.
He created a slogan for the bug spray – “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” – that became an oft-quoted slogan of the day a la “Where’s the Beef?”
Some of his Flit ads featured more racist imagery, of both blacks and Middle Easterners.
He later rejected racism, drawing cartoons such as one featuring Uncle Sam wielding a Flit-like spray to blow the “Racial Prejudice Bug” out of the heads of white citizens.
Working for another Standard Oil subsidiary, which produced Essomarine boat fuel, he became “Admiral-in-Chief” of the so-called Seuss Navy, an outfit made up for promotional purposes.
He began writing and drawing children’s books because it was one of the few genres not forbidden by his ad contracts.
His first published children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street,” was rejected by publishers 27 times before it went to press in 1937.
In 1939, he published a book for adults called “The Seven Lady Godivas,” full of cartoon nudes. It didn’t sell well, and he went back to children’s books.
During World War II, he enlisted in the Army and co-wrote some 27 humorous instructional cartoons featuring a hapless Army recruit called Private Snafu.
He might have invented the word “nerd,” which appears in his 1950 book “If I Ran the Zoo” – though the derivation is disputed.
He wrote a fantasy movie about an evil piano teacher, “The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T.,” released in 1953.
Helen, who was in frail health, committed suicide after Geisel had an affair with a friend’s wife, Audrey Dimond – who was to become the second Mrs. Geisel.
He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in recognition of the fact that his stories have inspired feature films and TV specials.
His license plate read “GRINCH,” a reference to one of his most famous books, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
He was a heavy smoker until the early 1980s and died of oral cancer – though not until 1991, when he was 87.
Written by Colman Andrews | USA Today