Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel
New York: Random House, 1995;
Da Capo Press, 2000
“A loving, funny, touching, and truly compelling biography that captures … the unique humor, warmth, insecurity, playfulness, complexity, mischievousness, almost maddening perfectionism, and sheer brilliance of Theodor S. Geisel. My father, [publisher]Bennett Cerf, liked to say that of all the distinguished authors with whom he had the honor of working, Dr. Seuss alone was a true genius. Every page of [this book] confirms that insight.”
Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (from book jacket):
This captivating biography of the bestselling children’s author in history reveals at last the man who had a unique influence on four generations of Americans, who championed children’s rights before that phrase was familiar, and who revolutionized the way children learn to read.
The name Dr. Seuss inevitably provokes a smile and some recollection of a beloved character - Horton, perhaps, or Thidwick or The Cat in the Hat. Yet during his lifetime their creator was an enigma. Through years at Dartmouth, Oxford, New York and Hollywood, mingling with the famous and notorious, he remained reclusive and plagued by self-doubts. He never lost his love of childlike playfulness, while demanding word-by-word, sound-by-sound, meter-by-meter perfection in his art and craft. In forty-seven books of nonsensical charm, from And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street in 1937 to Oh, the Places You’ll Go! in 1990, his recurring theme was that children have an inalienable right to mischief, love, and hope.
Ted Geisel was a dreamer who saw the world “through the wrong end of a telescope.” An obsessively private man, he rarely revealed anything of his personal and professional agonies - or of the bawdy Seussian verses he wrote for friends.
Judith and Neil Morgan knew Ted Geisel in the latter half of his life, and here they merge their firsthand insights with scholarly research, drawing material from hundreds of letters and interviews, as well as from their subject’s scribbled notes for an unpublished autobiography. The result is a frank and felicitous biography, as unique as its subject.
Excerpts from Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel:
“The fog hung in silver wisps that October morning in 1925 as a black Morris-Cowley taxi pulled away from the train station in Oxford and rumbled off to the High Street. It turned at the half-timbered inn known as The Mitre and eased along Turl Street through a shadowy stream of bicycling students and black-robed dons, walking two and two. Ted Geisel, its lone passenger, leaned forward for a better view of the spires and cupolas of this ancient university town and clasped his hands in unconscious applause. But when the taxi stopped beside a bleak stone wall, his smile faded and he looked warily about.
‘Lincoln College, sir,’ the driver said, nodding toward a dark passage as he began to hand down the youth’s luggage.
Drawing a woolen scarf around his neck and clutching the typewriter that had been his close companion at Dartmouth College, the twenty-one-year old American stepped to the street. He was an imposing young man, six feet tall and carelessly handsome in his wool cap, plus fours and tweed jacket. His hair was black and unruly. As he smelled the coal smoke in the autumn air, his long nose quivered. Then he straightened his shoulders, loped through Lincoln’s medieval oaken gate and announced himself at the porter’s lodge.
Ted was enrolled at Oxford, he knew, through a blunder of bravado, one of many times in his life when his unleashed imagination and tendency to exaggerate would take him to surprising and wondrous places. Sometimes he questioned how he got into these jams, but more often he was plotting how to get out. This strange and distant citadel, he reminded himself, was where he must try to consider becoming a professor of English literature.
Such thoughts were interrupted by an aging scout who was assigned to show him to his quarters. They silently crossed the front quad, a gravel-and-flagstone courtyard that appeared to be a cul-de-sac, its sooty walls scarlet with ivy. Ducking through a low archway behind the fifteenth-century dining hall, they emerged on a shaded back lawn. The scout motioned up a stairwell, No. 11, and led Ted to a chill room overlooking a gnarled plane tree and a wall shared with Brasenose College. The room was large enough, about twenty feet square, with three deep windows and a small fireplace. Ted gazed through the cross-panes of his windows at a high stone wall studded with jagged glass and, in those first lonely moments, thought of a dungeon door clanging shut behind him. Yet for the rest of his extraordinary life, he would marvel at the unexpected events and influences of that Oxford year, none of them academic, that put his life in focus...”
“On the day after New Year’s in 1940 Ted was back at his drawing board overlooking Park Avenue, doodling in pencil on tracing paper in search of an idea. Among unrelated sketches on his desk was one of a gentle-faced elephant much like the blue pachyderm that had paraded down Mulberry Street and been reprised as “the Elephant with a Mother Complex” in Judge magazine in 1938. When Ted took a break for coffee and one of his frequent brisk strolls, he left the window open. Later, back in his swivel chair, he saw that one transparent sketch had blown atop another so that the elephant appeared to be sitting in a tree. That started it. What is an elephant doing in a tree? he asked himself. Hmmm…Obviously hatching an egg. But how did the egg get there? Hmmm…a bird must have left it. Where did the bird go? This moment launched Horton Hatches the Egg and provided Ted’s most convenient answer to persistent questions about how a Dr. Seuss book was born. “I’ve left a window open by my desk ever since,” he said. “but it never happened again.”