Happy Birthday, Dr. Seuss! 25 Fascinating Facts

Beloved children’s author Dr. Seuss was born 113 years ago today in Springfield, Massachusetts. Enjoy these 25 fascinating facts about the man and his work.

By Any Other Name

1.  Stripped of his job as editor when caught drinking gin in his Dartmouth dorm room during Prohibition, Theodor (Ted) Seuss Geisel continued to work on the magazine under his mother’s maiden name, Seuss. Geisel also wrote under the names Theodor LeSieg (Geisel spelled backwards), Rosetta Stone, and Theophrastus Seuss. Some think he was saving his real name for when he penned the Great American Novel.

2.  Seuss actually rhymes with ‘voice’ not ‘moose.’ Geisel accepted the mispronunciation, partly because Seuss also rhymes with Mother Goose, “a figure advantageous for an author of children’s books to be associated with.”

3.  Dr. Seuss was not a doctor of any kind. But his father had wanted him to be a medical doctor so he called himself Dr. Seuss.

Children

4.  Geisel did not have children of his own but when he tired of friends talking about their progeny, Geisel was happy to make up a few.  Chrysanthemum Pearl was a particular favourite, capable of “making the most delicious oyster stew with chocolate frosting and flaming Roman candles.” Other fictitious children whose names were added to family Christmas cards included Thnud, Norval and Wickersham.

5.  According to Geisel’s second wife, Dr. Seuss wasn’t comfortable around kids. He didn’t like not knowing what they would say or do. His famous line to parents was, “You have ’em and I’ll entertain ’em.”

Before the Book Career

6.  Oxford University lost Geisel as a Ph.D. candidate in English Literature when he decided that his studies were “astonishingly irrelevant.” He left the university and married Helen Palmer, a fellow student and author.

7.   Geisel was first famous for the advertising cartoons he drew to support he and his wife during the Great Depression. He was particularly known for “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”, a bug spray slogan and image. Money from these cartoons and others drawn for General Electric and NBC sustained Geisel during his first twenty years of children’s book writing.

8.  Geisel wanted to join the Navy in the Second World War, but ended up in director Frank Capra’s division of the Army creating propaganda films and training films for soldiers. The latter starred Private Snafu (Situation Normal, All F*!* Up), a big hit with the troops. Geisel’s sense of humour with adults is reminiscent of another children’s book author, Shel Silverstein. One of the Snafu cartoons begins, “It’s so cold, it would freeze the nuts off a jeep.”

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.

Bennett Cerf, President of Random House

Firsts

9.  And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was Geisel’s first children’s book. The title of the book came from a street near his grandparents’ bakery; the rhythms from the chugging of a ship’s engines as Geisel returned to the United States from England. Mulberry Street was rejected by 27 publishers before it was finally picked up by an old Dartmouth buddy who was working at Vanguard Press. Geisel later said that if he hadn’t run into his friend, he would have burned the manuscript and gone into the dry-cleaning business.

10.  Geisel is credited with having coined the term ‘nerd’, which he defined as “a red and yellow and white-haired sourpuss.” In If I Ran the Zoo, Gerald McGrew claimed that he was going to collect “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too” to populate his imaginary zoo.

11. Geisel won a Pulitzer in 1984, but not for a specific title. He was awarded for “his special contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.” Geisel also won the Laura Ingalls Wilder award, a Peabody award, and he did the writing for two Academy Award winning films. While he received Caldecott Honors three times, Geisel never won either a Caldecott or Newbery medal.

12.  Many of Dr. Seuss’s children’s book contained adult messages long before that was in vogue. For example, Yertle the Turtle is based on Adolf Hitler; The Lorax is about environmental conservation, and The Sneetches is about racism and discrimination.

Controversies

13.  At the age of 67 and after forty years of marriage, Geisel’s wife Helen took her own life. Helen was in ill health but she was also despondent over an affair that Geisel was having with a mutual friend, Audrey Dimond. Dimond was eighteen years younger than Geisel, also married, and the mother of two children. The year after Helen committed suicide, Dimond divorced her husband, married Geisel and shipped her two daughters off to boarding school. The second Mrs. Geisel claimed that Ted wouldn’t have been happy having children around and that she wasn’t particularly maternal.

sculpture of Ned McDodd from Horton Hears a Who
Nedd McDodd of Horton Hears a Who
© Calvin Leake | Dreamstime.com

14.  In Yertle the Turtle, the turtle burps at the end of the story. That had never happened in a children’s book before and the publisher wanted the burp removed. Oh, how times have changed!

15.  At least six of Dr. Seuss’s books have been banned at various times. Check the link for specifics, but I just have to share my two favourite wacky examples. Green Eggs and Ham was banned in California partly because the ham is supposedly a phallic symbol. That’s a good one, but this unsuccessful attempt at censorship is even better– In 2013, a patron of the Toronto Public Library argued for removal of Hop on Pop and an apology issued to fathers everywhere because Hop on Pop apparently encourages children to jump on their dads. The level-headed librarians refused, pointing out that “The children are actually told not to hop on Pop.”

Flops

16. When Geisel left Vanguard for Random House, it was on the condition that he be allowed to write and illustrate an adult picture book. The Seven Lady Godivas was a complete flop, selling only 2500 copies of its 10,000 print run. A large part of the problem was that Geisel simply couldn’t draw erotic-looking nudes. As he later said, “I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd.” You can see them here.

17.  The animated version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas was co-created by Ted Geisel and Looney Tunes Chuck Jones in 1966. Variety magazine referred to it as “a costly flop.” While true that it wasn’t initially well received, The Grinch is now one of the most popular Christmas specials of all times, consistently pulling top ratings in the 18-49 age group.

Challenges Conquered

18.  A director at Houghton Mifflin issued Geisel a challenge to write “a story that first-graders can’t put down” and gave him a list of the 350 words that first-graders need to know. Geisel used 220 words to write The Cat in the Hat. He later said, “I have great pride in taking Dick and Jane out of most school libraries. That is my greatest satisfaction.”

19.  Bennett Cerf, Seuss’s publisher at Random House, bet Dr. Seuss $50 that he couldn’t write a book using only 50 words. Green Eggs and Ham was that book.  The word ‘anywhere’ is the only word in the book with more than one syllable. As of 2012, Green Eggs and Ham had sold 15 million copies.

20. Geisel provided Bennett Cerf with a quiet challenge of his own. Wanting to see if Cerf was paying attention, he inserted an adult word in a draft of his manuscript, Hop on Pop. The lines read, “When I read, I am smart/ I always cut whole words apart./ Con Stan Tin O Ple, Tim Buk Tu/ Con Tra Cep Tive, Kan Ga Roo.” Cerf caught the word and changed the line.

Sources of Inspiration

21.  When he needed some inspiration, Geisel would don one of the hundreds of hats in his special collection.

If I were invited to a dinner party with my characters, I wouldn’t show up.

Ted Geisel

22.  Asked about the inspiration for Horton Hatches the Egg, Geisel explains: “I was in my New York studio one day, sketching on transparent tracing paper, and I had the window open. The wind simply took a picture of an elephant that I’d drawn and put it on top of another sheet of paper that had a tree on it. All I had to do was to figure out what the elephant was doing in that tree.” Geisel added that he then left his window open for the next thirty years, but nothing happened.

23. Mrs. Geisel used to chant rhymes to Ted and his sisters at bedtime. Geisel credits his mother with giving him “the rhythms in which I write and the urgency with which I do it.” Geisel also admired author Maurice Sendak, saying that is who he would be reading if he were a child.

The Writer

24.  Geisel was a perfectionist who wrote eight hours a day. His mantra was “You can do better than this.” He believed that two sentences in a children’s book was equivalent to two chapters in an adult book and said that for a 60 page book, he might write 500 pages. The 220 word Cat in the Hat took him a year and half to write.

25.  Many authors hate the question, “Where do you get your ideas?” but Dr. Seuss is the only one with the absolutely perfect response. “I get all my ideas in Switzerland near the Forka Pass. There is a small town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Uber Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock fixed. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people and I get my ideas from them.”

The Man

Dr. Seuss died of throat cancer in 1991 at the age of 87. His response to his doctor’s demand that he stop smoking captures the contrasts in Geisel’s personality. Once, like the cantankerous Grinch, he set fire to a ‘No Smoking’ table card at a dinner party. Another time, like the playful Cat in the Hat, Geisel planted peat moss and radish seeds in his pipe. Whenever he felt like taking a puff, he’d water his pipe garden with a medicine dropper instead.

Decades after his death, Dr. Seuss remains the most popular children’s book author of all time.

Which of these 25 facts about Dr. Seuss do you find most fascinating? After you’ve identified that, please be sure to check out this week’s self-care post for some simple things you can do to refresh your childhood memories and help to honour the man who gave us Thing One, Thing Two, Bar-ba-loots and Zubble-wumps.

14 comments

  1. I loved the last question “where do you get your ideas?” I also enjoyed all of his books. The rhymes give the audience a cheerful look at any particular subject. All of my children, grandchildren and even my great grandson have had these books from me.

  2. That’s a great phrase, Gerri – a cheerful look at any subject. I would imagine that Ted Geisel would be pleased with the compliment. According to his body of work, his friends and biographers, he believed that children deserved a life full of humour and unfettered imagination. Cheerful is a great word.

  3. Thanks for sharing this post, Karen. Dr. Seuss was my sons’ favorite author…as a result, more than 27 years later, I can still recite the full ‘Cat in the Hat’ off by heart.
    “The sun did not shine. It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house all that cold, cold wet day….. ” Sometimes, I seriously have to stop myself!

  4. It’s awesome that you can recite The Cat in the Hat by heart. I’ll never forget a friend reciting the entirety of The Cremation of Sam McGee onto my answering machine. He filled the machine but I didn’t delete it for days. It was just so great.

  5. Interesting post Karen – I remember reading the Dr. Seuss books to my children in Spanish – they loved them and “juevos verdes y jamon” was often asked for at breakfast time – thank goodness for green food coloring.

  6. Ted Geisel’s books have been translated into twenty languages and are available in Braille. I’m so glad that children everywhere have the opportunity to enjoy Dr. Seuss’s rhymes and rhythms.
    Hopefully your children are carrying on the tradition with their children and a green eggs and ham breakfast or dinner is in their immediate future!

    1. Karen–

      Are you at all bothered by the fact that he began an affair with
      a friend of the family while his first wife was dying of a fatal
      disease?

      When his first wife found out about this, she commits suicide.

      9 months later, Seuss’s lover divorced her husband and she and
      Seuss married.

      Then he sent the two children from her marriage away to
      boarding school.

      1. Hi Maggie,
        Welcome to Profound Journey. I appreciate you taking the time to comment on one of my posts.

        Absolutely, I’m bothered by the situation you reference. I’ve written about it as #13 in the above list, filed under ‘Controversies’. It is disconcerting to me that a man who has entertained millions of children with his rhymes didn’t even like children, and it’s shameful that this dislike directly harmed (likely forever) the children of his second wife. That second wife doesn’t come out of the situation without judgment either. In an interview I read, she acknowledged that she was a lousy mother to her kids.

        From what I’ve read so far, and my research has been by no means exhaustive, I would never have befriended Geisel, the man. But I am and always will be grateful that, despite his personal failings, Dr. Seuss the author had the work ethic, perfectionistic streak, wonderful imagination and appealing sense of humour that revolutionized the field of children’s literature and introduced millions of children to the pleasures of the written word. I took a look at your blog and see that you are a prolific writer with a professorship in English literature in your background. We also look to be of a similar age. Did you read Dr. Seuss when you were a child?

  7. I have always loved Dr, Seuss books. The illustrations are so colorful and wacky, along with the rhymes I think kids just naturally gravitate to them. These books let them know that imagination is wonderful and reading is fun, at least that is what it did for me.

    My favorite book has to be Cat In The Hat. For one thing, I love all things CAT and for another the story is great! The pop of colors in that book was amazing too.

    Learning that Seuss rhymes with ‘voice’ is messing my mind up a little bit. 😉 LOL, I believe he was wise to accept the mispronunciation so that it rhymes with ‘moose’ especially when you consider he wrote children’s books and anything to help them remember his last name is a good thing.

    I can’t get over how clever this man was at answering questions about where he gets his ideas. It is completely fitting with how his persona comes across through his books as well. To me there could be no better answer to that question.

    I don’t think I was aware of any of these facts before reading your article, Karen. Thanks for writing this and bringing back fond memories from my childhood.

  8. You are most welcome, Susan. The response to where Seuss gets his ideas is one of my very favourite facts too.
    It blows my mind that it took him a year and a half of eight hour days to write The Cat in the Hat. Once a book like that is in existence, it’s as if it had always been there and therefore easy to write. Seuss himself thought it would only take a week and a bit. Amazing.

  9. Ted Geisel and his wife Audrey were a big part of our community and there are a lot of buildings named after him – including the main library on the University of California, San Diego’s campus. The San Diego History Center had a wonderful showing of a collection of his artwork last year – from very early on to those he created late in life. He had a wicked sense of humor and not all of his art was P.G. Happy birthday Dr. Seuss!

  10. I visited San Diego when speaking at a conference. It was a long time ago – probably 20 years – but I still remember the feeling of spaciousness. The downtown streets are so wide and open. I loved my visit.
    I envy you seeing the Art of Dr. Seuss collection. I saw just a small piece of it at a gallery in San Francisco a couple of years ago and it was amazing. Having been involved in the publishing world, I especially enjoyed his sketches for The Cat in the Hat where he made notes to the editor and the printer about the exact shade of red he wanted used.

  11. Karen, what a lot of fascinating facts about Dr Seuss! His book, “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” was one of the first books my son learned to read aloud when he was five. When my oldest child attended a parent participation preschool many years ago, I remember celebrating a Dr Seuss Day. I cooked green eggs and ham with the children, and they devoured it!

    Jude

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