If you enjoy reading, there's a good chance you have Dr. Seuss — the pen name of Theodor Geisel — to thank for it. Reading Dr. Seuss allowed children to put aside dreary tales featuring Dick and Jane in favor of compelling stories about Horton the elephant, a troublemaking Cat, a Christmas-hating Grinch and other unforgettable characters.
Geisel passed away in 1991, but he wasn't through entertaining readers: a new book, What Pet Should I Get?, was found in 2013, and is now being published (and apparently more books are coming). To commemorate the fact that Dr. Seuss hasn't stopped surprising us, here are nine fascinating facts about this beloved author.
Seuss worked with pluck, and also had good luck
Dr. Seuss may be a household name today, but his career as a children's author turned on a lucky meeting.
When Geisel was shopping his first children's book around to publishers, he encountered a lot of resistance: dozens rejected his work, saying it lacked a moral and was simply too out of the ordinary. Geisel was heading home to burn his unwanted manuscript when he ran into a former classmate from Dartmouth College: Marshall “Mike” McClintock ’26 (Geisel himself was a member of the class of '25).
A few hours before he saw Geisel, McClintock had become an editor at Vanguard Press. He brought Geisel to his office, and it was this publisher that ended up bringing out Dr. Seuss's first children's book: And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (1937).
Seuss once knew a girl named Chrysanthemum-Pearl
Geisel and his first wife, Helen Palmer, wanted to have children, but after Helen had to have an operation to remove her ovaries, this wasn't possible. Geisel, true to his nature, addressed even this painful situation with a Seussian attitude.
While contemporaries boasted about their children, Geisel would discuss the exploits of his own invented offspring, the uber-talented Chrysanthemum-Pearl. Chrysanthemum-Pearl could use chocolate frosting to concoct oyster stew and possessed superhuman sewing skills. She was included on Geisel Christmas cards, and The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins (1938) contained the dedication: "To Chrysanthemum-Pearl, age 89 months, going on 90."
Geisel also didn't feel that being childless had impeded his success. As he once stated, “You can’t write books for children if too many of them are looking over your shoulder.”
Seuss did his own taxidermy (yes, the idea is kind of squirmy)
Geisel's creativity extended beyond writing and drawing to include taxidermy. Thanks to his father's work at the Springfield Zoo, in the 1930s Geisel was sent beaks, antlers and horns that he used to construct fantastical creatures of his own design (he called it "The Seuss System of Unorthodox Taxidermy"). His one-of-a-kind menagerie included the Tufted Gustard, a Two Horned Drouberhannis, a Goo-Goo-Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast and the Mulberry Street Unicorn.
This special taxidermy had some detractors — Geisel's sister once remarked that his apartment was "so filled with his animals that I am apt to have a nightmare whenever I visit them" — but they definitely show the talents and imagination of a man who would go on to dream up a Lorax, Sneetches, Yooks, Zooks and more.
Seuss got booed for his tale about nudes
Unless you grew up in a very progressive household, your childhood reading list likely didn't include Dr. Seuss's The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History's Barest Family (1939). This fairytale for adults contained Geisel's take on a naked Lady Godiva and her six equally clothes-free sisters, who encounter Tom Peeping and his six brothers over the course of the story.
Though it demonstrates Geisel's irrepressible imagination, the book was a failure, selling little more than 2,500 copies of the 10,000 that were initially printed. A second attempt to find an audience was made in 1987; though Dr. Seuss was by then at the height of his fame, buyers for the book still couldn't be found.
However, by that time, Geisel had already accepted the book's shortcomings. He was quoted in a 1960 New Yorker article as saying, “I tried to draw the sexiest-looking women I could, and they came out just ridiculous.” He added, “I think maybe it all went to prove that I don’t know anything about adults.”
The stage fright that Seuss often felt was thanks to Teddy Roosevelt
To the disappointment of Dr. Seuss fans, Geisel had a lifelong dislike of public speaking. Of course stage fright isn't uncommon, but the source of Geisel's discomfort was unusual: it stemmed from an encounter with Mr. Bull Moose himself, former president Theodore Roosevelt.
On May 2, 1918, Geisel was one of 10 Boy Scouts in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, who'd sold the most Liberty Bonds in support of World War I. Thousands came to a ceremony to honor the boys, and Roosevelt was there to pin on their medals. Unfortunately, only nine medals were prepared, and Geisel was the last in line. With no medal to award, the former president demanded to know why Geisel was there, and an embarrassed Geisel was then ushered offstage.
Soon after this encounter, Geisel's lifetime of stage fright began.
Seuss couldn't ignore the dangers of war
Horrified by the conflicts raging overseas, in the early 1940s Geisel started to draw political cartoons that called for American action. After the United States entered World War II, he volunteered for service at the age of 39. Geisel became part of "Fort Fox," a Hollywood unit that worked on productions used to educate the troops and to boost morale.
However, being in Fort Fox didn't keep Geisel out of danger: while in Europe to show generals a new film, he went to see fighting in what had been deemed a safe area. Then the Germans counterattacked, and Geisel was separated from American forces. He was trapped, miles behind enemy lines, for three days before being rescued by the British.
Describing the events later, Geisel dryly noted: “The retreat we beat was accomplished with a speed that will never be beaten.”
You might be incredulous to hear about Seuss's prejudice
Dr. Seuss's work has touched the hearts of millions, but not everything Geisel created was heartwarming. While a student at Dartmouth, some of the cartoons he drew were racist and anti-Semitic. Even after he left school, biased representations continued to appear in Geisel's work. These included the political cartoons that he created during World War II, which used racial stereotypes in their depictions of the Japanese and Japanese Americans.
Fortunately, as times changed, Geisel accepted that he'd made mistakes and did what he could to rectify them. For example, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street initially had a "Chinaman" with yellow skin, but in a revised edition the character's coloring was altered and he was referred to as a Chinese man. Geisel also confessed that his political cartoons had been "hurriedly and embarrassingly drawn."
The public has taken Geisel's updated attitudes to heart: Earlier this year, a 1929 Seuss drawing with racist content came up for auction, but no one bought it.
The Cat had a hat, and Seuss's hats didn't stop at that
Geisel was a man who truly appreciated hats. He believed that the right hats, when parceled out to guests, could bring any dinner party to life. And if he struggled to create a Dr. Seuss book, Geisel felt that putting on a hat could jumpstart his ideas.
All this explains why Geisel accumulated a very impressive collection of hats over the course of his life. Among them were a toy Viking helmet, military headgear, bonnets and, yes, a stovepipe hat with red and white stripes that's a match for the one worn by the Cat in the Hat.
Geisel's headgear collection is so interesting that it's gone on tour in an exhibition called Hats Off to Dr. Seuss!. If you're going to be in La Jolla, California, or Las Vegas, Nevada, in the next few months, you can even see some of these Seussian hats for yourself.
After a bet, what did we get? The most popular Dr. Seuss book yet!
Dr. Seuss's publisher, Bennett Cerf, once bet Geisel $50 that the author couldn't produce a compelling children's book using only 50 words. Seuss rose to meet this challenge with Green Eggs and Ham (1960). The book, in addition to its vocabulary of just 50 words, has only one word with more than one syllable (anywhere).
Green Eggs and Ham became Dr. Seuss's most popular book, and also went on to claim a special place in Geisel's heart. In a 1987 issue of Parents magazine, he said it was "the only book I ever wrote that still makes me laugh."