Dr. Seuss, really Theodor Seuss Geisel of La Jolla, California, is practically a household deity, from Masai huts in Africa to palaces in Great Britain.
For example, in a remote cone-of-an-island called Saba in the Netherlands Antilles reached by a tiny STOL plane making a suicidal landing on a small-size airstrip; where vertical ribbony roads lead to a village at the top containing a telephone booth-size bank that dispenses square nickels (truly) — there you'll find a small boy with a lunch pail decorated with none other than that impudent Cat In The Hat.
Ted Geisel's story is as curious as some of his creations, for his careers seem to have happened obliquely. His Dartmouth College doodlings were an antidote to his serious pursuits, too undignified to bear his surname, so he used his mother's maiden name, which was also his middle name, Seuss. (During his next academic stint, at Oxford, he planned to be a serious educator and write that great novel, signing his real name.) The Dr.? His alma mater legalized that title in 1956 when he was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.
"When I was living in Europe after I got out of Oxford, I ran around drawing and writing," he recalls. "I sold to Judge, Life, Vanity Fair, Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. It was adult satire, not cartooning. There were long captions.
"Later in New York, on PM newspaper, I helped Marshall Field lose $30 million. PM, a daily without advertising, which contributed to its demise, set out to change the world. I was chief labor and political cartoonist and wrote very uppity articles sniping at a number of senators. The strain was awful. I had to synthesize the whole news, boil it down and make it funny."
His next two careers ranged from army service (even there he was on the creative front, producing Academy Award-winning documentary films) to the advertising field where he put "Holly Sugar" on billboards and created "Quick, Henry, The Flit."
Asked what he values most, Dr. Seuss answers, "Not money, it doesn't stay in the house, just passes through on the way to the government. Fame? No, although I like recognition. Security? No, it's very insecure these days. It's a tough question, but I think I value freedom of time. Freedom to do what I want with my time. Not to take orders and not to give orders. When I was in the army I had a rule that anybody could say 'horse—-' but had to add 'sir' after it."
He entered the world of children's fiction by a contractual loophole. His agency contract specifically forbade him writing for outside sources except for children. Oddly enough, he doesn't identify with children in person, actually feeling uncomfortable when confronted with them, perhaps because he doesn't believe in the segregated categories of "children" and "adults." Children are people no matter how young. Dr. Seuss doesn't talk or write down to them. He honestly admits, "They're equally uncomfortable with me. I don't look like what they expected. They're disappointed and feel I should look clownier, funnier."
Frankly, with the beard he grew recently, he looks more the academic or family-physician type than humorist. Yet the puck-ishness is there, especially in the crinkly eyes that close almost to slits when he tosses off his fast, audacious one-liner comments. His bushy, bristly eyebrows remind one of his early Tufted Gustard creation with the shaving-brush topknot.
Deftly slipping through his contract loophole, he wrote his first children's book, And To Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. It was turned down by 27 short-sighted publishers who couldn't adjust to elephants and giraffes cavorting on a city street. "Today," Dr. Seuss says, "I wonder what they think of that Groffulous, Griffulous Groo — the Mountains of Tobak near the River of Nobak where a Thing-a-ma-Bobsk only eats rhubarb and corn-on-the cobsk — or a Tizzle-Topped Tufted Mazurka from the African island of Yerka — or a bird called the Russian Palooski whose headski is redski and belly is blueski?"
Some 40 books, five television specials and numerous awards later, Dr. Seuss, now 75, is working at least eight hours a day, commuting to Hollywood weekly for a new TV special and dreaming of things to come. What more could he possibly want to accomplish?
He smiles. "I've lots to do. I'd like to do a ballet — a Broadway musical — an opera."
Meanwhile he has the discipline to sit in his tower studio all day long. Some days are productive. Others are zilch. If nothing comes, he picks up a paperback whodunit and reads, putting it down every now and then to jot something on the blank paper before him. When a few words do emerge they have a tough fight for publication. Very few survive the Seuss microscope and scalpel. His discard bin is cavernous and filled daily.
All his writing is painfully hard. In the trade he is classified in the bleeder category, agonizing over every syllable. He dodges the obvious question, "Which comes first, the drawing or the writing?" One seems to challenge the other. An obsk should look like an obsk, if not, to the guillotine. Apparently "Judge Seuss" makes the right decisions for the text and drawings are happily compatible.
"Each book takes about a year," he says. "I put my working drawings on my study wall, work on something else, and eventually as I pass by I detect what's wrong. But the best thing to do is to go to Africa."
He means it. He was stuck on The Lorax. His wife Audrey said, "Forget it. Let's go to Africa." They did. When he was sitting by a pool looking at a mountain about a quarter of a mile away, over the rise came a herd of elephants and, with spontaneous combustion, The Lorax fell into place.
"The only piece of paper I had at hand was a laundry list, but I used it to outline the book. The structure was there. It had nothing to do with the elephants as such. The scene just triggered the plot. The logjam was broken. I've tried to do it since but it hasn't worked. Perhaps the clue is complete relaxation to let the subconscious in."
He pooh-poohs the word "genius" when applied to him, saying, "If I were, I wouldn't have to work so darn hard."
While much is written about him (some still quoting The New Yorker profile done 32 years ago) and to him, there is one letter that he cherishes. It came from an 8-year-old and is right to the point. "Dear Dr. Seuss, you sure thunk up a lot of funny books. You sure thunk up a million funny animals. Who thunk you up, Dr. Seuss?"
It is a bit incredible that he has roots on this planet. Whatever computer brain bank Dr. Seuss tunes into has to have been developed on Planet Zeuch and programmed by critters fantastically alien to us.
What does make him tick? It's a real mystery, for he straddles two worlds — the zaniest of fantasy lands and the immediacy of today. He has a far tougher audience than the Brothers Grimm had. He appeals to a group teething on Star Wars and Mork from the Planet Ork, but he outdistances them all.
When accused of being the greatest moralist since Pollyanna and Elsie Dinsmore, he flatly denies it. With the exception of one or two books, he didn't start out with any moralizing message. "All writing makes some statement. For instance, I didn't know the way How The Grinch Stole Christmas was going to end when I started it. It was the fastest writing I did, finishing it in two months except for the last page. That took two months in itself."
His dig at snobbishness appears in the book about the Star-Belly Sneeches who snubbed the Plain-Belly Sneetches. In Yertle The Turtle, he took some pot shots at Nazi philosophy and in Horton Hears A Who he lauds smallness by proclaiming, "A person is a person no matter how small." The Lorax was written in anger at the despoilers of our land. Admitting his early slogans were part of the billboard blight, he has come full circle, writing and illustrating just what can happen to a town like La Jolla (or any other) if the one-ups-manship of billboards is allowed to flourish.
Fortunately the too-modest Dr. Seuss has an intelligent, vastly supportive mate, Audrey, who takes up where he is loathe to even begin. The Lorax is now being shown at the Ranger Station at Yosemite. It is one of their most popular programs. "I think The Lorax is about to replace Smokey the Bear."
Audrey Geisel could be right. Smokey seems to be in a burnout stage, but The Lorax is right in there, fighting for those trees but doing it to such happy lyrics and music it is becoming a conservationistic theme song, so much the better for having a purpose.
A Dr. Seuss should live in some cave-like aerie on the shores of Winna-Bango near Hippo-no-Hungus. Instead he resides in a paradoxical place — an elegant, monochro-matic-decored home whose central core is an obsolete watch tower now serving as Ted's studio. There is nary a cat, although a plaque by the door says "Beware Of The Cat." In fact there is a small dog in residence, a female Yorkshire terrier named "Sam" — short for Samantha., of course. Some of the walls are decorated with what he calls his "midnight paintings" — fantasies he tosses off and labels "I Dreamed I Was A Doorman At Hotel del Coronado," or "Venetian Cat — O Sole Meow," and other irreverent titles. "Someone told me I should keep the titles and throw away the pictures."
The remark is typical of his honesty. Some humorists are unable to turn humor inward. Dr. Seuss has not a shred of pomposity. He can stand aside and laugh at himself and situations. Shy of people en masse, it takes some discipline to do the autograph scene that publishers demand. "Once in Detroit," he says, "I autographed 3,000 books in one day. I was elated. I thought, 'That's good. I must be the most popular author in existence.' The next day I was sent to Boston. I sat in a department store all afternoon and only one little boy came by and he was on his way to the bathroom. My conceit was short-lived."
Dr. Seuss makes personal appearances below the Southern Cross but shuns them in the United States. The time can be controlled down under but not at home. He considers New Zealand the most literate of all English-speaking countries. And he has been deeply concerned with literacy ever since he tackled the assignment of creating a book from 300 words and wrote The Cat In The Hat.
Now, as president and editor-in-chief of Beginner Books, a division of Random House, he feels it is demeaning to children to limit words and is changing the philosophy to be more challenging. He deplores literary sloppiness, in print or in diction.
He also enjoys himself doing it, viz: "Peter Piper had better peddle his peck of pickled peppers elsewhere. He's hopelessly passe. Dr. Seuss has come up with 'Oh say can you say.'"
This tongue twister is a real comeuppance for people of all ages who believe their diction is in the upper level of a 10-rated scale. Perhaps that precise wordsmith Eric Severeid will make a perfect score. It's good family fun, albeit humbling. Dr. Seuss, with a sneakily benevolent leer, is needling again.
With one cataract operation behind him and another facing him shortly, he sums up his visual situation, "One eye sees like Picasso, the other like Whistler's Mother. After the next operation I'll be in focus. Meanwhile, Audrey is my color eyes."
Even though Dr. Seuss obviously marches to a different drummer, he and Audrey rode to orthodox band music when they were marshal and marshaless at the Thanksgiving Parade in Detroit this year. (By the way, the license plate on Audrey's car says GRINCH.)
Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a parade of Seussian characters, several times larger than life, similar to the animals in Macy's annual parade? The Cat In The Hat could be the drum major. Horton could lumber along with his tiny blossom waving at the crowd. Even The Grinch could step out proudly, for although he stole Christmas, apparently he had no larcenous designs on Thanksgiving. After all, that yuletide theft did us a favor, for remember the Whos celebrated without presents, realizing "Maybe Christmas doesn't come from a store. Maybe Christmas means a little more."