Theodor Seuss Geisel was born to Theodor and Henrietta Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts on March 2, 1904. Theodor, known as Ted by his family and friends, was the grandchild of German immigrants and had one sister, Margaretha Christine (known as “Marnie”). Seuss was his mother’s maiden name and was pronounced in the German manner: Zoice (rhymes with voice). He spent his childhood at 74 Fairfield Street, and when he walked through the Springfield Zoo in Forest Park with his father, he began bringing a pencil and sketch pad to draw animals.
Ted entered Dartmouth College in 1921 and graduated in June 1925. Dartmouth was where he first began using the pseudonym “Seuss,” when he was writing for Jack-O-Lantern, the college humor magazine. He added “Dr.” in 1927 and used the pseudonym Dr. Seuss thereafter. He also used the pseudonym Theo LeSieg (LeSieg is Geisel spelled backwards) for books that he wrote but someone else illustrated. After Dartmouth, Ted traveled to Oxford where he attended Lincoln College and met future wife Helen Palmer. They married in 1927 and moved to New York City.
Dr. Seuss’s first children’s book was published in 1937 after it was previously rejected by publishers 27 times. And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street was based on his recollections from life in Springfield. Geisel was walking down Madison Avenue, about to throw the book away, when he ran into former classmate Mike McClintock, who had just been appointed juvenile editor of Vanguard Press. McClintock promptly took him up to his office where they signed a contract for Mulberry Street. Geisel once said, “That’s one of the reasons I believe in luck. If I’d been going down the other side of Madison Avenue, I would be in the dry-cleaning business today!” Author Beatrix Potter called the book “the cleverest book I have met with for many years.”
In 1943 Ted Geisel joined the army and was assigned to the Information and Education Division. This is where he met Chuck Jones, with whom he would collaborate to create the 1966 television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, based upon the book by the same name that was published in 1957. Ted identified with the grumpy character who famously hates Christmas but then has a change of heart, and even had a license plate on his Buick that read “GRINCH.”
Ted and Helen moved to California and in 1948 they began building a home in La Jolla, where Ted would live for the rest of his life. The Geisels loved to entertain at their home and travel the world – the people and places they came into contact with sometimes becoming inspiration for his books. Dr. Seuss was a prankster and loved to joke, and he had a penchant for wearing crazy hats from his collection of hundreds.
In 1957 The Cat in the Hat was published and was an immediate success. After a 1955 book by Rudolf Flesch and an article in Life magazine in 1954 by novelist John Hersey, in which boring school primers were said to be a major cause of children not wanting to read, William Spaulding (then director of Houghton Mifflin’s education division) challenged Dr. Seuss to “write me a story that first-graders can’t put down,” while using only 225 words chosen from a list of 348. Dr. Seuss accomplished the task using 236! The book’s runaway success inspired Beginner Books, a division of Random House co-founded by Dr. Seuss, his wife Helen, and Phyllis Cerf (the wife of his publisher) that would publish books designed to help children learn to read. In the fall of 1958, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back and four other titles launched the Beginner Books series.
One of his next huge successes, Green Eggs and Ham, was published as a Beginner Book in 1960. Dr. Seuss’s publisher, Bennett Cerf, bet him that he could not write a book using fifty or fewer different words. The resulting book, which has the fewest words of all his books, is his best-selling title.
After his first wife died, Geisel married Audrey (Stone) Dimond in 1968. The younger Audrey seemed to infuse Ted with new vigor and they embarked on many international trips over the years together including Tokyo, Hong Kong, Cambodia, New Delhi, Teheran, Jerusalem, Paris, and Nairobi, New Zealand, Australia, and Morocco. Philanthropy was important to Ted and Audrey, and they gave generously to many organizations locally and further afield. After Ted’s death, Audrey donated his original manuscripts and illustrations to the University of California at San Diego, and in 1995 the university library was renamed Geisel Library.
Dr. Seuss was not just an author and illustrator known for inventing creatures with fanciful names and writing in rhyme. He was also a talented artist, and his paintings and sculptures continue to be showcased in art galleries across America. His imaginative characters and clever stories have given rise to everything from licensed products and movies, to museums and theme parks. Words that he made up have embedded themselves in pop culture and the English dictionary, and his Grinch character has become the epitome of a grouch. One simply cannot maneuver the Christmas season without a glimpse of the green “mean one.”
Dr. Seuss won many awards for his various literary and entertainment projects, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for his special contribution to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents. Three of his books received Caldecott Honors, he was the recipient of seven honorary doctorate degrees (including one from his alma mater), and he was even posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2004.
Dr. Seuss died on September 24, 1991, but the man who inspired everyone from six-year-olds to NASA spacecraft engineers left behind a gigantic legacy of genius and imagination. And every year on his March 2nd birthday he is remembered around the globe as children and adults alike celebrate literacy in his honor.