Surprising Facts About Dr. Seuss
By Mark Mancini for Mental Floss
*Editor's Note: March 2 is the day we celebrate the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. We have all enjoyed his many books over the years, shared them with our children and grandchildren, and schools celebrate him with Read Across America activities (Promotes reading, particularly for children and young adults. Many schools, libraries, and community centers across the United States participate in the day by bringing people together to take part in reading books. Various reading activities and events are held across the country on this day). But there was so much more to the man than Green Eggs and Ham! See below for some interesting facts.
Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of publishing giant Random House, used to say that of all the authors who had ever written for his esteemed company—a list that included William Faulkner, Eugene O’Neill, and Sinclair Lews—there was only one "genius." "His name," Cerf declared, "is Ted Geisel."
A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, Theodor Seuss Geisel—who you probably know better by his pen name, Doctor Seuss—was born on March 2, 1904. To celebrate his birthday, we’ve rounded up some amazing facts about Geisel’s life, his art, and his unforgettable characters.
~ Dr. Seuss’s dad had an interesting career path. Born in 1879, Theodor Robert Geisel was a brewmaster and a competitive marksman of international renown. When Prohibition went into effect in 1920, Geisel entered a new line of work and became the superintendent of Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts. Among his responsibilities, the elder Geisel oversaw the park’s onsite zoo. “That zoo,” his famous son later remarked, “is where I learned whatever I know about animals.”
~ Geisel was a Boy Scout, and in this capacity he sold U.S. war bonds. Since he was one of the 10 best bond sellers in his Boy Scout troop, he and his entire family were invited to attend a special ceremony that was held on May 2, 1918. There, Geisel was going to receive a medal from former president Theodore Roosevelt. But the event organizers accidentally gave Teddy nine medals instead of 10 ... and Roosevelt’s supply ran out right before Geisel (who’d been sitting on stage with the other boys) was supposed to receive his.
Not realizing that he had been shorted one medal, Roosevelt looked at Geisel and asked “What is this little boy doing here?” Rather than explain that there had been a mix-up, a Scoutmaster instead whisked a humiliated Geisel off the stage. Geisel attributed his lifelong fear of public speaking to this embarrassing incident.
~ The “Dr. Seuss” alias evolved from a pseudonym that Geisel came up with at Dartmouth College, his undergraduate alma mater. Not coincidentally, Seuss was also the maiden name of Geisel's mother, Henrietta. In its traditional pronunciation, Seuss rhymes with voice. But as the author’s fame grew, people started mispronouncing it.
Geisel’s friend, Alexander Liang, responded by writing a poem: “You’re wrong as the deuce / And you shouldn’t rejoice / If you’re calling him Seuss / He pronounces it Soice.”
~ At Dartmouth, Geisel once signed a cartoon as “Thomas Mott Osborne.” Who was that? The real-life warden of the Sing Sing prison in New York.
~ Fresh out of Dartmouth, Geisel enrolled at the University of Oxford with the hopes of earning a Ph.D. in English Literature. It was while he was at Oxford that he met his first wife, Helen Marion Palmer, an Oxford classmate who noticed that he liked to doodle while their professors lectured. “Ted’s notebooks were always filled with these fabulous animals,” she said. “So I set to work diverting him; here was a man who could draw such pictures; he should be earning a living doing that.” Geisel didn't stick around though; he left Oxford in 1927.
~ Geisel’s debut children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, was released in 1937. Editor Marshall "Mike" McClintock at Vanguard Press accepted the manuscript after anywhere from 20 to 43 other publishers rejected it. (Geisel’s accounts of his many rejections don’t provide us with a consistent number.) McClintock knew the budding children's author from their days at Dartmouth. Geisel, to show his gratitude, named the book’s main character after McClintock's son, Marco.
~ “You have ‘em, I’ll entertain them,” Geisel used to say about children. The storyteller never had any biological children and sometimes found himself at a loss in the presence of his very young fans. “He was a naturally shy person, even around adults,” Geisel’s former secretary, Julie Olf, said. “But with children, that shyness was magnified tremendously.”
~ Before Geisel began working on The Cat in the Hat, he wanted to write a children’s book about climbing Mount Everest in subzero temperatures. He hoped that it would be a thrilling page-turner for kids—and the antithesis of the Dick and Jane texts most schoolchildren were forced to read in those days. But upon pitching the idea to a publisher, Geisel was told that he couldn’t use the words Everest, scaling, peaks, or degrees, because young readers wouldn't recognize or understand them.
~ The preamble to 1947’s McElligot’s Pool reads: “This book is dedicated to T.R. Geisel of Springfield, Mass., The World’s Greatest Authority on Blackfish, Fiddler Crabs and Deegel Trout.” When the author was a boy, he and his father once had an uneventful fishing trip. Before the duo returned, the elder Geisel bought some trout from the Deegel Hatchery—then told all the neighbors they’d caught the fish themselves.
~ Both before and after he began publishing children's books, Geisel worked in advertising. Ford, Holly Sugar, and General Electric all employed Geisel’s artistic talents in print ads. In 1928, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey put him on their payroll; Geisel earned $12,000 a year to draw cartoons and posters for Flit, a Standard Oil-owned insecticide brand. During that time, the slogan he devised—“Quick, Henry, the Flit!”—became culturally iconic. Geisel worked with the company until 1941. See https://youtu.be/hYllgSUVn5w for a taste of some!
~ During World War II, Geisel joined forces with two of the biggest names in animation: Chuck Jones and Ray Harryhausen. Jones—who created such iconic Looney Tunes characters as Marvin the Martian, Pepé Le Pew, Wile E. Coyote, and the Road Runner—worked with Geisel during the war to create dozens of animated shorts for America’s armed forces. A recurring character in their cartoons was Private Snafu, who helped teach soldiers about things like mine field procedures, good hygiene, and what to do with classified information.
Snafu's physical appearance was based on a model co-designed by sculptor Ray Harryhausen (under Geisel’s supervision). Harryhausen quickly emerged as a pioneer in the field of stop-motion animation; Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and One Million Years B.C. (1966) are among his best-known movies.
~ Lake Erie was a national punchline when The Lorax was first published in 1971. Runaway phosphorous pollution had set off massive algal blooms and dead fish were washing ashore in frightening numbers. In early editions of The Lorax, the title character tells the villainous Once-ler that he’s evicting the native humming fish from a polluted pond. “I hear things are just as bad up in Lake Erie,” The Lorax added.
Fifteen years later, Geisel was contacted by Rosanne Fortner, an environmental education coordinator at The Ohio State University. She informed the author that after The Lorax’s publication, cleanup efforts had done wonders for the lake. At her request, Geisel removed all references to Lake Erie in later printings of the book.
~ There’s a spider named after the lorax. Lapsias Lorax is an ecuadorian jumping spider. About 0.2 inches long, this arachnid’s got yellow markings near its mouth, which resemble the mustache of its literary counterpart.
~ What starts out as a minor difference of opinion turns into a military arms race in 1984's The Butter Battle Book, a clear allegory for U.S.-Soviet hostilities during the Cold War. Some parents took issue with the story, worried that even referencing nuclear horrors was too scary for children. Geisel felt otherwise. “I don’t think my book is going to change society,” he opined. “But I’m naive enough to think that society will be changed by [the] examination of ideas through books and the press and that information can prove to be greater than the dissemination of stupidity.”
~ He was impressed by Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak. "Sendak has the courage not to be influenced by editors,” Geisel said of his fellow children's author. “Everybody said his book Where the Wild Things Are would drive kids crazy, and they love it. Like me, he isn’t writing for kids; he’s writing for all people.”
~ The Seven Lady Godivas: True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family was written and illustrated by Geisel in 1939. And it most definitely caters to adult readers. Naked women—drawn in that classic Seussian style—frolic across the pages and get into all kinds of trouble. Some 10,000 copies were produced; all but 2500 went unsold. “I attempted to draw the sexiest babes I could, but they came out looking absurd,” Geisel said of the project.
~ He received 9267 pounds of fan mail in a year. The publishing company handled most of it directly. Since Geisel couldn’t answer every letter, he had Random House send out standardized notes bearing his autograph. These thanked the kids for writing Dr. Seuss—but informed them that he lived on a high mountain peak and had to get all his mail delivered by a slow-moving animal called a Budget. Who drove the beast? A “Nudget” of course!
~ Based on an original Dr. Seuss story, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a Technicolor fantasy about a crazed musician who kidnaps 500 boys and forces all of them to play a gigantic piano. Geisel teamed up with Academy Award nominee Allan Scott to write the script and penned the lyrics for the movie’s 17 musical numbers. (Most of which were cut.) The picture is warmly remembered today, but it didn’t do much for contemporary audiences. Released in 1953, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T bombed at the box office.
~ Geisel wasn't a fan of Richard Nixon. In the summer of 1974, with Nixon facing almost certain impeachment over the Watergate scandal, the writer sent the The Washington Post a parody of his beloved story, Marvin K. Mooney Will You Please Go Now! Its amended title? Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now!
The full version, which was published by the newspaper on July 30, implored the president to resign. "The time has come, the time is now,” it read. “Just go. Go. Go! I don’t care how. You can go by foot. You can go by cow. Richard M. Nixon, Will You Please Go Now!”
~ One of Geisel's most beloved possessions was a fossilized dinosaur footprint that had been gifted to him by his father. Geisel made the track the centerpiece of the rock garden at his home in La Jolla, California. The footprint, which measured approximately 16 inches in length and and 11 inches in width, came from a Massachusetts shale pit and was estimated to be about 150 million years old. Geisel was awed by its age, and by the sheer size of its prehistoric maker. “It keeps me from getting conceited,” he once said. “Whenever I think I’m pretty good, I just go out and look at it.”
Since Geisel adored practical jokes, some of his house guests assumed the fossil was fake. “Half the people I show it to think I made it myself,” he admitted.
~ Dr. Seuss may have invented the word nerd. “Someone who once would be called a dip or square is now, regrettably, called a nerd,” Newsweek reported in an October 8, 1951 story about teenager slang. This is the oldest published instance of the term 'nerd' being used in that context. But it’s not the first time nerd appeared in print.
One year earlier, Dr. Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo arrived in bookstores. The narrator of the children’s classic vows to wrangle “A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seer-Sucker, too.” Given that timeline of events, a few cultural commentators suspect that nerd was first coined by Geisel. When he was asked about its origins in 1987, Geisel said he’d never encountered the word before using it. “Perhaps it comes from Nerdfogel’ which I’m sure you know all about,” he joked.
~ You’re Only Old Once!, a book for obsolete children, was published on Ted Geisel’s 82nd birthday. The picture-filled romp through some whacky medical procedures made the New York Times bestseller list in 1986.
~ The Dartmouth Outing Club, which organizes outdoor treks and events for students at the Ivy League school, regularly pays tribute to Dr. Seuss by serving up green eggs and ham to freshmen who participate in some of their outdoor excursions.
~ In coming up with an ending for How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, Geisel wanted a happy resolution that was both sincere and sentimental but not overly theological. “I got hung up on how to get the Grinch out of the mess,” Geisel said. “I got into a situation where I sounded like a second-rate preacher or some bible thumper.”
After a full three months of wrestling with the problem and burning through “thousands of religious choices,” he chose to end the book with the wholesome image of the Grinch and the Whos seated around a dinner table, merrily eating Roast Beast.
~ Terence and Jennifer Tunberg are a husband and wife duo who teach classics at the University of Kentucky. Together, they created Latin translations of three popular Dr. Seuss books. Published in 1998, their edition of How the Grinch Stole Christmas! was titled Quomodo Invidiosulus Nomine Grinchus Christi Natalem Abrogaverit. Then came Cattus Petasatus, the Tunbergs’ take on The Cat in the Hat. Finally, they released Virent Ova! Viret Perna!!, which is better known to readers as Green Eggs and Ham.
~ Since opening to the public in 2002, the Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden in Geisel's hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts has welcomed more than 3 million visitors. The garden is populated by bronze statues of characters like the Lorax, the Grinch, Horton the Elephant, and the Cat in the Hat. The garden is just steps from yet another Geisel attraction: The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum.
~ "Oh the places you’ll go, with THE CAT in tow!” proclaims an ad from The Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum. Bay State motorists with $40 to spare can exchange their old license plates for wubbulous new ones featuring the cartoon thrill-seeker. All proceeds will go to the museum. The little beauties are set to be released when 750 plates have been pre-ordered.