When I turned 7, one of my most memorable gifts was the Dr. Suess book, Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? Decades later, my two favorite funny movies have turned out to be Cat in the Hat (starring Mike Myers) and The Grinch (starring Jim Carrey), both based on Dr. Suess books. And for those reasons, I have missed Theodor “Ted” Seuss Geisel, who died of oral cancer in 1991. March 2 (he was born in 1904) is still celebrated annually as National Read Across American Day or Dr. Suess Day.
In case you missed it last year, Random House published What Pet Should I Get?, a lost manuscript found by Dr. Suess’ wife, Audrey Stone Dimond in 2013. As Dimond was cleaning out Geisel’s office, she planned to donate most of his valuable illustrations and early drafts to the University of California, San Diego. But there was also a box of what appeared to be stray sketches and notes, which she kept.
Fast forward to October 2013, when she decided to have the contents of the box appraised. The closer look revealed the manuscript titled “The Pet Shop,” about a boy and a girl who go to the pet store to shop for a pet, was a few steps shy of completion. That’s where Geisel’s assistant, Claudia Prescott, who started working for him in 1972, and whose knowledge came in handy when she imitated his process well enough to finish the book. Prescott still helps the second Ms. Geisel, now 93, run Dr. Seuss Enterprises.
Geisel lost his first wife, Helen Palmer, who had cancer and suffered from depression about her husband having an affair. She committed suicide in 1967, and Geisel and Dimond married in 1968. Back in 1931 Palmer was told she would never be physically able to have her own children. And shortly thereafter, Geisel wrote his first children’s book, an unpublished A-B-C book of creatures. Perhaps it was a way to comfort himself during that time. When asked about writing children’s books without children of his own, he was quoted as saying, “I don’t write for children. I write for people.”
But clearly, he had made peace with the concept of not being a father, as he was known to tell people, “You make ‘em, I’ll amuse ‘em.”
It was fitting for him to take the name Suess, considering he attributed his mad rhyming skills to his mother, Henrietta Suess, who chanted rhymes to her children at bedtime, according to the 1995 biography of Dr. Suess by Judith and Neil Morgan.
Geisel’s pen name served a purpose during his college years at Dartmouth, in 1925, during the Prohibition Era. As punishment for being caught drinking with his friends in his dorm, he lost his title of “editor” of the college’s humor magazine, Jack-O-Lantern. But his voice would not be stopped! So, he wrote under different pen names, such as T. Suess and Dr. Theophrastus Suess, which was eventually shortened and the one that stuck. He and Palmer met as students at Oxford University and married in 1927. Palmer, also a children’s author known for books like I Was Kissed by a Seal at the Zoo (1962) and Do You Know What I'm Going to Do Next Saturday? (1963), gave her husband the push he needed to focus on his true talent. Geisel became a successful advertising copywriter and illustrator for companies like Standard Oil and Flit bug spray. In 1937, he wrote his first children’s book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published by Vanguard Press after being rejected 27 times by other publishers.
When World War II broke out, Geisel contributed weekly political cartoons to the liberal publication PM Magazine. Since he was too old for the draft in 1942, he served with Frank Capra's Signal Corps by making animated training films. He also drew propaganda posters for the Treasury Department and the War Production Board.
After the war, Geisel and Helen bought an old observation tower in La Jolla, California, where he worked on his writing for eight hours a day, sometimes more, and took gardening breaks as a means of mindfulness and to recharge. It was around that time that he wrote If I Ran the Zoo and Horton Hears a Who!
A major turning point in Geisel's career came when, in response to a 1954 LIFE magazine article that criticized children's reading levels, Houghton Mifflin and Random House asked him to write a children's primer using 220 vocabulary words. And ever since, when one thinks of early reading materials, Dr. Suess books are great choices. His two most famous characters, The Cat in the Hat and The Grinch were both born in the same year of 1957. Philip Nel, author of Dr. Seuss: American Icon, says both the rule-breaking Cat and the cantankerous Grinch were both facets of Suess’ true personality. In fact, says Nel, Suess had a vanity license plate on his car that said, “GRINCH.”
However, his all-time best-selling book was written on a bet by his editor Bennett Cerf that he couldn’t write a book using 50 or fewer words. Geisel won when he wrote the 1960’s masterpiece, Green Eggs and Ham, has sold more than eight million copies since publication, according to a 2011 Publishers Weekly list.