Theodor Geisel aka Dr. Seuss

Photo of Ted Geisel as a child, c. 1909,  Collection of Margaretha and Ted Owens

Photo of Ted Geisel as a child, c. 1909, Collection of Margaretha and Ted Owens

Beginning in 1876, two generations of Geisels made their living in Springfield, Massachusetts, as master brewers. At the time of patriarch Theodor Geisel’s death on December 5, 1919, he and Ted’s father had built the family company into one of the largest brewing concerns in New England, producing 300,000 barrels a year. Six weeks later, when Prohibition took effect on January 18, 1920, their business closed forever and ended Theodor Robert Geisel’s brief tenure at the helm. While Ted’s father dabbled in real estate during the interim, it wasn’t until 1931 that T.R. would begin a thirty-year salaried position as Springfield’s superintendent of parks.

The Geisels were already a prominent Springfield family when T.R. was appointed to an honorary position on the parks board in 1909. Under the board’s supervision was the magnificent centerpiece of the system, the 500-acre Forest Park. Within that grand expanse was the fledgling Springfield Zoo, where Ted’s father would often take him, both enjoying the behind-the-scenes access afforded by T.R.’s voluntary service on the board.

“Early on, Ted’s mother became his “accomplice in crime,” encouraging him to draw animal caricatures on the plaster walls of his bedroom.

This zoo was a beloved part of Ted’s childhood. If his father wasn’t able to accompany him and his sketchpad there, he would go with his mother or his sister, Marnie. Early on, Ted’s mother became his “accomplice in crime,” encouraging him to draw animal caricatures on the plaster walls of his bedroom. Only later, when T.R. became the superintendent of parks, did he also become an unexpected resource, who now aided and abetted his son’s artistic efforts. Zoo animals that had met their demise lived on as their bills, horns, and antlers were shipped to Ted’s New York apartment to become exotic beaks and headdresses on his bizarre taxidermy sculptures. 

Above:   Carbonic Walrus  and  Gimlet Fish ; two examples of Ted's taxidermy sculptures.

Above:  Carbonic Walrus and Gimlet Fish; two examples of Ted’s taxidermy sculptures.

Ted’s parents loved him deeply, reveling in his random wit, his cheerfulness and his genuine concern for others. To them, he was a “personality” to be encouraged. As a result, Ted grew into a devoted son and a faithful friend, coveting only a close circle of lifelong relationships—people with whom he felt comfortable. His friends saw him as a treasured compatriot with whom to lightheartedly walk through life. The Chicago attorney and philanthropist Kenneth Montgomery (Dartmouth ’25) said it best, “He was not gregarious in the sense of hail-fellow-well-met; there was no sense of self-importance about him. When he walked into a room, it was like a magician’s act. Birds flew out of his hands, and endless bright scarves and fireworks. Everything became brighter, happier, funnier. And he didn’t try. Everything Ted did seemed to be a surprise, even to him.”

Dr. Seuss dedicated this book,

Dr. Seuss dedicated this book, “With Affection for and Afflictions with the Members of the Class of 1925”

In 1921, Ted made the train trip to Dartmouth with sixteen other graduates from Springfield’s Central High School. Their English teacher, Edwin “Red” Smith, a recent Dartmouth grad, had rallied them for his alma mater with his energetic style and affable ways. That core group, and the new friendships they forged at Dartmouth, made the students in the class of ’25 remarkably loyal to one another and to the college. The Dartmouth English professor Donald E. Pease described Ted’s college relationships in his 2010 book, Theodor SEUSS Geisel: “Ted’s Dartmouth classmates would become lifelong friends, a reliable audience for his art, honorary siblings, and the role models against whom he measured his own ambitions.”

The highlight of Ted’s four years at Dartmouth was being a contributor and then editor of The Jack-O-Lantern, the college’s humor magazine. In April of his senior year there was a disturbance involving ten buddies sharing a single pint of gin in his room—it was still the early years of Prohibition and there had to be consequences. As part of his punishment, Ted was removed as editor of The Jack-O-Lantern. He was devastated, but undeterred. The 1925 spring edition carried a suspiciously high number of cartoons by several new artists: L. Burbank, Thos. Mott Osborne ’27, D.G. Rossetti ’25, T. Seuss, and one simply by Seuss. “To what extent that corny subterfuge fooled the dean, I never found out,” Ted said. “But that’s how ‘Seuss’ first came to be used as my signature.”

The moniker

The moniker “Seuss” was first created for Dartmouth’s humor magazine, The Jack-o-Lantern during Geisel’s years at the school.

Late in life, while working with his biographers Judith and Neil Morgan, Ted reminisced about the verbal exchange between Dartmouth buddies that accompanied their undergrad handshake: “When I went to college, it was a campy thing to say, ‘Oh, the places you’ll go! The people you’ll meet!’” That Roaring Twenties handshake, and the words that defined it, sent Ted on his way to a robust and rewarding career. In 1990, he chose those same words for his parting book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!  It was a final and fitting tribute to the Dartmouth men who befriended him early on and were a source of encouragement his entire life.

An early editorial work,  After Dark in the Park ,  created for  Judge  magazine.

An early editorial work, After Dark in the Parkcreated for Judge magazine.

Ted was only twenty-three when he traveled from Springfield to New York City looking for his big break. He wrote to his Dartmouth friend Whit Campbell on April 15, 1927, from the Hotel Woodstock, “I have tramped all over this bloody town and been tossed out of Boni & Liveright, Harcourt Brace, Paramount Pictures, Metro Goldwyn, three advertising agencies, LifeJudge and three public conveniences.”

Three short months later, Ted’s first professional sale, a cartoon The Saturday Evening Post purchased for twenty-five dollars and published on July 16, 1927, was all the encouragement he needed to permanently pack his bag and board a train for New York.

Before summer’s end, Ted was sharing a one-room walkup with his Dartmouth buddy John C. Rose. Rose knew “Beef” Vernon, another Dartmouth man who sold advertising for Judge, and brokered an interview for Ted with the editor, Norman Anthony. Recognized in New York for knowing talent when he saw it, Anthony offered Ted the job that jump-started his career.

It was a Judge cartoon in which Ted used Flit bug spray in the punch line that led to a seventeen-year Flit advertising campaign with Standard Oil of New Jersey. Ted’s catchphrase “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” soon entered the American vernacular and Flit sales increased wildly. By the time Ted returned to Dartmouth in the spring of 1928 for a reunion, his celebrity was duly noted by friends and professors.

With the success of his Flit advertising campaign, Ted realized a quick and bright introduction into many of  the day’s leading periodicals, with editorial cartoons and advertising illustrations running in Vanity FairLifeRedbook, and Liberty magazines.


Early in 1941 a deeply troubled Ted showed one of his unpublished politically charged cartoons to Virginia Schoales, a New York friend who was working on the “popular front” tabloid newspaper PM. “Zinny” introduced Ted to Ralph Ingersoll, PM’s editor, who instantly made Geisel the paper’s editorial cartoonist, printing his first cartoon on January 30, 1941. Ted would not write another children’s book for seven years.

At the end of 1942, Ted joined the Army as a captain attached to Frank Capra’s celebrated wartime documentary filmmaking unit, writing and directing scripts focusing on GI morals and morale. He was 38 years old. In connection with this work, he shipped out to Europe in the fall of 1944. On December 16th, at General Omar Bradley’s headquarters in Luxembourg, he ran into PM’s former editor, Ralph Ingersoll, who was now a lieutenant colonel in Army Intelligence. Ingersoll wanted to show Ted “some fighting” in a “quiet sector” and sent him off with a military police escort across the border to Bastogne. That night 250,000 German troops attacked American-held positions in the Belgian countryside, surrounding the pivotal crossroads town of Bastogne. It was the beginning of the month-long Battle of the Bulge.

“Nobody came along and put up a sign saying, This is the Battle of the Bulge. How was I supposed to know? I thought the fact that we didn’t seem to be able to find any friendly troops in any direction was just one of the normal occurrences of combat.

Later Ted recalled: “The thing that probably saved my life was that I got there in the early morning and the Germans didn’t arrive until that night. I found Bastogne pretty boring and got on the other side of the line and got cut off. With the aid of another MP, who was also lost, we learned we were ten miles behind German lines. We were trapped three days before being rescued by the British.” He elaborated in a 1960 New Yorker interview: “Nobody came along and put up a sign saying, This is the Battle of the Bulge. How was I supposed to know? I thought the fact that we didn’t seem to be able to find any friendly troops in any direction was just one of the normal occurrences of combat.”


The August 13, 2007, issue of U.S. News & World Report declared 1957 to be “A Year That Changed America.”  The article focused on ten disparate events. Among them were the Cold War Soviet launch of Sputnik, setting off the race for space; the Dodgers and Giants both deserting New York for California, bringing big-time baseball and world attention to the West Coast; growing racial tensions hitting their peak in Little Rock; the introduction of the birth control pill; and a former ad man, Dr. Seuss, revolutionizing the way that children learned to read.

“In the 50 years since The Cat in the Hat exploded onto the children’s book scene, Theodor Seuss Geisel has become a central character in the American literary mythology

The Cat that Changed the World , a fine art print re-produced from one of Seuss's preliminary drawings for  The Cat in the Hat .

The Cat that Changed the World, a fine art print re-produced from one of Seuss’s preliminary drawings for The Cat in the Hat.

U.S. News began the Seuss segment, The Birth of a Famous Feline, with this accolade, “Greece had Zeus—America has Seuss,” and continued in part, “In the 50 years since The Cat in the Hat exploded onto the children’s book scene, Theodor Seuss Geisel has become a central character in the American literary mythology, sharing the pantheon with the likes of Mark Twain and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Of his many imaginative stories, The Cat in the Hat remains the most iconic.”

Ted Geisel had been writing children’s books for twenty years when The Cat in the Hat first stepped into our lives and onto the world stage in 1957, literally supercharging his career. Geisel’s quirky Cat put him on the fast track to becoming a force in children’s literacy due in part to the book’s origins in an emerging philosophy of phonetic learning. Not only was the vocabulary largely taken from a list of 220 beginner’s words but Ted crafted the story in anapestic tetrameter, marking out a cadence that was easy for young readers to grasp. Using this model, Ted, Helen, to whom he would be married for forty years, and Phyllis Cerf, the wife of the Random House president Bennett Cerf, would go on to found Beginner Books at Random House.

In the aftermath of the battle, a horrified Ingersoll searched for Ted, checking casualty lists in the process. Five years later they met at a party in New York. Ingersoll hugged Ted, saying, “God, am I glad to see you! I thought I’d killed you.”


By the time Ted Geisel arrived in Paris in 1926, the surrealist movement had already become a force with its first group show Exposition Surréaliste taking place in 1925. Joan Miró and Paul Klee would also show solo in Paris that year, then Yves Tanguy in 1927 and Salvador Dalí in 1929. Ted, in the right place at the right time, considered Paris the exhilarating axis of his world, and he absorbed anything the arts offered.

“llustrator by day, surrealist by night, Dr. Seuss created a body of irrepressible work during his leisure hours that would redefine him as an iconographic American artist.

Above are two examples that display Geisel's Surrealistic tendencies.  Top:  A Man Who Has Made an Unwise Purchase   Bottom:   Inside Cover Illustration for Green Eggs and Ham 

Above are two examples that display Geisel’s Surrealistic tendencies.  Top: A Man Who Has Made an Unwise Purchase  Bottom:  Inside Cover Illustration for Green Eggs and Ham 

This early and powerful influence of surrealism stayed with Ted throughout adulthood and is realized in his Secret Art paintings. Illustrator by day, surrealist by night, Dr. Seuss created a body of irrepressible work during his leisure hours that would redefine him as an iconographic American artist. Revealing a dazzling rainbow of hues not seen in the primary-color palette of his books for children, these paintings exhibit a sophisticated, technically accomplished, and often quite unrestrained side of his talent.

While Ted wanted to protect his Secret Art from criticism, he always intended for the work to be seen when he was gone. In 1997, this dream was realized when The Art of Dr. Seuss project was launched. For the first time collectors were able to see and acquire lithographs, serigraphs, and sculptures reproduced from Ted’s original drawings and paintings. In her introduction to the collection Audrey Geisel wrote: “I remember telling Ted that there would come a day when many of his paintings would be seen and he would thus share with his fans another facet of himself—his private self. That day has come. I am glad.”

This historic project has opened the world’s eyes to the unique artistic talent of Dr. Seuss and, as such, galleries, museums, and collectors have helped make Audrey Geisel’s promise, and Dr. Seuss’s dream, a reality.

All information excerpted from: Secrets of the Deep, the Lost, Forgotten, and Hidden Works of Theodor Seuss Geisel and The Cat Behind the Hat

Audrey and Ted Geisel

Audrey and Ted Geisel

In 2012, Dartmouth named its medical school in honor of Audrey and Theodor Geisel. Founded in 1797, the Audrey and Theodor Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth is the nation’s fourth oldest medical school. The Geisels’ generosity to Dartmouth during their lifetimes and through their estate plan renders the Geisel family the most significant philanthropist to Dartmouth in its history. Theodor “Ted” Geisel, known worldwide as the author and illustrator, “Dr. Seuss,” was a Dartmouth graduate of the Class of 1925. “Ted and Audrey Geisel’s work and life serve as a timeless example for our future physicians at the Geisel School of Medicine,” said Wiley “Chip” Souba, vice president for health affairs and dean of the medical school. “We teach our students to be compassionate, to pursue new knowledge that benefits their patients, and to have the courage and humility to make a profound difference in the lives of others.”


In 2010 Life Books published 100 People Who Changed the World, describing their efforts as “a fascinating look at a group of crucial individuals, as well as a history of how we got from the very distant and often unknowable past, to the here and now.” They postulated four “integrated marches through history,” each one building on the other: philosophical, political, scientific, and cultural.

Dr. Seuss was singled out as a “cultural icon.” Life said of him, “Geisel entertained America’s young with his rollicking rhymes, nutty narratives, and playful but artful pictures.” However, he did “even more than entertain. His intricately crafted reader, The Cat in the Hat, was a fanciful adventure that educates even as it enthralls.” They recognized him for spending his long life “alternating between his no-rules novels, and books that grew ever more sophisticated, with word counts ever smaller to entice ever younger kids to read.” And that he did so in a place of his own creation, Beginner Books, where “educational science collided with whimsy.”

Dr. Seuss was the only children’s author who was included in the book. Taking his place in the “cultural icon” section, he finds himself in grand company appearing alongside Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Beethoven, Dickens, Le Corbusier, Chaplin, Chanel, Picasso, and Elvis.


In the spring of 1984 an Associated Press reporter phoned to say that Ted had won a Pulitzer Prize—a special citation “for his contribution over nearly half a century to the education and enjoyment of America’s children and their parents.” Ted was flabbergasted: “It comes right out of left field, particularly after all these years.” One judge said the proposal to award a Pulitzer to Dr. Seuss, initiated by San Diego newspaper editors, had met with “as close to immediate unanimity” as any he recalled. After that first phone call, Ted said, “all hell broke loose.” Although he refused to allow television “to set up all that gear here in my studio,” the prize brought him a flurry of exposure on network television.

Special Citations were not awarded every year. There have been 41 winners since 1930, including Bob Dylan (2008), Ray Bradbury (2007), Duke Ellington (1999), and Rodgers and Hammerstein (1944).


In 1955 Dartmouth bestowed an Honorary Degree of Humane Letters on Ted Geisel. The citation read in part, “You single-handedly have stood as St. George between a generation of exhausted parents and the demon dragon of unexhausted children on a rainy day.”


Jack Warner won the 1946 Academy Award for best documentary short subject for Hitler Lives?, a remake of Your Job in Germany, Ted’s cautionary tale against troop fraternization, however, Ted received no credit.

Design for Death, written by Ted and Helen Geisel, won the 1947 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

“Gerald McBoing-Boing” — Won the 1951 Oscar for Best Animated Short Film for United Productions of America, the animation studio which brought Ted’s book to life.


“Halloween Is Grinch Night” — Best Children’s Special, 1977

“The Grinch Grinches The Cat in the Hat” — Best Children’s Special, 1982


for the animated specials “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” and “Horton Hears a Who!” — 1971.


in 1986 Dr. Seuss was named a New York Public Library Literary Lion.


Flower Fish , a painting from the Caldecott Honor Book,  McElligot's Pool .

Flower Fish, a painting from the Caldecott Honor Book, McElligot’s Pool.

McElligot’s Pool — 1947

Bartholomew and the Oobleck — 1949

If I Ran the Zoo — 1950


a military award of the United States Armed Forces given for exceptionally meritorious conduct in the performance of outstanding services and achievements, was awarded to Ted for his efforts during World War II.


Dr. Seuss has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6600 Hollywood Boulevard.

All information excerpted from: Secrets of the Deep, the Lost, Forgotten, and Hidden Works of Theodor Seuss Geisel and The Cat Behind the Hat

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