“Lessons in Laughter”
Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination
By Brian Jay Jones
A review by Pam Munter
His real name may not be as familiar as that of his alter ego, but after reading the informative book by Brian Jay Jones, the reader will be astounded at the bountiful course a single life can take. Becoming Dr. Seuss: Theodor Geisel and the Making of an American Imagination (Dutton, 2019) is about prolific writer Ted Geisel, for whom most everything he touched turned into greenbacks. He’s best known, of course, for his children’s books, written in clever rhyme, often professing a humanistic theme within the humor. This biography is a long, detailed work, brimming with Geisel’s relentless creativity but, because he also wrote about himself, Geisel-the-man is on display here, too. In fact, until the last two-thirds of the book, he seems to resemble his characters—witty, charming, loyal and principled.
He met his wife Helen when they were both postgraduates at Oxford. She was six years older, “better read,” and became an essential collaborator. He dropped out of Oxford, “lazy of mind,” he admitted, later dismissive of formal education. His fraternity voted him “least likely to succeed” because he didn’t take anything seriously. Ironically, Helen was unable to bear children. They were nearly inseparable, leading as busy a social life as a creatively fecund one.
Geisel’s middle name was Seuss, his mother’s maiden name, pronounced “Soyss.” One of the more riveting sections of the book is a jittery description about growing up in a family of German immigrants in a small Midwest community during World War II. When his church-going parents expected him to memorize the books of the Old Testament, he constructed witty rhymes as pneumonic devices. One could speculate that he wrote his way out of oppression with humor. In college, he was already being paid for his satirical and edgy political cartoons. Jones writes, “As a cartoonist, standing up to systemic injustice…would be a central theme in much of his best work.”
Frustrated by the intermittent income, he went to work as an adman for a corporation that manufactured bug spray and coined a cultural meme (“Quick, Henry! The Flit”). He began writing for children because it was one of the few areas not prohibited by his noncompete corporate contract.
In 1936, he and Helen traveled to Europe and witnessed the dangers of Hitler’s reign. Revisiting oppression underscored its cataclysmic impact on an entire society, especially damaging to the children. On the way home, a rough sea kept the ship out of port longer than anticipated. To pass the time, he played with couplets and out came one of the earliest examples of his “bounding readability:”
And this is a story that no one can beat
I saw it all happen on Mulberry Street
He returned home, wrote his first children’s book, and only sold it when he accidentally ran into a college chum who worked for a publisher. Later, he would befriend Random House chief Bennett Cerf, who found his work amusing and worthy of publication. Such was the luck and serendipitous life of Ted Geisel. His legendary career would be launched by what he called his “brat books.”
Doors seemed to fly open. He continued his ad work, sold political cartoons, and even worked briefly (though unsuccessfully) as a screenwriter. During World War II he penned propaganda for the government and was awarded the Legion of Merit for his role in raising the morale of the troops and the nation.
In the 1950s, his most enduring and endearing children’s classics were published and Dr. Seuss became a franchise: Horton Hears a Who!, The Cat in the Hat, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. There were abundant merchandising opportunities, too, popular television specials, and later, a Broadway musical. The professional snowball was rolling downhill, gaining almost a frightening momentum.
It’s at this point that Jones gets swept up in Geisel’s dazzling, indefatigable success, veering away from his more poignant personal story. By the time Jones returns to the marriage, it’s too late. Helen survived polio as a child and consequently experienced a number of often life-threatening physical problems. At the near-peak of Dr. Seuss, she had an incapacitating stroke. Friends with whom they socialized almost nightly now came to their house in La Jolla. The Geisels’ friends were inevitably among the famous, listed frustratingly without much elaboration. We don’t know the nature of the friendships and what was discussed. Then, almost casually, Jones writes that Geisel and the producer-wife of a couple they had befriended were spending more time together and began an affair which apparently was publicly flouted. Helen discovered the transgression and committed suicide, using prescription pain medication. Lest there be any doubt, Jones includes portions of the pained and angry note Helen left for her husband:
“My going will leave quite a rumor but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed…Sometimes, think of the fun we had through the years.”
Soon thereafter, Audrey Dimond moved into his house, divorced her husband and married Geisel, leaving her two young children behind. “They wouldn’t have been happy with Ted and Ted wouldn’t have been happy with them.”
Though Dimond becomes an invaluable helpmate, this surprising episode in his seemingly anointed life calls Jones’ previous characterizations of Geisel into question. Who was this charming, seemingly devoted husband who maintained the close partnership with Helen? Were there other dalliances? Did it trouble him to lie? Geisel wrote a quatrain in The Lorax, assumed to be an environmental protest, but it’s tempting to extrapolate a more personal spin:
Unless someone like you
Cares a lot,
Nothing is going to get better.
Geisel was a heavy smoker and diagnosed with a cancerous lesion at the base of his tongue. His remaining decade was alternately spent doing deals to propagate his brand and enduring painful procedures and treatments. His last few years were “in perpetual agony.” Jones speculates that Geisel’s last book, Oh, the Places You’ll Go! was written to plan for his own exit. He knew he was almost out of time, shunned hospitals and died at home at 87 in 1991. His second wife, Audrey, became the proficient keeper of his legacy until she died at 97 in 2018.
Jones’ book about Geisel is well-researched and of interest even to those not enchanted by Dr. Seuss and the hordes of characters Geisel created. Jones explores a vibrant life of aggressive creative striving, and, almost incidentally, a man more comfortable behind his fictional animals than he was dealing with his own psychic pain.
Ted Geisel was among the first to write for children while respecting their intelligence. His prodigious output set a course for children’s literature that remains an inspired pathway for both readers and writers. His goal was to shape children into good citizens while making them laugh. Or, as Geisel put it, “Just to spread joy…How does that sound?”
Pam Munter has authored several books including When Teens Were Keen: Freddie Stewart and The Teen Agers of Monogram (Nicholas Lawrence Press, 2005) and Almost Famous: In and Out of Show Biz (Westgate Press, 1986) and is a contributor to many others. She’s a retired clinical psychologist, former performer and film historian. Her many lengthy retrospectives on the lives of often-forgotten Hollywood performers and others have appeared in Classic Images and Films of the Golden Age. More recently, her essays and short stories have been published in more than 100 publications. Her play Life Without was produced by S2S2S, and nominated four times by the Desert Theatre League, including the Bill Groves Award for Outstanding Original Writing and Outstanding Play (staged reading). She’s a Pushcart nominee and has an MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her memoir, As Alone As I Want To Be, was published by Adelaide Books in 2018.