At 87, Dr. Seuss is gone but his language lives on Whimsical rhymes captivated millions

September 26, 1991|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,New York Times News Service

His Grinch stole Christmas, but grew a big heart and gave it back. His Onceler chopped down the beautiful truffula trees, but one seed survived to give hope for the future. If this were a Dr. Seuss book rather than real life, someone -- a Who, perhaps, or maybe a wumbus -- would figure out a way for Theodor Seuss "Ted" Geisel to keep writing about sneedles and tweedlebeetles and ziffs and zuffs, and to keep making perfect and wonderful sense of it all.

But Mr. Geisel, known and beloved as Dr. Seuss, died Tuesday night of multiple organ failure at his home in La Jolla, Calif. He was 87.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author-illustrator's 48 books, including "The Cat in the Hat" and "Green Eggs and Ham," have sold more than 200 million copies in 20 languages -- 21, if you include his own, inimitable Seussian tongue.

His books were about rhyme -- and what tummy-clutching, funny rhyme it is -- but also about reason. Beneath the childish whimsy were grown-up messages: The bullying title character of 1946's "Yertle the Turtle" was based on Hitler; "Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now" was a plea to Richard Nixon to resign in the wake of Watergate; and "The Butter Battle Book" of 1984 was about a nonsensical arms race between the butter-side-up Zooks and the butter-side-down Yooks that made all arms races seem nonsensical.

Children always have taken to his books like, well, sneetches to lerkims. Dr. Seuss revolutionized how children learned to read, giving them rhymes rather than rote, words that just begged to be readout loud.

"That is what I am proudest of," Mr. Geisel said in 1982, "that I had something to do with getting rid of Dick and Jane."

Ironically, the author of four of the 10 best-selling children's books of all time had no children himself, although his second wife brought two to their marriage. "You make 'em, I amuse 'em," said the man whose car once bore the vanity plate GRINCH. "You can't write books for children if too many of them are looking over your shoulder."

He was perhaps destined to become one of the most wildly imaginative of word-players: He was born March 2, 1904, in Springfield, Mass., where his father ran a brewery called Kulmbach and Geisel, otherwise known to local imbibers as "Come Back and Guzzle." Also influencing his future work, no doubt, was another of his father's jobs: He was the town zoo keeper.

As a student at Dartmouth College, Mr. Geisel drew cartoons for the school humor magazine that featured bizarrely rendered animals not normally found in nature. After graduating in 1925, he spent a year at Oxford University, where he met his first wife, Helen Palmer. (They had been married nearly 40 years when she died in 1967; he married Audrey Stone Dimond the following year.)

His was a background that seemed to touch major themes of every decade. He dropped out of Oxford to live for a time in Paris with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Gertrude Stein.

He returned to New York in time for the Depression, where he wrote articles and gags and drew political cartoons, one of which brought him an advertising contract with the insecticide company, Flit. His slogan, "Quick, Henry! The Flit!" remains one the industry's most memorable catch phrases.

Joining the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Mr. Geisel made patriotic films as part of Frank Capra's documentary-film unit, with John Huston as a fellow major and Irving Wallace as one of his sergeants.

After World War II, he continued to make documentaries and animated films, ultimately winning three Oscars, but eventually tired of Hollywood and moved to La Jolla and the life of a writer.

At that point he had been writing children's books on the side for some time, having published his first, "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street," in 1937. He called himself Dr. Seuss -- the "Dr." as a joke on the scientific developments of the time and the "Seuss" from his mother's maiden name, saving his own name for the Great American Novel that he hoped to write one day.

Instead, "Mulberry Street" became the success while his adult novel, "The Seven Lady Godivas," flopped, and the die was cast.

To the end, he claimed he didn't really know how to draw, having never taken an art lesson. Yet his characters -- with their wildly attenuated limbs and popping eyes -- were instant hits. A showing of more than 300 of his pieces was one of the Baltimore Museum of Art's most popular exhibits ever, drawing 95,000 viewers in its six-week stay from December 1987 to January 1988.

He had hoped to visit Baltimore for the exhibit's opening, but was recovering from an infected jawbone at the time. "I really wanted to visit the town because H. L. Mencken was a big hero of mine when I was a young man," he told The Evening Sun at the time. "Maybe I'll get out there some other time."

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