SAN DIEGO — Near the end of his life, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel sat down with his wife, Audrey, to speak of the past and of things to come.
“ 'I’ve had a wonderful life,”’ Audrey Stone Geisel recalls him saying. “I’ve done what I had to do. I lived where I wished to live. I had love. I had everything.’
“ 'But,’ he said, 'now my work will be turned over to you. And you will have to deal with those consequences.’
“And oh-ho,” says the 82-year-old heiress of the Seuss world, “has that been true!”
Nearly 13 years after her husband’s passing, Geisel leads the global enterprise that has sprouted from Seuss’ beloved books — watching over the Cat in the Hat, the Grinch and all the other critters and characters who live on in movies, toys, games and ventures that perhaps not even the imaginative doctor could have envisioned.
Ted Geisel came into the world in 1904, when children learned from sterile primers. In 1937, Geisel had just suffered his 27th rejection for his first children’s book, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” when he bumped into a friend who worked for Vanguard Press.
“Ted told him that he’d been refused all of these times and he was going home to burn it,” Audrey Geisel says.
The encounter, of course, led to publication. The book created a stir among teachers and parents who feared it would encourage children to lie. “It was so off the wall,” Geisel says. “They even thought, 'Oh, it might teach a child to fib,’ instead of imagine, you see? There’s the difference.”
The book did become a hit and over the years, Dr. Seuss became one of the most popular children’s authors ever. He published 44 children’s books in more than 20 languages, and one non-children’s book, “The Seven Lady Godivas,” which was not a hit. More than 500 million Dr. Seuss books have been sold worldwide.
The death of Dick and Jane
Dr. Seuss has often been credited with killing off “Dick and Jane,” the sterile heroes of childhood readers of yore.
“With Dick and Jane, there was never much of a story there,” said Barbara Parker of the National Education Association, whose annual “Read Across America” event culminates on March 2, the 100th anniversary of Ted Geisel’s birth.
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Dr. Seuss’ books, however, appealed to children — and adults — with their clever rhymes and plot twists.
“In 'The Cat in the Hat,’ for example — kids really, really like that because they’re expecting the boy and the girl to get in trouble when the mother gets home, but suddenly it’s the cat to the rescue,” Parker said.
Philip Nel, a Kansas State English professor and author of the new book “Dr. Seuss: American Icon,” says Seuss’ heroes are rebels and underdogs.
“They go against the grain. They don’t do what they’re expected to do,” he said. As in “The Cat in the Hat,” Nel said, “Why not fly a kite in the house?”
Part of Seuss’ charm is his ability to make the ordinary into the extraordinary.
“ 'Ham and eggs’ is just ordinary, but if you turn it around so that it’s 'eggs and ham,’ that’s interesting. And then if you make it green, there’s real genius,” Nel said.
“He gives us a world that is both familiar and strange. ... He gives us an ordinary house in which an extraordinary cat enters. There’s something brilliant in the way he does that.”
Audrey Geisel is presiding over a year’s worth of ceremonies celebrating “Seussentenial: A Century of Imagination.”
Dr. Seuss, the postage stamp
The events include the debut of a Postal Service stamp; a tour of theatrical performances and children’s workshops across 40 cities; a series of Dr. Seuss celebrity book reviews; exhibits of items from the Dr. Seuss archives and of Ted Geisel’s art; the unveiling of a Dr. Seuss sculpture at the Geisel Library at the University of California, San Diego; and the presentation of a star honoring the author on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame.
As she gazes toward the Pacific from her hilltop home, her blue eyes a shade lighter than the waters below, the petite Geisel says she understood the weight of the job immediately upon inheriting it, but was surprised by how it steadily grew heavier.
“And then suddenly, I had so much to do each day,” she says, describing business responsibilities as well as her philanthropic work as head of the Dr. Seuss Foundation. “But I’ve complicated my own life to a degree, and I don’t deserve much sympathy.”
Geisel is a disciplined and opinionated leader, whose mission is largely to protect the integrity of her husband’s creations.
Unwilling to accept the traditional La Jolla socialite’s life of lunches, Geisel, a former nurse, instead holds court early each morning at a nearby hotel restaurant, arriving in her faithful 1984 Cadillac with the personalized license plate: GRINCH.
“I come down the street and no one has seen anything like it,” she says with a laugh.
As president and CEO of Dr. Seuss Enterprises, Geisel is tough on those encroaching on Seuss trademarks and copyrights. And when she wanted to have the local Old Globe Theater produce “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” years ago, she went to New York to free the miserly character from a production that later evolved into the musical “Seussical.”
Geisel had high hopes for the 2000-01 Broadway production, “Seussical,” but poor reviews doomed the musical in New York. It later won a second life on tour.
There have been greater successes, namely the 2000 film version of the Grinch starring Jim Carrey. Earning $260 million domestically, it was the year’s highest-grossing movie.
But Geisel remains soured by her most recent Hollywood experience where, she says, Universal Pictures forced Mike Myers into the lead role of “The Cat in the Hat.”
“Oh! Now, you’re talking!” she says with a grunt.
“I never saw 'Austin Powers,’ but I knew 'Yeah, baby!’ and I didn’t want 'Yeah, baby!’ at all,” she says imitating the Myers’ character.
Myers, she says, was not fit to play the lanky “puddy cat” who is prone to suavely twirl his tail. Myers did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press.
The movie was judged by some critics as the worst of 2003, she notes. Geisel says she will never again allow Hollywood to portray Seuss characters in live action. An animated work based on the elephant character Horton will be the next film project.
“But I’m not ready to do anything for a little bit,” she says. “I think you have to take a rest. You have to step back and not flood the market.”
“The Cat in the Hat” was a particular disappointment because the character, after all, is the business’ “spokescat,” she says. His signature stovepipe hat decorates her business cards as well as the glass front doors of her home.
“The layers of skin ... have to get tougher,” she says. “And you’ve got to be able to say, 'I’ve got my cat back out of the litter box. It’s no big deal.’ And we march on.”
Geisel had to prove her strength when she began her public relationship with Ted Geisel. The two developed a romance while each was married to others. Ted Geisel’s wife, Helen, suffered from poor health, and in October 1967, took her life with an overdose of pills. A note left behind told Ted Geisel, “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,” according to a biography by Judith and Neil Morgan.
A bit of a scandal followed. However, Geisel adds, “(Helen) said that people would understand in time, and, of course, they did.”
The Geisels had no children and, Ted Geisel himself was not particularly fond of spending time with them. “He was afraid of children to a degree,” Audrey Geisel says.
Oddly for the creator of things illogical and unusual, the unpredictability of children unnerved him. “What might they do next? What might they ask next?” she says her husband would muse.
“No, he couldn’t just sit down on the floor and play with children. It was none of that. He just had to do what he had to do, and they loved him. And he loved them for loving what he did.”
Children continue to love Seuss, even in an age when babies seem to “come down the birth canal with a computer,” Geisel says.
In a world buzzing with action, she says, it is all the more important to share with them the original seed of the Seuss enterprise — the nonsensical yet completely sensible Seuss words.
“Just to have their favorite Seuss story read to them by a parent — that is the most calming, uniting, understanding thing that one generation can share with an oncoming generation.”
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