THE first time I visited Theodor Seuss Geisel at his home in La
Jolla, Calif., he was in the throes of resolving a plot tangle for
the next of his yearly books for children aged three to 93. This
one involved how to prevent a despicable character called the
Grinch from completing his diabolical scheme to steal Christmas
from all the Whos in Who-ville.
It was early winter of 1957 and I had been assigned to write an
article on Dr. Seuss for the old Saturday Evening Post. His
colorful zany books had a dedicated following in families from
coast to coast who bought about 10,000-20,000 copies of each new
title. But Dr. Seuss had not yet become a household word, and had
never before been profiled in a major magazine.
He told me he had just finished the most difficult book
assignment he had ever undertaken - writing and illustrating a
beginning reader using only 223 words of one or two syllables from
a prescribed list.
He had thought the assignment from Houghton Mifflin and Random
House would be a cinch. He would write a book that six-year-olds
would want to read like crazy and prove that the reason "Why Johnny
Can't Read" was that Johnny's reader wasn't readable. He would have
nothing to do with the dull primers about Dick and Jane.
When he submitted a story line about scaling the peaks of
Everest at 60 degrees below zero, the editor warned that although
it sounded truly exciting, "scaling" or "peaks" or "Everest" or
"degrees" or even "sixty" weren't on the list, nor was there a
Salamagoox nor a Yuzz-A-Ma-Tuzz anywhere to be found. After six
months of fruitless staring at the word list, Geisel was ready to
give up. Then there emerged from his jumble of sketches a raffish
cat wearing a battered stovepipe hat.
Geisel checked his list - both hat and cat were on it. Gradually
he worked himself out of one literary dead end after another to
complete the reader. The rest is history. "The Cat in the Hat" was
accepted by almost every primary school and kindergarten in the
country, and along with its bookstore edition, sold 500,000 copies
the first year. Dr. Seuss and Random House developed a beginners
book company to continue with more Seuss readers, plus those by
other authors. Dr. Seuss quickly became a household word.
Solving the Grinch dilemma presented a different problem, and
the answer appeared to Geisel one day just before one of our
several interview sessions: The Grinch, as he hauled away his sled
with all the things he thought meant Christmas, heard the Whos back
in Who-ville singing a merry song. He hadn't stopped Christmas from
coming - it came just the same even without the gifts and food. A
repentant Grinch realized something he hadn't before.
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas ... perhaps ... means a little bit more!"
So he whizzed back to Who-ville with his sled full of stolen
toys and food and even carved the "roast beast" for the Christmas
Visiting with Ted Geisel over a week's period, I not only got
more than enough information for my article, but discovered one of
the most remarkable men I have ever met. At work in his office
overlooking the Pacific, which he could see through the strips of
trial drawings and verses taped on the windows, Geisel was intent
and driven as he agonized over the best way to express an idea. But
after shutting the office door at 5:30 each day, he would be his
cheerful, fun-loving, sometimes mischievous self. Though shy in
public, he could be a riot among friends.
When after-dinner conversation would swing around to endless
tales about his friends' marvelous children and grandchildren,
Geisel, who had no children of his own, would interrupt to tell
about "Chrysanthemum-Pearl," his precious (imaginary) child who
could "whip up the most delicious oyster stew with chocolate
frosting and flaming Roman candles," or could "carry 1,000 stitches
on one needle while making long red underdrawers for her Uncle