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Biography Details Source Of Dr. Seuss' Imagination

A new biography about Ted Geisel reminds San Diego fans that Dr. Seuss was not just a local celebrity, he was actually an international icon. By the time Geisel died in 1991, he'd published 48 Dr. Seuss books in more than 20 languages.

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Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego sometimes takes a proprietary attitude over the memory of Dr Seuss. Ted Geisel and his wife Audrey made la Jolla their home and were major celebrities around town for many years. Geisel's the archives are now in a Uc San Diego Library, which is named after him, and many institutions, including KPBS, have benefited from the Geisel estate. So it's Tom that something reminded us that Dr Seuss and his many children's books and stories are actually not just ours, but national icons. A new biography is out that does just that. Joining me is Brian Jay Jones, author of becoming Dr Seuss, Theodore Geisel and the making of an American imagination. Brian, welcome to the program. Thank you. I'm so glad to be here in his hometown. Yeah. Well, Ted Geisel, you know how to rather long road to becoming Dr Seuss as is outlined in your book, but I want to ask you right off the bat, do you think Dr Seuss was what he wanted to become all along?

Speaker 1: 01:00 It's hard to say. I think he would have been happy doing any number of things in his career. And there's a number of times in his career that he almost gets derailed from becoming who we know of is Dr Seuss. You get to his head, turned by Hollywood at one point in the late 1940s do a touch up screenplays and write screenplays and write original screenplays. He had a very successful career, was an advertising man very early in his career through the 20s and into the 30s and the reason he actually gets into writing children's books is because there's money on the table. It's something he's not prohibited from doing. And his pretty restrictive contract with standard oil. I find them really fascinating because he doesn't emerge fully formed and in our imaginations either. Now he started out as I understand, as a cartoonist in the 1920s yes.

Speaker 1: 01:42 And that was at the height of the booming newspaper age in New York City where you could actually make, you could make a living doing cartoons for vanity fair and liberty. Who would, who would ever think, how successful was he? He was very successful and he, he had a reputation of making jokes about drinking enough that people look for the cartoons by doctor south. Uh, they would say. So, uh, he, he sold them quite regularly and they were very popular and it's actually how we ended up sort of backing in to finding his advertising career. But he had lots of work published at that time and in lots of the big magazines including covers of things like judge magazine, which was a huge satire magazine, unrivaled was even larger than the New Yorker. What did his drawings look like back then? It's not going to look unfamiliar to, there's a lot of wide eyes and a lot of, you know, eyelashes on eyes and a lot of sort of card or years on people and things like that.

Speaker 1: 02:30 So it's, it's a look you'll recognize if you see it when he moved on to advertising. And as you say, it was very successful. Did he write any copy or did he just focus on illustration? His ad work was primarily done with standard oil. Um, his first big ad campaign was for flip bug spray. And the campaign was a punchline. He wrote that was quick. Henry the Flint, uh, which became popular enough. It was the title of songs and Comedians could use it as a Goto punchline, but he actually wrote that as don draper would call it, that tagline. Basically his commercials were cartoons. So he was writing both the text and doing the drawings for those. Later on he ended up doing a campaign for a motorboat oil and he developed something called the Seuss Navy, which was more of a almost like performance art where you would join the Seuss navy and you would get these great certificates and he would drive himself and you could go to these exclusive parties where there was a lot of fun and a lot of shenanigans going on.

Speaker 1: 03:23 Um, so he sort of created an experience in advertising. He was very forward thinking, very, you know, had a lot of interesting ideas even back at that time for how advertising should work and how you could catch people. And the name Seuss, that's actually his middle name, right. See his middle name and his, his mother's maiden name. And if you're pronouncing, getting a germ good German fashion, it's actually soy sauce. Uh, but he gave up very early on. Anybody ever pronouncing it that way? How did his work during World War II changed? Yeah. World War II, who was I think very formative for him. Um, I think, I think his career at PM magazine, uh, under his editor there was very important to him. And then when he joined the army and ends up serving in the signal corps at age 39, he ends up serving under Frank Capra, his commanding officer, the director, Frank Capra, who teaches them about plot and how to storyboard things like that.

Speaker 1: 04:11 But, but, um, Ingersoll, his editor at pm the PM newspaper where he was drawing these very progressive editorial cartoons, I think really, really taught him the importance of articulating your position a little more clearly. Dr Seuss talked about late, even later in life, how, you know, he, he found those cartoons somewhat off key and he said they were a little impudent and, um, and he said, I don't regret it. I do it again. But he would have to read the newspaper in the morning, draw cartoon and then mail it that day. So there wasn't a lot of time to think of these things over, but it was Ingersoll who taught him, you know, you've got a voice here, you need to use it, you need to use it responsibly and let's figure out how we say some of these things. So his, his work becomes a little more sophisticated and responsible I think even in those edits Cora cartoons because as you move into the latter half of those, but once he joins the army and he's under capra, capra really shapes the way he, he works, um, more than anything else.

Speaker 1: 05:02 And Chuck Jones, the great animator and director over at looney tunes we worked with on private snafu cartoons, did the same thing, really taught him how to storyboard and, and to, to think about how quick you're moving and how long your plots are and to put those drawings up on the wall and look at them. One of the major criticisms against Ted Geisel is the racist drawings he made of Asians during and after World War Two. Did he regret that at all? You know, he was asked about that even during his own lifetime and he said something along the lines of, you know, you have to look at those in the context of the time. At the time I thought they were funny, but looking back now, I'm not so sure. So it's even something in his lifetime he had to sort of think about. Oh right.

Speaker 1: 05:44 So we, we've meet him now. He's, it's after World War II. He's been under the tutelage of Frank Capra and Chuck Jones and he's on the verge of becoming Dr Seuss. What events though actually brought that about? So, so the, the game changer in his career is the cat in the hat. Um, before cat in the hat had done 11, 12 books, most of what you know now, but at the time he hadn't really had a big selling book, Horton Hatches. The egg was probably his big book at the time, but he was never earning enough money to do this full time to write kids books for a living. Um, and in 1954, uh, we were doing as a nation, what we do probably about every eight to 10 years is we're wondering what's wrong with kids today? Uh, why aren't they reading? Why aren't they paying attention? You know, this conversation we have all the time, whether it's video games, we want to blame.

Speaker 1: 06:32 Uh, but back in 1954, they, they were saying, you know, kids aren't reading. And one of the problems is the Dick and Jane Reading Primers, we put in front of them in the classrooms are really terrible. And somebody challenged Dr Seuss, write me a book of first grade or can't put down. And so Dr Seuss agreed to do this, but the condition on it is that you have to use the preapproved wordless. He was challenged to write a book, first graders using 300 words or less, and it takes him a year to even figure out what that subject is going to be because he says, it's hard to do when you don't have any adjectives. You can't use plurals, you can't use possessives. And he said he threw around the list and was ready to throw it across the room and burn it when he decided to go through it one more time and find two words that rhymed and he solved the words tall ball.

Speaker 1: 07:19 So thank goodness he didn't go with that. Uh, instead he went with cat and hat and that was the beginning of that book, but it took them another year to write it. After that, you know, in reference to your title becoming, Dr Says, what do you think makes Geisel's work a distinctly American creation? First of all, there's a lot going on from a lot of different places and he himself is, you know, one of those American success stories, you know, early part of the 20th century. He's the son of the son of an immigrant. His father and his grandfather were very successful brewers who lost everything in prohibition. So, you know, he's, he's, he's almost got that Horatio Alger element to his own story. But I think the reason his work still resonates with us even today is, and I don't know if this is distinctly American or not, but he never talks down to an audience.

Speaker 1: 08:07 Um, no matter how young they are or how old the parents are, he's always talking right to us. He always gives us that. It's very democratic in that way, I think. And I think maybe that's what's very American about it. Everyone's an equal in his world. He talks to everybody, never down to anybody, always assumes that his readers are smart as readers are going to get it and they shouldn't be condescended to and they shouldn't be pandered to. And I think that's what makes those books so great as popular now as they were. They are just as popular now, if not more popular. He just last week, I think he still had three books in the top 10 on the USA Today. Nonfiction list, I think, uh, I think green eggs and ham was in there. Uh, oh, the places you'll go always shows up because it's graduation time and cat in the hat still sell. So He's, he's constantly got books on the bestseller. It was 30 years after he's died. My guest, Brian Jay Jones, will be speaking about his new book becoming Dr Seuss. That's tonight at seven 30 at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla. And Brian, thank you. Thank you. What a pleasure.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.