Nine Strange Things You (Probably) Never Knew About Dr Seuss



2017-01-17 16:46:37

Theodor Geisel is one of the most beloved and biggest-selling children's authors of all time. To the world, he is simply known as 'Dr Seuss'.

His books have sold more than 600 million copies in 20 different languages, and have become staple reading for generations of children and parents alike.

You may known his books – but here are nine things you (probably) didn't know about the man himself...

He wrote a children's book about Adolf Hitler


The tale of Yertle the Turtle is one of Dr Seuss's more famous stories. First published in 1958, it tells of Yertle, King of the pond, who has grown tired of his throne and wants something bigger. He orders the other turtles to stand in a pile, so can sit on top and survey his kingdom, but soon grows dissatisfied and wants to climb higher still.

As more and more turtles stack on top of each other, the ones at the bottom start to get crushed. Mack, the turtle at the bottom of the pile, complains to Yertle but the King ignores him. He watches the moon rise over the pond, and furious that something "dares to be higher than Yertle the King". But the turtles are saved when Mack lets out an enormous burp, sending the stack flying and toppling the greedy Yertle back into the mud.

The story sounds innocent enough, but Seuss later stated that his inspiration for the despotic turtle King was Adolf Hitler. The story is his comment on fascism and authoritarian rule, as a cruel and selfish leader abuses his power before being overthrown by the will of the common man.

And as if that wasn't edgy enough, Yertle the Turtle was also the world's first children's book to feature someone burping.

There would have been no Revenge of the Nerds without him


These days 'nerd' culture has become dominant, but back in 1950 nobody had even heard the term before – nobody except Dr Seuss.

The first recorded use of the word 'nerd' comes in his book 'If I Ran the Zoo', in which Gerald McGrew suggests the fantastical creatures he'd put on display if he were in charge. "And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo,/A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!"

Less than 12 months later, the term was being used as slang for a 'square' and the rest is incredibly geeky history.

He wrote his best-selling book to win a $50 bet


The 1960 Dr Seuss book Green Eggs and Ham is the fourth-biggest selling English language children's book of all time, having sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. And it was originally written to win a $50 dollar bet with Seuss' publisher Bennet Cerf.

Seuss had completed The Cat in the Hat using just 225 unique words chosen from a list provided by educators, and Cern gave him an even bigger challenge: write a book using just 50 different words. He accepted, and Green Eggs and Ham was the result. It was critically acclaimed and an instant hit – but apparently not successful enough to make Cern pay up.

And in case you're wondering, those 50 words are: a, am, and, anywhere, are, be, boat, box, car, could, dark, do, eat, eggs, fox, goat, good, green, ham, here, house, I, if, in, let, like, may, me, mouse, not, on, or, rain, Sam, say, see, so, thank, that, the, them, there, they, train, tree, try, will, with, would, you.

He also wrote one of the weirdest kid's movies ever made


Following the success of his Oscar-winning 1950 cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing, Geisel turned his hand to writing the only feature film of his career. It would also turn out to be one of the strangest children's films ever made.

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T is the strange and often terrifying story of Bart Collins, who dozes off during a piano lesson and finds himself prisoner in a nightmarish music school. The institute is run by the insane Dr. Terwilliker, who tortures musicians and has built a piano so large it requires the hands of 500 boys to play it.

Nearly all the characters are creepy, the sets are gigantic and surreal, the musical numbers are more disturbing than jolly, and the glorious technicolour seems to make it all even worse. A 2009 article suggested it would make a great triple bill alongside The Wizard of Oz and Mullholland Drive.

Released in 1953, the film flopped at the box office and was savaged by critics, but today it's recognized as a bizarre cult classic. It also inspired the name of a classic Simpsons character, with Bart's nemesis Sideshow Bob Terwilliger named in honour of the evil Dr T himself. 

He invented a fake daughter to annoy other parents

Geisel and his first wife Helen were unable to have children, and many people commented on his ability to write so well for kids without being a father himself. “You make ’em. I’ll amuse ’em,” was usually his reply. But as an antidote to being surrounded by boastful parents, and to perhaps mask his own sadness, he invented an imaginary daughter to brag about himself - Chrysanthemum-Pearl.

Geisel made wild claims about her, such as  she "made a mean oyster stew with chocolate frosting and flaming Roman candles", and dedicated his 1938 book The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins to her, writing, "To Chrysanthemum Pearl, age 89 months, going on 90." Chrysanthemum-Pearl was just one of the numerous imaginary children the couple referred to jokingly, along with Norval, Wally, Wickersham, Miggles, Boo-Boo and Thnud.

He claimed all his ideas came from a hamlet in Switzerland


Geisel took his inspiration from countless sources, but grew tired of having to answer the same question for journalists again and again. He also loved embellishing the truth whenever possible, and decided to settle the matter once and for all in the most Seussian way possible:

"This is the most asked question of any successful author. Most authors will not disclose their source for fear that other, less successful authors will chisel in on their territory. However, I am willing to take that chance. I get all my ideas in Switzerland, near the Forka Pass. There is a little town called Gletch, and two thousand feet up above Gletch there is a smaller hamlet called Uber Gletch. I go there on the fourth of August every summer to get my cuckoo clock repaired. While the cuckoo is in the hospital, I wander around and talk to the people in the streets. They are very strange people, and I get my ideas from them."

He wrote an 'adult' book about nude women and horses


Before he became established as one of the world's best-loved children's authors, Seuss had also written for an adult audience to little success. Then in 1938, he published a book which was deemed such a failure that he turned his back on mature readers for good - The Seven Lady Godivas.

The illustrated book told the story of the seven Godiva sisters, who never wore clothes and were sworn never to marry until they could warn men about the dangers of horses. It was exactly as weird, and made as little sense, as it sounds. Seuss claimed he tried to "draw the sexiest-looking women I could, but they came out just ridiculous". "It was all full of naked women, and I can't draw convincing naked women. I put their knees in the wrong places."

The placement of the knees was the least of the book's problems, and it found few buyers in the middle of an economic depression. Along with the The Cat in the Hat Songbook, it remains the only other of his works to have gone out of print. Seuss deemed the book a personal failure, and decided to focus solely on kid's books from then on, claiming "Adults are obsolete children, and the hell with them."

He had the mounted head of Anthony Drexel Goldfarb in his apartment


During the 1930s Geisel decided to take his drawing one step further, and recreate them in three dimensions. A childhood love of his local Springfield Zoo had led to an obsession with drawing animals, first real and then imaginary, and he began to turn them into sculptures. He was helped by his father Theodor, who worked as the Springfield public park supervisor and had access to a wide range of horns, bills, skins and feather from deceased zoo and park animals.

Geisel began creating strange taxidermy heads of animals such as the Goo-Goo-Eyed Tasmanian Wolghast, the Mulberry Street Unicorn, the Tufted Gustard and the Two Horned Drouberhannis. Made using a combination of the real animal parts along with plaster, wood and oil paint, the sculptures resembled trophies captured after Geisel went hunting in the pages of his own stories.

He called it The Seuss System of Unorthodox Taxidermy, and a magazine dubbed him "The World’s Most Eminent Authority on Unheard-Of Animals". His sister Marnie also commented on the menagerie in a local Springfield paper, stating "They have a charming apartment on Park Avenue, New York, but it is so filled with his animals that I am apt to have a nightmare whenever I visit them.”

Today, limited edition casts of the originals are available to buy from the Chase Group, including the delightfully-named Anthony Drexel Goldfarb (above).

He was traumatised by an American President


During WWI Geisel was a member of the Boy Scouts, and sold War Bonds door to door in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts along with the rest his troop. He had suffered constant taunts for his German ancestry during the conflict, and was eager to prove his patriotism – as was his grandfather Theodore, a brewer and German immigrant who had moved to the US in the 19th century.

Theodore purchased an impressive $1000 of bonds from his grandson, making Geisel one of the town's top-selling scouts for which he was invited to an awards ceremony later that year. The guest of honour at the Springfield Municipal Auditorium was none other than Theodore Roosevelt, former President of the United States, who was invited to present medals to the scouts.

The boys all lined up in their uniforms, and filed on stage to receive their medals. There were ten boys, and Geisel was tenth in line, but Roosevelt had only been given nine medals. He assumed there would only be nine recipients, so when Geisel made his way out on the stage the empty-handed President stared down at him and shouted "What's this boy doing here?"

Instead of explaining the mix-up, Geisel's troop leader simply dragged him off the stage and he never received his medal. What's worse, the humiliating experience left him terrified of large crowds and public speaking for the rest of his life.     

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