LA JOLLA, Calif. -- Children send Theodor Seuss Geisel soggy sacks of green eggs and ham in badly wrapped packages. Adults write letters to his publisher asking if he is still alive.
This amuses Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, one of the most celebrated names ever pressed to a children's book. But then, the 82-year-old creator of sneetches, hippogriffs and grinches would usually rather chuckle than complain.
'You know, essayists have actually written about the subtle meanings of 'Green Eggs and Ham,' and insurance companies used to give it to their sales reps so they wouldn't get discouraged selling,' Geisel says, his crinkly-soft eyes glowing with laughter as he looks out at the Pacific Ocean from his hilltop villa in La Jolla.
'It all began when Bennett Cerf (of Random House publishers) bet me over drinks that I couldn't write a book using only 50 words.' Geisel confides mischievously, 'The moral is, don't eat green eggs and ham.'
For decades, Geisel has defied imitation, dazzling generations of children -- although he has never had any of his own -- and their grateful parents with Sam-I-ams, snerkels and toadstool sandwiches with groffulous, griffulous groo, all the while inventing cats in hats and foxes in socks.
'I think one of the happiest things I've done is getting rid of Dick and Jane,' Geisel says merrily. As to what literary legacy he hopes to leave, Geisel is silent for nearly a minute, as if never asked before.
Shyly, he stammers, 'As someone who wants to make people read ... to have made children read more.'
But Dr. Seuss is not done yet. He celebrated his 82nd birthday in March with the publication of 'You're Only Old Once! ... A Book for Obsolete Children.' It has been on the New York Times Best Seller List for more than six months.
This book, Geisel's 45th, playfully mocks America's medical system as the hapless hero, Mr. Everyman, endures an elaborate checkup with the experts at the Golden Years Clinic -- from the 'Eyesight and Solvency Test' to 'Stethoscope Row,' all the while being 'properly pilled' and 'properly billed.'
And when the 'Spleen Readjustment,' the 'Diet-Devising Computerized Sniffer' and 'Pill Drill' tests come to an end, Geisel writes, '... you'll know once your necktie's back under your chin, and Norval has waved you Godspeed with his fin, you're in pretty good shape for the shape you are in!'
Dedicated to his older -- much older -- readers and to his Dartmouth class of 1925, ('Some of us are still about.') Geisel said the tormented Everyman is one of the characters he most identifies with. 'I guess you could say, too, I'm a combination of a Grinch and the poor old guy in the new book,' he says.
A heart attack six years ago put Geisel in the hospital for months and brought an abrupt end to his social drinking and heavy cigarette smoking -- a habit he still misses when the telephone rings.
'The toughest partquitting the cigarettes was not being able to light one up answering the phone. You know, to ease the embarassment of talking to someone.'
Geisel, who wears a hearing aid and whose fading eyesight has pressed his wife into duty as part-time chauffeur, said 'You're Only Old Once!' takes a sardonic peek at aging -- 'those little aches, the little things and pains we all have to endure.'
Only at first blush does the Dr. Seuss style of writing seem easy - simple structure, no dependent clauses and action tied to pictures. I would not like them here or there. I would not like them anywhere. I do not like green eggs and ham.
I do not like them, Sam-I-am. ('Green Eggs and Ham,' 1960)
It irks Geisel somewhat that he has been typecast as a juvenile writer. 'You get very little respect sometimes,' he says a tad haughtily. 'It seems it only impresses someone if your work gets on television or you get some prize.'
He says nothing more on the subject, and a moment later is smiling again, cheerfully recalling the 15,000 letters he received from child admirers a couple of birthdays ago.
'You know, they keep sending me green eggs and ham. It's really quite a mess in those wrappings. It's nice to see there's still someone out there, though, and it's better than those letters wondering if I'm still alive,' he says, slapping his bony knee.
Geisel keeps his favorite letters. One 8-year-old wrote some years back, 'Dear Dr. Seuss, you sure thunk up a lot of funny books. You sure thunk up a million funny animals ... Who thunk you up, Dr. Seuss?'
Geisel 'thunk up' 'The Cat In the Hat,' (1957) and 'Green Eggs and Ham' by using a word list for first and second graders.
'The Cat In the Hat,' a comic masterpiece still used as a supplementary text for first-graders, was inspired by a John Hersey article in Life magazine in which Hersey claimed his children and their friends were growing up illiterate, Geisel says.
'He ended the article saying that we should turn the business of writing school books over to Dr. Seuss. He sort of threw that in as a joke, but a couple of publishers took it seriously.'
Geisel laments that teachers relegated phonics to the educational sidelines for many years.
'There came the assumption that a child could learn just so many words each year, so they didn't need phonics,' he says. 'And that turned out absolutely false. You don't teach by limiting, you teach by exciting.'
When the Star-Belly children went out to play ball, Could a Plain Belly get in the game ...? Not at all. You could only play if your bellies had stars And the Plain-Belly children had none upon thars. ('The Sneetches and Other Stories,' 1961)
Each of his books, none more than 50 illustrated pages, takes at least a year of Seussian concentration. Geisel says some passages have taken him weeks to complete.
To get those 50 usable pages -- an amount Dr. Seuss insists more than sates the literary appetites of both adult and juvenile readers - at least 500 pages are tossed in the wastepaper basket.
'Drawing is the easiest part, it's the fun part. It's the writing that can drive you crazy,' Geisel says.
'Everyone thinks you can knock off the thing in a weekend,' he says, rummaging through a paper stack of discarded sketches and scribblings which are likely to find their way to the UCLA library where much of Seuss's original drawings and manuscripts are stored.
'Actually, it's much harder than adult writing. You have a tougher audience. You can't fool them (children) with flamboyant, purple passages. If you lose their attention for two seconds, you're cooked.
'Two words, you can lose them. 'The Lorax' (1971) was like that,' Geisel says in his sing-songy voice, plying a strand of silver hair from his light tan sweater. 'But in the middle of that book it just wouldn't come. And my wife said, 'Forget this thing, we're going to Africa.'
'So we went to Africa, and after a week, we were sitting beside a pool at the edge of a jungle in Kenya and a herd of elephants came over the hill about a mile away. And I grabbed a laundry list and wrote practically the whole book in one sitting.
'Now what the elephants did to me, I don't know. Because there are no elephants in the book.' A grin crinkles across his long, gaunt face and he adds, 'Try it sometime. Go to Africa when you're stumped.'
Dr. Seuss, the pseudonym he has used for more than a half-century of writing and illustrating, casts his wry, impish smile as he again views the white sands of La Jolla, one of the richest, most elegant beach resorts in Southern California.
He lightly assumed the 'Dr.' title after a half-hearted pursuit of a doctorate of literature at Oxford. The following decade, into the mid-1930s, was spent in New York. As an advertising copywriter he did commercials for the likes of the Ford Motor Co. and slogans for Standard Oil of New Jersey.
On one indolent, mosquito-infested summer night in the 1930s he devised his most memorable slogan. It was for a bug spray: 'Quick Henry! The Flit!'
While mired in the Flit promotion, Geisel says he learned that his contract prohibited him from any outside writing except for one form - writing for children.
So, it was never any heartfelt adulation for children that propelled him to a career of devising roguish-looking cats and sallow-eyed fish, says Geisel. Rather, it was that loophole in his contract.
In fact, there are two things that put Geisel on edge -- making speeches and, paradoxically, children.
'For some reason,' he says, kids make him nervous, expecting him to be a 'baggy pants character with whiskers. It can be embarrassing.' Stretching his long, skinny legs, Geisel continues with a muffled yawn, 'Sometimes they think of me as a cat in the hat, or a grinch or maybe Horton the elephant.'
Geisel chooses not to discuss why he never had any of his own children, quickly dismissing the subject as a 'fresh question.' But he does concede there is something about children that makes him squeamish.
'I guess it's because they never really think I look or act like I should,' he says. 'What I get really nervous about is getting thrown into an auditorium and then having to talk to them, having to talk to children of 15 different ages. I try to scram out of those places.'
Neil Morgan, editor of the San Diego Tribune and a Geisel friend and neighbor for many years, remembers how the author was perfectly warm and hospitable when he and his wife were visiting. 'But when I had the kids around him, he'd just clam up.'
The La Jolla home Geisel shares with his wife, Audrey, was an ugly, deserted wartime observation post at the community's highest point when he bought it shortly after returning home from World War II duty.
Through the years, the tiny one-room watchtower would be richly transformed into a pink stucco showplace by the sales of millions of books written there for baby boomers and later, for their children.
Throughout the home, there are nearly 400 Geisel paintings and drawings of cats. One shows 200 different feline faces and is titled simply, 'A Plethora of Cats.'
Laughingly, Geisel recalls how he once told a reporter that he would have used dogs as characters in his books, like writer-illustrator James Thurber often did, but he didn't know how to draw them.
There are also two enormous paintings inside Geisel's rambling living room, an elegant room awash in apricot, yellow and mauve. Geisel's eyes move sideways from the powerful New York City skyline oil to the tranquil print of a San Diego beach.
'I have them to show where I've been, where I got out of, and where I've come,' Geisel says softly, as if contemplating the epic length of his life and experience.
After graduating in 1925 from Dartmouth, Geisel moved on to Oxford to pursue a doctorate of literature. The restless scholar, tired of unearthing the inexplicable meanderings of Jonathan Swift's prose, left Oxford sans doctorate within a year and, after two more brief forays into academia at the University of Vienna and the Sorbonne, returned to the U.S. in 1927.
While trying his hand at advertising in New York, Geisel dabbled in writing on the side. He penned cartoons and humorous two-line captions that appeared regularly in The Saturday Evening Post, Vanity Fair and Redbook.
Giesel spent World War II in a Hollywood movie studio producing documentaries on Germany and Japan, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Army Signal Corps. The Army, perhaps aware of the 1939 failure of his racy tale about 'The Seven Lady Godivas' (his only attempt at adult books until 'You're Only Old Once!'), placed him in charge of 'doing serious films' about venereal disease.
An anti-V.D. film he created, Geisel chuckles, was 'so damn silly, with animated figures, that I don't think it was ever shown.'
His illustrated classic 'And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,' was turned down by 27 publishers before hitting lucky number 28, Vanguard Press, which published it in 1937. That was the turning point for Geisel. After a break in his career for the war, he turned his back on Madison Avenue and settled into La Jolla to focus his full attention on the fantasy of sneetches and grinches.
Oh, snow and rain are not enough! Oh, we must make some brand new stuff! So feed the fire with wet mouse hair, Burn an onion. Burn a chair. ... Go make the oobleck tumble down On every street, in every town! ('Bartholomew and the Oobleck,' 1949)
'I'll bet you're going to ask me where I get my ideas,' Geisel says teasingly as he takes a seat in one of his 'Seuss-Hepplewhite' chairs, each with a Seuss character carved into a medallion at its back.
'Once I said they came from a little town near Zybliknov where I spend an occasional weekend.'
After a long pause, the tall, lanky man with a grand sloping nose, long skinny legs that make him appear almost moose-like, and a stomach as hard as a washboard, says, 'They once asked Babe Ruth his system about hitting home runs and the Babe analyzed it. And for the next three weeks he couldn't hit the ball at all.'
'I don't know where it comes from,' he concludes. 'You draw a picture of a Grinch and you look at it, and the only thing it could be is a Grinch. I mean it's obvious.'
'Mister!' he said with a sawdusty sneeze, 'I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues. And I'm asking you, sir, at the top of my lungs' - he was very upset as he shouted and puffed - 'What's that THING you've made out of my Truffula tuft?' ('The Lorax,' 1971)
Outdoors, his cat, 'Thing One' plays with a ball near the Geisels' silver Cadillac with the license plate, 'GRINCH.'
The other cat, 'Thing Two,' menancingly eyes the pool that ripples in the ocean breeze near Geisel's favorite possession, a three-foot slab of shale containing the footprint of a dinosaur.
'It's 150 million years old, ' Geisel says of the treasure his German-born father 'snuck off for me' near his boyhood home of Springfield, Mass. 'Everyone should own one of these. It teaches them humility.'
Geisel's grandfathers, a brewer and a banker, hailed from Bavaria and the Black Forest. Geisel grew up in a middle-class Springfield family. His father, who lived until his mid-90s, was elected president of the brewery the day before Prohibition was declared, Geisel chuckles.
'And that ended that job, all right,' he says. 'So he got a job as superintendent of the park system. He took care of the golf course and the city zoo.'
With some pride, Geisel remembers his father as 'a world champion rifle shot, a sportsman and a great fishing companion.'
As a boy, he and his only sibling, a younger sister, romped with the animals at the zoo his father oversaw. His mother, he recalls, often told him animal stories.
Geisel met his first wife, Helen, at Oxford. It is not a topic he cares to discuss. Helen committed suicide some 20 years ago.
Geisel married Audrey in 1969. They are often seen in San Diego's social and charitable circles and frequently host small dinners that include such La Jolla luminaries as the famed Dr. Jonas Salk.
'He's a very social person,' says longtime friend Morgan. 'He enjoys small gatherings and good high-protein conversations .... He's a very prideful part of the community.'
Geisel says Audrey, who studied art, works very closely with him on his books. 'She's the color expert and she always makes sure to tell me what's bad.'
If the work is going well, Geisel says he will spend 10 to 12 hours a day writing and drawing. He also makes sure to include a daily swim, read the newspapers and attend to some gardening.
Loping into his writing room, Geisel happily points out walls littered with the preliminary sketches for 'You're Only Old Once!.' The San Diego Union newspaper headline proclaiming his Pulitzer Prize Special Citation is framed in glass.
There are also the two Emmys -- 1977 and 1982 -- he won for animated children's specials and the prized Peabody Award he collected in 1971, and copies of all his books, many of them printed in 20 languages.
Nearly half a century has passed since Geisel wrote 'And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.'
Still, the work continues. 'We all need deadlines,' he says. 'We all need to work. There's so much to do.'
If he hadn't become a writer, Geisel says without hesitation, he would have been a painter, an avocation he often turns to for relaxation.
Other diversions include reading E.L. Doctorow and Irwin Shaw, Gregory McDonald's 'Fletch' books, 'and my good friend Bob Ludlum.'
Geisel takes pride in never resorting to the heavy-handed sermonizing found in many other children's stories.
'The Lorax (1971) was a personal triumph in being able to make a statement without pontificating,' Geisel says. 'I hate to be on a pulpit or sound preachy.'
Rather, Dr. Seuss's delightfully absurd world includes a mastery of the subtle moral.
And at that very instant ... old VanItch klupped up! ... In his fist was another Big-Boy Boomeroo! 'I'll blow you,' he yelled, 'into pork and wee beans! I'll butter-side-up you to small smithereens!' 'Grandpa!' I shouted. 'Be careful! Oh, gee! Who's going to drop it? Will you ...? Or will he ...?' ('The Butter Battle Book,' 1984)
A lifelong Democrat who calls Franklin Roosevelt his favorite president, Geisel delicately scolded snobbery with his tale of Star-Belly Sneetches who are snotty to Plain-Belly Sneetches in 'The Sneetches and Other Stories' (1961). 'Yertle the Turtle' (1958) was a parable of Hitler.
Geisel said 'How the Grinch Stole Christmas,' a light-hearted slap at the holiday's commercialization, was the easiest book he ever wrote 'until I got to the last page.
'That page took almost a month. No matter how I ended it, it was like a minister making a preachment. Finally, I felt I'd just skip the moral and just have the Grinch carve the Roastbeast and have it hang there. It took a month to solve that problem.'
'The Butter Battle Book' of 1984, a pointed statement about the folly of nuclear build-up, was as 'political as I've ever been,' Geisel says. 'It came out as a kids' book and then ended up as a bestseller for adults.' He chuckled. 'A lot of my admiral and general friends didn't care for it too much.'
Geisel penned political cartoons for a now-defunct New York City daily for a short stint in the 1940s. 'I would like to get back into making political statements,' he said, 'but I can't really. It would be very disruptive to what I'm doing now.' With a gleam in his eye, he added, 'I'd love to discuss (President) Reagan, but I'd better not.'
Geisel attributes his reluctance in public speaking or appearances to an unforgettable childhood nightmare.
'My grandfather, the German who ran a brewery, wanted to show people what a good citizen he was so he bought Liberty Bonds from me when I was a Boy Scout,' Geisel begins.
'So Teddy Roosevelt was coming to town. And it was arranged that the top 10 boys who sold the most bonds would be there with all their families right out there in front.
'But it turns out they had only nine medals to give out. And Teddy Roosevelt gave them all out, and then he looked at the scoutmaster and said, 'Why is this little boy here? What is he still doing standing here?''
'I can still here people whispering, 'Ted Geisel tried to get a medal he didn't deserve. What's he doing here?''
But today, as the letters and soggy green eggs and ham keep coming, Dr. Seuss knows what he's doing here.
I swung 'round the corner And dashed through the gate, I ran up the steps And I felt simply GREAT! For I had a story that NO ONE could beat! And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street!