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Theodor Seuss Geisel — known as “Ted” to family and friends — liked to say that he adopted the name “Dr. Seuss” because he was saving his real name for the Great American Novel he would one day write. But that’s probably not true. When talking to the media, Geisel was more interested in telling a good story than he was in telling a true story.
The true story is also a good one, as we learn in Judith and Neil Morgan’s excellent biography Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel (the primary source for what you are now reading). During his senior year at Dartmouth College, Ted Geisel and nine of his friends were caught drinking gin in his room. This was the spring of 1925, and the dean put them all on probation for violating the laws of Prohibition. He also stripped Geisel of his editorship of Jack-O-Lantern — the college’s humor magazine — where Ted published his cartoons. To evade punishment, Ted Geisel began publishing cartoons under aliases: L. Pasteur, D.G. Rossetti ’25, T. Seuss, and Seuss. These cartoons mark the first time he signed his work “Seuss.”
As a magazine cartoonist, he began signing his work under the mock-scholarly title of “Dr. Theophrastus Seuss” in 1927. He shortened that to “Dr. Seuss” in 1928. In acquiring his professional pseudonym, he also gained a new pronunciation. Most Americans pronounce the name Soose, and not Zoice. And that’s how Ted Geisel became Dr. Seuss.
Dr. Seuss was not a doctor. Ted Geisel did consider pursuing a Ph.D. in English: After graduating from Dartmouth, he went to Oxford, where he studied literature from 1925 to 1926. I use the term “studied” loosely. Though his Oxford notebooks include some notes on the lectures, they reveal a much greater propensity for doodling.
One day after class, his classmate Helen Palmer looked over at his notebook.
“You’re crazy to be a professor. What you really want to do is draw,” she told him. “That’s a very fine flying cow!”
They got engaged, and she finished her M.A. Ted briefly contemplated becoming a scholar of the Irish satirist Jonathan Swift, but he realized that Helen was right. He really did want to draw. So, he left higher education, they returned to the U.S., and he became a cartoonist.
In 1955, Dartmouth gave him his first honorary doctorate. He would eventually receive several more honorary degrees, including one from Princeton. By pursuing his love of drawing, Ted Geisel became one of the few people to earn a Ph.D. by dropping out of graduate school.
Quick, Henry, the Flit!
Success was not immediate. Ted married Helen in 1927, and they moved into a walk-up apartment on New York’s Lower West Side while he tried to establish himself as a cartoonist. After a year of scraping by, Ted chanced upon the career that would make him famous: advertising. It all began when he happened to use a popular insecticide for a punchline. For a 1928 issue of Judge magazine, Seuss drew a cartoon in which a knight remarks, “Darn it all, another dragon. And just after I’d sprayed the whole castle with Flit!” The wife of an advertising executive saw the cartoon and asked her husband to hire Seuss to write ads for Flit.
In a typical Flit cartoon, large mosquitoes converge on a child at a picnic. His mother cries, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” Father (Henry) looks for the Flit to save the day. In another, a ventriloquist’s dummy sees a giant insect heading for him. To the astonishment of the ventriloquist, the dummy shouts, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”
Dr. Seuss’s ad campaign was a hit. “Quick, Henry, the Flit!” was the “Got Milk?” or the “Where’s the Beef?” of its day — a catchphrase that everyone knew. As Robert Cahn wrote in his 1957 profile of Seuss, “‘Quick Henry, the Flit’ became a standard line of repartee in radio jokes. A song was based on it. The phrase became a part of the American vernacular for use in emergencies. It was the first major advertising campaign to be based on humorous cartoons.”
Seuss went on to create ads for Holly Sugar, NBC, Ford, General Electric, and many others. For the next thirty years, advertising would remain Ted Geisel’s main source of income. The Cat in the Hat would change all that.