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The Private World of Dr. Seuss : A Visit to Theodor Geisel's La Jolla Mountaintop

May 25, 1986|HILLIARD HARPER | Hilliard Harper is a Times staff writer based in San Diego

Imagine Dr. Seuss, beloved writer of wry and whimsical children's fables, stepping into the public forum to take sides in the country's greatest crisis of government. Unlikely? Nothing is unlikely in the land of Dr. Seuss, where what he calls "logical insanity" rules.

During the Watergate scandal, the man best known for his fanciful books about oobleck and grinches publicly called for the President of the United States to resign. In July, 1974, he sent newspaper columnist Art Buchwald a copy of his book "Marvin K. Mooney, Will You Please Go Now!" In the text, Dr. Seuss had scratched out each reference to Marvin and substituted "Richard M. Nixon."

This typically Seussian book tells of a pestilent brat who has overstayed his welcome. The narrator's demands that the kid scram escalate in fury until the conclusion:

You can go by balloon . . .

Or broomstick,


You can go by camel

in a bureau drawer.

You can go by Bumble-boat

. . . or jet.

I don't care how you go.

Just GET!

Richard M. Nixon!

I don't care HOW.

Richard M. Nixon

Will you please


And Nixon did, just a week after Buchwald ran Seuss' revision in his nationally syndicated column. Seuss would say it was just coincidence.

In real life, the good doctor is Theodor Seuss Geisel, a man whose private world seems as full of contradictions as the notion of an author of gentle children's books firing off a tirade against the nation's chief executive.

With more than 100 million of his books sold, and with kids all over the globe disciples of the Cat in the Hat and the Grinch who stole Christmas, Seuss at 82 has uncharacteristically leaped into books for adults. Published in March, his 45th book, "You're Only Old Once!: A Book for Obsolete Children," quickly sold out a first printing of 200,000 copies and shot to the top of the New York Times best-seller list--for nonfiction .

Now comes a retrospective at the San Diego Museum of Art that covers almost 60 years of Dr. Seuss' work and highlights aspects of his personality not easily discerned from such mainstays as "Horton Hears a Who" and "Green Eggs and Ham."

The exhibit, which runs through July 13, includes a well-doodled notebook the future author kept while studying at Oxford University in England (he dropped out before earning his doctorate), as well as early illustrations for humor magazines. The exhibit also showcases his book art, with one section following, step by step, the process used to illustrate "You're Only Old Once!"

But fans of his quirky drawings might be surprised to find among his early work a more baldly commercial Seuss, in addition to the one with a decidedly political bent. There amid the likes of Horton the elephant and Yertle the turtle are Seuss' advertising campaigns for motor oil (with the slogan, "Foil the Moto-raspus!" and a drawing of an engine-wrecking creature) and bug spray ("Quick, Henry! the Flit"), next to tough-minded editorial cartoons from his days at the long-defunct New York newspaper PM.

These are sides of Geisel familiar to the tight social circle that knows him not as the recluse often depicted by the media but rather as a playful raconteur and something of a screwball. But these faces of Geisel emerge less often from his mountaintop perch above the Pacific in La Jolla, where the nation's most renowned children's author toils amid yet another contradiction: no children or grandchildren. "You have 'em, I'll amuse 'em" has long been his curmudgeonly motto.

It is almost easier to get to Dr. Seuss' mythical land of Solla Sollew than to Geisel's real-life lair on Mt. Soledad. A narrow road corkscrews up the mountainside; rounding a bend, one almost expects to meet an outrageous figure careening downhill astride a one-wheeler wubble, or at least to spot some of the author's imaginary menagerie: loraxes, yopps, grinches grouching in grickle-grass, sneetches lurking in lerkims or a covey of green-headed Quilligan quail.

Tall, slim and energetic, with eyes that really do twinkle, the white-bearded Geisel suggests an attenuated Cat in the Hat as much as someone's kindly grandfather. By turns droll and gracious, he welcomes visitors, who on this day arrive at the same time as the mailman. "God, what do you suppose is in my mail today?" he says, warily eyeing stacks of packages and fan letters, including several hundred birthday cards from children around the country.

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