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Theodor Geisel Dies at 87; Wrote 47 Dr. Seuss Books : Author: His last new work, 'Oh, the Places You'll Go!' has proved popular with executives as well as children.

September 26, 1991|TOM GORMAN and MILES CORWIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Theodor (Ted) Geisel, whose whimsical, humorous books written under the pen name of Dr. Seuss confounded the literary establishment but entertained generations of children and parents, died Tuesday night at the age of 87.

Geisel, who never had any children of his own and who would quip, "You have 'em, I'll amuse 'em," died at his hilltop home on Mt. Soledad with his wife, Audrey, at his side.

Geisel had undergone massive radiation and chemotherapy for cancer of the palate over the past nine years but still lost part of his jaw to cancer and, in recent weeks as his health slipped because of several maladies, he was given more to scrawling notes on paper than speaking.

A family spokeswoman said that there will be no funeral services, and that Geisel's remains will cremated. A memorial service will be held, she said, but has not been scheduled.

Geisel, who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize citation in 1984 for his contribution to children's literature, was one of the best known, most imitated and prolific children's writers. His 47 books were translated into 20 languages and have sold more than 200 million copies.

Of the top 10 best-selling hard-cover children's books of all time, Geisel contributed four: "The Cat in the Hat," "Green Eggs and Ham," "One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish," and "Hop on Pop," according to Publishers Weekly.

His latest title, "Six by Seuss," released this year, was a collection of six previous children's stories, including his first, published in 1937: "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street."

His last new story was published in 1990: "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" The book, about moving through the highs and lows of the human experience, has proven as popular among kindergartners as college graduates and corporate executives.

It is not only the longest-running among the current fictions on the New York Times bestsellers' list, but concurrently crowned Publishers Weekly's children's bestseller list. The feat brought Geisel his greatest professional pleasure.

"Finally I can say that I write not for kids, but for people ," he told friends of the tandem accomplishment.

Animator Chuck Jones first met Geisel when the two were making sometimes slightly profane Army training films during World War II.

Twenty years later, Jones recalled Wednesday, he suggested that Geisel take "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" to television. There, it proved to be a classic that will run for the 26th consecutive year this holiday season.

Jones, who now lives in Orange County, said he took the "Grinch" storyboards to 24 prospective sponsors before a group of bankers agreed to put it on the air.

"It cost $350,000 and paid for itself in its first year," he said.

Jones also remembered how "Green Eggs and Ham" came to be a book:

Publisher "Bennett Cerf bet him he couldn't write a book using fewer than 50 words. There are 49. Count 'em."

At his death, Geisel was developing a screenplay for "Oh, the Places You'll Go!" on behalf of Tri-Star Productions, said his agent, Bob Tabian. Although his characters have appeared on television, this would would have been Geisel's first full-length animated release.

Seuss had no other books in the works at the time of his death, Tabian said.

His books were forays into the world of nonsense and fantasy, with characters who captivated children through humor, rhyme and mischief--especially mischief--but laced with contemporary social and moral messages.

"Yertle the Turtle" narrated the turtle king's fall, caused by overweening ambition. "Horton Hears a Who!" tackled narrow-mindedness. The Sneetches paid for a lesson in class prejudice, and Horton came back to hatch the egg and learn about the rewards of acting with honor. Other themes addressed the doomed environment, the insanity of the nuclear arms buildup--and, in "Green Eggs and Ham," the virtues of tasting food that looks yucky.

But, although many children's authors lectured children to behave, Seuss gave children vicarious thrills as they followed the antics of the Cat in the Hat who refused to obey the rules of the house.

They loved his loraxes and yopps, grinches grouching in grickle-grass, sneetches lurking in lerkims, the green-headed Quilligan quail.

Geisel was the illustrator first, writer second. He would tack his drawings onto the corkboard of his studio walls in storyboard fashion, muse over them, then write the appropriate nonsense couplets to accompany them. Sometimes an illustrated story line would befuddle him for two years before he could marry it to words; other times, he'd crank out his verses in just a few days.

"He wrote from a graphic point of view," said Janet Schulman, publisher of the children's book division at Random House and his personal editor. "He would leave his drawings up there on the wall, and, if he was blocked, he'd move on to another story.

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