“I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you,” read her suicide note. “My going will leave quite a rumor, but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed.” These are the last words written by Helen Geisel. Infused in them is the pain of her love for one of our country’s most celebrated authors, Dr. Suess.
Born Theodor Suess Geisel in Springfield, Massachusetts to a family of recent German immigrants, Geisel would meet his first wife Helen while attending Lincoln College, Oxford in pursuit of a PhD in English Literature. Helen encouraged him to abandon this course in favor of committing to his true passion, drawing. The Saturday Evening Post published his first cartoon on July 16, 1927. After receiving a check for $25 for the cartoon, he packed up and moved to New York and landed a job at Judge, a humor magazine. With his new job, Geisel felt financially stable enough to propose to Helen and the two were married on November 29, 1927.
The Geisel newlyweds made it through the great depression from Ted’s “mad men” work for ad agencies, drawing cartoon ads for companies such as General Electric, NBC, Standard Oil, Narragansett Brewing Company and others. The couple had plenty of money and no children so they traveled often and explored much of the world. But Geisel’s lasting success would come after returning from one of the couple’s adventures when he bumped into an old college friend on the streets of New York.
Geisel had attended Dartmouth during the years of prohibition and was once the editor-in-chief for the college paper. After being busted for drinking gin with nine of his college friends, Geisel was forced to leave his position for the paper and contributed afterward with cartoons and articles under the pen name we all know and love, Suess. Interesting enough, the original pronunciation of his mother’s maiden name is similar to the word “voice”. After many years of people mispronouncing Suess, he decided to adhere to the incorrect way because it rhymed with Mother Goose and he believed this helped him in his endeavors as a children’s author. And his foray into children’s literature began after his old college friend helped him publish And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.
But before he would utilize his mild success from his first book to venture into the realms of children’s stories, Suess contributed to political cartoon publications and worked with the United States Army during the war to produce films for propaganda and training. After the war, he would be challenged to incorporate 250 words deemed essential for first graders in improving the nation’s literacy. 236 of these words became the famous Cat in the Hat.
Suess added “Dr.” to his pen name in honor of his father who had wanted his son to become a medical doctor. Dr. Suess would go on to produce seminal works of children’s literature that would have an unforetold lasting effect on American culture. The love and support of his first wife Helen nurtured his work throughout most of his distinguished career. They remained together until her decade-long struggle with Guillain-Barré syndrome and his suspected affair with longtime friend and future wife Audrey became too much for her to bear.
When we recall our love for the infamous Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, let us not forget that without the love of Helen Geisel, we would never have been fortunate enough to experience the world of Dr. Suess. She steered him down the path he was meant to tread and we are all lucky she had the conviction to push him to pursue his dreams and share them with the world.