Despite the remarkable nature of his latest publishing venture -- or maybe because of it -- Theodor Seuss Geisel, alias Dr. Seuss, declines to reveal his complete medical history.
Sitting here in the hilltop, castle-like house where he has surveyed the crashing Pacific surf for 38 years, he's looking fit -- trim at 6 feet and 150 pounds. But still the 82-year-old master of elaborate cartooning and doggerel hesitates at a visitor's questions about his health. The visitor, as awestruck as any of the hundreds of millions who have grown up on Dr. Seuss, does not want to be rude, thus dishonoring the memories of his own childhood, or his children, or their children, and so on into eternity. But the subject of the interview is "You're Only Old Once! A Book for Obsolete Children," the only book (well, the only save one ill-fated effort in 1937) that the author has ever written for adults, and certainly the only one that has struck so close to Geisel's own experiences of recovering from a heart attack, cataracts and an assortment of other unrevealed ailments in the last decade.
The book's publication date is today, which is also Geisel's birthday. "You're Only Old Once!" is dedicated to the members of his Dartmouth class of 1925 -- about 200 out of 500 are still living. It is the tale of a bald little man with mustache and bow tie (little resemblance to the author . . . but wait) who unhappily spends many of his days "here in this chair/ in the Golden Years Clinic on Century Square/ for Spleen Readjustment and Muffler Repair."
Geisel really isn't a doctor; he added the title to his pseudonym in a moment of whimsical hubris decades ago. And so the question of Geisel's own health seems inevitable.
Yes, he admits, he drew inspiration from his own many visits to "three or four hospitals" (he will not name them) along the California coast. "When I discovered I was spending more time in hospital vestibules than I was at my drawing board, appearing before various doctors and taking various tests, to keep from going batty I began drawing what was happening, or what I thought was happening, which I did just so to amuse myself, and after a couple of years I had a book."
He would like to say just what the doctors were working on. (From the book: "Then, into the New Wing! We'll see Dr. Spreckles,/ who does the Three F's -- Footsies, Fungus, and Freckles./ And nextly we'll drop in on young Dr. Ginns, / our A and S Man who does Antrums and Shins . . . ")
He would like to cooperate. After all, he is a publisher as well as an author, for the last 30 years president of Random House's Beginner Books division, which he launched with "The Cat in the Hat." (Devotees of that work will be pleased to know he has two cats, named Thing One and Thing Two.) And he is otherwise a publishing house publicist's dream, full of punchy anecdotes for television, delighted to autograph books, unwilling to let an interviewer leave without a sheaf of biographical data and capsule reviews.
But his diseases -- "Ah, well, I have a problem now discussing that."
"It's not out of modesty, but if I began listing what I had that was wrong, I would get fan mail from everybody in the United States who had the same thing wrong and I would go absolutelysw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 nuts trying to answer it all . . . This book is wrecking my social life because prior to this the only places that I was ever invited to go were to have cocoa in kindergarten. Now I'm getting invited everyday to have martinis in old folks homes.
"As for my ailments, I've got them all conquered now, all conquered except old age. But if I began mentioning them I'd be in a terrible jam."
He has done little to change his workaholic schedule of author and artist and publisher over the last few years, other than to drop the animated shorts that required annoying trips to Los Angeles and suffering in the collegial atmosphere of film making so foreign to his lone perfectionist's temperament.
There are pills, he admits. Eight each day, each of a different color. From that bit of daily routine he has fashioned "The Pill Drill," a centerpiece of the new book:
poetry "On alternate nights at nine p.m.
I swallow pinkies. Four of them.
The reds, which make my eyebrows strong,
I eat like popcorn all day long.
The speckled browns are what I keep
beside my bed to help me sleep.
This long flat one is what I take
if I should die before I wake."
deftext cm,14p8 sw,-2 sk,2 ld,10 He had to throw out a lot of his preliminary scribbles, finding them too "icky and unpleasant." "I finally left only the things that I could possibly get a laugh out of . . . A lot of things that happen to you in a hospital you cannot draw very easily.
"Well, you could draw them, but I wouldn't want to look at them."
Drawing and writing since "And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" was published in 1936, he has produced children's classics that include "Horton Hears a Who," "The Lorax," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "The Cat in the Hat," "Yertle the Turtle," "One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish," "Green Eggs and Ham" and "Fox in Socks."
His last work, "The Butter Battle Book," caused a political furor that may have been due in part, he says, to "sloppy writing." He says he did not mean to suggest that the United States and the Soviet Union were no different than the Yooks and the Zooks, who began an arms race because one ate bread with the butter side up and the other with the butter side down.
Nevertheless, some conservatives thought he meant that, and they denounced the notion in letters to the editor. But liberals who wanted to use the book in antiwar skits were also "furious at me," Geisel says, when he refused permission.
"Butter Battle" was supposed to be a children's book. "You're Only Old Once!" is for adults, advertised by Random House as his first non-children's book in what Geisel takes to be an effort to erase the memory of the 1937 book, "The Seven Lady Godivas." This tale of seven naked ladies -- Geisel thinks he got the ankles wrong -- engaged to the seven Peeping Brothers sold fewer than 500 of its 10,000 copies in first release, then was remaindered in a chain of cigar stores.
Today, a copy of this publishing catastrophe sells for no less than $300. Geisel has even drafted a Broadway musical on the same theme, for which he plans to find a producer once the market is right.
For now, though, he has high hopes for his new book, 200,000 copies available in the first printing. More than 100 million copies of Dr. Seuss books already have been sold worldwide, and this latest combination of old Geisel gags and new, extraordinarily contorted cartoon fantasies -- focused on the frustrations of a growing segment of the population -- is certain to swell the total.
For his new hero's hearing test, Geisel has three musicians playing pretzel-shaped instruments from a platform bolted to the wall while a parrot and cow, a grandfather clock, a party noisemaker, a cymbalist and water cascading into a huge barrel add to the din. The patient is cupping his ear, trying to hear something. (The visitor also finds he must sometimes raise his voice to be heard by the author.)
After each torturous test, Geisel's patient returns to the waiting room, where he commiserates with an aquarium fish named Norval. Geisel admits he has used this name before. When he was growing up in Springfield, Mass., "there was a kid on my street called Norval . . . and I discovered every time he was introduced to somebody as Norval everybody would laugh."
To Geisel's surprise, a few informal tests have indicated children also like "You're Only Old Once." Even the five doctors to whom he has gingerly offered it have applauded the result, suggesting it might even improve procedures at some hospitals. Geisel still must have a checkup every four months, and as the publication date neared, he says, "I feared I would have to move to another planet to get medical service."
But medical specialists cannot be expected to be any more immune than anyone else to the Dr. Seuss spell. "The last time I was being wheeled into an operating room," Geisel says, "the guy who was wheeling me stopped and gave me a sheet of paper to autograph. I think he was figuring on getting my last autograph."
But all went well, and still does. Geisel swims and works out with his dumbbells. His father lived to be nearly 90, Geisel says.
"If I can stay out of hospitals," he says, "I'll live forever."