Tuesday, February 5, 2013
The Author Himself Was a Cat in the Hat
The Cat wore a hat. Everyone knows that. But so did Sam-I am, the mooing Mr. Brown and the fat fish from “One Fish, Two Fish” — a tiny yellow hat.
The Grinch disguised himself in a crinkled Santa hat.
All over Dr. Seuss’s beloved children’s books, his characters sport distinctive, colorful headwear — unless they are the kinds of creatures that have it sprouting naturally from their heads in tufted, multitiered and majestically flowing formations.
So it’s no surprise that the real Dr. Seuss, Theodor Seuss Geisel, was a hat lover himself. He collected hundreds of them, plumed, beribboned and spiked, and kept them in a closet hidden behind a bookcase in his home in the La Jolla section of San Diego. He incorporated them into his personal paintings, his advertising work and his books. He even insisted that guests to his home don the most elaborate ones he could find.
“Believe me, when you get a dozen people seated at a fairly formal dinner party,” his widow, Audrey, said in an interview for an 1999 educational video, “and they’ve all got on perfectly ridiculous chapeaus, the evening takes care of itself.”
Now, as part of their efforts to keep the Seuss brand fresh in the eyes of young readers, Random House Children’s Books, his longtime publisher, and Dr. Seuss Enterprises have collaborated on an exhibit that for the first time will display some of his hats to the public.
The show, timed to the 75th anniversary of his book “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” will open Monday at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street and then travel to 15 other locations over the course of the year. About a dozen hats will be displayed.
Paintings done by Geisel for his own enjoyment that include the hats are also part of the exhibit, but because of space constraints in New York those paintings will be shown separately at the Animazing Gallery in SoHo.
Theodor Geisel was born in 1904 in Spingfield, Mass., at a time when hats were a much more common part of a man’s wardrobe. Still, Geisel, who was something of an iconoclast and prankster, enjoyed them more than most, largely because of their costumelike quality.
During a brief time studying at Oxford University, he wore a cap. As he traveled to 30 or so countries in his 20s, he wore a Panama hat. It was then that he started his collection.
After his sister Marnie returned from visiting him in the autumn of 1937, The Springfield Union-News quoted her as reporting: “Ted has another peculiar hobby — that of collecting hats of every description. Why, he must have several hundred, and he is using them as the foundation of his next book.” She added, “I have seen him put on an impromptu show for guests, using the hats as costumes,” and “he has kept a whole party in stitches just by making up a play with kitchen knives and spoons for the actors.”
Robert Chase, co-founder and president of Chase Art Companies, which represents modern and contemporary artists, is the curator of the hat exhibit. He said the hats showed up early in the advertising work and editorial cartoons of Geisel, who died in 1991. “By putting a hat on a character” Geisel “realized he could give that character a lot of personality,” Mr. Chase said. “In some cases the hat became a punch line.”
In one of the humorous ads he did for the insecticide Flit, for example, Geisel showed a mosquito busting a hole through a surprised woman’s tiny flower-decorated hat. The ad helped jump start his career as a commercial artist and copywriter and became part of one of the longest-running campaigns in advertising history, built around the line “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”
While hats in Mr. Geisel’s personal collection clearly make appearances in his paintings, it is harder to draw a straight line from his hat collections to his children’s books, Mr. Chase said, although there are examples of where the connection is clear.
The collection does feature a red Robin Hood-like cap with feather that is exactly like the one that kept reappearing on Bartholomew Cubbins’s head. A tall blue military cap with red yarn balls that is also in the show under the name Triple Sling Jigger, seems to have been the inspiration for a hat in “The Butter Battle Book,” Mr. Chase said.
Then there is the striped, red-and-white stovepipe hat that is clearly the twin of the one worn by the most famous, mischievous cat of them all. Mr. Chase said he has no documentation as to which came first — the hat on display or the illustrated one in “The Cat in the Hat.”
But even when the hats in the collection did not directly inspire the drawings in the books, they certainly seemed to inspire the man. The exhibit quotes from a book called “Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel” to illustrate how this sometimes worked:
As editor in chief of Beginner Books at Random House in the late 1960s, Michael Frith worked closely with Geisel, sometimes into the early hours of the morning. When they were stumped by a word choice, Mr. Frith said, Geisel would often bound to the closet and grab a hat for each of them — a sombrero, or perhaps a fez. There they would be, sitting on the floor, Mr. Frith remembered, “two grown men in stupid hats trying to come up with the right word for a book that had only 50 words in it at most.”
COURTESY OF LESLIE KAUFMAN
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it interesting.