Ted Geisel at eighty-two. "Helen’s death and the fact that Geisel, within months after the tragedy, re-married the wife of a friend, are handled blithely."
Longtime followers of the Union-Tribune and its predecessor, the Evening Tribune, are familiar with the gentle musings of ex-Trib editor Neil Morgan, and the way he pulls his punches for what he calls the “friends” of his column. But Morgan’s comfy La Jolla reporting style is getting distinctly mixed reviews from many of those among the nation’s book critics called upon to digest Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, the newly minted Dr. Seuss pop-bio authored by Morgan and his wife, Judith.
Probably Ted’s last photo. Standing outside La Valencia Hotel, La Jolla, in May 1990 are (from left) Judith Morgan, Art Buchwald, Ted and Audrey.
U-T readers, treated to a grandly showcased, four-part serialization of Morgan’s opus a few months ago, were spared any news that the book was not being as well received in New York, St. Petersburg (Florida), and Baltimore as it was among the Morgans’ socialite friends in the well-manicured hills of La Jolla. That is, until one of Morgan’s own U-T cronies inadvertently spilled the beans by bursting forth in a defensive volley against a New York Times reviewer who had deigned to question the book’s integrity. But the New York critics aren’t the only ones taking issue with the Morgans. What follows is a partial compilation of the out-of-town reviews.
“The Morgans tell Geisel’s story in a uniformly flat tone,” writes Polly Shulman in Newsday, the New York daily. “As the adorable anecdotes pile up, the reader gets the impression that the joker is putting one over on his biographers, keeping them out of his personal life by distracting them with jokes.”
Helen A.S. Popkin, writing in the St. Petersburg Times, calls the Morgans’ biography “an overextended ramble chock full of inconsequential anecdotes but little insight into the man who shaped the reading skills and humor of several generations.... At almost 300 pages, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel is at least 100 pages too long.”
People magazine concludes, “In [the Morgans’] words, Geisel is a ‘wise and incorrigible child’ whose innocent perceptiveness about issues like anti-Semitism, racism, and nuclear weapons should be a lesson to us all. Sorry to sound like a Grinch, but their pedantic one cries out for Dr. Seuss’ own light touch.”
And Ann Hulbert, writing in the New York Times, maintains that “in turning him [Geisel] into an all-too-stolid national hero, Judith Morgan and Neil Morgan, California journalists and longtime friends of ‘Ted,’ have missed a key source of Dr. Seuss’ power. Their adulatory American success story (published by Dr. Seuss’ own longtime publisher) breezes past his anxious ambivalence about unbridled imagination.”
Indeed, the consensus among book reviewers is that the Morgans were more interested in building up their famous friend and fellow La Jollan than in recounting, and reflecting on, his life as it really was, warts and all. Jan Winburn, in the Baltimore Sun, calls the Morgans’ book “an adoring depiction of the man who was the biographers’ neighbor, a book that is fascinating in detail but lacking in interpretation. A reader of the biography is left with much the same feeling one gets from reading Seussian nonsense: as entertainment, it’s a lollapalooza. But insight? Go figure.”
In the New York Times, Hulbert continues her review by stating that despite any “tensions between the man and the children’s writer” intimated by the book’s title, “the Morgans immediately put such interesting possibilities to rest. They genially describe the opposite. Theirs is a portrait of a ‘child at heart’ whose playful imagination had an utterly natural way of making ‘solid values’ seem bold, not boring, to small ears and eyes.... It would be a little implausible if there weren’t signs of a less sunny side to the story, and there clearly are. The Morgans, conscientiously thorough, register but don’t probe them, eager to keep their chipper tribute to their famous La Jolla friend moving right along.”
Shulman, in Newsday, expresses similar sentiments. “The [book’s] title, with its Jekyll-and-Hyde over-tones, suggests a probing examination of the merry prankster’s dark side,” she writes. “Don’t be fooled. If Mr. and Mrs. Morgan know anything about a dark side, they’ve done their best to keep it from their readers.... Though readers may suspect from quoted jokes and snatches of conversations that Geisel was a heavy drinker, the Morgans shrink from discussing such habits. They seem reluctant to nag or bring up sore points.”
And even the normally kind Kirkus Reviews observes, “Competent, if uninsightful, in discussing Geisel’s place in American culture, the Morgans tend to heap adulation on the creator of Ooblek, the Lorax, and Sneetches.... The Morgans tell the success story well, but they neglect the darker spots in Geisel’s life, such as his sudden second marriage after the suicide of his first wife and his opportunistic desertion of his first publisher for the burgeoning Random House.”
Kirkus is not the only review to level criticism against the Morgans for glossing over the suicide of Geisel’s first wife, Helen, and his subsequent remarriage to her best friend, a much younger woman. The authors’ handling of this episode is singled out in virtually every negative review of their book.
“Helen Palmer Geisel spent the entirety of her almost 40-year marriage taking care of the moody artist’s every business and personal need, as well as being the staunch perfectionist’s most influential editor,” Popkins writes in the St. Petersburg Times. “But Helen’s death and the fact that Geisel, within months after the tragedy, re-married the wife of a friend, are handled as blithely as one replaces a troublesome but beloved automobile. Offensive and insensitive quotes from friends such as Helen’s death being ‘her last and greatest gift to him,’ and implications that it was all for the best because ‘she held him back,’ are inexcusable. Yes, it’s shocking that the most beloved children’s author of all time would have such events in his life, and the authors seek to gloss over these events as quickly and painlessly as possible. More attention is paid to detailing menus at Geisel dinner parties, but if the authors wanted to skip the real stuff, why write a biography?”
Henry Kisor, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, also assails the light-fingered handling of Helen Geisel’s suicide: “Her health wracked by a nervous disease, Helen committed suicide in 1967, and Dr. Seuss’ sudden remarriage shortly afterward troubled his friends and neighbors in La Jolla, Calif. There was a dark side to the man, and the authors short-shrift it; were they hobbled by the contractual fetters of an authorized biography?”
In the Baltimore Sun, Winburn likewise notes that “many of the darker moments of his [Geisel’s] life go largely unexplored, most notably the suicide of Helen Palmer Geisel, his editor, business manager and wife of 40 years, and his lightening-quick re-marriage, at 64, to his best friend’s wife, 18 years his junior. The same is true of Geisel’s childlessness. In failing to examine these and other losses, the authors deprive the reader of any chance to square our perceptions of the clever, upbeat character we all assume must be Dr. Seuss with the human being who suffered.”
All this criticism struck a raw nerve at the San Diego Union-Tribune, Neil Morgan’s professional home for the better part of four decades. Morgan served the pre-merger Tribune as reporter, front-page gossip columnist, travel editor, and finally as editor; after the afternoon paper was absorbed into the morning San Diego Union in 1992, Morgan resurfaced as a page 2 columnist.
Don Freeman, another U-T old-timer, devoted an entire column last month to blasting Ann Hulbert’s review of Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel in the New York Times. Calling his colleague’s book “warm, funny, affectionate, and yet unsparingly frank, painfully revelatory,” Freeman brands Hulbert’s review as “terribly condescending, smug, petty and snide.”
“Here we have a lip-curled critique that calls for rebuttal,” Freeman writes, and then he proceeds to give one: “She writes, The biography’s title, Dr. Seuss and Mr. Geisel, with its play on Jekyll and Hyde, seems to hint at tensions between the man and the children’s author.’ What errant nonsense. The ‘play on Jekyll and Hyde,’ with all that this particular allusion implies, is a specious assumption that exists only in the reviewer’s mind. As for the ‘hints at tensions between the man and the children’s writer, Hulbert is herein poking around in search of nonexistent psychological mumbo-jumbo.”
Hulbert, a senior editor at The New Republic and the author of The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford, was in Chicago, attending the American Booksellers convention, and could not be reached for comment.