Dr. Seuss had a unique remedy for writer’s block. When the late author, the alter ego of Theodor Seuss Geisel, was penning his beloved Beginner Books for Random House in the 1960s, he’d have his editor in chief, Michael Frith, over to his house, where they’d work until the wee hours. And when they’d get stuck, according to “Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel” by Judith and Neil Morgan, Geisel would open a secret door to a closet filled with hundreds of hats. Then, he and Frith would each pick a different hat, perhaps a fez, or a sombrero, or maybe an authentic Baroque Czech helmet or a plastic toy viking helmet with horns. They’d sit on the floor and stare at each other in these until the right words came to them.
“It’s a great visual: two grown men, sitting on the floor, in hats, in the middle of the night, trying to work out the nuances of this storybook.”
Yes, as it turns out, the creator of the “The Cat in the Hat” was quite a collector of chapeaus, the more plumed and flamboyant the better. And now, a touring exhibition, “Hats Off to Dr. Seuss,” makes the connection between Geisel’s headgear obsession and his art explicit. Featuring 26 of Dr. Seuss’s hats, as well as rarely seen paintings Geisel made for his own amusement, the show kicked off at the New York Public Library and Animazing Gallery in Manhattan in time for the 75th anniversary of the storybook, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”
The Seuss exhibition, which lands at Dennis Rae Fine Art in San Francisco next, is set to tour the United States until December of this year. We asked exhibition curator, Robert Chase, co-founder and president of Chase Art Companies, to explain to us how hats appealed to Geisel’s penchant for the absurd.
Collectors Weekly: Tell me about Dr. Seuss’ secret closet.
Robert Chase: In Dr. Seuss’ home, a bookcase opens up with a false door, and behind it are literally hundreds of hats that he collected and all of these paintings from throughout his life that he never showed to anybody. They were stored together inside this closet, and there’s a really nice relationship between the hats and the paintings because the hats, in many cases, inspired the characters in the painting. They all lived together behind this secret door. It’s really amazing—an American treasure.
Collectors Weekly: How many hats are there?
Chase: I don’t know the exact number. There are hundreds of hats as part of the collection. Now, the hats that are touring the country as part of this traveling exhibition—we curated 26 hats from the collection—they range from hats that inspired specific paintings to the stovepipe hat that everybody’s most familiar with from “The Cat in the Hat,” as well as hats that relate to the war when he was in World War II. There are hats from Japan, there are hats from Southeast Asia, and there are hats from across Europe. There’s a sombrero in there that adorned the tequila bottle he got in Mexico. It’s a very worldly collection.
Collectors Weekly: How did this exhibition come about?
Chase: I’ve been working with Audrey Geisel, who is Dr. Seuss’ widow, for about 12 years now. And I began to help her with the archive of artwork that he had created over about a 70-year period of time, which he had housed privately in their home. We’ve been working together on getting this material out into museums and galleries, and on publishing some artist monograph books about the collection. There’s a lot of artwork by Dr. Seuss that people have never seen, both private paintings and images he drew for the children’s books.
While we were working on that project, she showed me this secret closet in her home with all the hats that he had collected from the 30 countries since the 1930s. We thought it would be interesting to show the relationship between the hats and the artwork and tell the story about why hats became such an important part of everything he did.
Collectors Weekly: Why were hats such a big influence on him?
“In Dr. Seuss’ home, a bookcase opens up with a false door, and behind it are literally hundreds of hats, as well as paintings he never showed to anybody.”
Chase: Dr. Seuss began to collect hats as he was going about his travels in the ’20s and ’30s. I think he realized that hats have this amazing transformational quality about them. They could both transform somebody’s personality and amplify the personality someone already has. So he began to incorporate hats into the artwork to amplify the characteristics of the images he was drawing. He could amplify—in the case of the most famous one, “The Cat in the Hat”—the irreverence of the Cat in the Hat and what he was about.
And he could transform whatever it was that he was drawing into something otherworldly by the hats that he would put on the heads of these characters. It became a technique he started employing early on in his advertising illustrations in the ’20s and ’30s. He continued to use it through his editorial cartoons in the ’30s and ’40s, and then incorporated it throughout the run of his children’s books.
Collectors Weekly: A hat tells a story about someone quickly.
Chase: Exactly. It’s such a defining thing. It says something immediately about a person, whether it’s who that person is, or who that person wants to be. In a lot of his private paintings, Dr. Seuss would paint these images of people in these wild hats, almost as if they were trying to take on a different persona than the one that they actually had.
Collectors Weekly: In his advertising, what would the hats be used for?
Chase: In some cases, he used a hat as a comedic element to, again, amplify the personality of the characters that were in these advertising illustrations. An early advertising campaign that he created for a thing called Flit bug spray became one of the most famous campaigns of the time and, certainly, of his career. One of the most famous images is a mosquito blowing a hole through a woman’s top hat. And she’s got this horrified and surprised look on her face when she says, “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”
Collectors Weekly: When he traveled, what would he look for when selecting a hat?
Chase: It had to have some sort of personal resonance for him. Again, he was in World War II, so there are several military hats and helmets—German officer hats, Italian officer hats, and Japanese officer hats. The war had a big impact on him. Throughout his travels, he was not necessarily drawn to hats that were indicative of the country he was visiting, but hats that held more of a personal memory for him.
Certainly, in Seuss’ world, many times, the more outlandish, the better. One in particular is this feathered hat that fans out when you put it on your head, almost like a peacock would fan out. There’s a really beautiful photo of him wearing that hat. That hat is a direct inspiration for the painting in the exhibition called “Raising Money for the Art,” in which are women wearing these incredibly lush, crazy peacock-like hats. And he has a hat made out of a coconut shell—I think it’s from Southeast Asia—that also inspired a painting.
Collectors Weekly: And these hats would come out of the closet when he had people over?
Chase: Yes. Dr. Seuss loved having fun, and he was a practical joker. And so he would invite folks over for dinner, and then people would go into the secret hat closet and pick out their hat for the night. It became a game of what persona are you going to assume for that evening’s event. It was just a way of having fun, and that was a big part of his world. He was a child at heart.
Collectors Weekly: I love the story of Dr. Seuss and his editor getting the hats out to help them write storybooks.
Chase: That’s a great visual: two grown men, sitting on the floor in the middle of the night, trying to work out the nuances of this book and getting stuck creatively. So it was time for a hat. They would go and pick out a hat to loosen up, and then continue on with what they were doing. The hats, I think, provided that escape for him—as did his private paintings.
Many times when he was working on a book and he would get stuck in terms of his creative ideas, he would shut down the studio and just go relax and work on his private paintings. It was a way for him to unwind. So there’s a nice connection between the hats and the paintings in that way as well. It was a way of loosening up creatively.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think many people knew that hats were such an integral part of his creative process?
Chase: I’m not sure, actually. Probably not, despite the fact that hats are littered throughout his children’s books. I’m not sure anybody really picked up on it, and this exhibition sheds some light on that side of what he did. People seem to love going behind the scenes and learning more about somebody that they grew up with so intimately. This is a very intimate look at that big public icon. These are unique and private ephemera from a secret closet in his home, and you can’t really get much more personal than that.