Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes

Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes

Wyatt Redd - January 28, 2018

Did you grow up reading Dr. Seuss? If you’re like most kids in America, the answer is, “of course.” Dr. Seuss, or Theodore Geisel (his real name), is often one of the first authors that many people ever read. And his simple rhymes and whimsical illustrations have delighted children for generations. But there’s a lot about Dr. Seuss that you probably don’t know. For instance, did you know that Dr. Seuss never had kids of his own, and might not have actually liked children very much? And if you’ve ever been called a “nerd,” you can thank Dr. Seuss, who first popularized the word in one of his books.

And here’s a fact you probably didn’t know about Dr. Seuss: one of his books was definitely not intended for kids. In fact, The Seven Lady Godivas was one of the only books that Dr. Seuss wrote with adults in mind. And you can tell who the target audience was because it’s filled with drawings of naked women, all in Dr. Seuss’ signature style. And in many ways, this R-rated work actually played a major role in his later decision to focus on children’s books. So, how did a book of sexy drawings convince Seuss to write for kids? Let’s find out.

Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes
Ted Geisel, A.K.A. Dr. Suess/ Wikimedia Commons.

Theodore Geisel was born in 1904 in Massachusetts. Though he was always a gifted artist, he doesn’t seem to have imagined a life illustrating children’s books at first. His first work as an illustrator and writer came at Dartmouth College, where he edited the college’s humor magazine. After he and some friends were caught drinking in the dorms, he was banned from writing for the magazine. So, Geisel began secretly publishing his work in the magazine under the name “Dr. Seuss.” After leaving Dartmouth, Geisel moved to England where he had dreams of becoming a college professor.

When that didn’t work out, he returned to the U.S. and began submitting drawings to advertising agencies and drawing cartoons for newspapers. Geisel first got the chance to do something else when a publisher asked him to illustrate a children’s story collection called The Pocket Book of Boners. This book didn’t sell very well, but it did give Geisel the chance to start working on other children’s books. In 1937, Geisel wrote and illustrated hist own book called And to Think I Saw It On Mulberry Street. This book received 27 rejections before finally being published. And while this book didn’t sell well, his next two books for children did much better.

Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes
The Seven Lady Godivas/ Brainpickings.org

However, Seuss still wanted to write books for adults. And in 1939, he finally got the chance to publish an illustrated book for grown-ups. The way Seuss imagined it, the book was going to be a humorous – and sexy- retelling of the story of Lady Godiva. But Seuss wasn’t confident that it would sell well. He even included a drawing of a bucket of maple sap with his publisher’s name on it in the manuscript. The message was that he was a sap for publishing it. But publish it he did, and The Seven Lady Godivas: The True Facts Concerning History’s Barest Family was born.

Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes
Teenie Godiva/ Brainpickings.org

In the original story of Lady Godiva, an English noblewoman accepted a bet with her husband to lower the city’s taxes if she would ride naked through the street. Covered only by her hair, Lady Godiva rode a horse through the town as everyone politely closed their windows. Everyone, that is, except for a tailor named Tom, who couldn’t help but sneak a peak. Tom was quickly struck blind by God, and the phrase “peeping Tom” was invented. But Seuss’ version of the story has a few important differences.

First, there are actually seven Lady Godivas, who are all sisters. And the ladies are all engaged to a set of seven brothers with the last name Peeping. Unlike in the original story, the sisters aren’t naked because they’re trying to win a bet. They just like being naked. As Seuss explained, “they were simply themselves and chose not to disguise it.” And unlike the original Godiva, they grow to hate horses after their father is killed on one. Hoping to prevent more deaths, the sisters put off their engagement to the Peepings to warn the rest of the country about the danger of horse riding.

The sisters set out to learn a set of “horse truths” that they can share with the rest of the English. Each of the Godiva sisters has their own story within the book as they learn their own personal horse truth. For instance, the book starts with Teenie Godiva. And in spite of her name, she’s the biggest of the sisters. After finding out she’s too fat to ride a horse, she goes to the barn and finds a horse that their uncle originally gave them as a gift. After looking in the horse’s mouth, it bites her nose off. Teenie returns to her sisters with the horse truth, “Never look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Up next is the smartest Godiva, Dorcas, who wants to figure out a way to travel by horse without riding it. Her experiment fails after she gets the cart/horse combination in the wrong order and crashes. Her horse truth? “Don’t put the cart before the horse.” Then there’s Arabella, who works her horse until it becomes an alcoholic and refuses to ever drink water again. As she learns, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.

Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes
Dorcas Godiva testing her cart/ Brainpickings.org

The remaining sisters have their own horse-based misadventures, of course. Mitzi learns not to change a horse in midstream after her horse-powered boat sinks. Lulu learns horseshoes are lucky after getting kicked into a pile of hay. Gussie finds a horse of a different color after she escapes from the castle with the help of some paint. And finally, Hedwig finds out it’s pointless to lock the barn door after her horse has left. Of course, while all the Godivas are nudists, there’s nothing X-rated in the book. But maybe there should have been because the book was about to be the worst failure of Seuss’ career.

Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes
Lulu Godiva/ Brainpickings.org

The original print run of the Seven Lady Godivas was for 10,000 copies. We aren’t sure exactly how many copies actually sold. But estimates are that it was between 2,500 and maybe even just 50. The rest of the copies were rounded up and sold in a chain of cigar stores for twenty-five cents. There are a few possibilities for why the book didn’t sell well. First, it was released in the middle of the Great Depression. And at two dollars, it might have been too expensive for most people. Or hungry people might have just not been in the mood for a funny book about naked girls and their horses.

The nudity itself probably didn’t help. A lot of critics rejected the book for being offensive. But Seuss didn’t think the nudity was the problem. He thought he was just terrible at drawing naked women. “It was all full of naked women,” he said, “and I can’t draw convincing naked women. I put their knees in the wrong places.” Whatever the reason, the failure had a huge impact on the future path of Seuss’ career. While today we think of Seuss as one of the greatest children’s authors in history, there was a time when he could easily have gone in another direction.

A lot of the reason he started publishing his books under the name “Dr. Seuss” was that he was saving his real name for a time when he could write serious, adult novels. In fact, it seems like he didn’t even really like children. According to his wife, he was actually slightly afraid of them. He was uncomfortable being around children because he found it hard to predict what they might do. It wasn’t until the failure of The Seven Lady Godivas, his first book for adults, that he decided he should stick to writing for kids.

After the cold reception for the book from grown-ups, he decided that kids were “more appreciative.” But even then, there was no guarantee that Dr. Suess would be the giant he is today. After the book came out in 1939, Seuss went back to working in advertising. Then, after the US entered WWII, he started working for the Government. He spent the next few years producing propaganda cartoons to support the war effort. It wasn’t until The Cat in The Hat was published in 1957 that Seuss’ career as an author really took off.

Okay, Get Ready for Dr. Seuss’ Rarely Seen and Scandalous Book of Nudes
One of Seuss’ propaganda cartoons from WWII/ Wikimedia Commons.

And it’s strange to think that The Seven Lady Godivas, “a book that nobody bought,” as Seuss described it, helped make him into the artist that he eventually became. But if Dr. Seuss had lived to this day, he might have felt a little better about the book. Today, the original copies that sold in a cigar store for twenty-five cents are collector’s items. And a copy in good condition can sell for hundreds of dollars. It’s not a bad ending for Dr. Seuss’ scandalous book of nudes.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

BBC: 10 facts about Dr. Seuss

Seussville: Biography

Flashbak: The Seven Lady Godivas

BrainPickings: The Seven Lady Godivas: Dr. Seuss’s Little-Known “Adult” Book of Nudes