Helen Palmer (maiden name Helen Marion Palmer Geisel), best known as the first wife of children's author Dr. Seuss, was born on 16th September 1898 in Brooklyn, New York.
Helen's parents raised her in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant. As a kid, she fell ill with polio but managed to recover completely. When she was 11, her father, George Howard Palmer, an ophthalmologist, passed away.
Just as her husband, Theodor Seuss "Ted" Geisel, Palmer was an author whose notable credits include A Fish Out Of Water (1961), I Was Kissed by a Seal at the Zoo (1962), Do You Know What I'm Going to Do Next Saturday? (1963), and Why I Built the Boogle House (1964).
Met Future Husband Dr. Seuss at Oxford University
Helen Palmer had a profound influence on Dr. Seuss's life and career.
Source: The Establishment
Palmer completed her graduation from Wellesley Colley in 1920. She then spent three years as an English teacher at Girls High School in her hometown, before migrating to Britain with her mother to enroll in Oxford University.
During her time at Oxford, Helen bumped into her future husband, Dr. Seuss, in a class. She ended up having a profound influence on his career. Palmer brought significant change in Ted's life, beginning with her idea that he ought to be an artist rather than an English professor.
Later, Helen stated:
Ted's notebooks were always filled with these fabulous animals. So I set to work diverting him; here was a man who could draw such pictures; he should be earning a living doing that.
The couple took their relationship forward by exchanging wedding vows in the late 1920s.
Married Dr. Seuss in 1927; Never Shared Any Children
Helen Palmer was married to her husband, Dr. Seuss, for four decades from 1927 to 1967. However, their relationship was anything but rainbows and butterflies.
Took Her Own Life in 1967
Helen was always wary of Dr. Seuss's extramarital affair. In fact, her suspicion clearly carried the legs since the author, following Helen's death, ended up marrying the same woman (neighbor) she was skeptical of.
To make matters worse, Palmer had a Guillain-Barre condition and had been battling partial paralysis for more than ten years. Her ever declining health led her to become so distraught that she took her own life in 1967 with an overdose of barbiturates.
Left a Heartbreaking Suicide Note
Helem Palmer committed suicide in October 1967 at the age of 68. She had left a sucide note for her husband prior to taking her final breath. Her note read:
Dear Ted, What has happened to us? I don’t know. I feel myself in a spiral, going down down down, into a black hole from which there is no escape, no brightness. And loud in my ears from every side I hear, ‘failure, failure, failure…’ I love you so much …
The author continued, “I am too old and enmeshed in everything you do and are, that I cannot conceive of life without you. My going will leave quite a rumor, but you can say I was overworked and overwrought. Your reputation with your friends and fans will not be harmed.”
How Did Dr. Seuss React to His Wife's Death?
Dr. Seuss never shared any biological children with his first wife, Helen Palmer, nor his second spouse Audrey Geisel.
Source: Famous Biographies
Ted reacted to Helen's death the way you might imagine. He was conflicted about whether to take his own life, destroy the house, or get lost somewhere. In the meantime, Ted's niece Peggy claimed, "Whatever Helen did, she did it out of absolute love for Ted."
Likewise, Secretary Julie Olfe commented following Palmer's death and called it "her last and largest gift to him (Dr. Seuss)."
Merely a year after Helen's suicide, Dr. Suess exchanged vows with his second wife, Audrey Geisel. Incidentally, their love affair began while both were married and they subsequently cheated on their respective spouses. The couple remained together for 23 years before Dr. Seuss died in 1991 at the age of 87 due to oral cancer.
Helen Palmer and Dr. Seuss Enjoyed a Successful Professional Life
Ted served in Hollywood following World War II extending his propaganda films into general movies. RKO recruited him to adapt Your Job in Japan into a military training film that released in 1945. He brought his wife Helen on as a companion, and the two shared the writing credit.
Two years later, the couple worked in the documentary film Design for Death (1947) that won the Academy Award for the best documentary feature in the same year.
Ted spent over a decade after World War II to serve the thriving book market for kids, producing a wide array of titles. Throughout this period, he depended heavily on the support and editorial insight of Helen. As a matter of fact, he relied on her guidance for most of his life.
Helen Palmer's Best Works
Helen Palmer is perhaps best known for the 1963 children's book Do You Know What I'm Going To Do Next Saturday?, published by Beginner Books. Unlike most of the Beginner Books, this did not adopt the style of text and inline illustrations; instead, it was depicted by black-and-white photos from Lynn Fayman, showcasing a child called Rawli Davis.
The author's other notable titles include I Was Kissed by a Seal at the Zoo (1962) and Why I Built the Boogle House (1964). The photographs in the former book were snapped at the San Diego Zoo in Balboa Park, San Diego, California. Impressively, it featured students from San Diego's Francis Parker School, engaging with animals and workers in the zoo.
Dr. Seuss wrote a short story Gustav the Goldfish, which was later transformed into the 1961 children's book A Fish Out of Water by Helen Palmer, with illustrations performed by P. D. Eastman.