Drinking with Dr. Seuss

“And across from me is Ted Geisel,” Miller continued. “Who writes a few small words, mostly for children, and gets paid extravagantly for them. That’s the only reason we let him in the group. He also draws very strange pictures.”

The Esmeralda Goodbye, Chapter 10

Okay, I never had a drink with Dr. Seuss (Ted Geisel). But my parents did. They were part of the same creative & social circle in La Jolla, CA in the 1950s and 60’s. And my father took the photographs for 3 books written by Geisel’s first wife, Helen Palmer. I think I met Dr. Seuss at our house when I was a little kid, but that’s one of those memories my brain may have constructed later.

As I was writing The Esmeralda Goodbye, I started wondering if there was some way to fit Ted Geisel/Dr. Seuss into the story. I’d already made writers Raymond Chandler and Max Miller important characters in the book, but I couldn’t figure out a way to fit in Dr. Seuss. Then I got an idea. Perhaps he used to drink with other writers at the Whaling Bar, which was a popular watering hole for La Jollans in the 1950s. It was located at the La Valencia Hotel. Tourists as well as locals were patrons. Needless to say, La Jolla was a small town back then and some interesting people hung out together. I thought my idea might work.

The solution I ended up with was to have my policeman protagonist enter the bar as he’s searching for a suspect in the disappearance of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s diamond necklace(!). He’s hailed by his friend, Max Miller, who introduces him to the other writers at the table—Ted Geisel, Raymond Chandler and Neil Morgan (Morgan was an editor and columnist for the San Diego Union Tribune who also wrote the first biography of Dr. Suess). They trade some jokes and banter with our protagonist before providing some useful information.

Top L-R Raymond Chandler, Max Miller, Ted Geisel and Neil Morgan
Bottom The Whaling Bar at the La Valencia Hotel, circa 1950 something

I had more fun writing that chapter than any other in the book and I think it turned out well. About a year ago I met Neil Morgan’s widow, Judith Morgan. I told her about the chapter I’d written. She paused for a moment, considered it, and said, “Yes, that could have happened.” Validation!

Rather unwisely, the corporate owners of the La Valencia Hotel decided to replace the Whaling Bar ten years ago with a newer, hipper “bistro”. The good news is that they’ve now gone back and replaced the bistro with a new version of the Whaling Bar that contains some of the fixtures and art from the original. I’m planning to visit soon. I’ll order a Gimlet, of course, one of Chandler’s favorite drinks.

Here’s a story about the Whaling Bar’s closing that was broadcast by our KPBS station. If you’re interested you can download a copy of my chapter here (or even better read the book).