A tip of the hat: An exhibit at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton reveals what’s been hidden behind Dr. Seuss’ secret door

Last modified: Thursday, May 15, 2014
IN the beginning, Theodor Geisel didn’t have five hundred hats. He had only one hat.

But Geisel, better known as children’s book author Dr. Seuss, began to collect hats, just like the title character in his second book, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins.”

That Geisel even had a hat collection is a detail about the author’s life that was, until now, largely unknown to the general public. It was hidden, until recently, in a closet behind a secret door in a bookcase at the Geisel residence.

To celebrate the 75th anniversary of the publication of “Bartholomew Cubbins,” a selection of Seuss’ toppers is on tour, and can be seen through March 8 at the R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton. The exhibit will also feature a number of estate-authorized paintings, drawings and sculptures from Geisel’s secret art collection, some of which were also taken from behind the hidden bookshelf door.

The exhibit was a natural fit for the gallery, which has featured frequent exhibitions of the work of Dr. Seuss for the past 20 years, said Paul Gulla, the manager of the R. Michelson Galleries. “It’s something that’s been a big part of what we’ve done.”

Twenty-six of Geisel’s chapeaux will be on display, and range from the mundane to the extraordinary, Gulla said. The pieces come from far and wide and include a metal and leather fire brigade helmet from New South Wales, Australia; a faux-fur and leather drum major’s hat; a plastic Viking helmet; and, of course, a red-and-white striped satin stovepipe hat — just like the one made famous by The Cat in the Hat. “Some were gifts to him, some were ones that he purchased when he went somewhere,” Gulla said.

Given the gallery’s long association with Dr. Seuss’ artwork, Gulla says, he is well-versed in the history of the collection. He says that the author’s interest in head wear stems from his belief in the transformative power of hats and his keen awareness of the intricacies of people’s personalities. Inspired by such a powerful tool of characterization, Seuss frequently used hats to convey ideas in his illustrations not directly spelled out in his text.

“It’s a great vehicle for expression to be able to have these characters tell you something about themselves that they normally wouldn’t want you to know — whatever personal peccadillo they have,” Gulla said.

As an example, Gulla points to a piece in the collection: a straw hat punctuated with countless blue and purple jewel-toned feathers. The headpiece is recreated on top of the head of a woman in one of Seuss’ paintings, “Raising Money for the Arts.” The piece depicts two hat-clad women dwarfing a simply dressed artist, with one of the women holding a cup of money over the artist’s head.

“I’m in the gallery business so this speaks pretty loudly,” Gulla said. “Those are some pretty serious hats.”

The R. Michelson Galleries are located at 132 Main St. in Northampton. Gallery hours are Mondays through Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Thursdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. For information, call 586-3964 or visit www.rmichelson.com.