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The Selling of Seuss

The Cat in the Hat is coming back _ and this time you can wear him.

The willful Cat, faithful Horton the Elephant and vainglorious Yertle the Turtle will soon appear in a new locale: They'll adorn the chests, legs and feet of America's children.

The widow of Theodor Seuss Geisel, the much-loved Dr. Seuss, has signed a licensing agreement with San Francisco-based clothing retailer Esprit de Corp. that will allow the retailer to introduce a new line of children's apparel and footwear featuring the fantastical Dr. Seuss characters.

It will be one of the first commercialized appearances for the Dr. Seuss characters, because during his lifetime, Geisel, who died in 1991, spurned such purely moneymaking ventures.

He "was never interested in the commercial side," said his widow, Audrey Geisel, 72. She oversees the Dr. Seuss legacy, including both its for-profit and non-profit operations, from her La Jolla, Calif., home. "He never wanted to do anything else with his little people characters."

But now, Geisel said, the decision to seek the licensing agreement has become a necessary pre-emptive strike in an effort to protect the trademarked characters, who were increasingly appearing in a raft of unwholesome, bootlegged applications.

"They were particularly appealing to substrata groups," Geisel said, describing one shirt she found that sported the Cat in the Hat with "a marijuana cigarette drooling out of his mouth."

In addition, Cat in the Hat-inspired top hats and ensembles have become a popular feature at raves, giant parties popular among some young people that sometimes feature the use of illegal drugs.

"We attempted for some time to line up the wagons in a circle to fight and defend" the Dr. Seuss trademarked characters, Geisel said. Eventually she was urged by copyright lawyers to seek licensing so she could maintain proprietary use of the figures without them slipping into the public domain and becoming available for use by anyone.

Geisel said she will have veto power over all designs to make sure the Dr. Seuss-inspired products keep her husband's mystique alive and to ensure that the commercial aspect is kept in check.

For Esprit, it's a great opportunity, according to some retailing experts who specialize in children's clothing lines.

"The Cat in the Hat can sell itself," said children's wear fashion analyst Dana Taryn of the New York-based Robe Report, a weekly merchandising publication. "It's like Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse, characters that have stood the test of time. They appeal to parents as well as children."

Retail consultant Alan Millstein said that similar licensed projects, whether of popular characters such as Barney the Dinosaur or Bart Simpson, are "the engine that drives the children's business."

He said that a Dr. Seuss line would be appealing to upper middle-class parents _ "class, not mass," he said.

And the apparel venture may just be the beginning. Geisel said a theme park deal may be in the works as well, along with television shows and animated cartoons. She declined to provide details.

In addition, a formerly unknown Dr. Seuss manuscript turned up in a drawer last year as Geisel prepared her longtime home for renovation and may be prepared for publication.

The characters in Dr. Seuss' books _ among them The Cat in the Hat, Horton Hatches the Egg, Green Eggs and Ham and The Five Hundred Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins _ became a vehicle by which three generations of American children have learned to read.

In addition to those literary efforts, Geisel and his wife devoted much of their attention to promoting literacy.

More than a dozen firms, including eight or nine serious contenders, eagerly sought the right to license the characters.

Geisel chose Esprit after a visit to the company's San Francisco headquarters.

"I liked the esprit of Esprit," she said of the company, which operates out of a converted warehouse in San Francisco.

Esprit declined to provide information on what it had paid for the licensing agreement.

Among the Esprit products to be unveiled soon at a retail industry trade show will be a denim dress for a girl, with an embroidered Cat in the Hat on the pocket festooned with a red ribbon.

Another is a collegiate-style shirt for a toddler with the slogan "Who U" on the front _ in honor of the Whos of Whoville, of The Grinch That Stole Christmas fame.

Geisel said she thought her late husband would approve.

"Ted was a literary figure," Geisel said. "And that's the way he'll be remembered, not through tossing out products for the commercial market. We'll be doing it as a very restricted matter. Don't look for a plethora _ from little lunch boxes on. It won't happen."