I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to spend a day with Maurice Sendak a few years ago. A great man and a great artist. Here’s the story I wrote about him for the Times:
Concerns Beyond Just Where the Wild Things Are
Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times
Maurice Sendak, shown in 2006, has had a year of loss.
Published: September 9, 2008
Maurice Sendak’s 80th year — which ended with his birthday earlier this summer and is being celebrated on Monday night with a benefit at the 92nd Street Y — was a tough one. He has been gripped by grief since the death of his longtime partner; a recent triple-bypass has temporarily left him too weak to work or take long walks with his dog; and he is plagued by Norman Rockwell.
Or, to be more accurate, he is plagued by the question that has repeatedly been asked about Norman Rockwell: was he a great artist or a mere illustrator?
“Mere illustrator,” he said, repeating the phrase with contempt. It’s not that Mr. Sendak, who has illustrated more than 100 books, including many he wrote, is angry that people question Rockwell’s talent; rather, he fears he has not risen above the “mere illustrator” label himself.
Never mind that Mr. Sendak’s originality and emotional honesty have changed the shape of children’s literature; that his work is featured in museums; that he has designed costumes and sets for operas, ballets and theater; that he has won a chest full of awards and prizes including a National Medal of the Arts. As the playwright Tony Kushner, one of his collaborators, said, “He’s one of the most important, if not the most important, writers and artists ever to work in children’s literature. In fact, he’s a significant writer and artist in literature. Period.”
Mr. Sendak protested, “But Tony is my friend.”
Mr. Sendak, a square-shaped gnome, was sitting in the dining room of his Connecticut retreat. His shoulders are a bit stooped, but his fingers are long and delicate. When he hears that the 92nd Street Y event is sold out, his eyebrows rise in surprise.
“They must be coming to see the other people,” he said, referring to guests like Mr. Kushner, Meryl Streep, James Gandolfini, Spike Jonze, Dave Eggers and Catherine Keener.
Even his heart attack doesn’t seem up to snuff. People aren’t impressed with a triple bypass, he lamented; now it has to be a quadruple: “You feel like such a failure.”
That Mr. Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity and anxiety, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; the intrusive, unemployed immigrants who survived and crowded his parents’ small apartment; his sickly childhood; his mother’s dark moods; his own ever-present depression — all lurk below the surface of his work, frequently breaking through in meticulously drawn, fantastical ways.
He is not, as children’s book writers are often supposed, an everyman’s grandpapa. His hatreds are fierce and grand, as if produced by Cecil B. DeMille. He hates his uncle (who made a cruel comment about him when he was a boy); he hates anything to do with God or religion, and Judaism in particular (“We were the ‘chosen people,’ chosen to be killed?”); he hates Salman Rushdie (for writing an excoriating review of one of his books); he hates syrupy animation, which is why he is thrilled with Mr. Jonze’s coming film of his book “Where the Wild Things Are,” despite rumors of studio discontent.
“I hate people,” he said at one point, extolling the superior company of dogs, like his sweet-tempered German shepherd, Herman (after Melville).
He is, at heart, a curmudgeon, but a delightful one, with a vast range of knowledge, a wicked sense of humor and a talent for storytelling and mimicry.
When Mr. Sendak received the 1996 National Medal of Arts, President Bill Clinton told him about one of his own childhood fantasies that involved wearing a long coat with brass buttons when he grew up.
“But Mr. President, you’re only going to be president for a year more,” Mr. Sendak said, “you still have time to be a doorman.”
Mr. Sendak insisted he was trying to be ingratiating, not funny.
Against all probability, some of the nightmares that have relentlessly pursued him since childhood — like the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping — have been laid to rest. A couple of weeks ago a dealer found one of the tiny reproductions of the kidnapper’s ladder that were sold as souvenirs at the New Jersey trial.
“I was floored,” Mr. Sendak said. He traded one of his drawings for it. “That ends my obsession with the case,” he said.
His fascination with the kidnapping, like many of the other details of his life, has been repeated endlessly over the years in the hundreds of interviews he has given. Was there anything he had never been asked? He paused for a few moments and answered, “Well, that I’m gay.”
“I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business,” Mr. Sendak added. He lived with Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst, for 50 years before Dr. Glynn’s death in May 2007. He never told his parents: “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.”
Children protect their parents, Mr. Sendak said. It was like the time he had a heart attack at 39. His mother was dying from cancer in the hospital, and he decided to keep the news to himself, something he now regrets.
A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s.
His latest book is one he started about four years ago, right after Dr. Glynn became sick with lung cancer. The illness and setting up of round-the-clock care in their home were just “so unbelievable,” he explained. Mr. Sendak is mostly finished with it, but he admitted that for the first time, “I feel extremely vulnerable.”
He is afraid — not of death, which is as familiar to him as a child’s teddy bear — but of not being able to finish his work: “I feel like I don’t have a lot of time left.”
After Dr. Glynn’s death, Mr. Sendak said he was “still trying to figure out what I’m doing here.”
“I wanted to take his place,” he said. “His death became a demarcation.” He added that he lost touch with many of his friends, unable to return phone calls and reply to e-mail messages.
Mr. Sendak is pleased with the coming birthday celebration, just as he is about his awards and honors, but in the end, he maintained, they don’t add up to much. They “never penetrated,” he said. “They were like rubber bullets.”
It’s not that he isn’t grateful. “They made me happy, but at a certain point in your life, you see through them,” he said. “You don’t mock them, you don’t hate them, you feel sorry for them” — tiny, inert emblems that just aren’t up to the task of answering pressing questions about meaning, soul-touching greatness and durability.
So he spends his days pondering his heroes: Mozart, Keats, Blake, Melville and Dickinson. He admires and yearns for their “ability to be private, the ability to be alone, the ability to follow some spiritual course not written down by anybody.”
Mr. Sendak is quick to insist that a vast distance stands between his own accomplishments and theirs. “I’m not one of those people,” he said. “I can’t pretend to be.”
Still, he has the feeling that “I will do something yet that is purely for me but will create for someone in the future that passion that Blake and Keats did in me.”
What he has failed to consider, though, is that he may already have.