I went to see Maurice Sendak last year at his home in Connecticut. The eighty-three-year-old was promoting his latest book, Bumble-Ardy, about an orphaned pig whose ninth-birthday festivities are gate-crashed by teenage swine. He came to the door with his dog, Herman (after Melville), and for the next two hours was everything one might expect him to be: furious, caustic, darkly hilarious, and, above all, warm about life and love and what matters most.
After his death, in May, much was written about Sendak’s legendary crossness, but it was really just impatience with artifice. “I refuse to lie to children,” he said. “I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.” There was no roughness in his delivery. It was spiked with merriment. He was also very tender. Sendak’s memories of his family, the suffering they had gone through during the war, and the effect this had on his development as an artist, still brought him close to tears. He recalled his mother and father as bewildered, hurt people, first-generation immigrants from Poland set at sea in America.
He had been grieving since the death, in 2007, of Eugene Glynn, his partner of fifty years, and was not afraid of dying. He wanted a “yummy death,” he said, in the style of Blake. Famously, he hated being called a “children’s illustrator”—it reduced him, he thought—and while he leaves a body of work that speaks as profoundly to adults as to children, he spared his youngest readers at least one aspect of grown-up heartache. By and large, after their adventures, Sendak’s young heroes get to do something his own family did not get to do, something which Sendak knew to be a more mythical journey than his wildest imaginings, fueled as it was by an unfulfilled yearning: they got to go home.
I. THERE ISN’T ANOTHER KIND OF SEX
THE BELIEVER: Do you miss the city, living out here?
MAURICE SENDAK: I really don’t like the city anymore. You get pushed and harassed and people grope you. It’s too tumultuous. It’s too crazy. I’m afraid of falling over in New York. People are all insane and talking on machines and twittering and twottering. All that. I’m here looking for peace and quiet. A yummy death.
BLVR: A yummy death?
MS: I’m just reading a book about Samuel Palmer and the ancients in England in the 1820s. You were so lucky to have William Blake. He’s lying in bed, he’s dying, and all the young men come—the famous engravers and painters—and he’s lying and dying, and suddenly he jumps up and begins to sing! “Angels, angels!” I don’t know what the song was. And he died a happy death. It can be done. [Lifts his eyebrows to two peaks] If you’re William Blake and totally crazy.
BLVR: You do some teaching out here?
MS: I have a fellowship that started last year, two men and two women living in a house, and I go over when they want me to critique, or whatever the hell. I just talk dirty. They’re nice people. Young. It’s probably not very original, but old artists like to have young artists around… to destroy. I’m joking. I really want to help them. But publishing is such an outrageously stupid profession. Or has become so.
BLVR: More so than it was?
MS: Well, nobody knows what they’re doing. I wonder if that’s always been true. I think being old is very fortunate right now. I want to get out of this as soon as possible. It’s terrible. And the great days in the 1950s and after the war, when publishing children’s books was youthful and fun… it really was. It’s not just looking back and pretending that it was good. It was good. And now it’s just stupid.
MS: Because of Rupert Murdoch. His name should be what everything is called now.
BLVR: But he publishes you!
MS: Yes! HarperCollins. He owns Harpers. I guess the rest of the world, too. He represents how bad things have become. [A cat starts scratching at the door.] We have a cat that’s always trying to get in. She’s very pretty but I don’t want to fall in love with her. I don’t have the time. Herman is in love with the cat and is trying to molest her all the time. He’s a male pig. And she’s like Salome, she teases him with a little flirtatious dance. He whacked her once and I was so angry with him.
BLVR: Have you thought of leaving HarperCollins?
MS: Oh, sure. But I don’t know a better house. They’re all in trouble. They’re all terrible.
BLVR: What do you think of e-books?
MS: I hate them. It’s like making believe there’s another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of sex. There isn’t another kind of book. A book is a book is a book. I know that’s terribly old-fashioned. I’m old, and when I’m gone they’ll probably try to make my books on all these things, but I’m going to fight it like hell. [Pauses] I can’t believe I’ve turned into a typical old man. I can’t believe it. I was young just minutes ago.
BLVR: Is the problem with e-books partly a problem of color?
MS: Yes. Picture books depend on color, largely. And they haven’t perfected the color in those machines. But it’s not that. It’s giving up a form that is so beautiful. A book is really like a lover. It arranges itself in your life in a way that is beautiful. Even as a kid, my sister, who was the eldest, brought books home for me, and I think I spent more time sniffing and touching them than reading. I just remember the joy of the book; the beauty of the binding. The smelling of the interior. Happy.
BLVR: Are you happy now?
MS: [Sighs] My friends are all dying. They have to die. I know that. I have to die. But two friends died last week. I was completely broken by it. One was a publisher in Zurich. I loved him and his wife. It’s the loneliness that’s very bad. They’re doing what is natural. If I was doing what was natural I would be gone, like they are. I just miss them, terribly.
II. A VERY UNKOSHER HERO
BLVR: Do you find consolation in reading?
MS: Oh yes. But I’m also reading books that I want to make sure I read before I die. And re-read. So far I’m still re-reading. I just re-read The Odyssey. I didn’t realize it was funny. Like the relationship between Odysseus and Calypso: hilarious. Hilarious. Penelope and her weaving and her doubt. It would make great television. A great movie, if someone had the talent and wit to do it. I’m re-reading Proust. I’m re-reading Henry James; I miss him so much, rat fiend that he was. Edith Wharton doesn’t make the cut. But George Eliot, yes. I want to read Middlemarch again. She’s a great writer. Dorothea is wonderful. I just read that book where she’s being very open-minded about Jewish people.
BLVR: Daniel Deronda?
MS: Daniel Deronda: oy, gevalt! The great thing about Daniel Deronda was the non-Jewish girl. She’s great. I’m not anti-Semitic, because I am Jewish. Anyway, she was forgetting she was George Eliot, she put aside her hard hat and was determined to be sweet and understanding. That won’t get you anywhere, honey.
BLVR: Your latest book, Bumble-Ardy, has a very unkosher hero.
MS: [Laughs] Very unkosher. But my parents are gone, I don’t have to take any fearful phone calls with tears. None of that. Let’s see. There’s so much to read. And music—so much to listen to. All through Bumble-Ardy I worked to music. I’ve always loved Mozart but recently fell in love with Schubert, who I never took seriously. I knew he was a darling boy. But my god, I began to listen carefully, and Schubert is an immensely great person. Especially the chamber music. It’s so great. Who’s the Russian piano player? The guy with the big head? Richter. Sviatoslav Richter.
BLVR: Does music influence your work?
MS: I couldn’t say how. That would be pretentious. I have no idea how that works. Except I wonder right now—I’m taking this whole fascination back to Samuel Palmer and the ancients, Blake, the passion I felt when I was a young man. I quite forgot about them, and now it’s come back with a vengeance. Those beautiful etchings by his students. And England was going through a terrible time. Farmers were burning threshing machines. Jobs were being ruined. And they just painted away and did not want to look at what was painful. And that has come back, and I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because it was the truest part of my early life. Falling in love with nature, falling in love with getting out of all this mess. The world is in such a tiresome mess.
I can’t read the papers anymore. I just feel sorry for Obama. I want him so much to win. I would do anything to help him win. He’s a decent, wonderful man. And these Republican schnooks are so horrible. They’d be comical if they weren’t not funny. So. What’s to say, what’s to say? It’s very discouraging. Which is probably why I’m going back in time. I’m a lucky man, I can afford to do that. I can afford to live here in silence, in these trees and these flowers, and not get involved with the world.
BLVR: That sense of precariousness in the world—does it feel like an echo of what you went through as a kid, when the world was in the worst shape possible?
MS: Yes. But that was in Europe. America was protected by an invisible shield. Nearly all my relatives died in the concentration camps, except my parents. They came here willy-nilly; my father came because he was chasing a girl. My mother was coming because her mother couldn’t bear her anymore. They came here and picked their way through life. But as far as I was concerned, winning the war was such an amazing and happy moment. We thought Hitler might just win. When the war ended—this was simplistic of me—I thought, That’s the end of all evil.
The world is as disheveled as it was then. But I was a child then. The shock of thinking of the people I will never know was terrible. The photographs my father had of his younger brothers, all handsome and interesting looking, and the women with long hair and flowers. And who were they? I tried to give them back to my parents when I illustrated some short stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Marvelous stories. And I went through the album and picked some of my mother’s relatives and some of my father’s and drew them very acutely. And they cried. And I cried. So there was that. And there still is that.
BLVR: Could your parents talk about it?
MS: No. The only one who talked about it was my grandmother, who was a very fierce woman. The only grandparent I had. She was the only one who came over [from Europe]. Who was brought over by her idiot daughters, my aunts. And idiot uncles, her sons. They were deficits, all of them. She was the strongest. And she had an aversion to her children—not a very good mother, but a wonderful grandmother. And she could hate them, and I could hate them, too, because Grandma hated them! She had such contempt, and I loved her for it. She was so bitter and sharp. And she would sit by the window with her little prayer book and daven and daven and pray. And I would sit on her lap. She was like the bridge from the old country to the new country, and she liked me, and I wanted to be liked. I felt certain that my mother did not like me. A lot of parents don’t like their kids. It’s a terrible thing. I think people should take a test: you should or shouldn’t have a child.
BLVR: What would the criteria be?
MS: Well, you should be as sane as possible. You should have had a childhood that was as decent as possible. A mother and father who cared about you. If you don’t have those components of compassion and love and curiosity, don’t do it.
BLVR: You wouldn’t have been a good parent?
MS: Oh, no. Both me and my brother knew we should never have kids. My sister, who should have known, didn’t. And it’s a cuckoo house. She couldn’t handle it. We knew she couldn’t. We loved her and her children love her, but her children are screwed up. She’s gone now. I miss her a lot. Her children mean almost nothing to me, maybe because they’re maladjusted. That sounds unkind. I know. I don’t want to be with maladjustment anymore. This is my time, I’m eighty-three years old. How much time do I have? I’m going to concentrate on Samuel Palmer and William Blake and William Shakespeare and John Keats, and all the people I love passionately.
III. WE ARE INSEPARABLE
BLVR: What did your grandmother say about the old country?
MS: She told me about how the Jew-haters would come into her little grocery store and she would push her children down into the cellar. They had a door that closed and they ransacked the whole store. That was pre-Nazi. That was the Cossacks. She came from a little Polish town. My love of Poland is very bleak to this day. I can hear her stories in my head. It was very hard for her. Her husband died when he was forty, which drove my mother crazy. She blamed his death on my grandmother, which is why my grandmother sent her to America—shut up, get outta here. So she came to America. A sixteen-year-old girl, alone. She was told that there would be a pushcart dealer and his wife who would rent her a room and she would have someone to talk to. But shortly after she arrived, he was killed in an automobile accident. I don’t know how she survived. I mean, of course she went nuts. They were all nuts. I knew they were crazy when they came to the house. Crazy faces and wild eyes.
BLVR: Did you have a sense of being American-plus?
MS: Yes. I was very happy to be an American. I loved being here. I loved not being dead when I was a kid. And whenever a kid died, when I was a kid, it was a very big thing; it reflected back on the fact that my being here was arbitrary. My father coming here was arbitrary. He didn’t have to come here. He came because he was chasing a girl who had committed herself to every living human male in the village. And he was the rabbi’s son! He had prestige and was extremely handsome and devil-may-care. He came here and became a drudge. His family was sitting shiva for him back in the old country because he had done this terrible thing: chasing a girl, when your father is a rabbi, and schlepping all the way to New York.
I remember reading that Anne Frank had a friend in America, in Idaho or somewhere, and they exchanged letters. The girl wanted to know why Anne couldn’t come and visit her. The idea that it would have taken only a simple plane trip to save Anne’s life… and the little girl from Idaho didn’t understand that. Why should she? It was very touching to me that it was the plane trip that was the answer to everything. Anne’s death was very hard. All the little-girl playmates that I had in Brooklyn became little Anne Frank girls. And one of them actually became sick and died. I was very confused. I saw that you could die, even in America. That was hard.
So the childhoods of me and my brother and sister were complex. We didn’t know who we were, and whatever we chose to be was seemingly in opposition to what our parents wanted us to be. They wanted us to be wealthy Americans. A doctor, a professor. My sister could be a rich wife. Not much was expected from her, except that she marry well. My sister was so intelligent, and she wanted so much to go to college, but my mother and father said no, she was only a woman, it was a waste of money. I hated the idea of college, and my father was furious because I was the youngest and he could actually pay for me. I was in total revolt. I hated school. I hated forcibly learning something. I had a few understanding teachers who didn’t see me as an evil creature.
BLVR: So where did your curiosity and imagination manifest?
MS: My brother, who was five years my senior. A wonderful, wonderful brother. And my sister. They stood guard over me. They were like the parents I wanted, and behind them, the parents I really had. I mistreated my parents because I didn’t understand their troubles, and then it gets too late.
BLVR: Were they very anxious around you?
MS: Yes. Too anxious. Everything was hard, everything was a problem, everything was a scolding. Everything was you-did-something-wrong. You went around the block, you did something wrong. You spoke to a strange person, you did something wrong. My mother calling me to dinner, “You didn’t go to your brother today, and he’s reading by himself in his room, what kind of brother are you?” He was my savior. He was gentle and wonderful. We wrote stories and I illustrated them on shirt cardboard. And when my relatives—these goofballs—came, he would read the stories and I would hold up the pictures. He wrote a wonderful story called “We Are Inseparable.” About a brother who falls in love with his sister, which my brother did—Freud didn’t know from Brooklyn, he never flew over Brooklyn—and they’re going to get married. My parents didn’t think anything of it.
I remember that story, and I hated drawing the scene where they had to kiss, because I couldn’t fit their faces together. And then at the end—because in the back of his mind he knew something was wrong—the boy is in an accident, with bandages like a mummy, and lying in a hospital bed, and the parents are blocking the bed because she’s a banshee and is going to come, and she rushes in and pushes them aside and jumps on him, and they both hurl themselves out of the forty-second-floor window of the Brooklyn Jewish Hospital screaming, “We are inseparable.” Ha! I had such a good time drawing the bodies falling and smashing. Total wreckage. It was his masterpiece.
BLVR: Did your family know they were crazy?
MS: No. But they led desperate lives. I remember when my brother was dying, he looked at me, and his eyes were all teary. And he said, “Why were we so unkind to Mama?” And I said, “Don’t do that. We were kids, we didn’t understand. We didn’t know she was crazy.” When I asked my best friend, Martin, to have lunch at my house, and my mother walked through the room furiously—she was always furious—he said, “Who’s that?” And I said, “We had to hire somebody.” I would not admit it was my mother. And that shame has lasted all my life. That I didn’t have the nerve to say, “That’s my mother; that’s how she is.”
IV. FOR HE’S A JOLLY GOOD FELLOW
BLVR: Who told you you were talented?
MS: We had a cousin. We were not supposed to like her, because she was a communist. She was very plain. I adored her, and me and my sister would steal off and go to her house. She sat and talked to me and told me that I knew how to draw and that I could be an artist, or anything, and I thought if she was in the world, then good was in the world. Nobody had spoken to me like that. She died when she was young. She married a terrible non-Jew, a really ghastly person. She was the only person who tried to tell me there was more to life than this cuckoo family.
I don’t want to exaggerate to you how bad it was. They were good to me. They tried. They had no education, no experience of life. They came from little shtetls and they were living in America, which was the oddest thing of all. How do you get along with people? You don’t speak En-glish, you haven’t been to school. Your kids are being drawn away from you by society. Their lives were unspeakable. And our lives were between unspeakable and the movies. We had America from the movies and books. In the end, I guess it was OK. I’m totally crazy, I know that. I don’t say that to be a smartass, but I know that—whatever that means—it’s the very essence of what makes my work good. And I know my work is good. Not everybody likes it, that’s fine. I don’t do it for everybody. Or anybody. I do it because I can’t not do it.
BLVR: You were safe in America, but the war in some ways came closer to you and your family than to many of those still in Europe.
MS: Yes. This is true: the day of my bar mitzvah—my father belonged to a Jewish social club—he got word on that day that he had, no longer, a family. Everyone was gone. And he lay down in bed. I remember this so vividly. My mother said to me, “Papa can’t come.” I was going to have the big party at the colonial club, the old mansion in Brooklyn. And I said, “How can Papa not come to my bar mitzvah?” And I screamed at him, “You gotta get up, you gotta get up!” And of course he did. The only thing I remember is looking at him when they broke into “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”… And my father’s face was vivid, livid, and I knew I had done something very bad; that I had made him suffer more than he had to. What did I know? This thirteen-year-old ersatz man. Trying to handle fifteen cheap Parker pens.
BLVR: What an inheritance.
MS: Yes. And then you grow up, and you do books for children.
V. YOU MIGHT AS WELL HAVE A DAUGHTER
BLVR: You can’t be as crazy as all that. You managed to stay in one relationship for fifty years.
MS: Yes! And he was—well. He was so much like my brother. He was a psychoanalyst. I was very proud of him. He was a man who loved music and reading. And when I worked in the studio, he would be reading. He never smoked and he died of lung cancer, utterly ridiculous. I had that friendship for a long, long time. I didn’t miss having children, and it wasn’t because I was gay. It was because I knew I wouldn’t know how to do it. I knew it. Long before I even knew I was gay. When I was a child, I knew I couldn’t do it. And I did not want to learn about it. And I thought, If you’re an artist, you should not have children.
BLVR: Because they’ll come second?
MS: Of course. Or if they come first, your art will come second. So what are you going to do? There’s a young artist in this town who’s remarkably gifted, and I’ve been tutoring him on the side. And he had this marvelous girlfriend, and I saw what was happening. And I said, “Look, don’t marry. Happily you can live together without any stench.” And they married and within eight minutes she was pregnant. And now they have a child, and all they do is complain about not having time and having to get a job. Fuck you! Why didn’t you listen to me? We don’t need that baby.
BLVR: Did your family know about your partner?
MS: Yes and no. They didn’t want to know him. They never knew I was officially gay. Of course, they knew. Especially my father. My mother was so bewildering and strange and lived in another world, I don’t know what she knew. Nothing was said, but if something had been said I would have been thrown out of the house. Don’t ask, don’t tell. And yet they met him and respected him. Strange. I remember sitting in my studio, working, and my sister was visiting me, and I heard her weeping and I said, “Natalie, what’s the matter?” And she said, “I’m just thinking of my little brother, sitting there drawing pictures, and what’s going to happen when I die? You’re going to have no one.” And I said, “Wait a minute, I have Eugene.” “No, no,” she said, “you’ve got to have a woman to take care of you.”
BLVR: No wonder in your work you take a stance against whitewashing.
MS: Exactly. I refuse to lie to children. I refuse to cater to the bullshit of innocence.
BLVR: There’s that brutal line in your new book about the hero not turning ten.
MS: I love that line. It’s my best accomplishment. “You’ve had your party! But never again!”/ “I promise! I swear! I won’t ever turn ten!” Summed everything up.
[The phone rings. It is NPR letting Sendak know that a recent interview with him has run and is generating a lot of responses. He praises Terry Gross, the interviewer.]
MS: The only thing she said wrong was that her favorite interviews had been me and that stupid fucking writer. Salman Rushdie, that flaccid fuckhead. He reviewed me on a full page in the New York Times, my book Dear Mili. He hated it. He is detestable. I called up the Ayatollah, nobody knows that. What else shall we talk about?
BLVR: Do you make any concession to times changing? Do you worry that children now are different from how you were then?
MS: No. There are rich kids, there are poor kids, that’s the only difference. Some kids get more than others. I don’t really like all kids. I’m not sentimental. If I’d had a kid, I would have had a daughter. They’re kinder than boys. Smarter. More intuitive and sensitive. If you have to have a kid, you might has well have a daughter.
BLVR: What kinds of things do children write to you about?
MS: Usually it’s awful, because they don’t feel the urge to write themselves—a few of them do, but usually it’s “Dear Mr. Sendak, Mrs. Markowitz said would you please send a free book and two drawings?” When they write on their own, they’re ferocious. After Outside Over There, which is my favorite book of mine, a little girl wrote to me from Canada: “I like all of your books, why did you write this book, this is the first book I hate. I hate the babies in this book, why are they naked, I hope you die soon. Cordially…” Her mother added a note: “I wondered if I should even mail this to you—I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” I was so elated. It was so natural and spontaneous. The mother said, “You should know I am pregnant and she has been fiercely opposed to it.” Well, she didn’t want competition, and the whole book was about a girl who’s fighting against having to look after her baby sister.
BLVR: You find the unvarnished truth consoling, even if it’s vicious and painful.
MS: If it’s true, then you can’t care about the vicious and the painful. You can only be astonished. Most kids don’t dare tell the truth. Kids are the politest people in the world. A letter like that is wonderful. “I wish you would die.” I should have written back, “Honey, I will; just hold your horses.”
BLVR: Bumble-Ardy is polite, a little actor.
MS: Yes. And his beginnings are pretty bad; his parents die on the first page. There’s a famous book for children, The Secret Garden—her parents die, right? And nobody has ever objected to that. It’s a famous theme of mine: get rid of the parents immediately, get them out of the book.
BLVR: It’s the same in Roald Dahl.
MS: I read as little of him as I could get away with. He’s cruel. The cruelty in his books is off-putting. Scary guy. I know he’s very popular. But I loved his wife, who was a great actress and a beautiful woman, and he treated her abominably. What’s nice about this guy?
BLVR: How did you find your artistic style?
MS: It’s spontaneous combustion. I don’t know what’s going to work until I start to draw. It is so out of your hands it is amazing. It just started to happen. Bumble-Ardy was a little boy many years ago and now he’s a pig. I don’t know why. There’s so much I don’t now about the procedure.
BLVR: You were writing this book when your partner was ill?
MS: He was suffering. He’d been very sick. It came on him very suddenly. And Bumble-Ardy was something of a release to me, to be working on a picture book while my friend was dying. And he was dying. I had heart trouble very shortly after his death. Clearly I caved in and became very sick. I do intend to get better before I croak. I want to. Look, life is pretty dreadful most of the time. Even in the country that’s so pretty with the flowers and leaves and sunshine. And I was abandoned when he died. I’m alone. I feel like an old bubba. And I’m not kind all of the time, I’m not nice all the time. I have Lynn [a friend and neighbor] and Herman. I’m so old now, I think I’m not supposed to be caring about love affairs anymore, but I do. Oh, sure! It’s unrealistic. I’m eighty-three. Nothing happens when you’re that old. But it doesn’t stop.
BLVR: And the work drive doesn’t stop.
MS: Never. I’m working on a new book now, about noses. It’s a long poem. I love noses. I have a passion for them. It must have begun early in life, because my brother and I shared a bed. There was no privacy. And we had bed bugs. And to protect me, my brother said, “Lie on top of me.” And I said, “I’ll fall.” And he said, “No, you won’t, not if you clamp your teeth on my nose.” I didn’t fall to the left, I didn’t fall to the right. The bed bugs didn’t get me. They got him. Maybe that’s where the love of noses began. He had a great nose.
BLVR: Did the success of Where the Wild Things Are ever feel like an albatross?
MS: It’s a nice book. It’s perfectly nice. I can’t complain about it. I remember Herman Melville said, “When I die no one is going to mention Moby-Dick. They’re all going to talk about my first book, about fucking maidens in Tahiti.” He was right. No mention of Moby-Dick then. Everyone wanted another Tahitian book, a beach book. But then he kept writing deeper and deeper and then came Moby-Dick and people hated it. The only ones who liked it were Mr. and Mrs. Nathaniel Hawthorne. Moby-Dick didn’t get famous until 1930.
BLVR: How long a stretch can you work for, unbroken?
MS: Two hours is a lot. Because I’m older, I get tired and nap. I love napping. Working and napping and reading and seeing my students. They’re awfully nice. They’re young and they’re hopeful.
BLVR: You’ve never liked being called a children’s illustrator.
MS: I never started out as a children’s book artist. What is a children’s-book artist? A moron! Some ugly fat pip-squick of a person who can’t be bothered to grow up. That’s the way we’re treated in the adult world of publishing. I remember a publishing party a thousand years ago and we were invited, people from the children’s-book department, and someone said, “Oh, you stay up so late!” Stupid man. But that’s the attitude in this country. I’m an illustrator. I have to accept my role. I will never kill myself like Vincent van Gogh. Nor will I paint beautiful water lilies like Monet. I can’t do that. I’m in the idiot role of being a kiddie-book person. It sounds like I’m complaining, but it has no effect on me. I have a good life. I’m strangely content now. Does that come through? Something changed; maybe it was his death. I can’t complain about anything. I’m a lucky buck.