Father of the Wild Things
Maurice Sendak and the “awful vulnerability of children”
Maurice Sendak had four obsessions: Charles Lindbergh, Jr., Mickey Mouse, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart—and Maurice Sendak.
The Lindbergh baby became an object of pity and terror in the spring of 1932, when he was kidnapped from his New Jersey home. Two months later, the mutilated little body was found. A cascade of items filled the New York City tabloids: photographs of a ladder used to climb to the infant’s second-story bedroom; the plea of Charles, Sr., the famous aviator; the ransom note; the capture, trial, and execution of Bruno Hauptmann. All these registered in the mind of four-year-old Maurice. Like many children of that period, the boy worried that he, too, might wind up abducted by some murderous stranger. But in time, the other kids forgot their fears and got on with their lives. For Sendak, the dreadful images never receded. They were to haunt his dreams—and his work—for the next seven decades.
Mickey Mouse was something else entirely. Some years back, when I was writing an article about children’s books, Sendak invited me to his spacious house, set in the woods of Ridgefield, Connecticut. It was the first of several visits, all full of insight and reminiscence. In the living room were scores of toys, textiles, production cels, and paintings, all featuring the beloved rodent. “Mickey and I were born the same year,” Sendak explained. “The first time I saw him at the neighborhood movie house, my brother and sister had to restrain me, I was so enthralled. Partly it was those joyous primary colors. Partly it was the fluid animation that, to this day, reminds me of Fred Astaire. And partly it was because he was sassy in a way I could never be. I was too reticent to defy the adult world.” The youthful Maurice began to acquire big-eared toys and images until, as an adult, he owned one of the world’s largest private collections of Mickey Mousiana.
These afforded him as much pleasure as Mozart’s melodies. “Since I was 15, Mozart has been my savior and The Magic Flute my life preserver. I don’t play an instrument, but I can whistle large parts of the classical repertoire. When Mozart is playing in my room, I’m connected to something inexplicable. If there’s a purpose in my life, it’s for me to hear Mozart.” As soon as he could afford it, Sendak acquired a letter written by the composer; the paper, artfully matted and framed, hung incongruously alongside representations of the Disney creature—equals in the eyes of their owner. Mozart, like Mickey and the Lindbergh ladder, went on to make repeated appearances in the Sendak oeuvre.
The fourth obsession—Maurice with Maurice—began early. Sendak agreed with Graham Greene’s observation that a writer’s capital is his childhood. He ransacked it for all it was worth—and it was worth more than 100 books. Youth’s sorrows and consolations were accessible not only because Sendak had a remarkable memory but also because he had no children of his own. It’s not a coincidence that so many great writers and illustrators of children’s books have been childless, among them Margaret Wise Brown, Lewis Carroll, Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss), Edward Lear, C. S. Lewis, and Beatrix Potter. They stayed in close touch with their childhoods because there was no intervening generation to get in the way of their recollections. The first dozen years were always at hand to provide inspiration and authenticity.
The time leading up to Maurice Bernard Sendak’s bar mitzvah was marred by local deprivation and global misery. His parents, Philip and Sarah, were Polish immigrants fighting for a foothold in New York. Philip was a thriving dressmaker until the Great Depression destroyed his business and wiped out his savings. From that point on, life became a monthly struggle to pay rent on the Brooklyn apartment and to put food on the table for Sarah and the three children—Jack, Natalie, and Maurice. The first two were robust; the third was a serial victim of illnesses ranging from smallpox to diphtheria, which confined him to bed for months at a time. Sendak acknowledged that he was “miserable as a kid. I couldn’t make friends, I couldn’t play stoopball terrific, I couldn’t skate great. I stayed home and drew pictures. You know what they all thought of me: sissy Maurice Sendak. Whenever I wanted to go out and do something, my father would say: ‘You’ll catch cold.’ And I did . . . . I did whatever he told me.”
The only upside was Philip’s bedtime stories. He composed them on the spot and insisted that they had actually happened. “One was about a gang of his pals who liked to visit graveyards at midnight. They would stick poles into the ground. Whoever stuck the deepest was considered the bravest. On a special night, as they were going through their routine, they heard a horrible scream. A boy had stuck the pole into his own shirttail. He thought the dead were reaching out to grab him, and he died of fright. That was the kind of story my father told. And the thing is, I thought it was wonderful.”
These Poe-like tales were punctuated by real horror stories filtering in from Eastern Europe. One by one, Philip’s and Sarah’s relatives were disappearing into the death camps. Those who escaped to America were loud, anxious, middle-aged refugees from the new pogroms. Little Maurice regarded them as “menacing, cheek-pinching grotesques.” Tension and sorrow became constant dinner companions. “The Holocaust has run like a river of blood through all my books,” Sendak noted years later. “Anything I did had to deal with that—with my family, the ruination of my childhood, the humiliation of being a victim.”
Maurice didn’t flourish at Lafayette High School in Brooklyn, but teachers admired his portraits and sketches. At 18, the graduate arranged a portfolio of his artwork and went job hunting. Hired by a Manhattan display company, he spent the next two years designing storefronts. Then, on impulse, he quit to follow a different dream: Jack would create toys based on fairy tales, and Maurice would paint them. It became a total family affair when Natalie sewed a blanket for the wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. In The Art of Maurice Sendak, a coffee-table-size tribute, Selma G. Lanes observes that “it was almost as if the trio were engaged in a last-ditch effort to recapture their childhoods.” The effort failed. FAO Schwarz rejected the Sendaks’ prototypes out of hand, not because they were unappealing but because they were too expensive to produce, even for America’s most famous toy emporium.
There was a payoff nonetheless. Schwarz hired Sendak to construct its window displays. Over the next three years, the young man grew in style and sophistication—working on casement layouts by day, taking courses at the Art Students League by night, and studying serious painters like William Blake and Honoré Daumier, as well as popular comic artists.
In 1950, the store’s book buyer introduced Sendak to Ursula Nordstrom, the children’s book editor at Harper’s. “I had never met anyone like him,” Nordstrom recalled later. “He could imitate people wonderfully well, from the person who sat across from him in the subway to various celebrities.” Intrigued, she paired Sendak with a variety of writers. To the delight of all concerned, every book was well received, from Marcel Aymé’s Wonderful Farm to Ruth Krauss’s A Hole Is to Dig. Harper’s eventually published Higglety Pigglety Pop! and the four-volume Nutshell Library, not only illustrated by Sendak but written by him as well.
A major career had been launched. Nordstrom made only one mistake, supposing at one point that Sendak was interested in a young woman who worked at Harper’s: “Though she irked me by never getting to work on time, I was careful not to be too hard on her. I thought then she might be the future Mrs. Sendak.” That union could never happen. Sendak was gay, though he hid the fact from people he regarded as outsiders, including his parents. “They never, never, never knew,” he maintained, after Philip and Sarah passed away.
Though he was becoming a brand name, Sendak felt uncomfortable being labeled an author of children’s books. “At a party, as soon as a guy heard that was my occupation, he’d say, ‘How interesting. My wife would like to talk to you.’ It just wasn’t something a grown man did for a living.” All that changed in 1963, when, at the age of 35, Sendak produced Where the Wild Things Are. The book would become the favorite fairy tale of millions of children and adults in America, Europe, and Asia.
Its plot was elemental. Max, a small boy with a large temper, puts on a wolf costume and makes mischief throughout the house. When his mother calls him a “wild thing,” he answers, “I’ll eat you up!” and is sent to bed without his supper. His bedroom then morphs into a forest, complete with a mysterious river and an abandoned boat. He climbs aboard and takes it to the country of the wild beasts, a band of horned, fanged creatures with long claws and appalling features. Confronting them, the boy is acknowledged as their king, romps riotously with them, and then heads home, to their dismay: The wild things cried, “Oh please don’t go—we’ll eat you up—we love you so!” Max arrives in his bedroom, where a happy ending awaits him: his supper is ready, and it’s still hot. Two elements gave the book universal appeal: a little protagonist whose courage was bigger than his demons—the sort of hero every child wants to be; and luminous illustrations that evoked the palette of the Renaissance as well as the lively, vibrant line of the great eighteenth-century caricaturists Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray.
Sendak had no trouble identifying the fantasy’s sources. In his childhood, his relatives were “inept at making small talk with children. There you’d be, sitting on a kitchen chair, totally helpless, while they cooed over you and pinched your cheeks. Or they’d lean way over with their bad teeth and hairy noses, and say something threatening like, ‘You’re so cute I could eat you up.’ And I knew if my mother didn’t hurry up with the cooking, they probably would. So, on one level at least, you could say that the wild things are Jewish relatives.” (Decades later, when his book was made into an opera, Sendak furnished the beasts with the names of his relatives: Tzippy, Moishe, Aaron, Emile, and Bernard.)
One of the book’s few naysayers was psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, who hadn’t bothered to read it but had heard about its plot. “The basic anxiety of the child is desertion,” he harrumphed. “To be sent to bed alone is one desertion, and without food is the second desertion.” Much to the neo-Freudian’s annoyance, his gripe was ignored. Where the Wild Things Are received the Caldecott Medal, the highest award for children’s books, in 1964. In his acceptance speech, Sendak noted that children live with “disrupting emotions” like “fear and anxiety,” coping with frustration as best they can. “And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things. It is my involvement with this inescapable fact of childhood—the awful vulnerability of children and their struggle to make themselves King of All Wild Things—that gives my work whatever truth and passion it may have.”
Financially secure at last, Sendak began to share his life with the man who would remain his partner for 50 years, Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst. Even then, Sendak remained intensely private. Journalists and other visitors to the Connecticut house saw his collections and family photographs, but they could discern no evidence of Glynn. It was as if Sendak lived alone.
The Sendak reputation burgeoned. At 39, he suffered a major heart attack, but even that couldn’t slow his progress. His pen-and-ink drawings and full-color illustrations adorned the texts of many famous writers, among them poet Randall Jarrell, novelist Robert Graves, and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer. In addition, he collaborated with bygone authors whose characters had become archetypes, illustrating “The Juniper Tree” and other tales collected by the Grimm brothers; E. T. A. Hoffman’s Nutcracker; and Frank Stockton’s The Beeman of Orn. In the process, Sendak’s style advanced from the promising sketches of a wunderkind to the mature lines of a master. His crosshatching no longer worked simply as a backdrop; it made detailed comments on the action, sometimes foreboding, sometimes suggesting phosphorescence. The pen-and-ink drawings for the Grimm tales had the bite of Dürer etchings, and the colors of the Bee-Man suggested the pale reds and blues of Blake’s biblical illuminations.
Still, the major works of this period were solo flights. In the Night Kitchen, published in 1970, was a direct homage to Little Nemo, the most imaginative comic strip in American history. Written and drawn by Winsor McCay, it starred a little boy whose dreams take him to fantasy lands where nightscapes glitter and natural laws are suspended (see “Pop Art’s Pop,” Spring 2012). At the center of Night Kitchen is a toddler named Mickey (in honor of the mouse, of course). Like Nemo, Mickey starts his adventure in bed. And like the comic-strip character, he speaks in balloons and moves through starry skies and dazzling interiors. En route, he becomes weightless, floating naked in the air. Without warning, he plunges into a mass of cake batter mixed by three bakers, each a clone of comedian Oliver Hardy. But Mickey is resourceful. After piloting a plane made of dough, he dives into a bottle of milk, crows like a rooster, and returns to the safety of his room.
Night Kitchen continued the fantasy themes of Wild Things, but it proved more controversial. Mickey is nude on several pages, his genitalia fully exposed. The New York Times predicted that since the book was a “masturbatory fantasy,” it was “sure to offend.” School Library Journal published a provocative letter from a correspondent in California: “Maurice Sendak might faint but a staff member of Caldwell Parish Library, knowing that the patrons of the community might object to the illustrations of In the Night Kitchen, solved the problem by diapering the little boy with white tempera paint. Other libraries might wish to do the same.” In suburban Chicago, Night Kitchen was removed from a library’s shelves because “people keep drawing diapers on the little kid.”
These criticisms allowed Sendak to adopt his favorite pose of curmudgeon, speaking out against the “smug philistinism that absurdly denies the dignity and truth of the human body.” In fact, the philistines were a minuscule minority. Critics and kids loved Night Kitchen. It won Sendak another Caldecott, was named an American Library Association Notable Children’s Book, and received a citation as a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Other prizes followed. Sendak won a National Book Award and a National Medal of Arts; the Rosenbach Library in Philadelphia purchased hundreds of his original drawings and paintings.
Nevertheless, for the next 11 years, Sendak stayed clear of controversy. His new books included Ten Little Rabbits: A Counting Book; Some Swell Pup: or Are You Sure You Want a Dog?; and Pleasant Fieldmouse. Then, in 1981, he tentatively offered the last installment in what he considered his trilogy of dream-related books. Outside Over There concerns an intrepid nine-year-old girl, Ida, who reacts with imagination and fortitude when goblins kidnap her baby sister. Reminiscent of nineteenth-century German Romanticism, Sendak’s artwork won widespread praise. But the text came in for some negative commentary because it had the quality of a nightmare, hardly reassuring for a child to read—or to hear—at bedtime.
By now, Sendak had grown philosophical, and it was with some merriment that he remembered a letter from a dissatisfied young reader: “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. . . .” The girl’s mother added a note: “I wondered if I should even mail this to you—I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” Recalled Sendak, “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.” Most children, he added, “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.’ ”
Another response that he treasured involved a child who had written Sendak and gotten, in return, a postcard with a drawing of a Wild Thing on it. “I got a letter back from his mother and she said, ‘Jim loved your card so much he ate it.’ That to me was one of the highest compliments I’ve ever received. He didn’t care that it was an original drawing or anything. He saw it, he loved it, he ate it.”
Grown-ups were another matter entirely. Sendak never forgot the rare pans in newspapers and magazines, and he never forgave a scathing review of Dear Mili, an illustrated Grimm tale, published in the New York Times. The writer was Salman Rushdie. “He launched an attack against my perverse obscurity, strange and meaningless allusions, and tiresome references to Mozart and dogs.” With the thinnest of smiles, Sendak went on: “He was detestable. I called up the Ayatollah and got the fatwa started.”
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Sendak moved from the drama of storytelling to the theatricality of operas and musicals. He wrote the book and lyrics for Carole King’s 1975 television special Really Rosie, featuring the kids in the Nutshell Library books. A few years later, composer Oliver Knussen wrote the score, based on Sendak’s libretto, for the opera version of Where the Wild Things Are. It debuted in Brussels, moved on to London, and then came to the United States. (In 2009, the book also became a film directed by Spike Jonze.) Sendak designed intricate and dazzling sets for Mozart’s Magic Flute, performed by the Houston Grand Opera, and for Janáček’s Cunning Little Vixen at the New York City Opera. In addition, he created the sets and costumes for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. It was performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Company in Vancouver, Portland, and Minneapolis, and adapted for film in 1986.
But Sendak wasn’t quite through with children’s books. With playwright Tony Kushner writing the words, he illustrated a book based on Brundibár, a Czech operetta about innocence versus evil. Here, in every sense, was a Holocaust book: the work had been performed 55 times by children imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezín. They were then sent to the gas chambers, along with the composer, Hans Krása. Only the score and libretto survived. The victims were Jews, but Sendak wanted to draw a larger moral. “Some people were baffled by the last big picture,” he told Bill Moyers in a PBS interview. “There’s a crucifix on the wall of the children’s house. Everybody assumes the hero and heroine are Jewish and the mother is Jewish. They’re not. That was my point. . . . All children were in the Holocaust. Everybody was in the Holocaust. So I made sure my hero and heroine were not Jewish.”
Sendak’s brother, Jack, was a Sendak of all trades—he had worked for the Emerson electronics company as well as the post office, and he dabbled in children’s books in his spare time. Jack died in 1995, and Sendak paid tribute to him in his last published work, My Brother’s Book, with a melancholy, elegiac text (“A sad riddle is best for me”) and paintings reminiscent of Chagall’s fancier flights. As was typical of Sendak, the book had a subtext. He was also saluting Glynn, a nonsmoker who had died of lung cancer in 2007. After his partner’s death, Sendak quietly donated $1 million to the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services in memory of Glynn, who had treated young patients there.
Sendak became increasingly Sendakian in his last years. A triple bypass left him diminished, but not too weak to roar. Stocky, bearded, and glowering, the Connecticut Tevye railed against the excesses of technology, sentimentality, and commercialism. Last summer, New York’s Society of Illustrators paid homage to one of its greatest members with an exhibition that covered two floors. In addition to scores of Sendak’s sketches and finished artwork, the show included videotapes of his final interviews, most of them theatrically grumpy. Asked about e-books, he snapped, “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.” As for posthumous tributes, he wanted “no statue in the park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up on me, à la Hans Christian Andersen. I won’t have it.” When comedian Stephen Colbert asked him, “What’s it take for a celebrity to make a successful book?,” Sendak was ready: “You’ve started already by being an idiot.”
But these fulminations didn’t deceive the people who understood him. We knew that Sendak needed his hard carapace to cover a psyche as sensitive as a light meter. Without it, he would never have survived, let alone triumphed. We also knew that toward the end, he made his peace with life—and with death. Shortly before he suffered a fatal stroke in 2012, he looked back in unaccustomed tranquillity: “I have nothing now but praise for my life. I’m not unhappy. I cry a lot because I miss people. They die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more. There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I’m ready.” Perhaps that calmness came from the knowledge that three generations had bought his creations and that a fourth generation was devouring them (sometimes literally) even as he spoke. Now Sendak is gone, and there will be no more Sendak books. But of the making of Sendak fans, there is no end.
Top Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images
City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).