Maurice Sendak remembered as a gay, Jewish, wild artist who loved children

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During a special NPR tribute - to mark the May 8 passing of Maurice Sendak - four rare interviews were re-played with Sendak proclaiming he was proud to be openly gay, Jewish and the author of “Wild” children’s books.

He was best known for his book “Where the Wild Things Are,” but the late Maurice Sendak – who died May 8 at the age of 83 after complications from a recent stroke – wanted to set the record straight during four rare interviews he recorded in recent years for National Public Radio (NPR). For instance, Sendak said in his most recent and final NPR interview last year that he never wanted children of his own. Instead, Sendak lived for decades with his longtime partner, psychoanalyst Dr. Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007. In fact, Sendak explained – while crying on the radio – that he wrote his most recent book “Bumble-ardy” while taking care of Glynn. "When I did Bumble-ardy, I was so intensely aware of death," Sendak told NPR in 2011. "Eugene, my friend and partner, was dying here in the house when I did Bumble-ardy. I did Bumble-ardy to save myself. I did not want to die with him. I wanted to live, as any human being does. But there's no question that the book was affected by what was going on here in the house. Bumble-ardy was a combination of the deepest pain and the wondrous feeling of coming into my own. And it took a long time. It took a very long time."

Sendak honored for “Where the Wild Things Are”

When President Obama read from "Wild Things" to children during the annual White House Easter egg roll in 2009, the president called it one of his favorite books, noted an obituary in the Chicago Tribune May 9.

Over the course of his career, his children's books received numerous awards, including the 1964 Caldecott Medal for “Where the Wild Things Are.” In turn, Playwright Tony Kushner later called Sendak "one of the most important, if not the most important, writers and artists to ever work in children's literature. In fact, he's a significant writer and artist in literature. Period."

However, the Chicago Tribute noted how Sendak bristled at the notion that he was just an author of children’s books, and told People magazine in 2003 that he wrote stories “about human emotion and life. They're pigeonholed as children's books, but the best ones aren't - they're just books," Sendak added.

Upon awarding Sendak the National Medal of Arts in 1997, President Bill Clinton remarked, "Perhaps no one has done as much to show the power of the written word on children, not to mention on their parents, as Maurice Sendak."

In addition to Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak’s unique art form is expressed in other bestsellers, such as “In the Night Kitchen,” “The Nutshell Library,” “Outside Over There,” and “Brundidbar.”

Also, this enduringly popular children's book illustrator and writer “radically changed the genre with tales of outsized monsters and frolicsome humor that tapped into the fears of childhood. He also collaborated on numerous operas, films and TV programs,” added the Chicago Tribune’s tribute for Sendak on the day after his passing, May 9.

Wild things happened to Sendak

The Chicago Tribune’s May 9 tribute also noted how Sendak had already been proclaimed "the Picasso of children's books" by Time magazine when in his 30s; after he wrote and illustrated "Where the Wild Things Are," a dark fantasy that became one of the 10 bestselling children's books of all time.

Published in 1963, the book was a startling departure from the sweetness and innocence that then ruled children's literature. "Wild Things" tapped into the fears of childhood and sent its main character — an unruly boy in a wolf costume — into a menacing forest to tame the wild beasts of his imagination, reported the Chicago Tribune; while also noting how “librarians banned the book as too frightening, and psychologists and many adults condemned it for being too grim.”

"Somehow it doesn't feel possible that Maurice Sendak is gone; he is as essential and eternal as Mother Goose," Eva Mitnick, manager of youth services at the Los Angeles Public Library, told The New York Times on Tuesday. "His books are story-time favorites and a crucial part of the children's literature canon."

Sendak explains his unique art form

Although Sendak was honored as a perennial and award-winning favorite author for generations of children, this self-proclaimed “artist” told NPR several times over the years in rare public radio only interviews that his overall message was “love” and respect for children who he viewed “as much smarter than adults may think.” For instance, during a 1989 NPR interview, Sendak said he didn't ever write with children in mind — but that somehow what he wrote turned out to be for children nonetheless.”

The author also admitted that although he was Jewish, he did not believe in God.

Sendak was born in Brooklyn to Polish immigrants. He often described himself during his NPR interviews as having "no childhood" because much of his extended family died in the Holocaust. His parents kept the information from him, but he picked up bits of information about his missing relatives from his older siblings.

"Do parents sit down and tell their kids everything? I don't know. I don't know," Sendak told NPR in a 2003 conversation. "I've convinced myself - I hope I'm right - that children despair of you if you don't tell them the truth."

Also, Sendak revealed how - over the years – he enjoyed corresponding through letters with many of his readers. He called the relationship with them "intensely private."

"I have been with them in their bedroom, for a good part of their childhood," Sendak said. "They have written to me. They trust me in a way, I daresay, possibly more than they trust their parents. I'm not going to bull- - - - them. I'm just not. And if they don't like what they hear, that's tough bananas."

Sendak influenced by the Holocaust

Not one to wear either his heart or that he was Jewish on his sleeve, Sendak did often speak about his parents during his numerous NPR interviews; while stating his own good fortune at not meeting his end during the Holocaust; while pointing to his Jewish background as a source of inspiration for his art.

"If I came up late for dinner, I'd hear about Leo and Benjamin and the other children who were my age who could never come home for supper and were good to their mothers but now they were dead, and I was lucky. ... I hated [the people who died in the Holocaust] for dying because all they brought was violent scenes in the house between my mother and father and her pulling hair out of her head, my father diving onto the bed, and its vivid memories,” explained Sendak during a 2003 NPR interview.

Also, he said there were others who were he “muse” for creating his unique art from. For instance, he told NPR that: “You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she's probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life.”

Sendak on God and religion

"I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets,” explained Sendak during an NPR interview that was re-broadcast May 8 to mark the author’s passing. In turn, he went on to explain how “the war took care of that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher, but I — it made no sense to me. It made no sense to me what was happening. So nothing of it means anything to me. Nothing. Except these few little trivial things that are related to being Jewish. ... You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson — she's probably the top — Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life."

At the same time, Sendak stated during a 2003 NPR interview that he suffered from depression. In turn, many of the four NPR interviews that were re-broadcast on the day of his passing, May 8, included this famous author weeping on the radio about the loss of his close friends who had passed.

In turn, he exclaimed: “I’m not afraid to die.”

Also, Sendak revealed how "I couldn't hold myself together till I left the nest and I got uptown. And everyone said, 'Oh, you're so talented and you're going to get a book and you're' — and, of course, nothing happened as soon as I wanted it to. And then I did get a job. I worked at FAO Schwarz in the window; I did window displays ... and I painted things and stuff, and then I keeled over. I just really ran out of steam and I was too frightened. I just lost it. And a very good friend of mine then paid for my first session. He said, 'You have to help yourself.' And I went and I stayed for 10 years. ... I know there are supposedly happy people in this world. I never believed it, but I take it for granted. God knows, they're all on television."

"I feel like I'm working for myself at this point. If it's publishable, fine. If not, it makes not too much difference. Because I claim that this time is for me and me alone. I'm 83 years old,” he added. "I'm writing a poem right now about a nose. I've always wanted to write a poem about a nose. But it's a ludicrous subject. That's why, when I was younger, I was afraid of [writing] something that didn't make a lot of sense. But now I'm not. I have nothing to worry about. It doesn't matter."

Also, Sendak sort of summed up his end that he said was coming. “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. ... What I dread is the isolation. ... There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready.

As for having children of his own, Sendak told NPR that "I would infinitely prefer a daughter. If I had a son, I would leave him at the A&P or some other big advertising place where somebody who needs a kid would find him and he would be all right. ... A daughter would be drawn to me. A daughter would want to help me. Girls are infinitely more complicated than boys and women more than men. And there's no doubt about that. We just don't like to think about it. Certainly the men don't like to think about it. I have lived my whole life with a dream daughter."

Sendak on being gay

During his many NPR interviews, Sendak made it a point to talk about being gay and why he thought others who are gay should also have that freedom to “be oneself.”

For instance, he often discussed his late partner, a psychoanalyst.

"It just seemed like, why? It just seemed inauthentic and incorrect to burden him with that. My therapy went on forever. My being gay was something of not great interest to me. The person I lived with — we lived together for all of those years, so we made trips to our favorite places in Europe, so that we could read our favorite books, so that we could listen to music,” Sendak said during his final NPR interview.

"I couldn't deal with 9/11 the other day. I couldn't bear it. ... That evening of 9/11, they conducted Mahler's 2nd Symphony. ... And I sat there and cried like a baby listening to the music,” he added while also explaining how it is to be gay.

"Finding out that I was gay when I was older was a shock and a disappointment. ... I did not want to be gay. It meant a whole different thing to me — which is really hard to recover now because that's many years ago. I always objected to it because there is a part of me that is solid Brooklyn and solid conventional, and I know that. I can't escape that. It's my genetic makeup. It's who I am."

Overall, Sendak ended his final NPR interview with the view that his time on Earth was now short. "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. ... What I dread is the isolation. ... There are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die, but I'm ready, I'm ready, I'm ready."

Image source for the 2009 movie poster for “Where the Wild Things Are” that’s adapted from the late Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book of the same name. Photo courtesy Wikipedia


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