'Fresh Air' Remembers Author Maurice Sendak
Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose classic children's book Where the Wild Things Are became a perennial and award-winning favorite for generations of children, died Tuesday. He was 83.
Sendak appeared on Fresh Air with Terry Gross several times over the years. In 1989, he told Terry Gross that he didn't ever write with children in mind — but that somehow what he wrote turned out to be for children nonetheless.
Over the course of his career, his children's books received numerous awards, including the 1964 Caldecott Medal for Where the Wild Things Are. 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."
Sendak was born in Brooklyn to Polish immigrants. He often described himself 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," he told Gross 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."
Over the years, Sendak corresponded 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," he 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 said he never wanted children of his own. He lived for decades with his longtime partner, Eugene Glynn, who died in 2007. Sendak wrote his most recent book Bumble-ardy, while taking care of Glynn.
"When I did Bumble-ardy, I was so intensely aware of death," he told Gross 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."
Interview Highlights From 2003
On how his parents reminded him endlessly of his own good fortune after the Holocaust
"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 it's vivid memories."
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.
"I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets. 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."
On depression and therapy
"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."
Interview Highlights From 2011
On his current writing
"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.
"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."
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.
On wishing he had children, sort of
"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."
On not discussing therapy sessions with 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.
"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."
On being 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."
On his life
"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."
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