Maurice Sendak wasborn in a poor part ofBrooklyn in 1928.Unlike Danny Kayehere he never had theupbeat personality of anextrovert. As a kid hewas overweight,sometimes stuttered andnever really ―clicked‖with most people.
Maurice Sendak was an angry child and a moroseadult. What were the origins of this? We cannotfully appreciate his art and accomplishments withoutsome understanding of his personality.
There are almost nophotos available of thefamily or the childhood ofMaurice. He was the sonof Philip and SadieSendak. Born in 1928.Here we see mother Sadie,sister Natalie, 8 yearsolder, brother Jack 6 yearsolder, and baby Maurice.
Maurice‘s mother told him of hiding in a cellarduring Cossack attacks on her small Jewishvillage in Poland. Young Maurice took note.
Here are some of the veryfew early photos. Hisbrother Jack, top left in groupphoto, served in the Pacificand his sister Natalie‘s fiancéwas killed in the war.
Between the ages of 2and 4 Maurice sufferedfrom measles, doublepneumonia, and scarletfever. He rarely left thehouse.“I‘m a typical ‘30s kid,‘ he said in a1988 Times interview. ‗We hadevery disease. There was nopenicillin, there were no sulfa drugs,and you almost died of any numberof what now are considered trivialdiseases. I have a memory of mychildhood of often wondering aboutmy mortality.‘
As a young child Maurice wasspooked by many things. He wasterrified of vacuum cleaners.
There was a wholeinteresting worldoutside and Mauricewas pretty muchconfined to his room.
Sendak‘s family kept kosher. Across the hall from his apartment wasa Sicilian family – a boisterous fun loving group with great food and hesometimes visited them. Young Maurice naively thought that theywere a different sect of Jews from his own family and was determinedto join that more appealing Jewish sect when he grew up.
A sickly child in a family with frequent moves, Mauricehad few friends and spent much time by himself, drawing andreading comic books. He loved Mickey Mouse and theDisney movie Fantasia. Later he felt that Disney hadchanged Mickey and had given his early rough edges toDonald Duck and that Mickey had become much too bland.
His drawingstyle was veryinfluenced byseeing Laurel andHardy movies andBusby Berkeleymusicals. He wasvery angry abouthis parents‘ silence about how all his aunts and unclesin Poland were killed in the Holocaust. He came tofeel that parents should be truthful with children andthis was a major aspect of his many books.
―I think it is unnatural to think that there is such a thing as a blue-sky, white-clouded happy childhood for anybody. Childhood is a very, very trickybusiness of surviving it. Because if one thing goes wrong or anything goeswrong, and usually something goes wrong, then you are compromised as ahuman being. You‘re going to trip over that for a good part of your life.‖Sendak directlyaddressed someof the fears andanxieties ofchildhood.
"They (children) have written to me. They trust me in a way, I daresay,possibly more than they trust their parents. Im not going to bullshit them. Imjust not. And if they dont like what they hear, thats tough bananas."
Maurice felt from avery early age that theworld was a scary anddangerous place.Although he was only3 ½ when the littleLindbergh baby waskidnapped, he laterclaimed to have vividmemories of that timeas well as the effect onhim when the baby wasdiscovered dead.
―As a kid, all Ithought about wasdeath. But youcant tell yourparents that.‖
―I am not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets‖
We don‘tknow whenMaurice cameof the closet (tohimself) but weknow that hetook very greatpains for yearsto hide from hisparents that hewas gay.
A brief digression-Sexual attraction between two people has obviously been around along time. Romantic love? Not so much. The idea of romantic loveis completely 100% absent from the most ancient literatures of theNear East and Mediterranean – Egypt, Sumer, Babylonian, Canaan,Crete, etc. It was introduced to this part of the world by invadingIndo-Europeans from elsewhere. It immediately caught on, about1500 B.C., and from then on it permeates the literatures of Egypt,Greece, Israel, etc. We might well speculate, as did the 17th centuryFrench sage the Duke of Rochefoucauld, that:‗There are people who would have never fallen in love if they neverheard of love.‖This seems to have been true for whole civilizations.
Maurice‘s partner for 50 years was Dr.Eugene Glynn, a psychoanalyst. Hewrote a book on art and psychoanalysis.Maurice never told his parents he wasgay and said ―All I wanted was to bestraight so my parents could be happy.They never, never, never knew.― Or atleast he thought so. ―Finding out that Iwas gay when I was older was a shockand a disappointment‖
It is quite ironic thatMaurice was so angry athis parents for withholdingthe truth from him aboutevents of World War II andthe presence of evil anddanger in the world, whenhe was young, and went outof his way to be honest inhis children‘s books, andyet he took great pains fordecades to conceal his gayidentity from his parents.If children can handle thetruth, shouldn‘t parents beable to as well?
Finally, Maurice was an early atheist and that was very much not amainstream identity, especially back when he was a young man.
Sendak suffered from depression and took some solace fromthe poetry of Emily Dickenson, which he said got him throughsome rough patches. Van Gogh‘s painting of an old man herewas new to me and shows despair.
In 1947 Maurice got a part time job doing storewindows at F.A.O. Schwarz.
In 1947 when he was 19 Maurice got a jobdrawing illustrations for a popular sciencebook. His drawing style was still evolving.
1951In the 1950‘s Sendakillustrated books written byothers. Much later, whenthese were re-issued, he gotcredit on the cover, like thisexample. These illustrationshad none of the energy andedge of later books where hewrote the text too.
1956This was the firstbook where Sendakboth wrote andillustrated the text.He was fortunate tohave some editorswho recognized histalent and supportedhis early career.
1957 1959He illustrated a series ofpopular ―Little Bear‖ books
Sendak‘solder brotherJack, here onthe right,wrote twochildren‘sbooks andMauriceillustratedthose, aswell as onebook that hisfather wrote.
Steady work came when Sendak got a job with All-American Comics
Maurice‘s job was to draw backgrounds in the Mutt and Jeff comics
1952Sendak continued to illustrate many bookswritten by others, which limited his creativerange.
Maurice took courses at New York‘s Art Student League, atnight. There are many famous alumni in its 138 year history.
Sendak‘s career breakout point came with his 1963 book thathe also wrote. It deals very directly with childhood fears.
Child psychiatrist Bruno Bettelheim was all in favor oftelling children scary Grimm‘s fairy tales but still thoughtthat Sendak‘s book was too strong for young children. Sincethen tens of millions of copies have been sold.
Originally Sendak planned to have the ―wild things‖ be wildhorses but then he discovered that he could not draw horses.So he changed it to wild ―things‖ (monsters). The Yiddishexpression ―Vilde Khaye‖ means ―wild things‖ - especiallywild children and Maurice‘s mother would sometimes call himthat. That is where he got the book title from.
In 1966 when he illustrated abook by Isaac Singer his parentsfelt that he had finally made it.
But soon, in 1967, disaster struck – his mother developed cancer, he had amajor heart attack at the age of 39, and his beloved dog Jenny died. In spiteof that he produced ―In The Night Kitchen‖ in 1972. This was anothermajor success and also one of the most frequently banned books bylibrarians, because the main character, a little boy, is shown in full frontalnudity. Some librarians drew diapers on the boy. Lighten up, people!
Sendak had many years of therapy. His long timepartner was a psychoanalyst. Maurice was basicallya very unhappy self-absorbed personality.
A happy moment.Sendak moved fromNew York City toRidgefield, CT in1972. He workedlong hours and hadan isolated life. Hewas shy and did notlike crowds.
Other books followed andSendak won many awards.He explored themes ofjealousy, fears ofabandonment, danger, etc.This book shown heredrew on his memories ofthe Lindbergh kidnappingcase, which terrified him asa child.After being involved in many more books than can belisted here, Maurice moved on to designing sets for opera.He had always loved opera and like the challenge ofcreating for a new medium.
Sendak had already illustrated some books about balletand opera and now he moved on to stage sized costumesand sets.
Sendak and his long time friend Tony Kushnerwrote a book based on an opera by the Jewish Czechcomposer Hans Krasa, originally performed by thechildren of Theresienstadt concentration camp.This Brundibár production was filmed for a Nazipropaganda film (The Führer Gives the Jews aCity). All of the participants in the Theresienstadtproduction were herded into cattle trucks and sent toAuschwitz as soon as filming was finished. Mostwere gassed immediately upon arrival, including thechildren, the composer Krása, the director, and themusicians.Kushner and Sendak also produced a version ofthe original opera and it has been quite successful.Original cast, in Theresienstadt
Sendak‘s 1998 sets and costumes for the opera ―Hansel and Gretel‖"My main purpose in doing this opera, and doing it now, at this age , is that Imoverwhelmed by the abuse of children. Hansel and Gretel is a powerful analogy to modern daychild abandonment and cruelty, an opera about pertinent forms of neglect. To mount it in acutesy German forest is to limit it. Why is the fairy tale so famous? Because its terrifying."
His work became more melancholy as the Holocaust beganemerging as a more powerful force — sometimes overtly,sometimes less so. The work gives children the power to conquerthrough art and ingenuity, reminding parents of the complicatedresponsibility that requires them to be hopeful but realistic aboutthe terrible wild things out there.― This was so absolutely, beautifully, rendered for me when Iwas very young and I saw ‗The Wizard of Oz.‘ There‘s a scene…when Dorothy is imprisoned in the room with the WickedWitch, and the witch takes the hourglass and turns it over andsays: You see that? That‘s how much longer you‘ve got to bealive.‗And Dorothy says, I‘m frightened, I‘m frightened, and then thecrystal ball shows Auntie Em, and Auntie Em is saying, Dorothy,Dorothy, where are you? and Dorothy hovers over it and says:I‘m here in Oz, Auntie Em. I‘m locked up in the witch‘s castle.Don‘t go away, I‘m frightened. And I remember that when mysister took me I burst into tears. I knew just what it meant, whichwas that a mother and child can be in the same room and want tohelp each other, and they cannot. Even though they were face toface, the crystal ball separated them. Something separates peoplenow and then. And I think it‘s that moment that interests me, andcompels me.‘
Maurice Sendak, humanistHe was an atheist and a very committed advocatefor dealing honestly with children and acknowledgingtheir fears and concerns.
“From their earliest yearschildren live on familiarterms with disruptingemotions, fear and anxietyare an intrinsic part oftheir everyday lives, theycontinually cope withfrustrations as best theycan. And it is throughfantasy that childrenachieve catharsis. It is thebest means they have fortaming Wild Things‖
―If theres anything Im proudof in my work--its not that Idraw better; theres so manybetter graphic artists than me--or that I write better, no. Its--and Im not saying I know thetruth, because what the hell isthat? But what I got is … akind of fierce honesty, to not letthe kid down, to not let the kidget punished, to not suffer thechild to be dealt with in aboring, simpering, crushing-of-the-spirit kind of way.‖
―I cry a lotbecause I misspeople. Theydie and I cantstop them.They leaveme and I lovethem more.‖
―I want to be alone and work until the day my heads hits thedrawing table and Im dead. Kaput. I feel very much like I want to bewith my brother and sister again. Theyre nowhere. I know theyrenowhere and they dont exist, but if nowhere means thats where theyare, thats where I want to be.‖ He died in 2012 at the age of 83.His partner of 50 years died in 2007