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Children's book author Maurice Sendak poses with one of the creatures he created for his timeless book 'Where the Wild Things Are'

'Fresh Air' Remembers Author Maurice Sendak

Author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose book Where the Wild Things Are became a favorite for generations of kids, died at age 83. Fresh Air remembers Sendak with excerpts from several interviews.



May 8, 2012

Guest: Maurice Sendak

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we devote our entire show to honoring Maurice Sendak and his work. The great children's book author and illustrator died today at the age of 83, after a recent stroke. We're going to listen to four of the interviews he recorded on our show, dating from 1986 to 2011, in which he talked about his work, his own childhood, growing old and facing death.

Let me read you some of his New York Times obituary by Margalit Fox. Quote: Sendak was widely considered the most important children's book artist of the 20th century, who wrenched the picture book out of the safe, sanitized world of the nursery and plunged it into the dark, terrifying and hauntingly beautiful recesses of the human psyche.

His books were essential ingredients of childhood for the generation born after 1960 or thereabouts, and in turn for their children. Unquote.

Sendak's most famous books are "Where The Wild Things Are," "In The Night Kitchen" and "Outside Over There." We'll begin our tribute to Maurice Sendak with an excerpt of our 1986 interview, in which he told me that when he was a child, adults looked big and grotesque to him, and he couldn't imagine ever becoming one.

MAURICE SENDAK: It was inconceivable to me as a child that I would be an adult. I mean, one assumed that it would happen, but obviously it didn't happen, or if it did, it happened when your back was turned, and then suddenly you were there. So I couldn't have thought about it much.

GROSS: Because adults seemed really big and different, you couldn't imagine becoming one?

SENDAK: And awful. Yeah. I mean they were mostly dreadful, and if the option were to become an adult was to become another dreadful creature, then best not, although I think there had to be a kind of normal anticipation of that moment happening because being a child was even worse.

I mean, being a child was being a child - was being a creature without power, without pocket money, without escape routes of any kind. So I didn't want to be a child.

I remember how much - when I was a small boy I was taken to see a version of "Peter Pan." I detested it. I mean the sentimental idea that anybody would want to remain a boy, I don't - I couldn't have thought it out then, but I did later, certainly, that this was a conceit that could only occur in the mind of a very sentimental writer, that any child would want to remain in childhood. It's not possible. The wish is to get out.

GROSS: Are there any memories that typify your childhood to you now, looking back?

SENDAK: Well, it's typically '30s in many ways in that I had a series of long illnesses, but then there were no drugs, and there was no penicillin, so kids all ended up having diphtheria, scarlet fever, pneumonia, blah, blah, and I spent a lot of time being sick, as I recollect, and there is the happy memory, actually, of being indoors and watching - the window became my movie camera, my television set.

One of the happiest memories I have is when my grandmother would come to stay with us on those occasions and she would put me on her lap, and then she used the window shade like a magic lantern. She'd pull it down, then I'd hold my breath, and she'd pull it up, and the same thing would be there: a car, or my brother and sister making a snowman or whatever.

So happy memories of being indoors looking out of windows, and I think it's no accident that windows, or children looking out of windows or going through windows or whatever, becomes an obsession in most of the books I've written.

GROSS: A lot of your books deal with the children trying to overcome certain fears, trying to get control of them. What were the things that frightened you when you were a child yourself?

SENDAK: Well, odd things. I don't know if my books are about that, by the way. I mean they are probably partly that, but I don't set out to write a book that's going to conquer a fear or do anything but amuse or entertain or distract a child. But my own fears were very peculiar. I was terrified of the vacuum cleaner, you know, all - untraditionally.

I mean, people sit around saying, well, don't let kids do that, and don't let kids do that, it'll be too frightening, but who would have ever imagined anybody saying don't let a kid in the room with a vacuum cleaner.

But when my mother plugged the vacuum cleaner in, and it was those old-fashioned Hoovers, you know, the thing blew up visibly, and the sight of that bag swelling used to just drive me right up the wall, literally. I had to get out of the house, and I was sent to the neighbors until she was all done.

"The Invisible Man" was one of the most terrifying of my nightmares and I think definitely led me to being an insomniac for the rest of my life.

GROSS: The movie "The Invisible Man"?

SENDAK: The movie with Claude Rains. We were taken to see it, and I remember coming home and being in shock, and it was from that moment on that my sister had to stay with me until I fell asleep, because he could be anywhere in the room.


SENDAK: I mean, there was no way you could say, well, you see, he's not there, you see, he's not there. My answer was: Well, you can't see him, so what's the big deal? So he was - I mean, even when it's repeated now on Channel 13 in New York, I have trouble watching that movie. I try to, and the scene where he unravels his head, the bandages, and there's nothing underneath, you know, it's extra Valium that night for me.

GROSS: In "Where the Wild Things Are," a young boy is sent up to his room without supper, and he's really angry at his mother. So he decides to leave home and go to where the wild things are, and he becomes king of the wild things, and the wild things are these wonderful monsters or beasts that you've created. What inspired the shape and the faces, the bodies of the monsters?

SENDAK: Well, there was a lot of work on that, and I didn't want them to be traditional monsters, like griffins and gorillas and suchlike. I wanted them to be very, very personal, and they had to come out of my own particular life. And I remember it took a very long time until that gestation occurred and where they began to appear on drawing paper and they began to be what I liked, and it was only when I had them all that I realized they were all my Jewish relatives.


SENDAK: They were all the adults who treated us in such silly fashions when we were kids, and these were the real monsters of my childhood. You know, people come on Sunday and wait to get fed, uncles and aunts, and you used to get all dressed up, and you have to sit and listen to their tedious conversation when you want to be with your brother and sister and listening to the radio or whatever.

And they all say the same dumb thing while you're beating time until food gets put on the table - how big you are and how fat you got, and you look so good we can eat you up. In fact, we knew they would because my mother was the slowest cooker in Brooklyn, so if she didn't hurry up, they would eat us up.

So the only entertainment was watching how - watching their bloodshot eyes and how bad their teeth were. You know, children are monstrously cruel about physical defects.

So my entertainment was to examine them closely, you know, the huge nose, and the hair curling out of the nose and the weird mole on the side of the head, and so you would glue in on that, and then you'd talk about it with your brother or sister later, and they became the wild things.

GROSS: One of the things I love about the monsters in the book is that they're really goofy. I mean to me they're not really frightening. Okay, granted, I'm an adult, but still, there's something really kind of goofy and playful and big and floppy about them.

SENDAK: Yes, there is, but at the same time they are threatening. I mean, if Max were not in control of them, they could indeed be in control of him, and when they say, oh, please don't go, we'll eat you up, we love you so, they mean just that.

And he knows that, and I think children know that too, that the fun of that book is a perilous tightrope between him being a little boy and very vulnerable to these huge creatures and the absurdity of his having control over them by staring into their yellow eyes. It's what every child would like, to have control over such things.

Kids are not afraid of them because Max is not afraid of them.

GROSS: "In the Night Kitchen," which is the second book of your trilogy, when the book came out, Mickey, who is the main character in it, is nude during part of it, and I understand that there were librarians who actually blocked up the little infant penis so that children wouldn't be exposed to it.

SENDAK: Yeah, he had to wear little diteys or diapers or shorts before they'd let the book into the library.

GROSS: Now, I was really surprised because I thought that all - you know, as much fear as people have in our society of nakedness, that I thought infant nakedness was okay.

SENDAK: Well, we live in a very strange society. I mean, I was outraged when that book came out and there was a such a hullabaloo over his genitals.

I mean, I assumed everybody knew little boys had that and that this wasn't a breakthrough. The fact that people considered that outrageous: incredible. I mean, you go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you go to the Frick, you go to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and there's a Christ child with his penis. It's accepted in fine art, but somehow in books for children there's a taboo.

Well, the hell with that. I mean, I didn't set out to cause a scandal. I set out to do a very particular work where he had to be naked in order to confront a particular dream he was in. You don't go into a dream wearing Fruit of the Loom underwear or PJs. You go tutto. You go yourself, your being, and that's why he was naked, and it was idiocy. It was incredible idiocy what went on over that book for many, many years about Mickey being naked.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak, recorded in 1986. He died today at the age of 83. We'll hear an excerpt of our 1993 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Today we're devoting our show to the life and work of Maurice Sendak, the children's book author and illustrator. He died today at the age of 83. We're listening to excerpts of the interviews I recorded with him. This next one was recorded in 1993, after the publication of his book "We're All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy."

Inspired by two English nursery rhymes, it tells the story of children dealing with homelessness, sickness and hunger.

Your new book deals with some real world fears, like homelessness and being scared by what could happen to you as a kid now. What were the real big events in your life that you found really frightening when you were young?

SENDAK: When I was young, the big events were being sick and being expected to die, and knowing that at a very early age I might. This was spoken. My parents were very indiscreet. My parents came from a foreign country. They were immigrants. They didn't know about Freud. They didn't know about what to say or not to say in front of children.

So it was the awareness at a very early age of mortality which pervaded my soul, apparently, and I think provided me with the basic ingredients of being an artist. And I remember a game my father played with me, which you would not exactly call a death game but did move in that direction, which was that if I lay in bed, which I spent a lot of time doing, and I remember in one particular place we lived in Brooklyn - we moved quite frequently because of financial problems - and just opposite the foot of my bed was a window looking out in the backyard facing a just very boring brick wall. And he said if you - to me - if you looked and didn't blink, if you saw an angel, you'd be a very, very lucky child. And so I did that frequently.

Of course, I would always blink because it hurt not to blink. And then you didn't see it, and he'd say, well, you blinked, didn't you? And I'd say yes. And I remember once I didn't blink, and I saw it - or I imagined I saw it. But the memory of it is so vivid I could even describe it to you.

GROSS: Would you?

SENDAK: Well, I was lying in the bed, obviously, staring out the window, my eyes aching, staring, staring, staring. And something very large like - almost like a dirigible, but it wasn't a dirigible because it was right past my window, it was a slow-moving angel.

She - he - whatever, moved very gracefully and slowly coming from left, going across to right, not turning to observe me at all. I don't have a memory of the face but I remember a memory of the hair, the body and the wings. It took my breath away. It just moved so slowly that I could examine it quite minutely.

And then I shrieked and hollered, and my father came in, and I said I saw it. And he said I was a very lucky kid.

GROSS: Did you see your parents as being really capable parents who could help fend off death or fend off what other problems that you had?

SENDAK: No, no because they were so vulnerable to problems. They caved in on problems all the time. So I did not see them - and this is not a criticism of them. Their lives were extremely hard. But no, no. I did not see them that way.

GROSS: Now, they were from Poland?

SENDAK: They were from Poland, yeah.

GROSS: And they fled before World War I?

SENDAK: Yes they did. Just before World War I. They didn't flee. My father left on a lark.

GROSS: Oh. Well, what was that?

SENDAK: He had no cause to come here. My grandfather was a rabbi, and he was the youngest son, and he was obviously the spoiled younger son of my grandmother. And he actually fell in love with a young woman, and it became a little bit scandalous, and she was put on a boat and shipped off to America.

And he sulked and pouted and got money out of his siblings and got on another boat to follow her here. And his family was appalled at his behavior. Because of that trivial behavior, he was the only survivor of his entire family.

I mean all of my uncles and aunts and all of the children were destroyed in concentration camps. My father's grief his entire life was that his survival was based on such a trivial impulse.

GROSS: You grew up before the Holocaust. Did - was he still really regretful about...

SENDAK: Oh, he was terribly regretful and guilty, and he was - he had survivor guilt, as did my mother, who had much less cause because she was shipped off when she was about 17 to come to America. She was uneducated, untrained in anything. She was a girl.

My grandfather on her side, also a rabbi, had died at a very early age of a coronary, and there was no money to take care of everybody. So she was sent here to do it, to work hard, earn money and then bring them over. Which was typical.

She met my father, they married, and all the first income was spent on bringing one aunt, then an uncle, then another uncle, then another aunt, then my grandmother, until finally all but one brother on her side were all here.

And then they were going to turn to my father's side, and then it was too late. That was in the '30s. There was no getting Jews out of Europe at that point. And so growing up during the war, that was tough, having to live through that in all its complexity. It colors your life forever.

We didn't get much of my mother's life. My mother was silent about that period of her life.

GROSS: I think as a lot of people from Eastern Europe who came to America were. Did they seem like aliens to you? Because, I don't know, they probably - did they speak more Yiddish than English around the house?

SENDAK: Yes, they spoke more Yiddish. I spoke Yiddish as a child. My parents spoke English very, very late and very poorly. And we lived in a part of Brooklyn which was teeming with immigrants, either other people from Eastern Europe, Jews - or Sicilians, and I couldn't tell the difference.

I mean, we lived next to the Sicilians and I had a real - it sounds like coy conceit, but it's a fact. I had a real confusion because right across the hall from us was my best friend at one place we lived, Carmine, and his sisters and brothers and his huge mother and huge father. And I used to run across the hall because they had un-Kosher food, which was much better, much better than Kosher food because it was - it was pasta. It was great Italian cooking. And they laughed, and they drank wine, and they grabbed me, and I sat on their laps, and they had a hell of a good time. And then you come back to my house and you have this sober cuisine and not so rambunctious family life. And I really did have a confusion that Italians were happy Jews, that they were a sect.


GROSS: Oh, that's really interesting.

SENDAK: And that I would have a choice - that I would have a choice after my bar mitzvah to belong to either the sober sect or the happy sect.

GROSS: And they went to a different synagogue where they had pasta.

SENDAK: Yeah. I was a dumb kid, let me tell you.

I mean, all the parents were - looked alike. They all wore the same dull black dresses and you couldn't tell the difference, not to me.

GROSS: I remember I interviewed you - I don't know, eight years ago or something. Something that you said really stuck with me. You were talking about the monsters in "Where The Wild Things Are," and you were saying that when you were young, the monsters were just adults. They were people with like moles on their faces and hairs growing out of their noses and...

SENDAK: Yeah, old relatives, actually.

GROSS: Yeah, old relatives, exactly, exactly, and that, that - that really struck a chord.


GROSS: And then I started thinking, well, I'm one of those people now. I mean, I don't know if I actually have hair growing out of my nose but, you know, I have some of those things that I'm sure kind of like scare kids.

SENDAK: Oh sure.

GROSS: And do you have a sense of yourself as that too...

SENDAK: Of course.

GROSS: ...of like, you know, a monster to some kids?


SENDAK: Of course I have. I see it in their eyes. When I'm autographing books, which I don't like to do much anymore, and children are shoved at me...

GROSS: Yeah.

SENDAK: ...they have no idea why they're on the line. They'd much rather be in the bathroom.


SENDAK: And they're standing on line, and they're being told something which is so frightening and confusing, which is being told by mom or dad: This is the man you like so much, honey. This is the man who did your favorite book. And they clutch their book even closer because that really means he's going to take it away, because if this is the man's favorite book, then he's going to take your book...


SENDAK: And the look of alarm and the tears, and they stare at me like pure hatred. Who is this elderly short man sitting behind a desk who's going to take their book away? Then on top of that, the parent says, now give him your book, honey. He wants to write something in it. Well, there, they've been told: don't write in a book. Okay. Why then is it all right for a perfect stranger to write in their book? It's horrible for them. And I become horrible unwittingly. I make children cry.

GROSS: They cry when...

SENDAK: They cry when they meet me because they don't know what I'm doing. It's quicker with girls because girls are smarter than boys. We all know that. They grow up faster. And girls, by the time they're seven or eight, already know the business of autographing and what it means. Boys don't till they're about 40, I think.

And so they'll pull it away. There's only one child who ever had the courage, and his father was urging him forward, urging him forward. I can see the hesitation. I just felt so bad for the kid, and I put my hand on the book to help draw it away from him. And he literally screamed and said: Don't crap up my book.


SENDAK: It was the bravest, the bravest cry I've ever heard. I nearly wept.

GROSS: So what did you do?

SENDAK: Well, I took the father aside because I think, I think the father was going to kill the kid because he'd embarrassed him and made everybody laugh. And I had to sit down and say how great I thought his kid was and not to be angry with him because the child just didn't understand what this whole nonsense, this social nonsense of autographing was all about. And it would be criminal to punish him for this.

GROSS: This is great. Every time you do a book signing it's kind of like dysfunctional family America.


SENDAK: That's right - becomes into psychiatric sessions.

GROSS: You must feel awful, though, you know, because you're being misunderstood by the kids who love your book.

SENDAK: Well, frankly that's why I do not visit children in classrooms. That's why I've stopped autographing, for the most part, for that very, very reason. It's such a paradox that I, who adore them, and I'm interested in their welfare, should become their enemy. It's only because it's set up that way. If I'm to visit a school, they're all warned, threatened and browbeaten for three days before I get there. Now I want all of you to be nice...


SENDAK: ...and you must raise your hand and I want everyone to go to the bathroom before Mr. Sendak comes.


SENDAK: I mean, their lives are ruined. So why should I be the person who does that to them?

GROSS: Maurice Sendak recorded in 1993. We have two more interviews with him in the second half of the show as we continue our tribute to the great children's book author and illustrator who died today at the age of 83. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're remembering Maurice Sendak, the great children's book author and illustrator, and listening back to our interviews with him. He died today at the age of 83 after a recent stroke.

Several generations of children have grown up with his books, such as "Where the Wild Things" and "In The Night Kitchen." His work for children always had a dark edge, but nothing quite as dark as his 2003 collaboration with Tony Kushner, who's best known for his play "Angels in America." They adapted a children's opera that was originally performed by children in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin. The opera, "Brundibar," is a parable about evil that was written in 1938 by a composer who was killed in the gas chambers. An English adaptation with Kushner's libretto and Sendak's sets was performed in Chicago and New York in 2003. That same year, their book adaptation of "Brundibar" was published, featuring Kushner's text and Sendak's illustrations.

In 2003, I asked Maurice Sendak why the children in the Nazi concentration camp Terezin performed the opera "Brundibar."

SENDAK: This opera was written by Hans Krasa, a very young Czech composer, and it was written for children, Jewish children, in an orphan asylum in Prague, to amuse them. It was a contest, who could write the prettiest opera for the children. And Krasa wrote this and everybody loved it. And at that very same point the Nazis entered the country and the orphanage was emptied and the children put into Terezin, the camp. And he was too, as was the librettist, and it became a show camp, became known as Hitler's favorite camp. He set it up in such a way, and made a film of how well the Jews were being treated and the Gypsies and the homosexuals. And this was to - because rumors were getting out that were frightful - and so he set this up to prove to the Red Cross and diplomats who were traveling the world to come by, see a show, and see how happy everybody was.

And it's in the film. You see the children singing in the last portion of the opera. It is impossible for me to doubt that the children knew what their fate was. Imagine standing up on the stage and singing about brotherhood and if we all hang together we're going to succeed and the bully will not - and knowing that as soon as this audience left, kaput, their lives are finished. I can't even grasp that now. But it ended the same way for all of them.

GROSS: So the performances were for visiting diplomats to show off the camp?

SENDAK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: Do you know if they fell for it?

SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Oh, absolutely, they fell for it. The streets were cleaned, trees were planted, all the children were given clean clothes, all the inmates were given clean clothes, everything was swept up, and they went and you had a pass, quite an attractive pass, which I'd love to have an original of, but I've used as an image in the book, to get in to see "Brundibar."

GROSS: How do you think the paintings and drawings that you did for the new book, which is a kind of Holocaust fairytale...

SENDAK: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: do those compare with the classic books that you did like "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Outside Over There"?

SENDAK: This is, strange to say, more personal. "Where the Wild Things Are" and "Outside Over There" and...

GROSS: "In The Night Kitchen."

SENDAK: Yeah, "In The Night Kitchen," are all books that came from my original creative soul, self, whatever, that have no conscious connection to events in my life. And I just think of them as terrific inventions that came upon me and dominated my life until I finished them. This, which takes the form almost of a Grimm fairy tale, actually - it's a little Hansel and Gretel story over and over and over again. All those stories work for children. But this had such personal import. I've been carrying this around since childhood and frankly wanting to rid myself of it - the Holocaust and memories of childhood and my parents suffering, and no childhood. There was no such thing as childhood, you know. I was born early. The Wall Street crash, my father always blamed me for the Wall Street crash.


SENDAK: Thought he was endowing me with great strength for a one-year-old. But he was a very reasonable man so he probably believed it. And then right after that, well, he lost all his money in his little tailor shop and then the war began. And I think mostly the point of the marriage of my mother and father was that you had to have a partnership. When you're a young immigrant who spoke no English, who'd just come over on the boat, you got together as two partners, whether love was involved in it, maybe, if you were lucky - maybe not. But the point was to pool your money and bring everybody over as fast as you can, because most of them knew what was going on and what was about to happen.

GROSS: If you don't mind my asking, you know, we've talked about how the Holocaust affected you and how, you know, being Jewish, you know, branded you in a way. And do you think of yourself - I know you feel very defined in some way by being Jewish.


GROSS: Are you secular Jewish or are you observant?

SENDAK: Total secular.

GROSS: Total secular.

SENDAK: I love being Jewish.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

SENDAK: I love the bits of it that - I love the candles. I especially love the memory of the dead, the little yahrzeit that you put out.

GROSS: The candles, the 24-hour candle. Yeah.

SENDAK: The candles that burn for 24 hours, yeah. But other than that, nothing. I'm not a religious person, nor do I have any regrets. The war took care that for me. You know, I was brought up strictly kosher but 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.

GROSS: Do you ever wish that you had faith?


GROSS: Why not?

SENDAK: Because I don't need it. I don't believe in that. Faith is - you know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently?


SENDAK: Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson - she's probably the top. Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats. These are wonderful gods who have - who've gotten me through the narrow straits of life.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak, recorded in 2003. Sendak died today at the age of 83. We'll hear the final interview I recorded with him last September after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Today we're listening back to interviews with Maurice Sendak, the beloved children's book author and illustrator whose books include "Where the Wild Things" and "In The Night Kitchen." He died today at the age of 83.

Last year, Sendak published a new book called "Bumble-ardy." It was the first book in 30 years to feature his original text and illustrations. We thought it was the perfect time to catch up with him again, but he was too frail to get to a studio, so last September we just called him on his home phone.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak, congratulations on your new book. And it gives me this opportunity to call you up and see how you're doing and say hello and talk with you about your work. So how have you been?

SENDAK: Well, it's been a rough time. I've gotten quite old, Terry, since you've seen me last, which is not very unusual. And I'm working very hard but I feel that I'm working for myself at this point, because everything I'm doing is, 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.

GROSS: Well, in your new book, "Bumble-ardy," the main character is a pig who is orphaned and lives with his aunt.


GROSS: And when his parents were alive, he never had a birthday party because his immediate family frowned on fun. Then he turns nine. His aunt buys him some gifts to throw him a quiet party for two. But then he decides to throw a costume party for himself and he invites some grubby swine.

The party begins after his aunt leaves for work and then mayhem ensues. And when his aunt returns, she throws everyone out and says, OK, smarty, you've had your party, but never again. And then Bumble-ardy says in tears, I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10.

SENDAK: Right.

GROSS: So when the aunt says never again, which people say about the Holocaust, when she says that in reference to never having a party again, that's really, really loaded.

SENDAK: I don't know what to answer to that. You've just picked the two lines of the book that are my favorite lines. There's something so poignant and extremely funny, if you could say that's funny about his answer, I'll never turn 10. In fact, it sums up my life, it sums up my work. What is mad and ludicrous and funny and odd is true.

What you just said is extremely insightful. Nobody has said anything like that. But I always expect that from you. Those two lines are essential. But I won't pretend that I know exactly what it means. I only know it touches me deeply, and when I thought of it, I was so happy I thought of it. It came to me, which is what the creative act is all about.

GROSS: You know, let me ask you, those two lines where she says, OK, smarty, you've had your party but never again. And he says, I promise, I swear, I won't ever turn 10. What a bargain that is, you know?


GROSS: He has to promise to never have boisterous fun again, to not get older, to just like stay in that moment, the nice little boy.

SENDAK: That is correct. I will do as you say.

GROSS: Yeah, did you have to make that bargain with your parents to get love?

SENDAK: I had somewhat the same problem. I had a brother who was my savior, made my childhood bearable. He was older by five years, Jack Sendak. He wrote a number of books. He was very, very, very gifted. More importantly to my life, he saved my life. He drew me away from the lack of comprehension that existed between me and my parents. And he took his time with me to draw pictures and read stories and live a kind of fantastical life.

And my sister occasionally joined in, but mostly - after all, she was a girl. All that was expected of her was that she should grow up and be very pretty and marry a decent man. So she had to concentrate on what my parents expected of her. And she didn't have the creative insanity that existed between me and my brother to go further with that. I wish she had. I loved her very much.

But that life with him contradicted the prosaic life that I was expected to be a decent child. I was expected to be with my brother and help him and to shut up and just be a quiet kid. I hated them for a long time. But I don't anymore because God knows, it's a blessing to have a quiet kid.


SENDAK: I don't have kids at all and I thank God that I never did.

GROSS: Yeah, but isn't there a part of you that wishes like you had a son or a daughter to come help take care of you and shop for you and bring you things and...

SENDAK: Yes. I would infinitely prefer a daughter. If I had a son, I'd leave him at the A&P...


SENDAK: ...or some other big advertising place that, you know, and somebody who needs a kid would find him and he would be all right.

GROSS: Isn't that stereotyping what a son would be?

SENDAK: I suppose it is, but I'm just an ordinary human being. A daughter would be drawn to me. A daughter would want to help me. I mean girls are infinitely more complicated than boys and women more than men. And there's no doubt about that, we all know it, we just don't like to think about it, and certainly the men don't like to think about it. But a daughter would - oh, God. I've fantasied(ph) a daughter. I have lived my whole life with a dream daughter.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you this: You came out a few years ago.

SENDAK: Correct.

GROSS: If you were able to be out in a period like we live in today, where it's socially acceptable in lots of circles to be gay and have children, it's so much easier to be gay and have children now, would you have had a child?


GROSS: You just said that you fantasized all your life about having a daughter.

SENDAK: Fantasized.



SENDAK: There's too much hard work involved.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

SENDAK: And I am devoted to being an artist and a person who reads books for the rest of my life, however long I have.

GROSS: And that takes a certain amount of self-absorption to be able to do that.

SENDAK: Well, I think so, and I think it has to do with time spent trying to understand what it means to be an artist, to get under the skin of what is happening as best you can. And to have a real child, a real daughter, would mean hard work, work I would not want to do.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: Changing clothes, fixing, taking her to school, putting up with her anger, putting up with her indifference, and praying all the time that she grew up to be a good woman and take care of her poor old dad. Yes...


SENDAK: is typical of a male and it doesn't make any difference what kind of male you are, you are a selfish pig in very, very complicated ways.

And, yes, I would fantasize a daughter full-grown. She would have to be in her late 30s or early 40s and be all over me and taking care of poor old dad.

GROSS: Do you have someone to help you?

SENDAK: Yes. Yes. And she is a youngish lady who puts up with my oldness, that is I'm fighting and struggling against. She puts up with my bad behavior and she loves me and I love her.

GROSS: Is she a friend? Is she a nurse?

SENDAK: She's a friend.

GROSS: That's great.

SENDAK: And I've known her since she was a little girl.

GROSS: Oh, wow. So it's kind of almost like a daughter.

SENDAK: Yes. And she belonged down the road and her mother was a saint in the best sense of that word, the best sense of what I imagine Christianity is all about. I adored her mother and I adore her. Her name is Lynn and I adore her brother; his name is Peter. And they both have grown up and are attached to me, and I might as well have had them for my kids. They put up with everything.

GROSS: Oh, that's beautiful. Plus, you didn't have to do the work, so...


GROSS: We've talked before how you've been in therapy. And your late partner, who died in 2007, you were together for about 50 years? Do I have that right?

SENDAK: Oh, about 50 years. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. And he was a psychoanalyst, right?

SENDAK: He was a psychoanalyst.

GROSS: OK. So here's the thing: like, when you're in therapy, you have to decide if you're going to tell your spouse, your friends, your family about things that happen in those sessions, things you learned about yourself, things you said about other people or not. You know, whether you're going to confide in people about that or not. So since your partner was a psychoanalyst, did you talk to him about your therapy sessions?

SENDAK: No. No. It just seemed like - it just seemed inauthentic and incorrect to burden him with that. My therapies went on forever. My being gay was something of not great interest to me - you just have to believe that. And the person I lived with, we lived together for all of those years so that we could make trips to our favorite places in Europe, so that we could read our favorite books, so that we could - and this is most important - we could listen to music.

Now, I couldn't deal with 9/11 the other day. I just couldn't bear it. I...

GROSS: The 10th anniversary of 9/11?


GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: Yes. But that evening of 9/11, they conducted Mahler's 2nd Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony, which has never been a great favorite of mine, but Mahler is a great favorite of mine. And I sat there and cried like a baby listening to the music. It got through where the whole day had not gotten through to me.

I just couldn't deal with the whole situation. But sitting there and listening to music that was written almost now a hundred years ago, it had nothing to do with 9/11, except that it had to do with the life and death of human beings, which takes me back, for some reason, to Bumble-ardy's "I won't turn 10."

The fragility of life, the irrationality of life, the comedy of life. My tears flow because two great, great friends died close together - a husband and a wife - who meant everything to me and I am having to deal with that, and it's very, very hard.

GROSS: Did they die very recently?

SENDAK: Yes. She died two months ago, and he died the day before yesterday. And I was, except for his son, the last person to speak with him. He was my publisher and I loved him and I loved her.

GROSS: Are you at the point where you feel like you've outlived a lot of people who you've loved?

SENDAK: Yes. Of course. And since I don't believe in another world, in another life, then this is it. And when they die they are out of my life. They're gone forever. Blank. Blank. Blank. And I am not afraid of death. And I begin to - as maybe a good many elderly people do. Who knows? When I did "Bumble-ardy" I was so intensely aware of death.

Eugene, my friend and my partner, was dying here in the house while I did "Bumble-ardy." And 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.

GROSS: We're listening back to the interview I recorded with Maurice Sendak last September. Sendak died this morning. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Today we've been listening back to four interviews I recorded with Maurice Sendak, the beloved children's book author and illustrator. He died this morning at the age of 83. Let's get back to the interview we recorded last September.

We've talked before about how, you know, you're Jewish but you're very secular. You don't believe in God. You don't...

SENDAK: No, I don't.

GROSS: Yeah. And I think having friends who die, getting older, getting closer toward the end of life tests people's faith and it also tests people's atheism. It sounds like your atheism is staying strong.


SENDAK: Is what?

GROSS: Staying strong.

SENDAK: Yes. I'm not unhappy about becoming old. I'm not unhappy about what must be. It makes me cry only when I see my friends go before me, and life gets emptied. I don't believe in an afterlife, but I still fully expect to see my brother again. And it's like a dream life.

I am reading a biography of Samuel Palmer, which was written by a woman in England. I can't remember her name. And it's sort of how I feel now, when he was just beginning to gain his strength as a creative man and beginning to see nature. But he believed in God, you see, and he believed in heaven, and he believed in hell. Goodness gracious, that must have made life much easier. It's harder for us nonbelievers.

But, you know, there's something I'm finding out as I'm aging - that I am in love with the world. And I look right now, as we speak together, out my window in my studio and I see my trees, my beautiful, beautiful maples that are hundreds of years old, they're beautiful. And you see, I can see how beautiful they are. I can take time to see how beautiful they are.

It is a blessing to get old. It is a blessing to find the time to do the things, to read the books, to listen to the music. You know, I don't think I'm rationalizing anything. I really don't, since this is all inevitable and I have no control over it. "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, but it's genuine. Unless I'm crazy. I could be crazy and you could be talking to a crazy person.

GROSS: I don't think so.


SENDAK: I don't know anymore and I don't care.

GROSS: What are your physical restrictions like? Can you walk OK? Can you get around at all?

SENDAK: No, I can't walk OK. I'd love to walk. That's why I've been doing that since the '70s when I had my first coronary. I have heart trouble and I've had a very bad time after Eugene died and I was very sick and they thought I would die, and I came back to do "Bumble-ardy." And I have nothing but praise now, really, for my life. I mean I'm not unhappy.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

SENDAK: I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die and I can't stop them. They leave me and I love them more. But I have my young people here, four of them who are studying and they look at me as somebody who knows everything, those poor kids.


SENDAK: If they only knew how little I know. But obviously I give off something that they trust, because they're all intelligent. Oh God, 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.

GROSS: Well, listen - yeah.

SENDAK: You know, I have to tell you something.

GROSS: Go ahead.

SENDAK: You are the only person I have ever dealt with in terms of being interviewed or talking to who brings this out in me. There's something very unique and special in you, which I so trust. When I heard that you were going to interview me or that you wanted to, I was really, really pleased.

GROSS: Well, I'm really glad we got the chance to speak because when I heard you had a book coming out, I thought, what a good excuse...


SENDAK: Well...

GROSS: call up Maurice Sendak and have a chat.

SENDAK: Yes, that's what we always do, isn't it?

GROSS: Yeah. It is.

SENDAK: That's what we've always done.

GROSS: It is.

SENDAK: Thank God we're still around to do it.


SENDAK: And almost certainly, I'll go before you go, so I won't have to miss you.

GROSS: Oh, God what a...

SENDAK: And I don't know whether I'll do another book or not. I might. It doesn't matter. I'm a happy old man. But I will cry my way all the way to the grave.

GROSS: Well, I'm so glad you have a new book. I'm really glad we had a chance to talk.

SENDAK: I am too.

GROSS: And I wish you all good things.

SENDAK: I wish you all good things. Live your life, live your life, live your life.

GROSS: Maurice Sendak, recorded last September. Listening to the four interviews that we featured today, you can hear that he spent a lot of time thinking about death and the loss of friends and loved ones. He's always been kind of obsessed with death. It arrived for him today after a recent stroke.

I wish I knew what he'd been thinking recently, but I'm grateful that he shared so many of his thoughts with us and left behind such wonderful books. Good-bye, Maurice.


GROSS: You can listen to longer versions of the interviews we featured with Maurice Sendak on our website,, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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