Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Some Memories of Maurice Sendak

(When Maurice Sendak died, I wrote this small essay, and then I held it back. It's been two years now, and today would have been his 86th birthday. Somehow, it felt like it's time now. Happy birthday, Mr. Sendak.)

Maurice Sendak, the great illustrator and author, was represented by a literary agent I worked for years ago. The agency placed a large value on politeness in dealing with publishers and authors, and its top client's influence had something to do with that. Sendak had a tart wit and a low tolerance for foolishness, but when it came to the people who were working for him, he never had a diva-ish moment. He was, to use a sarcastic phrase in a sincere way, good to the little people. And people just don't come much littler than a young woman calling you to ask if a school may do a staged reading of Where the Wild Things Are.

That, of course, was me. I was not used to substantive conversations with legends. The first time I called him, I was so intimidated that not only did my voice shake, but my hand holding the phone shook too, and when I cradled the receiver to my ear I discovered my chin had a slight tremor as well. I introduced myself and rattled off whatever the permission request was — I do believe it actually was a staged reading, come to think of it — and he sighed and said something like "Oh, all right. It's a school."

That was it. I put down the phone and reflected that the mighty Maurice Sendak was, in fact, one of the least scary people I had ever dealt with in publishing.

Over time I came to enjoy my calls to him. Schools, libraries and the like seldom got a bad reaction from Sendak, although he did have an intense and understandable dislike of people re-drawing his illustrations. People wanting to use his books free of charge for a profit-based motive usually got a different reaction. This was, in a phrase I adopted and use constantly: "Tell them to fuck off. [pause] But — say it nicely."

I do remember that one time when I called and read him a letter from a school or library that described the Wild Things as "horrifying," he sounded a bit indignant, almost hurt. When I got off the phone, a coworker laughed and said, "No wonder. They're based on his relatives."

The one in our office who came to have a real friendship with Sendak was Beth, now better known as the author Elizabeth Cody Kimmel. She would call and her laughter would vibrate all over the office, and then she'd recap the conversation for the rest of us. The topics could range from Schubert and Keats, for whom they both had a deep love, to politics, to showbiz gossip. She went to Europe and brought back a death mask of Keats as a gift for him; she told me that later Sendak amused himself by hiding it under the bedcovers of a startled houseguest.

One day Beth called to tell Maurice that a symphony orchestra wanted to do a children's program that set Wild Things to classical music, an idea that would ordinarily appeal enormously to him. My desk was behind Beth's, and I listened in as she read off the pieces to be used. I don't remember the first two, but when she got to the arrival on the island, she said, "Thus Spake Zarathustra, Richard Strauss" — and I noticed that she had pulled the phone back slightly from her ear, as she listened to Sendak's opinion of Richard Strauss. I believe she said he began with "That NAZI!! You tell them..." and from there the phrasing became, shall we say, quite hostile. The symphony did stage the reading in the end, as I recall, but most emphatically not with Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Another time, a Certain Newspaper had decided to do a Style Piece focused on Mornings With Famous People, and Beth had to call and ask what Maurice woke up to in the morning. "A bursting bladder," he replied, thought for a moment, and added, "And a drooling dog. I don't think I want either of those things publicized. Tell them..." And she did, and she said it nicely.

He treasured his status as a curmudgeon, that's for sure. Beth one time was burbling to him about how much she loved Christmas, and his response was, "Of course you do. It's you Gentiles who make it such a chore for the rest of us." But his tone was always funny, never cruel or snappish. When Beth published her first book, he sent her a drawing of a pig in a tutu, with the inscription, "Mazel tov!"

One of Sendak's best friends was James Marshall, the gifted creator of the immortal George and Martha, who entertain my own children to this day. Marshall was also represented by the agency, and when he died, we went to the memorial service. Sendak got up to speak, and began to tell an anecdote about a friend he and Marshall both knew. He reached a part saying, "...how we are comforted," and stopped. Overcome with grief, he left the podium.

I will always treasure my glimpses of Maurice Sendak, a genius, a curmudgeon, and a deeply kind man.


Unknown said...

(Been lurking for a short while now, plowing through old posts with a touch of wistfulness at fascinating discussions now long over with. Anyhow...)

Did you see the Spike Jonze Where The Wild Things Are film from a few years ago? I did, albeit under somewhat poor circumstances--at a friend's house, on a dinky TV and after a bit of drink. I remember feeling somewhat disappointed at the time yet the elegiac tone of the film has stuck with me, as well as the slight shock of Catherine Keener's looking so weary and worn-down on screen.

Apparently Sendak loved the movie. I may have to see it again but there are so many I haven't seen at all.

Dan Oliver said...

A lovely piece, Siren. Thank you.

Birgit said...

Of course this was one of my favourite books when I was a kid. You were and are very lucky to have met him and have these memories. Thanks for sharing

Vanwall said...

I remember the day "Where The Wild Things Are" hit our school library - it was like a literary bomb went off. The few copies were measured higher than diamonds or gold, the line too read it was the longest ever. I must've read that book a hundred times in as many days. A lovely tribute, Oh Siren.

Sheila O'Malley said...

Bah. This made me cry. Beautiful anecdotes, a wonderful glimpse of an artist I love. ("A bursting bladder and a drooling dog." Hysterical.)

Thank you!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Very nice, Siren.

I recall that Sendak was once asked why he devoted his life to making books for children and he answered "Because they're not racist and they don't lie."

Sendak is one of the subjects of Gregory Markopoulos' portrait film Galaxie (1966)

JBW said...

Sorry this comment is belated... In all the eulogies for Mr. Sendak I saw nearly no mention of THE LAST DANCE, a documentary of Sendak's tetchy collaboration with Pilobolus Dance Theater. The piece that resulted apparently wasn't successful, but through a remarkable dancer named Otis, you sense what Sendak was after. And while MS paints his costume-design directly onto Otis' tights, he relates from his childhood one of the greatest ghost stories I've ever heard.

Unknown said...

Hey Siren,

Discovered your blog thanks to the Clive James shout-out today on CBC. Am not a film buff, but do enjoy a good essay. Your tribute to Maurice Sendak is lovely: personal, light of touch, and as kind as you describe him to have been. A very nice read.

Unknown said...

Oops, thought my name would show up in last comment. Continued success with your work!
Amanda Klang

My Mobile Notary said...

Long ago I waited for hours for Maurice Sendak to sign "Where The Wild Things Are" for my son who was about 3 years old. The crowd was told Sendak would only sign his name simply because there were too many people to personalize.

When it was our turn for Sendak to sign our book, in front of Sendak I told my son, "this is the man that wrote this book that you love".... Oddly, my son began to scream with crying...I was so embarrassed and clearly my son was distressed, but over what?

Sendak immediately asked my son's name....after which he wrote in the book "To Devon.......BOO......Maurice Sendak"...

It was the funniest moment and I'm sure Sendak got a hoot too.