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.