Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Five Defining Details of Maurice Sendak's Life

Maurice Sendak, 1928-2012
Photo: Joyce Dopkeen/NY Times
Favorite children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak died today at the age of 83.

Prior to his passing, I knew what most people know about Sendak - that he authored the children's classic, Where The Wild Things Are, and that he was a legendary curmudgeon.

Media outlets offered abundant coverage of Sendak's life and death today, and NPR re-ran a series of interviews Sendak did over the last twenty years with Terry Gross on Fresh AirI had the incredibly good fortune of hearing those interviews, and I've linked the highlights here for you.

Sendak, the author/illustrator of numerous children's titles, fathered no kids himself, and never wished he had. 

He also hated bookstore events, because as parents shoved their unknowing children forward to his signing table, his presence as a stranger sometimes frightened the kids. 

Sendak presented himself as a tough growly man, who didn't gladly suffer fools, or people in general given the choice, but underneath his abrasive exterior, he sheltered a scarred but tender heart. 

That's some of what I learned today about Maurice Sendak. Here are five other salient details of the author's life that surprised me.

  1. Many members of Sendak's extended family, including almost of all his father's relatives, were killed in Nazi concentration camps. Sendak's father traveled from Poland to America "on a lark" to follow a girl he loved; it's only by virtue of the timely immigration of both his parents from Poland to the U.S. that they survived.
  2. Sendak was personally tormented by the news of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932. As a frail and sickly child, Sendak feared death, and the Lindbergh news made him feel even more unsafe and unprotected.
  3. A job at FAO Schwarz led to his first work as a children's book illustrator. Sendak was hired to build a window display in the toy store in 1948, and through this work, he met Ursula Nordstrom, the book editor who would later hire him as a children's book artist.
  4. Sendak considered himself a very "secular" Jew; he was, in fact, an atheist. When asked why he wasn't a man of faith by NPR's Terry Gross, he answered that he didn't need to be. His gods, he said, were Mozart, Melville, and most of all Emily Dickinson.
  5. Maurice Sendak was gay. He lived with his partner Eugene Glynn for more than fifty years, until the time of Glynn's death in May 2007.
At first, all the ballyhoo about Sendak's death this morning seemed overblown to me. I knew Where the Wild Things Are was an all-time bestselling classic, but after all, good writers die everyday. Not writers like this, though. Now that I've taken time to learn more about the complicated and tortured man behind the monsters, I think I get it. 

Rest In Peace, Mr. Sendak. 

No comments:

Post a Comment