Historian and critic Leonard Marcus first met Maurice Sendak, who died on May 8, in the late 1980s, as Parenting magazine’s book reviewer. In the years that followed, they talked from time to time about Margaret Wise Brown, Ursula Nordstrom, and once even about the Ayatollah Khomeini.
The first time I met Maurice Sendak was in 1988, when Parenting magazine (where I’d been the book reviewer since its founding the previous year) was eager to have a feature interview with him. He had turned the editors down already, but they thought I might somehow be able to get him to change his mind. That June, I arranged to be introduced to Maurice at the giant children’s breakfast at ABA, and at first he didn’t really look me in the eye. “Another interview?” he must have been thinking, as he commented on the banquet hall’s sprinkler system, which he said reminded him of a Nazi gas chamber. It was then that I happened to mention that I had just spent time in Denmark interviewing the illustrator Leonard Weisgard, for my book about Margaret Wise Brown. Suddenly, Maurice’s mood changed completely. He turned to me, and said: “Leonard was my mentor! I’ll be happy to do anything you want.”
I was thrilled of course. I was living in San Francisco for the summer and we were going to do the interview back east, so that meant my having to book a flight. Maurice, who was preoccupied just then with the printing of Dear Mili, kept putting off choosing a date, and it was getting to be a problem. Finally, we made an appointment to meet at Lincoln Center, and I flew back to New York a day early. But when I got to my apartment at 11 that night, there was a message on my answering machine, and I recognized the voice immediately, “Everything has changed,” Maurice began in dire tones. He had decided not to come to the city the following day, but said that if I could come to his house in Connecticut, we could still do the interview there.
The next morning, Maurice’s assistant picked me up at the train station and we drove to his house. When we pulled into the driveway, the first thing that happened is that his big German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading straight for me. I had been terrified of dogs as a child, but I decided there and then that I was going to do the interview if I had to wrestle the dog to the ground. Happily, Agamemnon was much more of a lamb than a tiger. Then Maurice came over the hill, wearing an old straw hat, and holding a second straw hat. “Here, put this on,” he told me. “To keep the ticks off.” Then he said, “It was my father's hat. Let’s go for a walk.”
There were woodlands surrounding his house and we walked for about a half hour. Before long we were talking about really personal things, and kidding around. It was all quite amazing. Then it was time for lunch, and then for the interview, and Maurice said I could have as much time as I needed. We sat down together in a wood-paneled room where he kept his collection of rare books, and talked for hours. I could see that he was thinking carefully about everything he said, which isn’t always the case with people who have been endlessly interviewed. It was a memorable day. I had had to jump through a few hoops to get there, but in the end Maurice had been so generous.
The second time we talked was by phone, a few years later, as We’re All in the Dumps with Jack and Guy was coming out. My book about Margaret Wise Brown (Awakened by the Moon), for which he’d written a blurb, had been published the previous year, and somehow we got to talking about a not-so-wonderful review my book had received. That is when Maurice told me a story about when Dear Mili was published. The New York Times Book Review had chosen Salman Rushdie to write about the book and had devoted a full page to it. The review was utterly scathing. But later that Sunday morning, Maurice said, he started getting calls from all his friends, congratulating him on the review in the Times. He concluded from that experience that people don’t really read reviews, they just notice how long they are.
This happened not long after the fatwa was placed on Salman Rushdie, and Maurice claimed that the real reason for the fatwa was that awful review of Dear Mili. “The fatwa was all my doing,” he said.
The last time I interviewed Maurice was last May, in the run-up to the fall release of Bumble-Ardy. I was struck by how much more open he was about his childhood than he had been before. It seemed that he was finally ready to tell his story. He told a really elaborate tale about how as a young man his father had left Europe for New York in hot pursuit of a girl he was madly in love with, and how in a sense it was only thanks to that wild impulsive act that the Sendaks had ended up in Brooklyn rather than in some concentration camp. He had the artwork for his next book, a book written in verse about his brother, laid out on his dining room table, and was already looking ahead to the book after that one.
He seemed physically frail and he wasn’t speaking in his full voice, but he was clearly in a rhythm. He was genuinely engaged in what he was doing and he was as feisty as ever. He liked to take a daily walk and one day, he told me, he met an elderly woman on the road who said, “Are you the man who does the kiddie books?” Maurice said he growled that yes he was, but that he was too busy to talk.
“Do you want to know what I think of them?” she said. “No!” he replied. “All right, what?” “I think they’re terrible!” she said.
Maurice was unfazed. It was hardly the first time he’d met someone who didn't “get” what he had done. “I think you’re terrible!” he shot back and, in classic Max or Bumble-Ardy fashion, continued on his way.