On a rainy morning, this past Tuesday, friends gathered in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium to pay final tribute to the life and work of Maurice Sendak, who died on May 8.
His longtime editor, Michael di Capua, who worked with Sendak for 50 years, told of his first discovery of the artist’s work. In the fall of 1962 he bought a copy of Clemens Brentano’s Schoolmaster Whackwell’s Wonderful Sons, which Sendak had illustrated. “ ‘This Sendak guy is a pretty remarkable artist,’ ” he recalled thinking. “The more I saw of his work the more I admired it.”
Seeing Sendak’s illustrations for three German “folklorish” projects, di Capua decided to write to Sendak and propose the real thing instead: a selected collection of Grimm tales. Sendak called back, saying he’d been “dying to illustrate Grimm,” and suggested they have lunch. “During that lunch,” di Capua said, “I realized we had a lot in common. Each of us recognized that he’d found a kindred spirit.”
At the time of their meeting, di Capua said, Sendak was “in the midst of enjoying his greatest commercial and critical success to date.” He recalled Sendak showing him a picture book he was working on, then titled Where the Wild Horses Are. “It seems I always had an opinion,” di Capua noted. And during the making of that book, to be retitled Where the Wild Things Are, di Capua said, “I gave him a lot of opinions.”
Soon came illustrations for Randall Jarrell’s The Bat Poet and The Animal Family. “The images he made are unforgettable,” di Capua said. “After The Animal Family, Maurice and I worked together on 26 more books. He recently finished work on his next book, the untitled nose book [the story, No-Nose, was read in its entirety during the service, by actress Catherine Keener], and he’d started on the pictures.”
Di Capua said that his relationship with Sendak “went beyond books and publishing. We both acknowledged how lucky we were to have each other to lean on. I loved him and he loved me. I look back at our half century together with awe, and with gratitude.”
Ali Bahrampour, a 2011 Sendak Fellow, talked of his experience of living in a house on Sendak’s property and participating in a program he said was “the realization of [Sendak’s] lifelong dream of mentoring picture book artists.” He continued, “Being in the middle of the woods was transporting. So was Maurice. He was as funny and haunting and honest and unpretentious as his books. All the fellows from the last two years,” he said, “are so grateful that he gave so much to us.”
Cartoonist Art Spiegelman said he met Sendak when Spiegelman was 65; Sendak got in contact with Spiegelman after his Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus came out. “We had some phone conversations,” Spiegelman said, “but he was living on the moon” – the wilds of Connecticut. Spiegelman successfully proposed to the New Yorker’s editor, Tina Brown, to do a strip based on a conversation with Sendak, and though he “braced” himself for their face-to-face encounter (“he was known to be a bit of a crank and a kvetch and a hermit”), Spiegelman said he found a kindred spirit (“the shadow of the Hitler years sat on him the same way it did on me”). The two ended up collaborating on “In the Dumps,” a memorable strip for the magazine that was published on September 27, 1993.
Children’s book creator Richard Egielski talked of how influential Sendak had been for him, going back to a book illustration class Sendak taught at Parsons School of Design in 1973. “He told us to look up the work of Tomi Ungerer and Margot Zemach,” Egielski said. “He said, listen for what the text wants. It will tell you.” Egielski said Sendak helped him understand and love the picture book as an art form; “he was proud of the art of the picture book and didn’t want to see it denigrated. Maurice planted the seed that grew into my passion for the art of the picture book.”
Judy Taylor Hough, former children’s book editor at The Bodley Head in London, told the audience that she fell in love with Sendak “just about 50 years ago. That’s just before I realized he was unavailable.” Professionally, she said, she was “lucky enough” to have brought Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen to the U.K. She told stories of their long friendship, and talked of a stuffed toy mouse she had given Sendak during his hospitalization for a heart attack, for his tour for the U.K. edition of Wild Things. The mouse ended up as a beloved possession of Sendak’s, so much so that he requested that it be cremated with him upon his death. “We already miss you very much,” Taylor Hough said to her departed friend.
Longtime family friend Jonathan Weinberg spoke eloquently about the man he’d been close to throughout his entire life. “He came into my life through his partner, Eugene Glynn, who was my mother’s best friend,” he said. When Weinberg was 11, he recalled that Sendak “liked to have me keep him company while he worked on In the Night Kitchen.” Upon his mother’s death in 1972, “Gene and Maurice became my surrogate parents.” He spoke of Glynn’s professional accomplishments, how supportive he had been of Sendak and his work, and of his death in 2007 after a long battle with lung cancer. And he recalled a letter Sendak wrote to him while working on Outside Over There, in which he said, “I’m working on a picture book text that should be my best. Such is the salvation of art.”
Lynn Caponera also met Sendak as a child, when he and Glynn moved to Connecticut, and recalled a lifetime of learning from him, and the worlds he opened up for her. “He had this way of connecting everything with art,” she said. “If we came across a rabbit in the woods, it would lead him to teach me about Beatrix Potter or Caldecott. We’d go into his library and he’d pull out his first edition of Peter Rabbit and show me how a rabbit on paper was as alive as the one we just saw in the woods. For the past 40 years, every day was a lesson I loved.” Over the years, she said, “Anyone who knew and loved Maurice would ask the same question. Is he working? If he was working, he was coping with the demons that plagued him throughout his life; he was happy.”
Knowing Sendak, said playwright Tony Kushner, “has been one of my life’s greatest blessings.” He recalled a recent cataract operation Sendak had had, after which he told Kushner about the difficulty he was having in seeing. Surprising him in his studio soon after, Kushner said he “caught him at the act,” bent over his drawing table with his eyes extremely close to the table. “He was at work,” Kushner said. “That took courage. For Maurice to breathe was to work.” That lesson, he said, was “one of his greatest gifts to me.”
Kushner said that Sendak wasn’t afraid of dying. “He knew he was going to die. For Maurice it was like saying good morning.” But in what turned out to be his final days, while working on his new book, Kushner teased Sendak by saying he knew he wasn’t going to die, because if he did, his last drawing would be the one he had just made, of his mother. “That means she wins,” he said. But Kushner ended by saying Sendak was in fact “making peace with his past. For Maurice, it was a new kind of peace. He certainly left an immortal kind of joy behind.”