I had the great good fortune of spending an afternoon with Maurice Sendak in October of 2011. And fortunately, I brought my tape recorder.
But, to begin at the beginning: I had previously spoken to Maurice nearly a dozen times by phone over the previous three years: initially desultorily, and later, when I decided that I was prepared to interview him for The Comics Journal, more earnestly and purposefully. When I formally approached him about an interview — perhaps in 2009 — he didn’t decline, exactly, but he was standoffish. He told me he didn’t like talking on the phone, and he politely but firmly declined my offer to conduct it at his home, which left me without many (that is to say, any) options. I finally persuaded him to do several short interviews by phone. He asked me how much time I needed, and I explained to him that my interviews could go on for hours because I wanted to do a thorough job. I heard a visible gasp on the other end of the line. He told me he couldn’t talk that long on the phone because he got tired. I quickly regrouped and suggested that we could talk for, oh, say 30 minutes at a time and just do a number of different sessions (hoping, even as I said it, that I could slyly turn 30 minutes into 60). He grumbled. He would commit to a couple. I remember mentioning to him that we’d already been talking that day for 40 minutes without any signs of his slowing down, which was true (I wish I’d had my tape recorder on at the time!), but which didn’t seem to impress him as an argument in favor of two hour interview sessions. Once he’d realized we’d been talking for 40 minutes, he quickly got off the phone.
The fact is, we got along incredibly well. We had several 30-40 minute conversations that ranged all over the place, but which usually centered on the state of the world and how much he loathed it. He was quite cheerfully and gregariously grumpy about it all, an attitude and a point of view that I appreciated, and even shared. It was obvious that he took no small measure of delight in inveighing against contemporary degradations, and I have to admit that I took no little delight in listening to him. He would cite specifics about the world going to hell in a hand-basket and I would inevitably, and truthfully, concur. I can’t say we became fast friends, but I can say that we got on and established a genuine rapport. (We also talked about more substantial matters —such as politics— and about things he loved— mostly old cartooning and old films.)
He agreed to sit still for a phone conversation and perhaps more than one. But each time we set a date, something came up to thwart it. He had to cancel twice, once due to a deadline and once due to momentary health problems. On the third date that we’d agreed upon, I was sitting at my desk, my notes in front of me, the recorder plugged in, prepared to keep the imminent conversation chugging for as long as I could. I dialed the number — and discovered that Hurricane Irene had downed his phone lines! Truly, it appeared as though the fates were conspiring against us, or at least, against me. I was becoming demoralized. Perhaps it was not meant to be.
When I casually mentioned to his assistant and close friend, Lynn, that I was planning a trip to New York the following week, she told me to come on up and conduct the interview in person. This surprised me because I’d learned, subsequent to my offering to visit him earlier, that he was wary of visitors and never let anyone he didn’t know visit his home. My theory is that he simply took pity on me and distrusted any future attempt to communicate by modern or semi-modern technology. The following week, on November 8, I boarded a train from Penn Station headed for Ridgefield, Conn. I had with me my trusty three-ring binder full of notes, ready to get as much of a career-spanning interview as I could, but nervous because I wasn’t entirely certain he wouldn’t throw me out after 20 minutes; he didn’t seem like the kind of artist who would sit still for a conventional interview.
He didn’t throw me out; in fact, quite the opposite, he spoke animatedly all afternoon and into the evening, mostly while we walked around his property, sat on a bench in his sprawling backyard (more like a private park), and strolled down the street, the tape recorder going much the time, and yielding the most unconventional, conversational interview I’ve ever done. (I could’ve left my binder full of notes at home.)
I had an unforgettable time. Maurice and I spoke a half-dozen times since; he’d agreed to a few follow-up questions, but all our conversations were casual, consisting of good-natured badinage. His fatalism was couched in a blithe spiritedness, and he was funny. The last time I spoke to him, in April, he actually sounded robust despite suffering from flu-ish symptoms, and told me to call him back in a couple weeks to ask him short follow-up questions. I put it off, and then learned that he passed. I had hoped to see him again soon, and despite knowing him briefly, I will miss him.
The full interview will appear in the next print Journal, #302, but below are a few choice excerpts.
Gary Groth, May 10, 2012
SENDAK ON HIS COMICS CAREER
SENDAK: I would take my stack of papers back home, shut the door, make [my parents] believe I was doing my homework, and what I was doing was backgrounds for Scribbly, backgrounds for Mutt and Jeff, backgrounds for Tippy and Captain Stubbs. And there would be a weekly down below, one strip, and I would take it and cut it up, and make it fit on a comic page so that I would have to extend the drawing to fit the size of the comic box. Oh, God. I loved it. But I lost that because — What did they ask me to do? They asked me to do a more moderate thing, where the drawing was more Prince Valiant-ish. And girls were sexy, and it’s like, “You can’t draw sexy girls.” I failed. I failed. I loved it. I was really gonna be a cartoonist. I had a cartoon in my high school newspaper magazine. Terrible, terrible shit. [...]
GROTH: Didn’t you work on Mutt and Jeff? In comic books?
SENDAK: Yes, yes: small things like smoke coming out of heels.
GROTH: This is one of the things I wanted to ask you, which was how you became the artist you became and how you had the career you did. When you were a kid, you read comic strips. You must have read comic strips.
SENDAK: Yes, yes.
GROTH: And comic books came along around the mid-1930s, and you read comic books as well. But you didn’t become a comic-strip artist or a comic-book artist. You went an entirely different direction.
SENDAK: I would have liked to become a Big Little Book artist.
GROTH: But they died. [Laughter.]
SENDAK: They died, yes, they died. Although I have my collection.
GROTH: But I was curious as to why you didn’t — I mean, the dream of many artists back then was to have a syndicated strip. That was the Holy Grail. And those who couldn’t do that went into comic books. And so I’m wondering why you didn’t move in either direction.
SENDAK: I have no idea. I think part of why it happened had nothing to do with the actual craft. It had to do with meeting Ursula Nordstrom at Harper’s [Harper and Row] and knowing instantly my life was with her.
GROTH: I see.
SENDAK: And she said, “You do a book.” I would do anything she said. If she said do a comic book, I would have done a comic book. So she was integral, she was so important to my life.
IN HIS TIME
SENDAK: We cannot, I think, separate ourselves from our time. Like when I began in the ’50s … Of course, I’d had the privilege of having great siblings. So me as an artist was with my brother as an artist, learning from him, copying him, living in the same house with him. It was unbelievable to have such a brother, and on top of that, I had such a sister. She wasn’t an artist. She had no impulses in that direction, but she was a great sponsor of. She was delighted with me and delighted with my brother and her brother. And then I grew up and lived through all of that Auschwitz time, and then we won the war. Hitler might have won the war, but he didn’t. That doesn’t sound like much now, but it sounded like a hell of a lot then. We won the war! My God! And we ran from Brooklyn to New York City to get ahead of the soldiers, and those doors opened, and we were welcomed. Young people were welcomed. New things were happening, a surge of energy: a surge of hope. A surge of happiness. And now it’s all dwindled. And so I say, look, I’m very lucky that’s when my time was. What a blessing that I could be there then and be with editors and people in the publishing world who appreciated young people and wanted them to be crazy like I was. Nobody wants them now.
WHY SO SERIOUS
SENDAK: Well, I get criticized for doing too serious books. Why is there a dead child in so many of your books? Why is there a chagrined mother? Because that’s the way it is. It works both ways. You either become very superficial, and do it strictly for the money, or you become very serious and turn people off. And if it’s a book for children, my God! I would not know how to write a book for children. I’ve never written a book for children. And yet I’m known as a children’s book writer and illustrator, OK? Why did they define me that way? I used to object much more when I was younger, much more. But I don’t care any more. I’ve thought that’s all part of this third-rate worldly thinking that should not be of interest to me and truthfully it’s not. Thank God I can still read. Thank God I can still hear music. Thank God I don’t mind being alone. I am very alone, and I’m lonely and there are very few people who satisfy me and what do they have to be, they have to be artists, for the most part [rooster crows]. They have to understand what it means to be a serious person in an unserious society.
SENDAK THE ANARCHIST
SENDAK: Bush was president, I thought, “Be brave. Tie a bomb to your shirt. Insist on going to the White House. And I wanna have a big hug with the vice president, definitely. And his wife, and the president, and his wife, and anybody else that can fit into the love hug.”
GROTH: A group hug.
SENDAK: And then we’ll blow ourselves up, and I’d be a hero. [Groth laughs.] To hell with the kiddie books. He killed Bush. He killed the vice president. Oh my God.
GROTH: I would have been willing to forgo this interview. [Sendak laughs.]
SENDAK: You would have forgotten about it. It would have been a very brave and wonderful thing. But I didn’t do it; I didn’t do it.