Long ago now, around 1968 or 1969, I paid a visit to Maurice Sendak. It was something of a spur of the moment decision, or rather a sudden decision followed by agonies of hesitation. Sendak was living in the West Village, and he was nothing like the famous man he was for most of the following decades. He was still listed in the Manhattan White Pages (and there were still phone booths, and the phone booths still had phone books in them). That's how I found out where he lived.
Once I looked him up I walked back and forth for the longest time with my friend Laura, a freshman at Barnard. (I had recently started at Oberlin.) Should I risk ringing his doorbell? What was I going to say? Would I sound stupid? Would he be nasty? Would he even be home?
Of course I chanced it, and Sendak was amazingly gracious. It may have been what I said. There I stood, a slightly rumpled college freshman with black-rimmed glasses and curly hair that managed to be neither conventionally short nor stylishly long, and I told him, ”I love your books.”
In his formal interviews Sendak lamented being classified as a children’s writer, and perhaps he was taken by the fact that I liked to read his books for my own satisfaction. Whatever the reason, he stood with me on the stoop of his brownstone and spent about twenty minutes talking with me.
He was at the peak of his powers as a writer then. As lovely as the later illustrations are, my favorite book of his remains Higgledy Piggledy Pop, the death-and-transfiguration parable about Jenny, the Sealyham terrier. There’s something Mozartean about it, the book sits beautifully in your hands, like his wonderful Randall Jarrell collaboration The Animal Family, and it’s funny, too.
I told Sendak how much the book impressed me and said something about his missing Jenny. (She was a real dog and shows up in all of his earlier books; that’s Jenny being chased down the stairs by Max at the beginning of Wild Things.) He told me that it was the children among his readers who got what the book was about, and he'd gotten notes of condolence from a lot of them. He felt awful, though, because--he admitted--he had started the book when Jenny was still alive.
He enjoyed his contacts with young readers, but he had no use for librarians. He was convinced that they all hated him. ”Someone must have spread a rumor that I was dying of cancer,” he said. ”Otherwise I would never have gotten a Caldecott for Wild Things.”
It’s been almost forty five years but I still remember the stoop and some other comments. He told me that he didn't think of himself as an American writer--he was really more German. He may have told me that he worked to Wagner. Or I may have read that later.
I can’t forget what he told me about his current project, though. ”It's a masturbation fantasy,” he told me solemnly. I'm sure he was looking to get a rise out of me. I played very cool, or as cool as my eighteen-year-old self could manage, but I'm sure I flinched a bit. I asked him what he thought of Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, which he didn't like, but not as much as he disliked The Wind in the Willows. His verdict on that particular classic was, ”I think I hate it like I hate rat poison, if rat poison is the thing I hate most.”
I can still hear his voice now that he’s gone. The masturbation fantasy book was In the Night Kitchen, and Sendak wasn't pulling my leg, though the sexual theme is hidden enough that it got by the librarians. And if you look at that book you’ll see that Jenny was still with him. In the background of one double-spread you can see the El and a station labeled ”Jenny Street.” Of course Sendak is an immortal, but it's nice to know that he made Jenny immortal too.