My last visit with Maurice Sendak was the best.
Maurice had been essential in my life since 1963. Where the Wild Things Are had cushioned the primal blow of losing Santa Claus and King Kong in the same crummy week when I was 5. When I was 16, I’d saved every nickel I could rub together to buy The Juniper Tree, his collection of Grimm’s stories. My mother had just died and I was lost in grief. But I found the perfect place to heal in Maurice’s beautiful, harrowing illustrations.
When I became an author and illustrator in the 80s, I managed to meet him---by the Empire State Building of all places. Being introduced to the King of all Wild Things in the shadow of Kong’s last battle had the whiff of the epic, and Maurice did not disappoint. He was fierce, funny, profane, and brilliant. Kong had been a childhood beacon for him as well. He’d never gotten over the great ape’s primal, child-like rages against the world. From that day on I had a mentor, a co-conspirator, and a friend.
By the time of my last visit, about a year ago, Maurice had become almost as famous for being a curmudgeon as he was as an artist. He loved playing the part, too. Everything was terrible. There’s no point to life. Publishing is dead. The world is doomed. But he was the best kind of curmudgeon. A fake one. He was too in love with life and art and people to be a genuine cynic. He’d vomit if he knew I’d said that about him or at least flip me off. But it’s true.
I hadn’t seen him in person for some time so I was surprised by how physically frail he’d become.
The old rages and passions still animated his conversation. We talked for hours about Hawthorne, Melville, Blake, Mozart, Mickey Mouse, Little Nemo, Astaire and Rodgers, Leopold and Loeb, Sacco and Vanzetti, Bush and Gore, sex and politics, life and death.
He talked a lot about death. He was ready. He said he’d done nothing of any merit, that he had no real legacy. That he’d soon be dirt and to hell with it all. Then he began to show me his drawings for the book that would become his last, Bumble-Ardy.
The mischief and artistry were there in every drawing. That peculiar higglety-pigglety world of his was intact. The delicate cross-hatching that reached back to Hogarth and Dore was not as precise as it had been, but he was over 80 now. He did a drawing in my sketch book. His hands shook until he picked up the pen. Then he drew with the clean precision of a young man.
He looked up at me and said, “You know, I hate to say it but for the first time in my life I feel happy.”
He was still Maurice through and through. A Wild Thing indeed. And despite what he said about his legacy, his wild rumpus will never end.