In old age, Sendak faces his own monsters

Maurice Sendak's 80th year – which ended with his birthday earlier this summer and was celebrated last week with a benefit at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan – was a tough one. He has been gripped by grief since the death of his longtime partner; a recent triple-bypass has temporarily left him too weak to work or take long walks with his dog; and he is plagued by Norman Rockwell.

Or, to be more accurate, he is plagued by the question that has repeatedly been asked about Norman Rockwell: Was he a great artist or a mere illustrator?

It's not that Sendak, who has illustrated more than 100 books, including many he wrote, is angry that people question Rockwell's talent; rather, he fears he has not risen above the “mere illustrator” label himself.

Never mind that Sendak's originality and emotional honesty have changed the shape of children's literature; that his work is featured in museums; that he has designed costumes and sets for operas, ballets and theater; that he has won a chest full of awards and prizes including a National Medal of the Arts. As the playwright Tony Kushner, one of his collaborators, said, “He's one of the most important, if not the most important, writers and artists ever to work in children's literature. In fact, he's a significant writer and artist in literature. Period.”

Sendak protested, “But Tony is my friend.”

Sendak, a square-shaped gnome, was sitting in the dining room of his Connecticut retreat. His shoulders are a bit stooped, but his fingers are long and delicate.

That Sendak fears that his work is inadequate, that he is racked with insecurity, is no surprise. For more than 50 years that has been the hallmark of his art. The extermination of most of his relatives and millions of other Jews by the Nazis; his sickly childhood; his mother's dark moods; his own ever-present depression – all lurk below the surface of his work.

He is not, as children's book writers are often supposed, an everyman's grandpapa. He hates anything to do with religion, and Judaism in particular (“We were the ‘chosen people,' chosen to be killed?”); he hates Salman Rushdie (for writing an excoriating review of one of his books); he hates syrupy animation, which is why he is thrilled with Spike Jonze's coming film of his book “Where the Wild Things Are,” despite rumors of studio discontent.

“I hate people,” he said at one point, extolling the superior company of his German shepherd, Herman (after Melville).

He is, at heart, a curmudgeon, but a delightful one, with a vast range of knowledge, a wicked sense of humor and a talent for storytelling and mimicry.

When Sendak received the 1996 National Medal of Arts, President Clinton told him about one of his own childhood fantasies that involved wearing a long coat with brass buttons when he grew up.

“But Mr. President, you're only going to be president for a year more,” Sendak said. “You still have time to be a doorman.”

He started his latest book about four years ago, right after his partner, Eugene Glynn, became sick with lung cancer.

Sendak is afraid – not of death, which is as familiar to him as a child's teddy bear – but of not being able to finish his work: ”I feel like I don't have a lot of time left.”

So he spends his days pondering his heroes: Mozart, Keats, Blake, Melville and Dickinson. He admires and yearns for their “ability to be private, the ability to be alone, the ability to follow some spiritual course not written down by anybody.”

Sendak is quick to insist that a vast distance stands between his own accomplishments and theirs. “I'm not one of those people,” he said. “I can't pretend to be.”

Still, he has the feeling that “I will do something yet that is purely for me but will create for someone in the future that passion that Blake and Keats did in me.”

What he has failed to consider, though, is that he may already have.