Maurice Sendak has spent the past 50 years bringing an extraordinary world of fantasy and imagination to life. His landmark work Where the Wild Things Are established him as a visionary figure in children’s literature and made an indelible imprint on children and adults, selling millions of copies. Bill Moyers gives viewers a look into the private world of Maurice Sendak in an unexpectedly candid interview that reveals the surprisingly dark influences at play in his complex work. Shaped by immigrant parents and the tragedy of the Holocaust, Sendak provides frank insight into his complicated psyche and a rare window into the soul of an acclaimed artist.
Watch the Interview
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
We take a break this week from politics and public affairs to enter the strange and wonderful world of Maurice Sendak.
Millions of us have already been there, with a passport stamped by a virtuoso of the imagination. No one does children’s stories like Maurice Sendak—over a hundred books in all. He’s won nearly every major prize for children’s literature plus the national medal of arts. And no wonder.
Just look at these titles: IN THE NIGHT KITCHEN; HIGGLETY PIGGLETY POP; OUTSIDE OVER THERE; CHICKEN SOUP WITH RICE; and of course, the most loved and famous of all, WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE. Our own tattered copy is a Moyers family keepsake. We read it to our children when it was first published forty years ago. We’ve read it to our grandchildren in the last decade and we fully expect that one day they will be reading it to their grandkids, too.
But let me share a Sendak secret with you. A seven-year-old hearing this story couldn’t have more fun than a 70-year-old reading it. WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is ageless and timeless.
For defying his mother, mischievous Max in his white wolf suit is sent to bed without his supper. But strange things happen in his room and in his fantasies and Max is soon off to where the Wild Things are. They are no match for a kid with courage and when he stands up to them, as he did to his mother, Max is crowned their king and leads his subjects in a wild rumpus that ends only when he sends them off to bed without their supper. But conquest is no cure for a homesick heart and Max sails back to his very own room and, lo and behold, to a waiting hot supper.
My friend Joseph Campbell once told me long before I met you that one of the great moments in literature is this scene in WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE: “And when he came to the place where the wild things are, they roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws till Max said, ‘Be still’ and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.”
Joseph Campbell went and got that and read it to me. And he said, “That is a great moment because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.” And he said that was a great moment in literature.
SENDAK: That’s very moving. I did not know.
MOYERS: But, you were just making it up?
SENDAK: I was just making it up.
MOYERS: A long time ago?
SENDAK: A long time ago. I was 32 when I did that book. But if he’s right, that’s a wonderful and touching idea.
MOYERS: But do you believe it’s true? Do we all, adults and children, have to come to grips with our own untamed passions and —
SENDAK: Oh, yes. We’re animals. We’re violent. We’re criminal. We’re not so far away from the gorillas and the apes, those beautiful creatures. So, of course. And then, we’re supposed to be civilized. We’re supposed to go to work every day. We’re supposed to be nice to our friends and send Christmas cards to our parents.
We’re supposed to do all these things which trouble us deeply because it’s so against what we naturally would want to do. And if I’ve done anything, I’ve had kids express themselves as they are, impolitely, lovingly— they don’t mean any harm. They just don’t know what the right way is.
And as it turns out sometimes the so-called “right way” is utterly the wrong way. What a monstrous confusion.
MOYERS: Is writing books like this something like guerilla warfare?
SENDAK: Yes. That’s well said. Because you’re really fighting yourself all the way along the line. And I don’t know— I never set out to write books for children. I don’t have a feeling that I’m gonna save children or my life is devoted.
I’m not Hans Christian Anderson. Nobody’s gonna make a statue in the park with a lot of scrambling kids climbing up me. I won’t have it, okay? So, what is it— and I got a clue. I was watching a channel on television.
And they had Christa Ludwig who was a great opera singer back— I saw her in Europe. She’s now retiring.
And then, she had a surprising interview at the end of the concert where the guy— she said, “It’s so good now.”
And then, he said, “But, why do you like Schubert? You always sing Schubert.” And he sort of faintly condemned Schubert. “I mean, he’s so simple. He’s just a Viennese waltzes.” And she smiled. And she said, “Schubert is so big, so delicate, but what he did was pick a form that looked so humble and quiet so that he could crawl into that form and explode emotionally, find every way of expressing every emotion in this miniature form.”
And I got very excited. And I wondered is it possible that’s why I do children’s books? I picked a modest form which was very modest back in the ’50s and ’40s. I mean, children’s books were the bottom end of the totem pole. We didn’t even get invited to grownup book parties at Harper’s.
MOYERS: And men didn’t do. I mean, it was a woman’s world, wasn’t it?
SENDAK: It was a woman’s world.
MOYERS: Yeah, men were not supposed to enter the child’s—
SENDAK: And you were suspect the minute you were at a party, “What do you do?” “I do books with children.” “Ah, I’m sure my wife would like to talk to you.” It was always that way. It was always. And then when we succeeded, that’s when they dumped the women. Because once there’s money, the guys can come down and screw the whole thing up which is what they did. They ruined the whole business. I remember those days. And they were absolutely so beautiful. But, my thought was — that’s what I did. I didn’t have much confidence in myself — never. And so, I hid inside, like Christa was saying, this modest form called the children’s book and expressed myself entirely.
I wasn’t gonna paint. And I wasn’t gonna do ostentatious drawings. I wasn’t gonna have gallery pictures. I was gonna hide somewhere where nobody would find me and express myself entirely. I’m like a guerilla warfare in my best books.
MOYERS: Why did you write WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE?
SENDAK: I don’t know. I don’t have an answer. Let me tell you of its origin — it’s brief. I had done a series of books and in those days back in the ’50s, you couldn’t do a picture book unless you’d done a number of books that paid off somewhat or at the very least showed that you had more talent. And you can move onto the next.
There’s not much money back then. I don’t think Madonna would have been interested in writing a book in the ’50s, okay? So, it was my turn. I had earned my 10 years apprenticeship of doing any number of books. Now, I could do a book. And my editor’s name was Ursula Nordstrom. And she without equivocation was the best.
She was this torrential woman, passionate woman, who could spot talent 10 miles away. I had no education. I did not go to art school. My drawing was so crude. I had shines on shoes like in Mutt ‘n’ Jeff in Walt Disney. And she saw through that monstrous crudity and cultivated me, really made me grow up. And then, it was time to do my own picture book.
And I came to her with a title that was “Where the Wild Horses Are.” And she just loved that. It was so poetic and evocative. And she gave me a contract based on “Where the Wild Horses Are.” And then, it turned out after some very few months to her chagrin and anger, I couldn’t draw horses. The whole book would have to be full of horses to make the book make sense.
And when I tried a number of things, I remember the acid tones. She said, “Maurice, what can you draw?” Okay. Cause she was investing in a full color picture book. That was an enormous thing back then.
And so, I thought well things, things. Could be anything I could draw without negotiating things I can’t draw. And then, we were at — someone had died. My brother, sister and I were sitting shiva, the Jewish ceremony.
And all we did was laugh hysterically. I remember our relatives used to come from the old country, those few who got in before the gate closed, all on my mother’s side. And how we detested them. The cruelty that children — you know, kids are hard.
And these people didn’t speak English. And they were unkempt. Their teeth were horrifying. Nose — unraveling out of their hair, unraveling out of their noses. And they’d pick you up and hug you and kiss you, “Aggghh. Oh, we could eat you up.”
And we know they would eat anything, anything. And so, they’re the wild things. And when I remember them, the discussion with my brother and sister, how we laughed about these people who we of course grew up to love very much, I decided to render them as the wild things, my aunts and my uncles and my cousins. And that’s who they are.
MOYERS: So, the wild things are your extended —
SENDAK: Relatives. They’re —
MOYERS: Jewish relatives.
SENDAK: Jewish relatives.
MOYERS: With the WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE, it created a big sensation. I mean, librarians would not put it in the — in fact, there’s one librarian who said, “This is not a book you leave in the presence of sensitive children to find in the twilight.”
SENDAK: Yes. There was a torrent of, “Keep this book away from children. This is —”
SENDAK: I think probably it was the first American children’s book — God knows I didn’t set out to do this, it was my first picture book. But, I was talking about kids I knew and me. A book, an American book, where the child actually daunts his mother and threatens her.
No way. No way. And then on top of that, she puts him in a room and denies him food. No way. Mamas never do that kinda thing. Kids never get pissed at their parents. Unheard of. And the worst offense, he comes home. She leaves food for him. And he’s not punished. Not punished.
MOYERS: When you had Max get mad at his mother knowing — did you know that this was going to enrage people? That they —
SENDAK: No. My mother got mad at me all the time. It didn’t seem an extraordinary thing at all. I mean, it seemed to me she was always mad. And in Yiddish, she called me the equivalent of “wild thing” and chased me all over the house.
We used to hide in the street and hope she forgot before I crept up in the evening. It was all natural as your father took swipes at you that you dodge. And your mother was rough, rough, rough.
MOYERS: Were you ever sent to bed without supper?
SENDAK: I often went to bed without supper cause I hated my mother’s cooking. So, to go to bed without supper was not a torture to me. If she was gonna hurt me, she’d make me eat. That’s true, too.
But, it was a really unkempt, unruly small apartment, three children, father who worked so hard, mother who had problems emotionally and mentally. And we didn’t know that. Your mommy’s supposed to be perfect.
She should be there for you, love you, kiss you. Every movie we ever saw, Claudette Colbert hugging her children. We knew what it should be like. And it wasn’t. And we had no sympathy at all.
MOYERS: What I hear you describing is not a story that you just made up. It’s a story you experienced.
SENDAK: Yeah. Well, that’s what art is. I mean, you don’t make up stories. You live your life. And I was not Max. I did not have the courage that Max had. And I didn’t have the mother that Max had. Who would give you, love you and you know this little scene which is so trivial. It happens at everybody’s house, happens every Tuesday and Thursday.
He has a fit. She has a fit. It’ll go on till he’s about 35, goes into therapy, wonders why he can’t get married, okay? Cause people often say, “What happens to Max?” And it’s such a coy question that I always say, “Well, he’s in therapy forever. He has to wear a straitjacket when he’s with his therapist.”
MOYERS: This is probably apocryphal. But, I have to ask you this. I did hear… You were born in ’28?
MOYERS: I did hear that you were seriously affected by the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby?
SENDAK: Oh, yeah.
MOYERS: Is that true?
SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Oh, it was the… that was me. That was me entirely in the sense of I was — He was kidnapped in ’32.
MOYERS: That’s right, 1932.
SENDAK: On March 2nd, 1932. So, I was 29, 30 — well, I was about three and 1/2 years old, something like that. I remember everything. I remember I couldn’t read but the radio was always on.
I remember Mrs. Lindbergh’s tearful voice, where she was allowed to speak on radio to say that the baby had a cold. And would the man or men or women who took him rub camphor on his chest.
It was a slight cold. But she didn’t want it to get any worse. I remember that vividly, her voice.
MOYERS: When you say it was you, was it the child’s appropriation of fear? Did you fear being kidnapped?
SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Fear of dying because I was a very sickly child. My parents were immigrants. They were not decorous. They were not discreet. They always thought I was gonna die.
And my mother crying and yelling ’cause I was a very sickly baby. So I heard all this. I knew I was mortal from a very early age, okay? My grandmother, I have told — I don’t remember — sewed me a suit of white with white stockings and white shoes. And I would sit on the stoop in front of the house with her so that the angel of death would pass over because I was already an angel. I was all in white. So, I would not be taken as long as I dressed in white.
MOYERS: You were dressed to fool the fates?
SENDAK: Yes. The Lindbergh thing was I’d just come off a very serious illness. And all the news was the Lindbergh baby. I made the queer association that since I was not meant to live long and I’d been told that — and if the Lindbergh baby is kidnapped, it can’t die because it’s a rich, gentile baby.
It has blue eyes and blonde hair. Father is Captain Marvel. And the mother is the princess of the universe. And they live in a house in a place called Hopewell, New Jersey where there are German Shepherds and where there are nannies and where there are police.
Who could climb up the wall, climb in the room and take the baby out and nobody know? How defenseless could babies be even among the rich?
Now, I could not bear the thought that that baby was dead. My life hung on that baby being recovered. Because if that baby died, I had no chance. I was only a poor kid, okay? I mean, it doesn’t make much sense to say it. But, that’s the equation.
And when the baby was found dead, I think something really fundamental died in me, some — I don’t know what to call it.
MOYERS: You say something died in you. But, I’m a journalist, not a therapist, but for two bits, I’ll give you my opinion. I mean, what was born then were all these books, all these dark imaginings, all these dreams, all these projections of evil in the world and of kids groping to cope with it.
SENDAK: I think that’s why kids are drawn to it. Maybe there are lots of children or certainly those who are not drawn to my work because they don’t want to see those shadows. But, I’m telling what it was like for me. And I know it was not unique for me.
I’ve known many children, many unhappy and many disturbed children who don’t know how to talk about it. And you know, the strangest thing… the fan mail I get from kids are asking me questions which they do not ask their mothers and fathers. Because if they had, why write to me, a perfect stranger? Why does a baby in OUTSIDE OVER THERE… why is she being…
MOYERS: You know, in the culture when I was growing up or about the time you were growing up in New York, it was traditional to say if there was a death in the family, if a little girl asked, “Where is mommy?” “Mommy’s in heaven.” If the pet died, “Where’s Midnight?” “In heaven.” We put fig leafs over death.
SENDAK: Oh, well sure but —
MOYERS: I mean, we need fig leafs, don’t we?
SENDAK: We do. Of course, you can’t say that’s harmful because it’s such an impossible question to deal with. It really is. And many children’s books have tried to do it, the dead bird, the dead cat, the dead this, the dead that.
I don’t know that there’s — I’m not saying that I have an answer to that. I wouldn’t — I imply it. I certainly don’t spell it out.
But they have to know it’s possible things are bad. But, they are surrounded by people who love them and will protect them but cannot hide the fact that there is something bad.
MOYERS: You deal so often in your work with the courage of children. What does it take for a child to have courage? And what do you mean by it?
SENDAK: Enormous innocence to really not know how evil the world can be. How can it be so evil?
MOYERS: Those themes of innocence and evil that so obsess Maurice Sendak never played out more tragically than during the Holocaust. In his latest work, Maurice Sendak has teamed up with his good friend Tony Kushner, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his drama ANGELS IN AMERICA, to create a children’s parable about the question that hangs like a black cloud over history: can it happen again?
MOYERS: You wouldn’t think anything could astonish a man in his 70s who has seen it all. But Maurice Sendak was stunned not too long ago when he listened to the CD of a children’s opera written by a Jewish composer in Czechoslovakia just before the Nazis overran his country. Sendak loves music — Mozart and Schubert especially — but he had never heard anything as sweet and haunting as this.
He was just as stunned to learn that the opera had been performed 55 times by the children in one of Hitler’s concentration camps before most of them were sent to die in the gas chamber, along with the composer. Here was a story whose theme — the triumph of good over evil, of the powerless over the mighty — is trumped in real life by history. Sendak had to do something with the tremor that ran up his spine. So he took the story to his friend, the playwright Tony Kushner, who had won the Pulitzer Prize for his own dark drama of love and suffering called ANGELS IN AMERICA. And with Kushner writing the libretto and text and Sendak painting the pictures and designing the set, they produced first the opera and then this picture book: BRUNDIBAR. It’s a simple story but a powerful antidote against amnesia.
The story of BRUNDIBAR begins with a poor family in crisis. The father has died and now the mother has fallen sick. Her two children go to sing in the town square to raise money for the milk she must have to get well. Brundibar, the town bully, chases them away. But three hundred children and several talking animals come to their rescue. The townspeople then shower the two children with cash and they, along with a cop, a cat, dog and sparrow drive Brundibar from the square. The children go home with the milk for their ailing mother — and everyone lives happily ever after. Or do they?
And it ends with them saying, “The wicked never win. We have our victory. Yet, tyrants come along. But, you just wait and see. They topple one, two, three. Our friends will make us strong. And thus, we end our song.”
SENDAK: Turn the page.
MOYERS: It’s a P.S. from Brundibar. “They believe they’ve won the fight. They believe I’m gone. Not quite. Nothing ever works out neatly. Bullies don’t give up completely. One departs. The next appears. And we shall meet again, my dears. Though I go, I won’t go far. I’ll be back. Love, Brundibar.” What are you saying there?
SENDAK: Well, you can’t get rid of evil. We can’t, and I feel that so intensely. All the idiots that keep coming into the world and wrecking people’s lives.
And it is such an abundance of idiocy that you lose courage, okay? That you lose hope. I don’t want to lose hope. I get through every day. I’m pretty good. I work. I sleep. I sing. I walk. But, I’m losing hope.
MOYERS: There’s a powerful illustration here. The children are on the backs of blackbirds. They’re flying through the starlit sky. Why blackbirds?
SENDAK: I don’t know for sure. Because the blackbirds are in this book, they’re both pro the kids and against the kids. Just like fate. Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes — and also a blackbird is from my passion for Schubert songs and his blackbirds and his birds of doom or birds of good.
MOYERS: Well, as the eye moves down that page —
SENDAK: You see the mother’s screaming.
SENDAK: Yeah. Yeah.
MOYERS: Weeping and screaming?
SENDAK: Yeah, yeah.
MOYERS: I mean, this is Germany under the Nazis?
MOYERS: A new generation won’t read the Holocaust into this?
SENDAK: I hope they do.
MOYERS: Do you?
SENDAK: Yeah. Yeah. I hope they do. But also, some people were insulted. Some people were amazed. And some people were baffled that in the last big picture of that book, there’s a crucifix on the wall of the children’s house. Everybody assumes the hero and heroine are Jewish and the mother is Jewish. They’re not. They’re not.
That was my point. Those kids were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all children were in the Holocaust. Everybody was in the Holocaust. So, I made sure my hero and heroine were not Jewish children. That was too easy. That was too easy.
MOYERS: The story of BRUNDIBAR. Where did this come from?
SENDAK: It came from a young composer named Hans Krasa who wrote this opera for Jewish children in an orphanage in Prague. Before the performance could be put on — it was just for fun —
MOYERS: What, it was about 1938, ’39?
SENDAK: No. Close to ’39 or ’40 actually. And the Germans invaded. And all the children were taken out and the composer and the librettist, everybody and put into Theresienstadt or Terezin. It was called “The Empress Teresa’s Grounds” that she kept in the old days.
MOYERS: A concentration camp?
SENDAK: Yeah, a concentration camp. There were a lot of intellectuals there, Bauhaus artists. And Hitler made a film about Hitler gives a camp to the Jews. And they look all shiny. And they’re drawing. And they’re playing volleyball.
And people are dancing. And people are having a wonderful time. And everybody fell for it.
MOYERS: They staged this opera, these —
SENDAK: They staged the opera. It was staged 55 times.
SENDAK: BRUNDIBAR in the camp. It was so popular. So, they kept repeating it and repeating it 55 times. Of course, the children were periodically put on the train and sent to Auschwitz which is —
MOYERS: Hitler would film this in order to make — He made propaganda films to show the world that —
SENDAK: Just this one film.
MOYERS: Camp was really a good place to be.
SENDAK: A good place. The kids were given clothes to wear, were given food to eat. They planted trees. As soon as it all was over, the trees went. The clothes went. The food went. And it worked.
MOYERS: And all these children who performed and the composer of the opera were taken to Auschwitz and murdered?
SENDAK: And exterminated, yes. Yes. I know when we were doing the opera in — me and Tony Kushner did the opera in Chicago, a number of people joined us. And one became a fast friend because she had played in the original performance in Terezin. She had played the role of the cat. And she was there. She was my age. And I was sitting with her. We were both crying our hearts out.
And there we see a 10-year-old girl standing on stage dressed as a cat like collision and time smashing into each other. And she said she was one of 11 girls who got out. And they’re all in touch with each other. And she described the circumstances of the camp and what the production was like.
MOYERS: You —
SENDAK: I’m sorry. She confirmed that she knew that any one of them on the stage or two or three or whatever would die. And yet, they sang every night that the performance was on. That’s courage.
MOYERS: That’s courage.
SENDAK: That’s courage.
MOYERS: Are you obsessed with death?
SENDAK: A little bit. A little bit. Yeah, it’s such a curious thing.
MOYERS: How so?
SENDAK: It’s a whole adventure.
MOYERS: We have no firsthand reports, do we?
SENDAK: No, we don’t. I wouldn’t believe them even if they did. They all talk about lights in the distance and people flying on the ceiling. No. But, it is an adventure. You know who said that? Peter Pan of all people. I don’t like him.
SENDAK: No, it’s not him I don’t like. It’s Barrie I don’t like. The sentimentalizing of children, the cutesifying of the children. If you look into the heart of Peter Pan, it is a boy obsessed with death, afraid to live.
And you strip away all the silly music and the silly nonsense and the crocodile and the hook and all those things, it’s a very strange, very strange story. But, Barrie was a very strange man.
MOYERS: If I may ask you to tell me about your childhood friend, Lloyd.
SENDAK: Ooh, why?
MOYERS: Because I think it fits with the Lindbergh story and the story of your — maybe I’m wrong. If you don’t —
SENDAK: No, no, no. Of course, it is part of it.
I was maybe just preschool, six or seven — I don’t remember. Anyway, I was playing with my friend, Lloyd in these tall, Brooklyn apartment houses and long alley ways in between the apartment houses where the kids played.
The safest place to play. And laundry hanging from both buildings. And me and Lloyd are playing ball. It was like the size — I remember it seemed like the size of a basketball and just — both of us throwing it high and higher and higher to see if we could reach for it.
And I threw it high. And he reached for it. But, he didn’t get it. And it bounced. And it rolled into the street. And he did just what we were told never to do which is to run from the alley ways straight into the streets cause nobody sees us coming, okay?
And the next thing I remember — I don’t remember the car — but I remember Lloyd like flat out in the air. It could be a distorted memory. But, I see the arms and the head, he’s flying.
And then, I knew what happened. And he was dead. He was killed on impact.
MOYERS: This is a true story.
SENDAK: It’s a true story.
MOYERS: So many children fly in your books. Ida.
SENDAK: Oh, yeah.
MOYERS: The kids on the blackbirds. Mickey.
SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Yeah. In I WANT TO PAINT MY BATHROOM BLUE, the hero flies all through the book. In the Randall Jarell book, he flies all through the book. Yeah. You’re better than my therapist.
MOYERS: And cheaper too.
SENDAK: This is true. You’re a lot nicer.
MOYERS: Is that why there are two endings… but do you feel responsible for Lloyd’s death? Do you feel responsible for the kids at Auschwitz? Do you feel responsible for every —
SENDAK: I don’t feel responsible for the kids of Auschwitz although my parents tried to make me feel —
SENDAK: If I was staying out late and dinner was on the table and I’d been called three times, I was playing stoop ball or something outside in the street, my mother’s voice would tell me that I’d better go up now. And I’d go up. And she’d say, “Your cousin, Leo, you know they’re your age. They don’t play ball. They’re dead. They’re in a concentration camp. You have the privilege of being here. And you don’t come up and eat. They have no food.”
I was made to feel guilty all the time. Because I had the great, good luck and it was only luck that my father came here. I mean really just dumb luck.
MOYERS: That you escaped the Holocaust?
SENDAK: Yes. My father came here and my mother came here. You know, they were poor, looking for jobs, save money and bring the people over, blah. There was no hint of the Holocaust when they came over except lots of regular, normal anti-Semitism which they were used to.
Yeah. So, I hated ’em. I hated those dead kids. Cause they were thrown in front of me all the time.
MOYERS: And you thought of —
SENDAK: It was so cruel of my parents. It constantly made me feel that I was shamelessly enjoying myself when they were being cooked in an oven.
MOYERS: How do you calm your own demons? How do you find a separate peace in a world that’s so full of scary things?
SENDAK: I don’t know. I read. Like coming here today, I was anxious about this. Would I be all right? And I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson so big that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a sexy, passionate, little woman. I feel better.
Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can’t explain.
I don’t need to. I know that if there’s a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal.
I can recollect it, I can notice it. I’m here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me, an observer, an observer.
MOYERS: Tony Kushner, your friend and collaborator, says you have a mind darkened by both fatalism and faith.
SENDAK: Well, okay.
MOYERS: You agree with him? He knows you.
SENDAK: Yeah, he knows me almost too well. Fatalism, yes. Yes. Having lived through the wars in Europe and having lost so many people in my family when I was a child. I didn’t even know them. Faith? Total faith in art. Total faith in art.
MOYERS: In art?
SENDAK: Herman Melville is a god.
SENDAK: Because I cherish what he did. He was a genius.
MOYERS: What did he do?
SENDAK: Wrote MOBY DICK. Wrote PIERRE. Wrote THE CONFIDENCE MAN, wrote BILLY BUDD. And when I step into the —
MOYERS: Billy Budd, innocent, faith in the power of innocence.
SENDAK: Oh, yes. Look at him.
MOYERS: Billy Budd, the eternal child.
SENDAK: Scares the bejesus out of people and makes them hate him. Because he’s so good. Claggart has him killed in that book. Claggart has his eye on that boy. He will not tolerant such goodness, such blondeness, such blue eye. Goodness is scary.
It’s like you want to knock it. You want to hit it. Are we a country of beating down things? We love seeing people go down. We just love it and the NEW YORK TIMES is full, every page of people going down.
When it isn’t with kids falling off the roof or being shoved in the oven, it’s scandals about who’s failing, whose movie is making less money, whose book has bit the dust, which artist you don’t see at any of the good parties in New York anymore? Am I exaggerating?
I feel totally disconnected now. Now, let’s say it might be age. I’m getting old. And I’m disappointed in everything just the way old people traditionally, boringly are. That bothers me because is it too traditional? Am I not fighting hard enough? I don’t feel the fight. I don’t feel it.
MOYERS: Isn’t this a time for a certain kind of ripeness in your life? I mean, after all, you will never die, Maurice Sendak. I’m serious about that. You know, most of us will live only as long as our grandchildren remember us. But, you will never die.
SENDAK: I have news for you. I’m gonna croak. I am gonna croak.
MOYERS: But, not these books.
SENDAK: Not those books, but I’ll be dead. I’ll be dead. And I’m not saying this facetiously or I hope not foolishly because the legacy is lovely. I don’t take it for granted. I’m not jaded. I never have been jaded. I’ve always been surprised at my success. I’ve always enjoyed it.
Some books I’ve done, I really love. Some books I really hate. Some books I’m totally indifferent to. But the fact that people always say to me, “How can you be depressed, Maurice? You know that your books will go on and on and on.” And I’m thinking, “Who cares? What am I gonna do now for me before it’s over?”
MOYERS: But when you and I were walking down the corridor a few moments ago, three little boys, charming little boys, born in the last 12 years in awe of you, they read you. You feed them. Their children will feed from your imagination.
SENDAK: And very, very gratifying. But, I’m being very honest with you.
MOYERS: I know you are.
SENDAK: My big concern is me and what do I do now until the time of my death. That is valid. That is useful. That is beautiful. That is creative. And also, I want to be free again. I want to be free like when I was a kid, working with my brother and making toy airplanes and a whole model of the World’s Fair in 1939 out of wax.
Where we just had fun. What I mean by this is I’ve had my career. I’ve had my success. God willing, it should have happened to Herman Melville who deserved it a great deal more, you know? Imagine him being on Bill Moyers’ show. Nothing good happened to Herman Melville.
I want to see me to the end working, living for myself. Ripeness is all. Now, interpreting what ripeness is our own individual problem.
MOYERS: That quote of Shakespeare, do you remember the whole quote?
SENDAK: “Men must endure their going hence as — even as they’re coming hither. Ripeness is all.”
So, what is the point of it all? Not leaving legacies. But being ripe. Being ripe.
MOYERS: Being ripe? Explore that with me. You don’t feel ripe?
SENDAK: I am getting riper. I mean, life has only gotten better personally for me as I’ve gotten older. I mean, being young was such a gross waste of time. I was just such a miserable, miserable person.
And so when people say, “What age would you like to go back to?” I say, “Well, maybe 69.”
MOYERS: Oh, good. That’s where I am.
SENDAK: Okay. Okay.
MOYERS: Thank you.
SENDAK: I didn’t even know that. Venturing back further, learning is so slow. Accomplishment is so slow. Experiencing and evaluating your experience is so slow. And I am feeling only now — I daren’t say happy, I don’t know what that is — at ease.
MOYERS: Let’s close with this. How does it end: “and they lived happily ever after” or “the night descends”?
SENDAK: I became so ripe, people could hardly keep their teeth away from me. I don’t know. Let me just say this. When I said the ripeness was a letter that John Keats wrote to his brother who emigrated to America describing what it was like to have a peach or piece of a peach in his mouth.
And it’s one of the sexiest things you will ever read of how slow you should take the peach. Don’t rush it. Let it go through your palette. Let it lie on your tongue. Let it melt a little bit. Let it run from the corners.
It’s like describing the most incredible sex orgy. And then, you bite. But, it must be so ripe. It must be so delicious. In other words, you must not waste a second of this deliciousness which for him was life and being a great poet. That you savor every, everything that happened. I want to get ripe.
MOYERS: Maurice Sendak, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
SENDAK: Thank you. It was a pleasure. It really was a pleasure.
MOYERS: Well, it was for me, too.
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MOYERS: So what do you do when you’ve listened to Maurice Sendak?
Well, you go out and fetch a peach. This one’s not quite ripe yet, but it will be one day, and I have every intention of biting into it as deliberately as Maurice just prescribed.
It’s true what you have read and heard — I plan to leave this broadcast after the election later this year. Not because anyone is pushing me but because something is pulling me. I turn 70 in a few months and while there’s no marker at the border — like the signs at the state line that say “Welcome to Texas” or “You’re Leaving California” — I know I’m entering a different country.
Some imaginary trip wire breaks and the little odometer on your psychic dashboard starts clicking faster and faster and all of a sudden a horizon that once seemed far, far away, looms right there, in your face. You feel an irresistible urge to slow down, take your foot off the accelerator, touch it to the brake — gently, but surely, and start negotiating yourself out of the fast lane. You begin to think about that side road you never took, the country lane you once spotted in the rearview mirror and promised yourself you would return to one day and never did.
And all of a sudden you want to get to know the person who’s been sitting there in the seat beside you all these years, when neither one of you noticed that the only thing zipping by faster than the traffic was life itself. You don’t want to quit altogether. You keep thinking of Tennyson’s poem:
“How dull it is to pause, to make an end
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!”
But slowing down is not quitting. So you think about the legendary black pitcher Satchel Paige, who spent most of his career in what was then called the Negro Baseball League. By the time the racial barriers were relaxed he didn’t know anything else to do but keep on pitching, and pitching, and pitching. When a reporter asked him, “How old are you?” Satchel Paige replied, “How old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?” One day he found out, and even Satchel Paige had to hand the ball to a younger man and leave the mound. Knowing when is the trick; timing is what counts or the ripe peach rots.
All these septuagenarians I’ve been interviewing through the years have taught me something. They lived long enough to turn their experience into wisdom, and to share it, which is the reason I keep wanting to talk to them. One of them will be here next week with me— the actor Hal Holbrook. You know Hal Holbrook from stage and screen, as they say, but above all for the fifty years he has spent performing as Mark Twain. Here’s an excerpt from his appearance on CBS back in the 1960s:
HOLBROOK [as Twain]: Oh, I used to tell lies but I’ve given it up. The field is overrun with amateurs. Why, when I look around me and contemplate the lumbering, slovenly lying of the present day, it grieves me to see a noble art so prostituted. In my day, a liar was a liar!
I don’t mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay. It couldn’t. For the lie is eternal. It is man’s best and surest friend and it cannot perish from the earth while Congress remains in session.
[END VIDEO EXCERPT]
MOYERS: That was Hal Holbrook, alias Mark Twain, in 1967, at age 42. He’s 79 now — and still at it. He’s just as good as Hal Holbrook as he is as Mark Twain.
When we taped the interview you’ll see next week, I learned for the first time that he’s a sailor as well as an actor, and that he once took a twenty-four hundred mile trip through the Pacific in a 40-foot boat—alone. So I ask him:
MOYERS: What do you think about when you’re out there on a long trip like that and you’re alone?
HOLBROOK: You think about getting somewhere, getting… hoping you get to where you’re going. You think about that a lot. You think about is the boat okay? Is everything working right? Could there be a leak somewhere I don’t know about? You double check, you triple check.
We have a rule on the boat: “You always know where the knife is.” You never put anything back in a different place. You have to be able to know in an instant where that knife is to save your life. Or something else, a plug for a hole to save your life.
And basically you’re out there in the embrace — not tender either — of this great world, this huge, not empty, great silent force. And you’re in that embrace and you have to survive in it. You have to know how to keep yourself from going down and you can’t fight it. You have to learn not to fight nature. You have to learn to give to nature just enough to stay alive and stay upright.
[END VIDEO EXCERPT]
MOYERS: So that’s what it comes down to, on sea, or shore, or in life or on television. You learn to give to nature just enough to stay upright— long enough for the final harvest and the taste of that one last ripe peach.
I’m Bill Moyers. Join me next week with Hal Holbrook — here on NOW. Good night.
This transcript was entered on April 24, 2015.