11 September 2008

Sendak as a Lion in Winter

Yesterday's New York Times profile of Maurice Sendak at 80 might be summed up as, "He's gay, but he's not happy." Which is a short way of saying that Sendak appeared just as comfortable telling interviewer Patricia Cohen "that I'm gay" as he was enjoying any other aspect of life, which is to say not comfortable at all.

This wasn't really a public coming-out. Other authors have written about Sendak's long partnership with psychiatrist and art historian Eugene Glynn: Tony Kushner in The Art of Maurice Sendak in 2003 (excerpted here) and Cynthia Zarin in a New Yorker profile from 2006. But this may be the first time Sendak brought up the question with an interviewer, and people are responding to it as news.

I'd wondered about Sendak's family life, hoping he hadn't been living like One Was Johnny, alone with his books and anxieties. But he had a long partnership with, apparently, a good temperamental match until Glynn died in May 2007.

And temperament appears to play a big role in Sendak's life and work. Most of Cohen's article is taken up with dreads named and nameless, everything from the Lindbergh kidnapping to a poor review from Salman Rushdie. He was charming, she assures us, and I've seen Sendak in front of an audience, a completely entertaining curmudgeon. But every profile I've seen describes the same rough emotional ride, and in this one Sendak comes across particularly like my grandmothers when they're fretting and unable to hear any reassurance.

Indeed, I suspect that Sendak's natural anxiety is more of a factor than the many historical events that he hangs his worries on. He's often written and spoke of the shadow of the Holocaust over his work. According to this 2004 AP dispatch archived at the Jewish News Weekly:

Sendak, his sister Natalie and late brother Jack, are the last of the family on his father’s side since his other relatives didn’t escape Europe. The only family member Sendak really knew on his mother’s side was his grandmother.
But Sendak's also stated that one inspiration for his Wild Things were frightening immigrant relatives who visited his house as he grew up in the 1930s--so there must have been more survivors on his mother's side, just not people he "really knew." The disappearance of the Lindbergh child in 1932 also predates Hitler's ascension.

Kushner wrote of those deeper anxieties, still tying them to Sendak's heritage:
Maurice is a child of the Great Depression and of Jewish Depression, if I may generalise. Jewish Depression is that inherited awareness of the arduousness of knowing God, the arduousness of knowing anything, an acute awareness of the struggle to know, the struggle against not knowing; and it is that enduring sense of displacement, yearning for and not securely possessing a home.
But even by American Jewish standards, Sendak is a world-class fretter. I suspect he would fret no matter what historical period he lived through, and would fret--albeit in a different way--no matter what culture he was raised in.

Of course, being gay in mid-20th-century America, even in New York art circles, would have increased Sendak's sense of unease. Not just keeping his partner private from his mother, but wondering what the people who criticized In the Night Kitchen for showing a naked boy would have said if they'd known.

Pulling all this together, I end up wondering about Sendak's thoughts on passing on the family name, a Jewish tradition even for people who don't perceive their family to be in constant danger. Sendak didn't raise children--not an option for him and Glynn. (And at least that meant fewer things to worry about.) But his decades of artistry have made a huge impact on children, and have made the Sendak name both famous and beloved.

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