Philly remembers Maurice Sendak

Maurice Sendak on display at Philadelphia's Rosenbach Museum.

Maurice Sendak was gifted at weaving tales from a young age, said longtime friend and Rosenbach Museum John C. Haas Director Derick Dreher. “He really was a storyteller from his earliest days. As a child, he was sickly and he was not allowed to go out and play stickball with the other kids, so he would sit on his stoop and tell stories to other people. Everyone gathered around him.”

The Rosenbach Museum, which contains over 10,000 of Sendak’s illustrations and manuscripts, was open to the public free of charge yesterday in memoriam of the beloved author’s death at 83. “‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is definitely one story my kids love and my husband and I grew up on it, too,” visitor Mary Kaminski said as she guided her children, age 4 and 6, through the galleries.

Sendak’s drawings and stories transcend generations, as evidenced by the diversity in museum visitors yesterday – tattooed millennials, silver-haired doyennes and 30-somethings toting kids of their own – all united in mourning as they told stories of the author’s influence on their childhood minds.

“I’ve gone around the country and gotten to hear a lot of people’s reactions to Maurice’s work,” said Traveling Exhibitions Coordinator Patrick Rodgers. “It’s fun because everyone goes back to seeing it as kids. You have these great, deep conversations with total strangers – ‘My dad used to read this to us!’ or ‘I hated this when I was young!’ It’s really intimate stuff.”

“Sendak speaks to a universal experience,” Dreher said. “He was a sponge who liked to soak up stories, whether it was literature – he
loved 19th century books, he loved James Joyce – or newspaper articles. He was just as interested in two-line human interest stories.”

The author’s broad appeal is perhaps best illustrated through the widely-invoked “Where the Wild Things Are” – published in 1963, adapted into an opera in 1980 and released as a feature film in 2009 – about a child named Max, who while grounded in his bedroom travels to a fantasy land of strange creatures, but finds himself to be the toughest of them all.

“Every child can remember a time they were misbehaving, goofing off, their mother got mad and sent them to bed,” Dreher said. “But instead of being paternalistic – ‘Your behavior is not good. It should not be tolerated,’ Sendak’s Max gets sent to his bedroom, takes a magical voyage, calms down, gets back and has dinner. It has the happy ending we all want, but a very different way of getting there.”

One of Sendak’s most striking qualities was this different, sometimes frightening, way of “getting there” through his stories. His deceptively whimsical children’s books often dealt with heavy themes – racism, poverty, death and all manners of disasters, both human and man made.

“I remember initially not liking [Sendak] because I liked the drawings a lot, but found the material kind of scary,” museum visitor Brian Hagermann said. “But it was arresting and emotional for me. I definitely had an aversion to it for a while, but it stuck with me as an adult and as an older kid.”

“We were just talking about how it’s interesting to read Victorian children’s stories because they are really dark,” said Jen King, who spent over an hour on a gallery bench leafing through Sendak’s works with friend Yoni Kroll. “I think it’s part of helping children deal with fear. Sendak gets back to that and it’s really cool.”

“He was always looking at human nature, which is timeless, but not always good,” said Director of Collections Judith Guston. “He also explored the darker, inner recesses of people, the Holocaust was a theme he often returned to. It’s compelling – we like to think about ourselves and be retrospective.”

Sendak began donating his works to the Rosenbach Museum after befriending its then-director at a Free Library conference on Beatrix Potter. “He was so taken with our collection, it had all the things he loved,” Guston said, listing original works by Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson and William Blake as some of Sendak’s favorites. “He kept coming back and in 1968 started depositing his works. This was a place where people he was inspired by also lived in our collection and he wanted to live with them.”

“The whole thing is really sad,” Hagermann said. “Through the internet age I’ve gotten to know more about the person and hear him talk. As much as I loved his art and writing, Maurice Sendak the person is what I found so amazing. He lived a great life.”

“He had a crazy gift for taking experiences – menial or profound – and turning them into stories,” Dreher recalled. “He was the same way in person. He was a great listener, there was never timer running in the background. But you could never set an agenda for conversations with him. You might want to interview him about politics and he would talk about the great opera he saw last night.”

“It’s sad I didn’t come see the museum earlier, but I thought it was a great way to honor his memory,” Kroll said. “I mean, I sent my mother a message that I was coming to this exhibit. She said, ‘Yeah, I saw the news. ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ was your favorite growing up.’”

The Rosenbach Museum will be holding a memorial exhibition to celebrate Sendak’s legacy beginning June 10, his birthday. They plan to have two rotations of 65 works representing his 65 years as an illustrator.


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