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Sendak’s Vilde Chaya

Man is born a clown.

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There’s a (most likely apocryphal) story about Maurice Sendak floating around Jewish circles of a meeting he once had with a notable and scholarly rabbi. The rabbi asked Sendak if his mother ever called him a vilde chaye (Yiddish for wild beast) growing up.

“Yes, all the time, how did you know?” answered Sendak, taken aback by the rabbi’s question.

“Well, because you grew up and wrote a book about it,” the rabbi responded.

That book is, of course, Where the Wild Things Are, Sendak’s most famous and indelible work, first published in 1963. Earlier today, a packed crowd gathered at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to celebrate Sendak, his art and the life that inspired it. I don’t think I’ve heard so much laughter at a memorial service before.

Peppered with Yiddish slang, animated readings, and selections from Keats and Humperdinck, the ceremony captured the intellectual and artistic milieu that Sendak immersed himself in. Art Spiegelman recounted how he first met Sendak years ago when he was 65, the same age Spiegelman is now, having convinced his New Yorker editors to send him to Sendak’s idyllic Vermont estate.

Spiegelman admitted that he was nervous for that first meeting because Sendak was, “known to be a bit of a kvetch and a crank.” Instead, he found “a kindred spirit” and a man who he could share professional and artistic aspirations with. Then, Spiegelman performed a dramatic reading of the comic-style interview he and Sendak created for the New Yorker.

Tony Kushner described “Maurice” as a man with wonderfully rough edges, someone who, “liked to test his friends’ mettle,” probing their love for him. Kushner wasn’t “sure how much [Sendak] allowed himself to believe” that he was loved by so many friends, but that he did indeed believe in love. Of Sendak’s, “astonishing, glorious, universal art,” Kushner said that “for Maurice, to breathe was to work.”

In the last few days of Sendak’s life, Kushner visited the illustrator in his hospital room. “Tony, I’m going to die today,” Kushner recalled Sendak complaining to him. “Since saying he was going to die was just another morning for Maurice, I brushed it off,” Kushner said to laughter.

Sendak had been working on a book in his last days about how a mother stole a boy’s nose and then travelled to a far-off land to find a replacement, paralleling his own difficult relationship with his mother. The day before, Sendak had finished a character drawing of the mother from the story. Kushner said he told Sendak he wasn’t going to die that day: “Then his last drawing would be of his mother, and that would mean that she had won.”

The ceremony closed with a radio recording by Arturo Toscanini, a selection from Verdi’s Falstaff. The selection from act three, scene two’s finale reads:

All the world’s a joke.
Man is born a clown.
Seriousness alone
Confuses reason.
We all laugh!
Everyone laughs at everyone else.
But he laughs best
Who laughs last.

As the driving, scratchy recording played, Sendak’s book covers flashed across the screen, and the live audience clapped along with the radio’s applause at the end of the recording. I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly how Sendak would have wanted it: In the end, art becoming life and life becoming art. Somewhere in the heavens the wild things are dancing, and Sendak is enjoying a last, eternal laugh as their king.

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Sendak’s Vilde Chaya

Man is born a clown.

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