For most fans of children’s books, Maurice Sendak is the first name that comes to mind. Where the Wild Things Are, In the Night Kitchen, Really Rosie -- all classics and just a sampling of his enormous contributions to art and literature.
Most would picture him leaning over a drawing table, writing his prose or lecturing. For me, I picture Sendak being measured for a rented tuxedo in a shop on 3rd street in Los Angeles. Let me explain.
A number of years ago, Maurice Sendak was commissioned to design a production of Mozart’s Idomeneo for the Los Angeles Opera -- a bold and unusual choice at the time. The production sketches, paintings and many of the unused props became the centerpiece of an exhibit we curated for our Los Angeles gallery.
When Sendak arrived in town, he was perturbed to find that the reception for the Opera opening was to be a formal event and he had come ill-equipped. Calls were made and a local tuxedo rental shop could make it happen while we waited. It fell to me to take the non-driving children’s literature icon to be fitted.
Braving mid-city afternoon traffic and a cranky at best Sendak, we arrived at the shop. Unrecognized, he stood in the center of the shop, on public display, tailors surrounding him. He glanced over at me, fully aware of the ridiculousness of the situation. Gradually, Sendak’s identity was discovered by the clientele of the shop. One by one, they stopped to speak to him. He was a captive audience; there was no escape.
At first, Sendak managed a weak smile, but by the time the third or fourth fan was gushing, he had clearly had it. “Children must love you where ever you go,” one persistent woman told him. He stared her down and launched into a tale of visiting an associate’s home and meeting her young daughter -- who was sprawled across a floor, reading what just happened to be Where the Wild Things Are
“Are you enjoying that book?” Sendak asked.
“Um hmm,” said the girl, doing her best to ignore the stranger.
“You know,” Sendak told her, “I wrote that.”
The little girl stopped and for the first time, looked up at him. “Go f- yourself,” the little girl responded.
“Children are not impressed,” Sendak told the stunned woman in the rental shop. “Not by you, not by me.” The woman took a step back from the author and made a hasty retreat. Of course, Sendak’s apocryphal story summed up his characterization of children as possessing their own dark, cynical world. He would boldly continue to support that vision for the rest of his life.
The year after the Opera exhibit, we worked again with Sendak in creating “Freedom to Read,” a limited edition lithograph supporting an anti-censorship in books campaign. We held another series of events and exhibits and shared some memorable moments.
Thankfully, none of those events required formal wear.