Time flies. I think that more and more as I get older. Fifty years ago today, In the Night Kitchen, a children’s picture book written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak, was first published by Harper & Row. It’s probably Sendak’s second best known book. Nothing could possibly match the notoriety he gained from his wickedly imaginative Where the Wild Things Are.
Why am I bringing up Sendak here? Occasionally, I’ve blogged about a gay picture book. (Here, for instance, or here.) In the Night Kitchen is not such a book, although it created controversy and has been a mainstay of banned book lists due to the fact that main character Mickey is naked in much of the story, his genitals even shown on a page or two. It shouldn’t be scandalous. The images remind me of cherubs in Raphael’s The Triumph of Galatea or Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo or The Creation of Adam. But people do like to make a fuss over both art and books...or art in books. Especially for kids. (I’ve seen images online where Mickey’s genitals are covered by various colors of underwear. As Neil Gaiman noted of In the Night Kitchen, “It scared adults.” Never mind that young children frequently run about naked at home, in the yard and at the beach. I’m not a nudist advocate but we have a way of making natural unnatural.)
Maurice Sendak, born in Brooklyn in 1928 to Jewish-Polish parents, lived until a month shy of his eighty-fourth birthday. In addition to publishing many of his own picture books, Sendak was also prolific in illustrating children’s books written by others. Speaking with pride about his work in children’s books, Sendak said, “I was more honest than anybody.” With one glaring exception, the man didn’t seem to censor himself out of fear of losing work or being rebuked. One week after Sendak’s death, Gaiman wrote, “I devoured interviews with Sendak: he was a grumpy, Jewish, brilliant, wise contrarian and he didn’t mellow as he aged.”
Before writing this, I perused Sendak interviews and profiles on YouTube and, not knowing anything about his personality, was startled at the outset as the children’s author says in with first minute of the first clip I watched, “People say, ‘Why don’t you do Wild Things 2?’ Go to hell. Go to hell. [I’m] not a whore.” Nope,...didn’t mellow at all.
What was that one exception, that topic Sendak consciously avoided? It pops up in a 2008 New York Times article (which, incidentally, described him as a “curmudgeon”): “Was there anything he had never been asked? He paused for a few moments and answered, ‘Well, that I’m gay.’”
Eighty years old and he finally came out. True enough, people are rarely asked if they’re gay. (It only happened to me once while I was in law school. I laughed with delight and answered yes. How wonderful to not be the one to make a potentially dramatic disclosure!) But it wasn’t just that Sendak was waiting around to be asked.
“I just didn’t think it was anybody’s business,” Sendak adds in the same article. His prerogative. Then, he says, “All I wanted was to be straight so my parents could be happy. They never, never, never knew.” Three nevers.
It’s a reminder of how much progress has been made regarding LGBTQ acceptance in North America and how any gains made are harder for many older gays and lesbians to trust and embrace, having grown up when discretion and repression were the norm. In a 2011 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Sendak says:
Finding out that I was gay when I was older was a shock and a disappointment. I did not want to be gay. It meant a whole different thing to me — which is really hard to recover now because that's many years ago. I always objected to it because there is a part of me that is solid Brooklyn and solid conventional and I know that. I can't escape that. It's my genetic makeup. It's who I am.
For fifty years, Sendak lived with his partner, psychoanalyst Eugene Glynn until Glynn’s death in 2007, the year before Sendak publicly came out. While I believe that a public figure has a right to (try to) keep whatever he wants private, I wish we knew more about the shared life of Maurice and Eugene. I wish Sendak had felt a sense of freedom to talk about Eugene the way some other oft-interviewed writer/illustrator might speak of a spouse of the opposite sex. Curious—nosy—me would love to know more.
From what I’ve seen in video clips, Sendak remained tight-lipped about his relationship with his partner even in his three plus years as a publicly out gay man. In my favorite clip, called “Maurice Sendak on Death (And Life),” he talks more effusively about his housekeeper and caretaker of thirty years, Lynn Caponera, and his long-deceased canine companion, Jennie, than he does of his partner. Eugene gets a mention; that’s all. Old habits, I suppose.
That 2008 Times article offers context, of which I’m well aware. “A gay artist in New York is not exactly uncommon, but Mr. Sendak said that the idea of a gay man writing children books would have hurt his career when he was in his 20s and 30s.” And yet this outspoken man continued to keep mum about this part of his identity into his 40s, his 50s, his 60s and 70s. My heart aches. Popular children’s author/illustrator Tomie dePaola (Strega Nona), who also came out as gay late in life (1935-2020), said something similar: “If it became known you were gay, you’d have a big red ‘G’ on your chest...and schools wouldn’t buy your books.” True, perhaps. Neither Sendak nor dePaola had the will to test things, to potentially break down a barrier. My gut says Sendak could have done it. My brain understands why he didn’t.
Man, how far we’ve come.
Just as I was about to post this, I stumbled upon the song “Eugene and Maurice,” by Canadian indie band The Burning Hell, known, according to Wikipedia, “for their literate—often literary...lyrics.” It’s a whimsical tribute, worth a listen.