A few days later, Maurice appeared at the apartment on 28th Street for the first of many visits. On one of these occasions, I earned a place in posterity for the Birnkrant name. At the time, Maurice was working on his book, “In the Night Kitchen.” As he did with all the books he authored, he had created an amazing miniature volume, complete with meticulously tiny illustrations that previewed what the final full-sized version of the book would be.
On a series of adjoining pages, the hero, a young boy Mickey, named in homage to Mickey Mouse, builds an airplane out of pastry dough. With all the tact that I could muster, and halting hesitation, I gently suggested to Maurice that in each successive drawing, the plane, which did not take flight, until the final panel, could, instead, raise a little higher in each view, until, not unlike the frames in an animated cartoon, it flies above the city of the Night Kitchen. Maurice loved the suggestion.
And, as a way of saying “Thank you,” he included the name, Birnkrant on one of the buildings of the city. Can you find it by the funnel? The entire cityscape included many names. This was Maurice’s way of thanking the doctors and nurses who had recently cared for him when he suffered a heart attack in England. Birnkrant was the last name to be added.
Our mutual visits to our apartment on 28th street and his ground floor apartment in the Village were frequent, and always easy going. Then in 1970 we moved to the country, and a short time after that, Maurice moved to the country too. Maurice’s new home in Ridgefield Connecticut was about an hour away. Although, we got together far less often, each visit was a memorable occasion. Here is a photograph of the three of us, Maurice, Eunice, and Myself, when we were all still young, visiting Maurice at his new home in Ridgefield for the first time.
On rarer occasions, we met in the city. When Really Rosie premiered on TV, Maurice invited us to be his guests at a special preview in Manhattan. Another time, he sent us tickets to the opening performance of his fabulous production of Prokofiev’s opera, The Love for Three Oranges, at Lincoln Center.
In-between these rare occasions, we often spoke for hours on the phone. I came to cherish every word Maurice uttered, as if it was a precious gift. Few people would ever realize what great care he took when working on a book. Although, the story might be told in twenty-five words or less, Maurice agonized over every word, choosing, parsing, changing, rearranging, and engineering every phrase to carry a deep well of content, conveying meanings of great importance on the surface, as well as underneath. But when he spoke, the words flowed in profusion. He was a fabulous raconteur, and hilariously funny. If he chose to share his thoughts with you, or tell of an incident in his eventful history, you sensed that this was the only time he would ever say what he was saying, in the amazing way he was saying it, and this was, in fact, a precious gift, a once in a lifetime treasure, offered up with generosity, for your ears only.
From 1968 to 1979, we saw many new books and posters by Maurice appear, and each of them was accompanied by a new addition to our growing collection of Maurice memorabilia, all of which was generously adorned with Sendak signatures. Soon, posters, featuring the Wild Things hung on every wall, throughout our home. All this while, the Wild Things always remained on center stage. Thus, when a new edition of the book appeared in 1975, completely remastered from the original art, and far superior in quality to the first, this was a grand event. Maurice gave us a freshly minted copy.
He signed it with a drawing, as he had our daughter, Samantha’s well-loved volume, many years before.
Meanwhile, Maurice’s apartment in New York City, and later his house in Connecticut were teeming with Wild Things dolls. Some of these were handmade gifts from well-intentioned fans, but most were prototypes, designed by various toy companies, in an attempt to convince Maurice to allow them to make dolls of the Wild Things. Most of these were hideous. Maurice, justifiably, hated them all. Nonetheless, he kept them all.
The doll in this photograph was one particularly unsettling example. It resembled the sort of creepy creature, like one of those intended to represent a mermaid, being part fish and part mummified monkey, joined together, through the art of taxidermy that one might encounter in a traveling museum of curiosities, or a sleazy carnival sideshow. I always believed that on close examination, this mangy specimen would reveal a colony of fleas.
The photo also captures Maurice in his Wild Things mode. Although, he always maintained that the Wild Things were fashioned after his obnoxious relatives, overbearing aunts and uncles, who, throughout his childhood years, were inclined to pinch his cheek, I often wondered if he realized that the Wild Things were, in fact, himself, Maurice. His resemblance to the Wild Thing, who, for lack of any better name, we referred to as “the Main Guy” was undeniable. When Maurice rolled his eyes to one side, and made his terrible Wild Things face, he became the spitting image of that adorable beast.
Sometime in 1979, Maurice called me and asked if I would design Wild Things dolls for him. I was flabbergasted! Why, out of the blue, would he make such an inquiry? When everyone, from Fisher Price to Creative Playthings had tried their best to woo Maurice, and failed to succeed, what potential did he see in me? Of course, I was immensely flattered. Therefore, not without a certain sense of trepidation, knowing, full well, how hard he was to please, I agreed.
In spite of my willingness, there was a certain complication, namely, the fact that I was, more or less, married to Colorforms. I knew in my heart that a project of this importance deserved to be manufactured by a major toy company, Hasbro, Kenner, or Mattel, maybe. At the same time, I also felt certain that Harry Kislevitz, my friend, mentor, and unofficial “employer,” being a man of exquisite taste, would jump at the opportunity to manufacture the Wild Things. And Harry did not disappoint me. He embraced the project passionately!
Nonetheless, my intuition told me that the very idea of Colorforms manufacturing a line of Wild Things dolls was an absurdity. Then again, this modest company, known only for boxed activities had, ten years before then, introduced the world’s first fantasy action figures, The Outer Space Men, and did, in fact, succeed. I also knew that Harry, by his very nature, would spare no expense to see that the Wild Things dolls would ultimately be the very highest quality!
Now, with Harry on board enthusiastically, and that hurdle overcome, the biggest challenge still lay ahead of me, coming up with designs that would please both myself and Maurice. Thankfully, I knew, exactly how the dolls should look, and what size they should be. At times like this, I tune into my one great gift, the ability to conceive of and create imagery, spontaneously. I could visualize the finished Wild Things dolls, already, as clear as day in my mind’s eye. Now, all I had to do was draw them, so that both Maurice and Harry could also see what I could see.
WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is Copyright 1963 by Maurice Sendak,
photographs and text are Copyright Mel Birnkrant.