Mel Birnkrant
AN INTERVIEW
INTRODUCTION




 
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        WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE is Copyright 1963 by Maurice Sendak,
photographs and text are Copyright Mel Birnkrant. Interview is Copyright by Plilip Weiss.
 
Dear Mel,

Here are Maurice's comments. I will probably use 3 or  4 short quotes. He's
a wonderful wonderful talker, but this piece is about you talking....
Let's talk later today...

Philip

Interview, Maurice Sendak, Sept. 30, 2000
On Mel Birnkrant.


     
It's hard to think of him as an investor, even though he is.  I mean he invests some personal quality into this, which has always been intriguing to me.  It's like above and beyond Mickey Mouse.  It's hard to put it into words, but it's what attracted me right from what the beginning.  It was not an investment collection, not who's got the biggest and the best collection.  As far as I'm concerned, it's the most glorious collection I've ever seen.  But because he is so personally invested in it and has made it part of his creative life, which is very much what I did when I started.  I started in 1970 or 1971, doing a book called In the Night Kitchen, and I was very anxious early memories of my Mickey Mouse passion when I was a little boy in Brooklyn.  And then Mel and I met, and he sort of became my guru, the Mickey Mouse guru.

There was nothing commercial about it.  And his attitude toward the Mickey collection was kind of a philosophy of life and art, and so it sounds vaguely silly, but if one reconstructs and puts in language now what this long friendship has meant to me.  We rarely see one another, though we're always alive to each other, and I'm always capable of calling him or he me.  He's been an enormously great friend to me, alerting me to something.  I don't keep track of the auction world.  He will alert me to, Maurice something is coming up in two months and I don't think you have it, and I think it is something you will love, that kind of thing.

      
So I shared my creative life with him.  We got to be good friends quickly, and he became very much part of the creation of In the Night Kitchen.  And his name is in the book.  That only means, because there are very precious names in that book, very dear people in my life, and Mel was a new person.  The fact that he got in meant a lot--

Weiss: Your way of acknowledging your debts?

      
Oh sure.  There are debts galore in that book, and I think I acknowledged all of them.  I ripped off Windsor McKay, and just before that book was done I had a very serious heart attack in England.  So that book is sort of a miracle, that I lived to do it.  So there are the doctors' names and the nurses' names and the hospital in England and the nursing home in London, and my mother had just died, and just as I finished the book my father died, a tremendous potpourri of living and dying.  And it was the book that last book I did in New York, then I had to leave for my health.  I've been up here ever since.  So that's always extremely important to me, the personal message, and it was also the beginning of the Mickey collecting, and Mel and Eunice Birnkrant, that-- for fear of language and ... it had to be something of a kind of spiritual nature. and that the Mickey toys became of some other thing.  Yes, we had the fun of buying the stuff and chuckling when we got something cheap, and somebody didn't know how good it was.

      
We were collectors too, no question about that.  He would envy a piece I had, and he would envy 900 pieces he had.  His collection is vast.  I always think what Lourdes is to Bernadette is the Mickey collection to Mel Birnkrant.  You know, you go to his house and it's like a holy temple.  And Mel is a funny man, he can combine the kind of silliness of collecting Mickey Mouse on one level to the abstract purity of it-- and he's also taught me to have the most flexible attitude toward collection.  If he gets something-- oh, on The Road Show, if you brought a Mickey in, and the guy would say, Oh my God, it's the rarest Mickey I've ever seen, how long have you had it, did your great grandmother give it to you during the civil war, and something like that, and he'd say this is worth an enormous amount of money.  And then you'd point out, well, you see, it only had one arm when I got it and I manufactured a second arm, and he'd groan and slap his forehead and say, Oh my God, if you hadn't touched it it would be worth $2 million, now it's worth a dollar and a half.  Mel taught me that that meant shit.  You fixed it if you liked.  You weren't planning to resell it, you wanted to enjoy it.  So he has a much more casual attitude about the restoration of things.  He suits himself.

Weiss:  Mel is a superb craftsman with objects. I don't put you in that category.  Am I wrong?

       
Not at all. I would ask Mel to do something for me.  I have no gift for painting a Mickey arm. I wouldn't dare do it, I'd fuck it up. ... Very often I don't fix it, or I will get something which I have paid a fortune for, and I would tell Mel I got this and I would hear silence, which is always heartbreaking, and I'll say, "Mel what's wrong?" And he says, "I know that--" He knows every piece in the world, he's like the Mickey god, looking down from the heavens-- "I know that piece, I saw it in 1946, I passed on it because the Minnie is not real," and he'll also cry and shudder and groan, and then he'll say "Maurice, it doesn't matter, you like the Minnie, then just leave it.  What do you care?"  He taught me a way of life, because you can extend that thinking to all forms of thinking--

Weiss: Elaborate.

       I mean, oh, thinking of how precious my art is or how precious somebody else's art is.  And I can't say I learned this entirely from Mel.  Maybe I just learned it because I'm now 72 years old and god help me I should have learned something by now.  It would be not to be so precious about everything. Not to be so protective of things.  To be able to give them away, to throw them away.  Am I making sense?

Weiss: It's news to me that you're a collector.  This is not about your collection.  But I don't know what your relationship is to art-- but what else do you collect?

       
I am a seriously demented collector.  Primarily in first edition books.  I have a fantastic glorious collection of Herman Melville, who is one of my heroes. I have a precious John Keats, who is another hero. I have a vast collection, which I started when I was young of Henry James.  I have by sheer dint of being in the children's book industry, I have a superb collection of books from the 50s and 60s, all autographed by colleagues, most of whom, sadly are now dead.  I have to worry about where that collection is going to go, because it's extremely special.  And the only object collection-- I don't collect objects per se.  I collect papers I collect letters of various people I love.  I have a Mozart letter, who is my other hero.  Those are very important to me, sort of like pieces of the true cross, which is what the first editions of books mean to me.  The Mickey mouse collection bewilders friends and people, that I can go from William Blake to Mickey Mouse.  But I can.  One, as I said, he was part of my childhood, and 2 the collection has become very very very dear to me, and it's mostly because of Mel, it's a kind of thing that binds us together.  I also love Mel.  He's an extraordinarily generous kind giving man, with a hilarious sense of humor.  So we just laugh our way through life, and Mickey is a kind of dopey symbol of something other, I wouldn't dare to commit myself to what that is.

Weiss: Mel's toys, the ones he's designed.

     
They're also incredibly beautiful and technically perfect. all the toys
he's ever designed.  I was collecting Mel's toy designs for a long time,
till I lost track of what he was doing basically.  But I have first editions
of his Colorforms.  He's an artist.  He's somebody worth collecting.  To put
it very simply.

Weiss: Display of his collection.

      
Like Lourdes.  You're walking into God's cave.  Now his luxuriant collection, his sensuous pleasure in the display of the collection, is miraculous.  Mine, I'm a sloppy displayer.  I'm looking around my studio now and there are Mickeys all over the frigging place.  Between books, on shelves, he's like crawling all over the place. There is one special unit that I do display, that are Mickeys, my favorites, and those are only very early Mickeys from the time of his birth, which happens to be the same year as my birth, I'm a few months older than him, and because he lives in Hollywood and has as many facelifts for free that he gets, he looks a lot younger than me.  American and European Mickeys of extraordinary quality, roughly 30 or 35, and I built a unit just to display them.  Otherwise, they're just everywhere, there's even a little hospital ward here of broken Mickeys which the young woman who lives here fixes, something has fallen down during the night. Mickey or Minnie goes into the ward.

Weiss:  You spoke of the spiritual element to the relationship he has.  Want to elaborate?

    
It has to do with the creative thing within me and within him.  I think both of us are very aware of the fragility of the creative expression.  Where did it come from?  I always think of it as a tinker toy machine in the middle of my gut, which I was born with, but I have no control over it, and this little tinker toy machine was to break down, that's the end of it.  I have no intellectual, no spiritual, no control over how or why it works. and that is so like a toy.  I always talk of it as though it were a little toy, which you pray would never break. but you live with the expectation that it probably will. the way it arose in your life, was just purely accidental and strange.  if it isn't, we don't know what it is, so it may leave you.

    
Toys they break, well death will break it of course, officially and finally, but what one dreads in life, is how long do you remain on a creative level to your expectations, now I'm 72 and I will be celebrating-- I'm sorry to be talking about myself.  We should be talking about Mel, but somehow it's all intertwined-- but in a year's time I will have been working in publishing and theater for 50 full years.  I'm very proud of that, and the worry has been what happens now.  The last chapter of the artist's life is pretty gloomy sometimes, they collapse into ill health or drugs or suicide, so now I'm in the last chapter, and I'm determined that it will end as ethically as it began....  Is there any creative thing left in me?  Now this may sound absurd to you, but there is a relation in all this to Mickey Mouse, and the very fragility of these little bisque figures and tin toys.  It's their fragility that makes them so endearing, how have they lasted, and when you hold something in your hand, and you can still, you can wind it up, the paint is still fresh.  It's like a time machine, which brings you back to your childhood, and I'm trying to make a link, and that is the link between me and Mel.   it has more to do with creative passion, than it has literally to do with Mickey Mouse, and he is the only one I know who understands that.  The only one I know who understands that. I know many many artists, but they will be dumbfounded that I am making a connection to a dopey Walt Disney toy.

Weiss: Do they also have talismanic figures in their life?

     
Not that I know of, not that I know of.  They may personally, but mine is on gross display.  People come in here wanting to know me, and oh my God, they walk into that room, and mamamia, what is all that hazzarai!  They don't get it.  So I depend on Mel, he does understand the connection, to the little tinker toy inside, did it break, is it working?  I've had a long life....

     
My Mickeys are dearer to me now than ever, maybe because I'm older and I'm as fragile as they are.... It's a very strange thing living, as you may have noticed. how old are you

Weiss: 45

     
Succulent years. they are.  I didn't come to life fearlessly till I was 40. because the anxieties of youth and the ambitions of youth are so stressful and wasting.  There are more people now who think me dead.

Weiss: What should happen to Mel's collection?

Oh God.

Weiss: This is a source of concern to him, as you may be aware.


    
It's a source of concern to me, too. And my collection is peanuts compared to his. He's the godhead. Does he have any ideas of his own, does he mention?

Weiss. He's motioned some.  Yes. I've discussed it with him.  He's looking at several options that all have their downsides. His dream, and one I hope to foster, that some level of public recognition of what an important and vast collection this is, and that there will be an institution built to maintain it.  Now that may be a folly, I don't know the reality of museum life is.

   
Sendak:  What I'm afraid of is that it will be reduced to a vast, impressive and beautiful Mickey Mouse collection.  The ramifications of that collection, what that man has put into that collection, those aspects of it, which are much more important than the pieces of bisque and tin, they must be part of how that collection is put together.  My collection will largely go to the Rosenbach Collection in Philadelphia, where all my work goes, and they sort of grunted at, Mickey Mouse.  And I said I had to have him.  He is an essential part of my creative life.  If you look at him merely as a toy, then you're not getting it.  You have to find a place to house it.  I've thrashed between getting rid of it, selling it, getting rid of him, selling, whatever.  I'm done with him.  I don't need it anymore,  I should be lightening the boat, as I go down the river of death, you know, but I can't.  I can't.  I don't want to do that.  I'm throwing away a lot of things.  I don't want people to see read or find.  A terrible thing to do....
          And that is where the interview, at least, the part that Philip shared with me comes to an end.  I must confess, I love this candid interview, and I reread it every now and then.  I can hear Maurice’s voice in it, and the complimentary thoughts that he expressed, as clearly as if he were speaking them.  These kind words mean a lot to me, and even more so now that he is dead.  They make me feel... or, at least, allow me to pretend he is alive again.

     
Here is the final photo. It represents the last time Maurice visited Mouse Heaven, just as he was leaving, following the Great Waddle Book Trade that took so many years to consummate.  It was a most memorable day.  The photo shows Eunice, Maurice, and me, and the cat, Smoochie.  Now, only two of us remain.
        I saw Maurice, in person, just one more time. That was at the opening of the Sendak Show at the Jewish Museum, in 2005.  My daughter, Alexandra Toots and her friend Keith, the tattoo artist who was a huge fan of Maurice were with me.  Alex was thrilled when Maurice who hadn’t seen her since she was a baby remembered her name, and exclaimed, “Is that you Tootsie?”  Then, he embraced her lovingly.
         In the autumn of 2000, I met the writer, Philip Weiss at the home of our mutual friend, Sue Blair, in Garrison.  Philip wrote an article about Mouse Heaven for the New York Observer that year.  Doing some background research, he contacted several of my friends by phone, and included a few quotes from them in the article.  Philip generally works from written notes, but in Maurice’s case, he tape recorded the interview, and then, transcribed it, word for word.  He generously gave me a copy.  And I have treasured this secret document for sixteen years.  To quote Robert Burns: “ Oh would some power the gift give us, to see ourselves as others see us.”  Philip was that power, and this amazing interview, not intended for my ears, was the gift that he gave me.

        
But the interview was not all about yours truly; more importantly, it was about Maurice.  In it, Maurice extemporaneously revealed much of what Mickey Mouse meant to him.  These are insights that ought to be a part of Sendak History.  The words are vintage Maurice.  It is so typical of him that twelve years before he passed away, he felt that he could hear death, knocking on his door. 
         Speaking of death, I ran into Philip last summer at Sue Blair’s memorial service.  Ironically, it was Sue who introduced us, fifteen years before.  And so we had come full circle.  During that time, Philip and I became good friends, although, we got together seldom, and the last time we saw Philip and his wife Cynthia was years before.  Philip greeted me dramatically, exclaiming that whenever he saw someone he knew, he immediately assessed to what degree he had to watch what he said, covering his mouth with both his hands to illustrate what he meant.  Removing them a little, he explained that with some people he could reveal more than he could to others.  Then, spreading his arms wide, he said: “Mel, with you I immediately know I can relax, and say anything I like!”  I considered that a lovely compliment. 

       
  The service was about to begin, so we didn’t have time to say a lot, but I did ask him about the interview he transcribed from Maurice, and whether or not I could share it some day.  To my surprise he didn’t remember it!  This precious scrap of paper, precious to me, anyway, might represent only an insignificant bit of Sendak history.  But it helps to explain a mystery that has puzzled many who felt they knew Maurice: What did Mickey mean to him?  If I don’t share this treasure here, it may be lost forevermore.