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Maurice Sendak (1928-2012): Tony Kushner on the Life and Legacy of Legendary Children’s Author

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Playwright Tony Kushner reflects on the life of his friend Maurice Sendak, the writer and illustrator best known for his children’s book, “Where the Wild Things Are.” Sendak died on Tuesday at the age of 83. “Maurice had that ability to speak universally, which I think was evidence of the fact that he really was a genius,” Kushner says. Kushner adds that he regrets Sendak, who was gay, did not live to hear President Obama embrace same-sex marriage. “He believed in decency and in fair play and in integrity, which is why I think he really liked our current president and would have been very moved to see change happening.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Kushner, I wanted to ask you about your late friend, Maurice Sendak, who died this week, the writer and illustrator best known for his children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are. He died on Tuesday at the age of 83. Earlier this year, Maurice Sendak was interviewed by Stephen Colbert on The Colbert Report.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Why write for children?

MAURICE SENDAK: I don’t write for children.


MAURICE SENDAK: No, I write. And so—but it says, “That’s for children.” I didn’t set out to make children happy or make life better for them or easier for them.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Do you like them?

MAURICE SENDAK: I like them as few and far between as I do adults, maybe a bit more, because I really don’t like adults—at all, by the way.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the late Maurice Sendak on Stephen Colbert. Tony Kushner, can you talk about his work, his legacy, who he was?

TONY KUSHNER: We were joking with him when he was in the hospital that—and maybe it wasn’t a joke when he said on The Colbert Report that Newt Gingrich was an idiot—that he may have actually ended Newt Gingrich’s hopes for, you know, a run at the presidency, because it was right around the time that the Gingrich campaign—

AMY GOODMAN: Because the children of the world rose up?

TONY KUSHNER: The children and the adults. I mean, that segment was unbelievably popular. Maurice had that ability to speak universally, which I think was evidence of the fact that he really was a genius, which is a word that I don’t use often or lightly, you know.

And I’m—one of the things that I felt, listening to the President yesterday, was—Maurice died on Tuesday morning at around 3:00, and I was very sad that he wasn’t alive to hear that. He was somewhat grumpy about marriage, in general. But he really loved Obama. Obama read Where the Wild Things Are and still, every Easter, reads the book to kids in the Rose Garden, and that meant a lot to Maurice. He has a little plastic Obama doll on his table. There’s a photograph somewhere of Maurice pretending to eat the Obama doll, because oral incorporation was one of the highest tributes — you know, “I’ll eat you up, I love you so” — I mean, that Maurice could give anyone. And I think he would have been tremendously pleased and moved.

He was a wonderful, wonderful friend and an immensely delightful person to spend time with, and I think just a very—I mean, as people have been saying, without question, the greatest figure in children’s literature in this century and a very great artist, I think, a very significant American artist.

AMY GOODMAN: And why would Obama’s statement about same-sex marriage matter so much to him, if he could have lived one more day?

TONY KUSHNER: Well, I mean, among the many extraordinary things that Maurice did was to come out in the New York — I mean, I had written a book about him where, with his permission, I outed him. I didn’t out him, but I talked about him and his partner, Eugene Glynn, who—they had been together for 50 years. Gene died about three years ago.

AMY GOODMAN: Did his mother know, Maurice Sendak’s mother know?

TONY KUSHNER: That Maurice was gay? No, I don’t think so. I never knew Sadie Sendak. She died in the ’80s, I believe, and is—

AMY GOODMAN: Even though he was with his partner for half a century, a number of those years while his mom was alive?

TONY KUSHNER: No, in fact, Maurice is on record as saying that he’s certain that she didn’t—that she didn’t know. He had a tough relationship with his mother, and I think that she closed off a lot of things.

I think Maurice was—you know, obviously, in In the Night Kitchen, when he shows a little boy falling naked out of his bed, and all of his—you know, he’s naked, and you see his penis, you see the—that was, of course, enormously controversial, and the book is one of the most banned books. And people—he has a copy of In the Night Kitchen where a librarian painted in, with whiteout, diapers over Mickey so you wouldn’t see his… You know, he was unafraid of, you know, talking to children about the things that children talk about, always as a responsible adult, but with great respect for the difficulties of childhood. And your body is, of course, of interest to you as a child, and he didn’t hide that.

And I think that he, you know, struggled all his life with being a gay man in a field where, you know, a revelation of being gay much earlier than when he chose to reveal it would have, you know, certainly ended his career. But at the point that Maurice told a New York Times reporter, “I’m a gay man,” and it was right after his partner of 50 years had died, you know, I think he knocked down—


TONY KUSHNER: Yeah. He knocked down another door. And he—you know, his life was, of course, immensely impacted by his sexual preference, as everyone’s life is, and he was—Herman Melville, who was one of his great heroes, was certainly at least bisexual, and I think that being a gay man mattered a lot to Maurice. And I think justice mattered a lot to Maurice. He believed in decency and in fair play and in integrity, which is why I think he really liked our current president and would have been very moved to see change happening.

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