The reason that Maurice Sendak is sadly not able to be here today is because on Wednesday it is the opening night of his new opera, Brundibar, in Chicago, a project on which he has been working for the past five years. I call Brundibar ‘his new opera’ because he has designed the sets and the costumes, co-operated with the author, Tony Kushner, on the libretto and is now preparing a picture book based upon it. Maurice Sendak has asked me to represent him here in Stockholm - an honour that I find somewhat daunting.
I first met Maurice in New York as long ago as 1961. I was 29 years old and the newly-appointed Children’s Book Editor of The Bodley Head publishing company in London. It was my first visit to the US and I found New York City frightening and totally overwhelming. I was there to meet American publishers and children’s book editors and to see what books we might exchange between us.—It was in the 1950s that I had first become conscious of Maurice Sendak’s illustrations – for Meindert De Jong’s The Wheel on the School and for the first of the Minarik Little Bear books but, above all, I had seen his drawings forThe House of Sixty Fathers . I thought them quite the most beautiful pictures I had seen for a long time. Maurice Sendak was an artist I wanted to meet – and most of all someone I wanted to persuade to draw for The Bodley Head.
Maurice then lived in downtown New York, on West 9th Street I think it was, in a small basement flat, with a cat and a scruffy looking white dog called Jennie. He welcomed me warmly and we had a long discussion about children’s books in general, and I soon realised that as he already had so many commitments for illustration there was little chance of getting him to draw for me. I had also had to confess to him that cats made me sneeze, at which he had kindly put his cat outside. I regret to report that it was never seen again! Now that was an early test of friendship, if there ever was one.
We kept in touch over the next few years, meeting each year on my annual visit to New York. I tried to tempt him with various projects – such as illustrating Huckleberry Finn or or reillustrating Eleanor Estes, but it was not until 1967 that the name of Maurice Sendak at last appeared on The Bodley Head list. In 1963 we had tried to publish The Nutshell Library but we were defeated by the fact that we could find no one in the UK at that time who could make the boxes for the tiny books. In 1965 we had wanted to publish Where the Wild Things Are but once
again we were defeated – by the cost of an oversize, 48 page picture book in full colour at a time of economic depression. There was also the considerable problem of persuading the teachers, librarians, parents, and not least my colleages at The Bodley Head at the time that Where the Wild Things Are was not going to turn all the children in the UK, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, in fact in all the countries in which The Bodley Head exclusively sold their books, into raving lunatics!
We started trying to solve the problem of cost again in 1965 and it took a year before we found a solution. Publication was finally achieved only by arranging a mammoth international printing - in Holland of editions for the UK, Denmark, France a2nd, I am delighted to say, for Sweden. (Incidentally, the whole project turned out to be a financial disaster, for we had made the mistake of quoting all our costs in sterling and before the bills had been paid the pound was devalued!)Publication of Where the Wild Things Are was fixed for 7 April 1967 – and Maurice Sendak came over for The Great Day, having just put the finishing touches to a new book called Higglety, Pigglety, Pop! which starred his beloved dog Jennie. We were soon deeply involved in television appearances, press conferences, Wild Things competitions, you name it and a few days later Maurice and I went up to Newcastle to appear on a live television programme. At two o’clock that night 38 year-old Maurice Sendak staggered to the door of my hotel room and collapsed.
At first the hotel authorities were reluctant even to call a doctor (many hotels are not keen on disturbance in the middle of the night) but eventually a doctor came – and, after much deliberation, diagnosed a bad case of indigestion. I will not go into every detail of what happened next but suffice it to say that eventually I ignored everyone else’s advice and called an ambulance. Maurice had had a coronary thrombosis, a serious heart attack.
There followed about ten days of what I can only call fun. While Maurice slowly gained enough strength – and confidence – to be moved down to London, I discovered his love of practical jokes and brought to his hospital room a false moustache attached to a pair of spectacles and a whole collection of ridiculous tricks. I also found in a nearby shop a small toy, a furry mouse which he immediately christened Beatrix, for we had also discovered our mutual devotion to Beatrix Potter. Thus are friendships sealed.
When, after many weeks, it was time for Maurice to return to New York he left with the promise that, as a token of gratitude for the care he had been given, he would provide the drawings for the 1967 Bodley Head Christmas Booklet. These elegant, slim, paper-covered booklets, printed in an edition limited to 100 copies or thereabouts were sent as a greeting to friends of the company each year. For his booklet Maurice had chosen to illustrate a selection from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence - and a beautiful publication it turned out to be. When it had been blished, Maurice gave me as a personal gift all his tracings and original drawings.
We continued to work together as author and editor for the next fourteen years, The Bodley Head publishing the UK editions of many Maurice Sendak books and organising an exhibition of his original pictures at the Ashmolean Mueum in Oxford in 1975. Maurice and I have remained friends ever since. In 1986 he asked me to accept the certificate on his behalf on his election as an Honorary Royal Designer for Industry at the Royal Society of Arts in London. I last saw him when we spent the day together at his house in the Connecticut countryside in April. I spoke to him on the telephone last week. And here I am representing him in Stockholm, to receive on his behalf the very great honour that has been bestowed on him, his share of the first Astrid Lindgren Prize. I am proud to be his representative.