Maurice Sendak, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ Creator, Dies at 83

Melancholy children's classic inspired 2009 Spike Jonze film

Last Updated: May 8, 2012 @ 10:22 AM

Maurice Sendak, the creator of the darkly mischievous children's classic "Where the Wild Things Are," who embraced the scary, uncertain, and unexplainable parts of childhood, has died. He was 83.

Sendak died Tuesday in Danbury, Conn., near his home in Ridgefield. His editor, Michael di Capua, told The New York Times he died of complications from a recent stroke.

While other authors and illustrators recoiled from the darker side of childhood, Sendak embraced it. Though he wrote and illustrated some 20 of his own stories — while illustrating dozens of others — none were as celebrated as the 1963 "Where the Wild Things Are," a sometimes melancholy story of a young boy, Max, who is banished to his room and runs away to a land filled with beasts who "let the wild rumpus start."

Also readWatch Maurice Sendak Eviscerate Newt Gingrich on 'Colbert' (Video)

Max soon becomes homesick and returns to his room, where a hot dinner awaits. The story won the 1964 Caldecott Medal for most distinguished illustrated book for children, one of many awards for Sendak. In 1996, President Clinton gave him the National Medal of Arts.

Spike Jonze made the book into a 2009 film that featured James Gandolfini, Catherine O'Hara and Paul Dano as the voices of the rather depressed wild things.

"I don't write for children," Sendak told Stephen Colbert in a recent interview, to mark the release of "Bumble-Ardy," his latest book. "I write. And somebody says, 'That's for children.' I didn't set out to make children happy, or make life better for them, or easier for them. … I like them as few and far between as I do adults. Maybe a bit more because I really don't like adults."

"Bumble-Ardy," like "Wild Things," was typical of his books in the way it mingled sadness and near-delirious joy. It tells the story of a pig, whose parents have been eaten, who throws himself a manic birthday party.

Sendak's own childhood had an often gloomy overcast. He said the Wild Things were based on the relevatives who were fixtures in his parents' Brooklyn home as they lived through the Depression and World War II. Many of his relatives perished in the Holocaust.

He felt like an outcast as both a Jew and a homosexual — though he never revealed the latter to his parents. Sendak mentioned he was gay almost offhandedly in a 2008 Times interview, and said he feared, early in his career as a children's author, that it would suffer if people knew he was gay. One of his books, 1993's "We Are All in the Dumps With Jack and Guy," addressed homelessness, hunger and AIDS. His partner of 50 years, pscyhoanalyst Eugene Glynn, died in 2007.

The 2008 interview also revealed Sendak's gleeful disgust at many in the world, which he made no effort to contain. It also came through in the Colbert interview.

Colbert's audience laughed with surprise as the author, sitting in an easy chair with a cane, suddenly delivered scathing dismissal of Newt Gingrich. It began when Sendak observed, "There is something in this country that is so opposed to understanding the complexity of children."

"What do you mean, the complexity of children?" said Colbert, embracing his clueless pundit personae. "Because children have it easy. They get driven every place, we feed them, we dress them. Newt Gingrich said it: Children don't have a work ethic."

"But Newt Gingrich is an idiot," Sendak said. "There is something so hopelessly gross and vile about him."