One of the first things I noticed, sitting down across from Maurice Sendak at his rambling home in Ridgefield, Conn., back in 2009, was the mantelpiece. Or rather what was on the mantelpiece: a raucous plastic menagerie of Disney figurines. Donald Duck was there. So was Goofy. But most of all, there was Mickey Mouse.
I had traveled up to Ridgefield, along with my Newsweek colleague Ramin Setoodeh, to interview Sendak, who died Tuesday at 83, about the soon-to-be released screen adaption of Where the Wild Things Are. Spike Jonze, the director, had come, too; his co-screenwriter, Dave Eggers, was on the line from San Francisco. Sendak’s lumbering German Shepherd, Herman—named after Melville—was snoring at our feet.
At some point, we started to discuss whether Wild Things was a movie “for children” or a movie “about childhood.” Sendak—squinty-eyed, sly, and ever snappish—took exception. He didn’t see a distinction. Citing Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life as a Dog—European films that confronted the disorienting strangeness of childhood head-on—he accused Americans of being “squeamish” and “Disneyfied.”
But what about those Disney characters on your mantelpiece? we asked.
Sendak arched his long, devilish eyebrows. “Oh, I adored Mickey Mouse when I was a child,” he said. “He was the emblem of happiness and funniness. You went to the movies then, you saw two movies and a short. When Mickey Mouse came on the screen and there was his big head, my sister said she had to hold onto me. I went berserk. I stood on the chair screaming, “My hero! My hero!” He had a lot of guts when he was young. We’re both about the same age; we’re about a month apart. He was the little brother I always wanted.” Maurice Sendak, 2002.
Jonze was fascinated. He leaned forward and put his hand on Sendak’s shoulder. “What was he like when he was young?” he asked.
“He had teeth,” Sendak said. “Literally?”
“He had literally teeth,” Sendak continued. “I have toys in the other room.”
“Was he more dangerous?”
“Yes,” Sendak said. “He was more dangerous. He did things to Minnie that were not nice. I think what happened, was that he became so popular—this is my own theory—they gave his cruelty and his toughness to Donald Duck. And they made Mickey a fat nothing. He’s too important for products. They want him to be placid and nice and adorable. He turned into a schmaltzer. I despised him after a point.”
Maurice Sendak liked things with teeth. If I had to explain, in short, why I love his work—why pretty much anyone who had the weird, wonderful privilege of being a child in the second half of the 20th century loves his work—that is what I would say. The things Sendak made, Wild or not, always had teeth. Max almost got eaten; Pierre actually did, by a lion. In Outside Over There, a gang of goblins abducts a baby. Elsewhere, a naked boy almost gets baked to death. When Sendak made an alphabet book, he called it Alligators All Around. With him, M was for menace.