MOYERS: And it ends with them saying, "The wicked never win. We have our victory. Yet, tyrants come along. But, you just wait and see. They topple one, two, three. Our friends will make us strong. And thus, we end our song."
SENDAK: Turn the page.
MOYERS: It's a P.S. from Brundibar. "They believe they've won the fight. They believe I'm gone. Not quite. Nothing ever works out neatly. Bullies don't give up completely. One departs. The next appears. And we shall meet again, my dears. Though I go, I won't go far. I'll be back. Love, Brundibar." What are you saying there?
SENDAK: Well, you can't get rid of evil. We can't, and I feel that so intensely. All the idiots that keep coming into the world and wrecking people's lives.
And it is such an abundance of idiocy that you lose courage, okay? That you lose hope. I don't want to lose hope. I get through every day. I'm pretty good. I work. I sleep. I sing. I walk. But, I'm losing hope.
MOYERS: There's a powerful illustration here. The children are on the backs of blackbirds. They're flying through the starlit sky. Why blackbirds?
SENDAK: I don't know for sure. Because the blackbirds are in this book, they're both pro the kids and against the kids. Just like fate. Sometimes it goes your way. Sometimes… and also a blackbird is from my passion for Schubert songs and his blackbirds and his birds of doom or birds of good.
MOYERS: Well, as the eye moves down that page…
SENDAK: You see the mother's screaming.
SENDAK: Yeah. Yeah.
MOYERS: Weeping and screaming?
SENDAK: Yeah, yeah.
MOYERS: I mean, this is Germany under the Nazis?
MOYERS: A new generation won't read the Holocaust into this?
SENDAK: I hope they do.
MOYERS: Do you?
SENDAK: Yeah. Yeah. I hope they do. But also, some people were insulted. Some people were amazed. And some people were baffled that in the last big picture of that book, there's a crucifix on the wall of the children's house. Everybody assumes the hero and heroine are Jewish and the mother is Jewish. They're not. They're not.
That was my point. Those kids were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And all children were in the Holocaust. Everybody was in the Holocaust. So, I made sure my hero and heroine were not Jewish children. That was too easy. That was too easy.
MOYERS: The story of BRUNDIBAR. Where did this come from?
SENDAK: It came from a young composer named Hans Krasa who wrote this opera for Jewish children in an orphanage in Prague. Before the performance could be put on… it was just for fun…
MOYERS: What, it was about 1938, '39?
SENDAK: No. Close to '39 or '40 actually. And the Germans invaded. And all the children were taken out and the composer and the librettist, everybody and put into Theresienstadt or Terezin. It was called "The Empress Teresa's Grounds" that she kept in the old days.
MOYERS: A concentration camp?
SENDAK: Yeah, a concentration camp. There were a lot of intellectuals there, Bauhaus artists. And Hitler made a film about Hitler gives a camp to the Jews. And they look all shiny. And they're drawing. And they're playing volleyball.
And people are dancing. And people are having a wonderful time. And everybody fell for it.
MOYERS: They staged this opera, these…
SENDAK: They staged the opera. It was staged 55 times.
SENDAK: BRUNDIBAR in the camp. It was so popular. So, they kept repeating it and repeating it 55 times. Of course, the children were periodically put on the train and sent to Auschwitz which is…
MOYERS: Hitler would film this in order to make… He made propaganda films to show the world that…
SENDAK: Just this one film.
MOYERS: Camp was really a good place to be.
SENDAK: A good place. The kids were given clothes to wear, were given food to eat. They planted trees. As soon as it all was over, the trees went. The clothes went. The food went. And it worked.
MOYERS: And all these children who performed and the composer of the opera were taken to Auschwitz and murdered?
SENDAK: And exterminated, yes. Yes. I know when we were doing the opera in… me and Tony Kushner did the opera in Chicago, a number of people joined us. And one became a fast friend because she had played in the original performance in Terezin. She had played the role of the cat. And she was there. She was my age. And I was sitting with her. We were both crying our hearts out.
And there we see a 10-year-old girl standing on stage dressed as a cat like collision and time smashing into each other. And she said she was one of 11 girls who got out. And they're all in touch with each other. And she described the circumstances of the camp and what the production was like.
SENDAK: I'm sorry. She confirmed that she knew that any one of them on the stage or two or three or whatever would die. And yet, they sang every night that the performance was on. That's courage.
MOYERS: That's courage.
SENDAK: That's courage.
MOYERS: Are you obsessed with death?
SENDAK: A little bit. A little bit. Yeah, it's such a curious thing.
MOYERS: How so?
SENDAK: It's a whole adventure.
MOYERS: We have no firsthand reports, do we?
SENDAK: No, we don't. I wouldn't believe them even if they did. They all talk about lights in the distance and people flying on the ceiling. No. But, it is an adventure. You know who said that? Peter Pan of all people. I don't like him.
SENDAK: No, it's not him I don't like. It's Barrie I don't like. The sentimentalizing of children, the cutesifying of the children. If you look into the heart of Peter Pan, it is a boy obsessed with death, afraid to live.
And you strip away all the silly music and the silly nonsense and the crocodile and the hook and all those things, it's a very strange, very strange story. But, Barrie was a very strange man.
MOYERS: If I may ask you to tell me about your childhood friend, Lloyd.
SENDAK: Ooh, why?
MOYERS: Because I think it fits with the Lindbergh story and the story of your… maybe I'm wrong. If you don't…
SENDAK: No, no, no. Of course, it is part of it.
I was maybe just preschool, six or seven… I don't remember. Anyway, I was playing with my friend, Lloyd in these tall, Brooklyn apartment houses and long alley ways in between the apartment houses where the kids played.
The safest place to play. And laundry hanging from both buildings. And me and Lloyd are playing ball. It was like the size… I remember it seemed like the size of a basketball and just… both of us throwing it high and higher and higher to see if we could reach for it.
And I threw it high. And he reached for it. But, he didn't get it. And it bounced. And it rolled into the street. And he did just what we were told never to do which is to run from the alley ways straight into the streets cause nobody sees us coming, okay?
And the next thing I remember I don't remember the car but I remember Lloyd like flat out in the air. It could be a distorted memory. But, I see the arms and the head, he's flying.
And then, I knew what happened. And he was dead. He was killed on impact.
MOYERS: This is a true story.
SENDAK: It's a true story.
MOYERS: So many children fly in your books. Ida.
SENDAK: Oh, yeah.
MOYERS: The kids on the blackbirds. Mickey.
SENDAK: Oh, yeah. Yeah. In I WANT TO PAINT MY BATHROOM BLUE, the hero flies all through the book. In the Randall Jarell book, he flies all through the book. Yeah. You're better than my therapist.
MOYERS: And cheaper too.
SENDAK: This is true. You're a lot nicer.
MOYERS: Is that why there are two endings... but do you feel responsible for Lloyd's death? Do you feel responsible for the kids at Auschwitz? Do you feel responsible for every…
SENDAK: I don't feel responsible for the kids of Auschwitz although my parents tried to make me feel…
SENDAK: If I was staying out late and dinner was on the table and I'd been called three times, I was playing stoop ball or something outside in the street, my mother's voice would tell me that I'd better go up now. And I'd go up. And she'd say, "Your cousin, Leo, you know they're your age. They don't play ball. They're dead. They're in a concentration camp. You have the privilege of being here. And you don't come up and eat. They have no food."
I was made to feel guilty all the time. Because I had the great, good luck and it was only luck that my father came here. I mean really just dumb luck.
MOYERS: That you escaped the Holocaust?
SENDAK: Yes. My father came here and my mother came here. You know, they were poor, looking for jobs, save money and bring the people over, blah. There was no hint of the Holocaust when they came over except lots of regular, normal anti-Semitism which they were used to.
Yeah. So, I hated 'em. I hated those dead kids. Cause they were thrown in front of me all the time.
MOYERS: And you thought of…
SENDAK: It was so cruel of my parents. It constantly made me feel that I was shamelessly enjoying myself when they were being cooked in an oven.
MOYERS: How do you calm your own demons? How do you find a separate peace in a world that's so full of scary things?
SENDAK: I don't know. I read. Like coming here today, I was anxious about this. Would I be all right? And I have a little tiny Emily Dickinson so big that I carry in my pocket everywhere. And you just read three poems of Emily. She is so brave. She is so strong. She is such a sexy, passionate, little woman. I feel better.
Art has always been my salvation. And my gods are Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Mozart. I believe in them with all my heart. And when Mozart is playing in my room, I am in conjunction with something I can't explain.
I don't need to. I know that if there's a purpose for life, it was for me to hear Mozart. Or if I walk in the woods and I see an animal, the purpose of my life was to see that animal.
I can recollect it, I can notice it. I'm here to take note of. And that is beyond my ego, beyond anything that belongs to me, an observer, an observer.
MOYERS: Tony Kushner, your friend and collaborator, says you have a mind darkened by both fatalism and faith.
SENDAK: Well, okay.
MOYERS: You agree with him? He knows you.
SENDAK: Yeah, he knows me almost too well. Fatalism, yes. Yes. Having lived through the wars in Europe and having lost so many people in my family when I was a child. I didn't even know them. Faith? Total faith in art. Total faith in art.
MOYERS: In art?
SENDAK: Herman Melville is a god.
SENDAK: Because I cherish what he did. He was a genius.
MOYERS: What did he do?
SENDAK: Wrote MOBY DICK. Wrote PIERRE. Wrote THE CONFIDENCE MAN, wrote BILLY BUDD. And when I step into the…
MOYERS: Billy Budd, innocent, faith in the power of innocence.
SENDAK: Oh, yes. Look at him.
MOYERS: Billy Budd, the eternal child.
SENDAK: Scares the bejesus out of people and makes them hate him. Because he's so good. Claggart has him killed in that book. Claggart has his eye on that boy. He will not tolerant such goodness, such blondeness, such blue eye. Goodness is scary.
It's like you want to knock it. You want to hit it. Are we a country of beating down things? We love seeing people go down. We just love it and the NEW YORK TIMES is full, every page of people going down.
When it isn't with kids falling off the roof or being shoved in the oven, it's scandals about who's failing, whose movie is making less money, whose book has bit the dust, which artist you don't see at any of the good parties in New York anymore? Am I exaggerating?
I feel totally disconnected now. Now, let's say it might be age. I'm getting old. And I'm disappointed in everything just the way old people traditionally, boringly are. That bothers me because is it too traditional? Am I not fighting hard enough? I don't feel the fight. I don't feel it.
MOYERS: Isn't this a time for a certain kind of ripeness in your life? I mean, after all, you will never die, Maurice Sendak. I'm serious about that. You know, most of us will live only as long as our grandchildren remember us. But, you will never die.
SENDAK: I have news for you. I'm gonna croak. I am gonna croak.
MOYERS: But, not these books.
SENDAK: Not those books, but I'll be dead. I'll be dead. And I'm not saying this facetiously or I hope not foolishly because the legacy is lovely. I don't take it for granted. I'm not jaded. I never have been jaded. I've always been surprised at my success. I've always enjoyed it.
Some books I've done, I really love. Some books I really hate. Some books I'm totally indifferent to. But the fact that people always say to me, "How can you be depressed, Maurice? You know that your books will go on and on and on." And I'm thinking, "Who cares? What am I gonna do now for me before it's over?"
MOYERS: But when you and I were walking down the corridor a few moments ago, three little boys, charming little boys, born in the last 12 years in awe of you, they read you. You feed them. Their children will feed from your imagination.
SENDAK: And very, very gratifying. But, I'm being very honest with you.
MOYERS: I know you are.
SENDAK: My big concern is me and what do I do now until the time of my death. That is valid. That is useful. That is beautiful. That is creative. And also, I want to be free again. I want to be free like when I was a kid, working with my brother and making toy airplanes and a whole model of the World's Fair in 1939 out of wax.
Where we just had fun. What I mean by this is I've had my career. I've had my success. God willing, it should have happened to Herman Melville who deserved it a great deal more, you know? Imagine him being on Bill Moyers' show. Nothing good happened to Herman Melville.
I want to see me to the end working, living for myself. Ripeness is all. Now, interpreting what ripeness is our own individual problem.
MOYERS: That quote of Shakespeare, do you remember the whole quote?
SENDAK: "Men must endure their going hence as… even as they're coming hither. Ripeness is all."
So, what is the point of it all? Not leaving legacies. But being ripe. Being ripe.
MOYERS: Being ripe? Explore that with me. You don't feel ripe?
SENDAK: I am getting riper. I mean, life has only gotten better personally for me as I've gotten older. I mean, being young was such a gross waste of time. I was just such a miserable, miserable person.
And so when people say, "What age would you like to go back to?" I say, "Well, maybe 69."
MOYERS: Oh, good. That's where I am.
SENDAK: Okay. Okay.
MOYERS: Thank you.
SENDAK: I didn't even know that. Venturing back further, learning is so slow. Accomplishment is so slow. Experiencing and evaluating your experience is so slow. And I am feeling only now I daren't say happy, I don't know what that is at ease.
MOYERS: Let's close with this. How does it end: "and they lived happily ever after" or "the night descends"?
SENDAK: I became so ripe, people could hardly keep their teeth away from me. I don't know. Let me just say this. When I said the ripeness was a letter that John Keats wrote to his brother who emigrated to America describing what it was like to have a peach or piece of a peach in his mouth.
And it's one of the sexiest things you will ever read of how slow you should take the peach. Don't rush it. Let it go through your palette. Let it lie on your tongue. Let it melt a little bit. Let it run from the corners.
It's like describing the most incredible sex orgy. And then, you bite. But, it must be so ripe. It must be so delicious. In other words, you must not waste a second of this deliciousness which for him was life and being a great poet. That you savor every, everything that happened. I want to get ripe.
MOYERS: Maurice Sendak, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
SENDAK: Thank you. It was a pleasure. It really was a pleasure.
MOYERS: Well, it was for me, too.