Every Sunday night in the late 1930s, Maurice Sendak's immigrant relatives descended on his Brooklyn home and ate everything in sight.
"I was afraid they might eat me," said the celebrated children's author and illustrator, the subject of a new exhibit, "Where the Wild Things Are: Maurice Sendak in His Own Words and Pictures," at the Skirball Cultural Center. "I saw them as fiendish creatures. They ate raw onions, and they stank, and they pinched you. They screamed at each other in a foreign language, Yiddish. They had bad teeth."
When Sendak, 74, describes the greenhorns, he sounds a bit like Max, the irreverent paskuvnyak who's sent to bed without his supper in his 1963 classic, "Where the Wild Things Are." So it's not surprising that the Wild Things -- adorable monsters with bad teeth -- are actually based on his relatives. "I didn't have an uncle who looked like a bull with [fangs,] but he looked that way to me," he said. "I seem to have been blessed, or cursed, with a vivid memory of childhood."
Sendak's knack for accessing early angst has helped him transform children's literature.
"He was groundbreaking in the way he dealt with the reality of children's psychological experiences," said Barbara Gilbert, the Skirball's curator of fine arts. "He emphasized kids' anxieties and fears in a way that had never been done before. And he did so by using his own background as a first-generation American Jew."
In the interactive exhibit, which includes original drawings, letters and photographs, children can slide into a giant version of the soup bowl -- complete with rubber chicken -- from his 1962 "Chicken Soup With Rice."
"I wrote it to poke fun at my mother," he told The Journal via phone from his Connecticut home. "She was convinced chicken soup was the cure-all for everything. "If you had hydrophobia, she'd rub it on your chest. She'd wash your ears out with it. She'd give you an enema with it. Needless to say, I rather disliked chicken soup."
If the Jewish panacea was a minor annoyance during his childhood, the Holocaust was a major source of pain, Sendak said. It's the proverbial "monster in the closet" behind the dark motifs that haunt even his cheeriest work.
When Sendak's parents emigrated from Poland to New York City around 1911, their assignment was to save money to bring the rest of the family to America. But they weren't entirely successful. While some of Sendak's mother's family escaped Nazi-occupied Europe, all of his father's relatives remained behind and perished in the Shoah.
"A landsman would come to the house and tell us someone else had died, upon which my mother would scream and pull her hair and fall down on the floor," Sendak said.
The worst news came the day of his bar mitzvah. "My father learned that his shtetl had been razed, and he was just prostrate," the author recalled. "I have such a vivid, terrible memory of him standing at the reception, green-faced, while everyone sang 'For He's a Jolly Good Fellow.'"
Soon thereafter, Sendak became obsessed with photographs of the murdered relatives that he found in a shoebox. "Some of the children were exactly my age, which gave me this hopeless feeling of insecurity," said Sendak, who used the portraits to illustrate books such as I. B. Singer's 1966 "Zlateh the Goat and Other Stories." "By a mere flip of the coin, I was on this side of the ocean, and they were on that side. It was completely arbitrary that they didn't get bar mitzvahed and I did, and that they got burned to death and I didn't."
Sendak, who's now working on a Holocaust-themed children's book and opera, "Brundibar," added: "When you have monsters early on, they dominate your life forever. If you don't control them, you end up taking drugs or in the nuthouse. If you try to control them, you become a children's book author."
Not that publishers were initially enamored of Sendak's work. When he shlepped his portfolio around New York as a teenager in the late 1940s, they told him his characters weren't "American" enough. He needed to study popular children's books, they said.
"So I did -- and I saw goyim," the author recalled. "The books were filled with blond children with little turned-up noses, who all bounced about in poppy fields. And my drawings were of naughty, bug-eyed immigrant kids who looked like me."
Sendak got his first break when his high school physics teacher, Hyman Ruchlis, offered him $100 and a passing grade (he was failing) to illustrate a book he'd written on the atomic bomb. He received an even more important break when the popular children's author, Ruth Krauss, selected him to illustrate her 1952 book, "A Hole Is to Dig."
"I drew a bunch of bug-headed Yid kids," he said.
Over the next decade, Sendak illustrated more than 50 volumes -- including "Kenny's Window," (1956) the first book he wrote and illustrated -- gaining the experience that enabled him to create the masterpiece "Where the Wild Things Are." "Things" won the prestigious Caldecott Medal and is now one of the top 10 children's bestsellers of all time.
Sendak said his most personal book is the award-winning "In the Night Kitchen" (1970), which he wrote and illustrated during another traumatic time in his life. In the late 1960s, his parents died, he suffered a massive coronary at age 39 and he continued to be tormented by images of his murdered relatives.
In the surreal book, a dreaming boy named Mickey says goodbye to his mama and papa through a closed bedroom door; he falls into a kitchen, where three jolly bakers put him in an oven before he escapes to the Milky Way.
It's no accident the identical-looking bakers resemble Oliver Hardy, complete with Hitlerian mustache: "I intended them as a stand-in for Hitler, the happy baker [of children]," Sendak said. "Some people were offended I didn't include Laurel, but Laurel was useless to me. College students have written papers on how Mickey [metaphorically] survives the camps, and goes on to the land of milk and honey, Israel."
Sendak turns mischievous again when describing how his dark, subversive work has earned the ire of some critics. Libraries have pulled "Night Kitchen" off the shelves because it's scary (and because Mickey is depicted in his birthday suit). Child psychologist Dr. Bruno Bettleheim once denounced Sendak in a two-page spread in a woman's magazine: "He said, 'Don't leave "Wild Things" in your child's room at night,'" the author said. "So I've decided to change his name: It's Dr. Benno Brutal-heim."
When fans ask what Max is doing today, Sendak is irreverent as Max himself. "I say he's still wearing that idiotic wolf suit, so his mother won't let him out of the house," the author said. "He's unmarried and in therapy."
"I like to be politically incorrect," Sendak added. "Otherwise, things get boring."