Around four years ago, I met a broker at a Greenwich Village building to see an apartment. The unit was a bit smaller than what I'd wanted, but both the location and the building itself were excellent. There were two units to the floor. and I asked the broker if I could inquire of the owners of the adjacent unit if they might sell.
The woman had a virtual exclusive on the building, it seemed, and knew most of its residents' comings and goings. She said that the owner was an older man who lived primarily outside the City. In fact, she had not seen him around for quite some time. Within a few days, she forwarded to me the name and number of the owner's representative.
The representative, a literary agent, agreed to speak to me, although the broker said that the owner had indicated that the unit was not on the market. The owner was Maurice Sendak.
I called the agent, Sheldon Fogelman, whose speaking voice immediately put him in that rarified Woody Allen-type, New York Hall of Fame. I told him I wanted to buy the apartment and wondered if Mr. Sendak would at least hear an offer. Within a few days, Fogelman connected me with Sendak.
I never assume anyone knows who I am, least of all towering figures in the world of literature. "I don't know if you know who I am," I said, as if such a thing mattered in a real estate transaction. "Of course I know who you are, Mr. Baldwin," Sendak said. I could tell, right away, that whether I got the apartment or not, I was going to enjoy this conversation. Just from his voice, his timing, you could tell Sendak was funny, wise, sensitive.
He was at his house outside New York, he told me. He admitted to having been quite ill. There were voices in the background. "My caregiver and her son," he said. "Because I write children's books, people assume that I love children, but sometimes I don't, " he joked. "Like right about now."
We made a few exchanges of small talk, but Sendak seemed tired. Then he said, "You strike me as a very plain-speaking man and I am a very plain-speaking man, so let me tell you this. I spent some of the most important time of my life in that apartment with my partner. And he recently died. " Sendak's partner of fifty years was the psychiatrist Eugene Glynn, who had died in May of 2007. Sendak continued, "Many photographs, personal belongings and much of our life together are in that apartment. And if I sell it to you, which is probably a good idea, I will have to go through all of those things. And I just can't bring myself to do that. And I can't tell you if or when I will be able to do so. And you would have to make your decision to buy the other apartment based on that."
I could hear the pain in his voice, his heart literally broken. I thanked him and wished him a recovery from his recent medical troubles. We hung up and I moved on. I recently moved a block away from his old address.
Rest in Peace, Maurice Sendak. He gave children not books, but literature, like Lewis Carroll and Twain. Not pictures, but art, like John Tenniel and N. C. Wyeth.
Sendak. Normal and strange. Tender and cynical. Wild and wise. All at once. Like, well... art.