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Sendak, picturing mortality

He's "a little crotchety with the world," but savors memories of a mural now in Phila.

'I'm not feeling great," Maurice Sendak is saying. "I've been rather sick, to tell you the truth. I can make believe I'm well."

You can hear it in his voice. Sendak, 82, on the phone from his Connecticut home at 3:30 p.m. Friday (pretty much when the night owl's workday gets going), sounds gravelly and stuffy.

"I'm old," says the author and illustrator of dozens of children's books, including Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen. "It could be anything. Who the hell knows?"

Recently a mural Sendak painted in 1961 on a Manhattan apartment wall was cut out (1,400-pound wall and all), transported to Philadelphia, and restored. He says he is very sorry he couldn't get to Philadelphia this month to see it unveiled in its new home, the Rosenbach Museum and Library on Delancey Street, where his papers, original art, and ephemera are collected. He had wanted to renew his acquaintance with Rosalyn and Lionel Chertoff's children, for whom he painted it as they "ran in and out of the room."

"I was very fond of the kids," he says. "I saw a photograph of them. They're all grown up, and, oh, my God . . ."

His voice fades. Most of his ruminations end this way - not morosely but, as in his books, with a kind of rollicking doom, barreling toward repeated destinations: the passage of time, the state of the world, his own mortality, the basic futility of life, a dark but fun stickball game.

"When I kick the bucket," he begins - about to describe why he's glad his stuff has ended up at the Rosenbach, where it will be seen, not archived - then goes parenthetical: "Which can't be too long from now. I think I'm getting out just in time. Watching the news, everything seems to be in disorder. Everybody seems to be unhappy. We've lost the knack of living in the world with the sensation of safety."

The man who imagined escapes as romps that ended with warm suppers says, "I wonder why people still have children. I mean, why put kids in the world when the world is so insecure? This is how old people rationalize their death. You get a little crotchety with the world.

"That's the one thing that I think makes the mural worth having. It represents a time on a personal level when I was secure and young and happy. And I didn't think about dying . . . about my friends dying."

The mural, dedicated to the memory of the Chertoffs and to his late partner of 50 years, Eugene Glynn, features a rambunctious procession of children and animals who had appeared or would appear in his books. He painted it out of affection for the Chertoffs, he says. "I can't think of anybody else I would have painted a mural for," he says. "Schlepping up from Greenwich Village, standing on a ladder."

(How did a boy's jacket, blue in a photo, become tan in the restored mural? He doesn't know. "That was a lot of years ago. I'm sure Leonardo da Vinci standing in front of The Last Supper wouldn't remember what color shirt Christ was wearing.")

The mural's dedication is a lasting tribute to his once-secret relationship with Glynn. Sendak never told his parents he was gay. "I was never honest with them," he says. "I wish I had worked harder and trusted them more."

Glynn died four years ago. "It's what happens to all of us. We're all orphans, and all our friends die. It's the story of life, and it stinks. You go on feeling that you failed. I don't sit here and say, 'I've got all these books, and isn't that nice?' " Then, inadvertently (and charmingly) morphing into Pierre, the epically indifferent boy he created in 1961 (A Cautionary Tale), he blurts: "Who cares! I don't care anymore."

He knows kids respond to this darkness. "I take kids seriously," he says. "They have a lot of things wrong. They protect their parents. Children are brave little creatures."

Sendak's Rosenbach connection dates to 1966 when he met then-director Clive Driver at a Beatrix Potter conference. He was drawn to the museum's devotion to artists such as Melville and Blake, its obscurely satisfying holdings.

For a man sure the end is near, Sendak is still creating. Bumble-Ardy, coming out in the fall, is about a pig who has never had a birthday party and sounds the author's familiar themes of anxiety and abandonment.

"The only difference is both his parents die on the first page," Sendak says cheerfully. "Don't ask me what I was thinking."

The day is young, and Sendak has things to do. "I have to lie down, have lunch, go get a haircut, make believe we have a purpose to living," he says. "I'm still living. I can still listen to an opera."

The night before, he watched Puccini's Girl of the Golden West, a "very silly opera. It was touching. Anything that touches us, reading, music, sleeping, what-the-hell-ever, that's enough worthwhile to live. When the opera ended, they all walk off the stage to "Addio, California" [Farewell, California]. What do you do? You burst into laughter."