Sunday, October 30, 2011

Maurice Sendak in Egypt

As a child I adored Maurice Sendak and devoured his books. They were a combination of mystery and absurdity with an edge of danger that percolated throughout. Chicken Soup With Rice, In the Night Kitchen, and of course the iconic Where the Wild Things Are were staples on my bookshelf.

But something changed for me and my feelings about Maurice Sendak and his books shortly after I turned twenty. By then, my father , a civil engineer who traveled around the world building roads was living in Khartoum, Sudan, situated at the junction of the Blue and White Nile. At the time I was a young college student studying archeology and was so taken by the place that I had to pinch myself to remind me that I was not dreaming. During the period of the Pharoahs, this area was known as the Southern Region. It was like I had been dropped into the midst of living history. I could not get enough of it. So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I was invited to join my father and a team of engineers and archeologists who were making a trip 80 miles north up the Nile to prepare a preliminary study for a huge hydroelectric dam that was being planned.

Outside of Khartoum there were no paved roads so we had to follow the tracks of criss-crossing camel caravans and the trails of rickety trucks precariously overloaded with bundles and people. The trip was slow and arduous and took 10 hours. After we set up the station we began to explore the site and one of the archeologists made an unexpected discovery----a cave which turned out to be according to one of the experts, the tomb of an Egyptian noble. He guessed that it dated back to the time of the Middle Kingdom, approximately 3,500 years. Unfortunately it appeared to have already been stripped by tomb robbers but fortunately some of the walls in the tomb were still intact. And they were full of hieroglyphics. If and when the dam was built, this entire site was to be inundated by the flooding waters. So it was decided that either the entire tomb would have to be moved stone by stone or if not that, at least there should be an attempt to save the hieroglyphics.

Shortly after I arrived in Khartoum I visited a small museum that housed a number of exquisite frescoes that were removed from the ruins of an abandoned Coptic Church in northern Sudan. To save them a specialized team of Polish conservators used a system where by using a layer of mesh coated with beeswax they were able to peel off the images after making a series of shallow incisions along the edges of the frescoes. This is the same technique that the experts decided to use on the walls of this newly rediscovered tomb.

I spent the better part of three weeks assisting as best I could digging trenches and carting away debris. All the work went exceedingly well except for one wall that disintegrated and broke into pieces as it was being removed. It was unfortunate but compared to how many of the walls were saved it was relatively inconsequential. As a token of appreciation for all my hard work I was allowed to keep one of the fragments of the broken wall. I was ecstatic and could not wait to decipher what was written on it. What secrets would it reveal? But it would all just have to wait until I got home. And that is when my love for Maurice Sendak changed.

It seems that for all of his gifts for quirky originality, for mischievous fun, and his uncanny ability to see the world through the eyes of a child, he was in fact ….a fraud. For as I deciphered the inscriptions on the fragment, the true source of Sendak’s voice and vision began to dissolve before my eyes. It showed that his ideas and images did not sprout fully formed from his imagination. In fact, there is a brief account of Sendak in Egypt during WWII as a young intelligence officer who participated in a secret operation that involved remapping the region in anticipation of the surrender of Germany. Very little is known about this particular event but it is obvious that he somehow visited this tomb and must have deciphered the inscriptions as well. But he did not just decipher them or lift stories from them, he appropriated, some would say, actually plagiarized them word for word. He knew he could do it because after all, what was the likelihood that this secret would ever be known?

Unfortunately I cannot irrefutably make this claim because other than this one fragment from the wall, the only one that did not crumble into dust as it was removed, there are no other, more incriminating texts that exist.

I loved Maurice Sendak. Still, the coincidences are just too great to dismiss. And knowing and seeing what I know now, the case against him, to expose him, is compelling enough to challenge his unique legacy. I therefore feel a new look at Maurice Sendak and his prodigious work is in order.

To decipher the inscriptions on the fragment and appreciate my charges, please refer to the original Higgins Crypto-Guide. I came across it quite by accident in a resale shop a few years back. At the time I did not make the connection between M. Sendak scribbled on top and the Maurice Sendak we have all come to know and love.


This puppet is based on Vinnie, one of the original Monsters who auditioned for a part in ‘Where the Wild Things Are. ’ Maurice Sendak rightly or wrongly decided that Vinnie was just not right for the part.

But his story did not end there. Vinnie left acting and took to writing music. Probably one of his most memorable hits was a quaint little piece called ‘Wild Thingaling’. With his ukulele in hand he a criss-crossed the country performing in small hotel bars and venues until he one day he was discovered by Johnny Carson. Shortly after that a young upstart British rock group called the Troggs looking for a hit latched onto ‘Wild Thingaling’ and the song took off, with a cult like following across the globe. The song became the unforgettable ‘Wild Thing.’

What is little known is the rift that grew between Vinnie and the Troggs over their interpretation of the song. He felt that they ‘perverted’ his perky little love song into a rock n’ roll grinder. Never mind that it shot to number one and remained at the top of the hit parade for six straight weeks, Vinnie and the Troggs never reconciled.

Below are Vinnie’s original lyrics.

Oh, Wild Thing a-ding a-ling

You make heart sing a-ling-a-ling

You make everything a-ling

So (gosh darn) groovy be-doo-be-doo

Wild Thing I think I love you

You really move me

I want to know for sure---poo-poo-pee-doo