While at dinner the other night, I overheard a young lawyer at the next table telling stories from the depths of probate court. I’ve always thought that the distribution of a decedent’s assets is interesting stuff—there’s often a lot of drama around the inheritance of wealth—but this woman made it sound far more entertaining than I imagined it would be.
One tale was about a wealthy woman’s missing will. It remained lost until someone found it stuck between the pages of a children’s book the woman had given to her granddaughter (who, as it turns out, was the person who inherited the woman’s fortune).
I wanted to stop the conversation right there to ask: WHAT CHILDREN’S BOOK WAS IT?! What book had this grandmother loved so much that she not only gave it to her granddaughter but also used it to transmit her estate? Was it a family heirloom? Was it something I’ve read?
But, of course, I didn’t ask these questions. I was eavesdropping, after all.
The probate court discussion happening at my neighboring table reminded me of a recent legal dispute over Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a children’s book that’s among my favorite classics. My Dad read it to me, and now we both read it to my daughters (see above for the inscription in our copy).**
Sendak died in 2012, leaving behind a contentious will that, as reporters have described, has left lawyers “gnash[ing] their terrible teeth and show[ing] their terrible claws.” Of course, assuming the recent lawsuit filed by Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum against Sendak’s estate isn’t frivolous, this round of lawyers wouldn’t have do any of that “terrible” stuff had the terms of Sendak’s will been crystal clear. (The “terrible” lawyers were the ones who drafted those ambiguous terms).
I haven’t been able to find a copy of the complaint (filed in the Fairfield County, Connecticut Probate court), but I’ve gathered from various news sources that the lawsuit stems from the estate’s decision to withdraw more than 10,000 original artworks that Sendak lent to the Rosenbach Museum and Library. The lawsuit challenges the estate’s interpretation of the will, claiming that the Estate has not followed Sendak’s intention to bequeath his valuable rare-book collection to the Rosenbach or to keep his own artwork on display.
Without a copy of the complaint and the filings, I won’t opine on the likely merits of the case. I’m looking forward to seeing how this matter resolves. Probate court is just as fascinating as my neighbor in the restaurant said it was.
*Wouldn’t it be funny if the missing will had been in a copy of Where The Wild Things Are?
**In 2009, my third daughter hadn’t been born yet. Every time we read this book, she asks why her name isn’t there!
***For other “Literary Estates Behaving Badly” posts, see (1) When An Author Quotes You, Say “Thank You,” Not “F-You”; (2) Faulkner’s Literary Estate “Works Hard” (At Staying in the Limelight?); and (2) The Conan Doyle Estate Loses Its “Quixotic Quest” to Control Sherlock Holmes.