What Wendy knew

From ‘Sex and the City’ to Facebook updates, Wendy Wasserstein was way ahead of her time, her unconventional life is a model for women.

September 5, 2011 20:40
Wendy Wasserstein.

Wendy Wasserstein 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

The late playwright Wendy Wasserstein was a woman of many facets – some even her closest friends weren’t aware of before her death from cancer in 2006, at 55.

In her compelling, revealing and insightful new biography Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, Julie Salamon explores this gifted and complex woman, whose works mirrored the concerns of many women of her generation.

By phone from Maine, where she was vacationing, Salamon, a former film critic and author of several books (most recently, Hospital), said she wasn’t sure that she was the right biographer when an editor at Penguin Press proposed the project.

“I didn’t know Wendy, I wasn’t from the theater world. But as I researched her, especially her family story, I was very intrigued and it felt like a good match.”

With the blessing of the playwright’s intimate friend and literary executor, Lincoln Center Theater head Andre Bishop, Salamon was granted in-depth interviews with a wide circle of her subject’s relations and friends.

But, she cracks, “Wendy had four psychiatrists, who wouldn’t talk to me. They were annoyingly ethical!” Wasserstein, apparently, had plenty to sort out on the couch. She grew up in a closeknit, competitive New York Jewish family of high achievers (her brother Bruce became a Wall Street titan).

Yet even when Wendy, the youngest, was the toast of Broadway, her hypercritical mother, Lola, was nagging her to lose weight and find a husband.

Young Wendy had to cope with distressing family secrets her parents kept: Her mother had previously been married to her father’s brother. And that marriage had produced a child, Abner, who was institutionalized for neurological problems.

Abner was a murky figure so shut out of his siblings’ lives that Wendy did not meet him until she was in her late 40s.

“For Wendy,” says Salamon, “finding her voice for writing was a way of dealing with these things she just didn’t understand.”

Wasserstein’s authorial voice – self-deprecating and incisive yet cozy and wistfully romantic – began winning her fans with the Off-Broadway success Uncommon Women and Others (about her student days at Mount Holyoke College).

Her writing style sharpened in three later plays developed at Seattle Repertory Theatre.

All had witty, conflicted female protagonists who’d come of age with feminism.

The Heidi Chronicles is about a feminist art professor longing for more fulfillment in her life. The Sisters Rosensweig reunites three accomplished sisters in midlife transition. In An American Daughter, a physician is torn between career and family when offered a high government post.

NOT ALL Wasserstein’s serio-comic plays and screenplays were well-received. There was a sitcom quality in some, and conversely, a bitterness crept in at times. Her happy endings could ring false.

But her work was very accessible, and it was from a contemporary woman’s perspective when Broadway was even more dominated by male authors than it is now. She struck a chord, Salamon said, “because a lot of the issues Wendy dealt with were floating around through the popular culture at the time.”

“It was one thing to show strong, single women like Murphy Brown and Mary Tyler Moore on TV, but Wendy did that in the theater. Her plays really spoke to women like her, who went to good schools, wanted careers and more. She was very in tune with her audience.”

Her personal life and writing were closely entwined.

“I’d find clues to her life – in a play, a journal, an essay, or a letter. I just had to figure out how to pull the pieces together,” Salamon said.

One theme Wendy and the Lost Boys explores is Wasserstein’s ambivalent feelings about marriage.

“In her 20s, she had two boyfriends who were perfectly acceptable candidates for marriage, who loved her and might have made fine husbands,” said Salamon.

“But I think she set up in her mind, if she got married she’d have to sublimate her desire to be creative and would end up as a housewife with five kids. It was an unrealistic fear, but I think Wendy wasn’t brave enough to say, ‘This is who I am and who I want to be as an artist.’” Instead, Wasserstein became romantically attached to a string of close friends who were married or (like Bishop, and fellow playwright Terrence McNally) gay.

“I don’t think this was a conscious avoidance (of marriage),” said Salamon. “But it happened too many times for me to think there wasn’t a deep psychological motivation.”

Like her character Heidi, Wasserstein did become a single parent, after years of fertility treatments. Daughter Lucy Jane was born in 1999.

In 2001, in Seattle to promote her breezy book of essays, Shiksa Goddess,Wasserstein told me, “It’s good for a child to have two parents. But sometimes I think Lucy Jane deliberately chose me. Her spirit hovered over all these nice couples, then she saw me and said, ‘I want to be there.’” Tragically, Wasserstein’s time as a mother was cut short. After a difficult pregnancy and Lucy Jane’s premature birth, Wasserstein’s health declined as her daughter grew stronger. Finally, a bout with a rare form of lymphoma took her life. Family members are raising her daughter.

Wasserstein kept secrets of her own, and told few friends how ill she’d become – or the identity of Lucy Jane’s father. (Salamon thinks he was an anonymous sperm donor.) But she was productive in her last years, completing a novel (Elements of Style), a new off-Broadway play that suggested a new maturity in her writing (Third) and nurturing a program she devised to introduce young people to theater.

“I had mixed feelings about her plays,” Salamon admitted. “But as I worked on the book, I came to admire her writing a lot, and appreciate her struggles.”

“Wendy never let herself off the hook as an artist. She got a lot of criticism, but she kept working at it – and getting better. By and large, she was a mensch. And she made her life into a really valuable life.”

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