The dramatic life of Wendy Wasserstein

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, author of "Isn't It Romantic?"

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, author of "Isn't It Romantic?" poses, Feb. 28, 1985, at the off-Broadway theater where the play was in its second year. Wasserstein died Monday, Jan.30, 2006, Lincoln Center Theater said. She was 55. (Credit: AP PHOTO)

WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, by Julie Salamon. Penguin Press, 460 pp, $29.95.

 

Moments before the cameras rolled for a TV interview I was conducting with Wendy Wasserstein, I asked her whether she would talk about what was, by 2004, her obvious ill health. She said no.

I mention this because Wasserstein, whose pioneering plays made everyone -- but especially hyper-educated women of her own baby-boom generation -- feel close enough to pry. And something was seriously wrong.

Her face, identifiable to the most casual theatergoers for its giggly smile and empathetic eyes, had become almost unrecognizably frozen and disfigured. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright was still very much the intelligent conversationalist with the great-girlfriend openness. But at least one topic -- the symptoms finally diagnosed as the complex lymphoma that killed her, two years later, at 55 -- was not material for sharing.

As we learn in Julie Salamon's fascinating and frustrating family-authorized biography, "Wendy and the Lost Boys," this was hardly the only secret kept -- or unpleasantness denied -- by the artist everyone called Wendy. Salamon, a former culture writer at The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, worked from hundreds of interviews with family members and friends. She finds that, despite Wasserstein's autobiographical facade, she firmly controlled the narrative and was as secretive as her brother Bruce, the Wall Street titan, who, Salamon writes, "found his sister's plays to be too revelatory, too poignant, too Jewish."

Anyone looking for revelations can find them here. Her mother, the monstrously demanding Lola, made lovable and kooky in "Isn't It Romantic?," had a secret first marriage. The four high-achieving siblings had a secret brother, Abner, sent away because he was severely mentally impaired. And despite what Salamon calls "crushes" on the close circle of gay theater friends, those "lost boys" of the title, Wendy did have a sex life. The most newsworthy, at least for theater people, was a three-year relationship with the heretofore famously gay playwright Terrence McNally.

She also had a career, an important one. What is deeply missed in Salamon's biography is an appreciation of this boundary-busting work that existed gracefully as both commerce and art. She wrote serious plays with disarming humor, leaving what amounts to a time capsule about women who observed decades of tumultuous change as they were living it. With "Uncommon Women and Others" (1977), she dared to turn the concerns of young women into stageworthy material. With the Pulitzer-winning "The Heidi Chronicles," she also became the first woman playwright ever to win a Tony Award. That was in 1989, hardly a heartbeat ago.

Instead of exploring this major artist through her work and her words, Salamon dwells on gossip and psychological speculation, the pressures on an overweight New York girl in a large, competitive family with a mother who nagged her to get married and have children.

This is Wasserstein as social history, at least as much about her family -- all the way back to grandparents in Poland -- as it is about her supposed "lost boys" in the catchy but deceptive title. More descriptive than analytic, the book goes off on lively but nonessential tangents about immigrant history, feminist history, Off-Broadway history and the history of friends' romances. We get rich biographical backgrounds of many of her intimates, youthful buddies who grew into New York theater royalty (and potential sperm donors), including Lincoln Center producer André Bishop, playwrights James Lapine and Christopher Durang, director Gerald Gutierrez and designer William Ivey Long.

After years of harrowing fertility experiments, Wasserstein, single and 48, had a daughter, the adored Lucy Jane, born three months early and weighing less than 2 pounds. It was a troubled pregnancy and Wendy's health never really bounced back. When she died, Lucy Jane went to live with Bruce and his family. He died of heart failure in 2009, at 61, and the child has been raised by the last of his three ex-wives. The biological father remains a family secret.


 

Wendy Wasserstein's greatest hits

 

BY LINDA WINER, linda.winer@newsday.com

UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS (1977) -- Breakthrough comedy about eight alumni of Mount Holyoke College.

ISN'T IT ROMANTIC? (1984) -- Insecure New York woman learns to live alone and like it.

THE HEIDI CHRONICLES (1989) -- Pulitzer Prize and Tony winner. Feminist art historian has a breakdown while giving an alumni speech.

THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG (1992) -- Huge hit seriocomedy based on Wasserstein and her two older sisters.

THE AMERICAN DAUGHTER (1997) -- Grossly underestimated political tragicomedy about the tabloid destruction of the first female nominee to be United States surgeon general.

THIRD (2005) -- Star professor gets smug, then lost in the isolating comforts of radical feminism in this final play.


EXCERPT: "Wendy and the Lost Boys"

By Julie Salamon

 

THE FAMILY WASSERSTEIN

Let other, weaker families dwell on their sorrows. That was the unspoken philosophy in the Wasserstein household.

Wendy would joke that when family members died, it was said, "They went to Europe." More intricate heartaches were ignored.

Secrecy pervaded the household, though the family would deny that anything was hidden. "It's not that there were secrets. Things were just not talked about, never mentioned," said Bruce Wasserstein, Wendy's brother. "It was what my parents wished."

The family produced überachievers. Wendy became the first woman playwright to win a Tony award and the Pulitzer Prize while also achieving commercial success on Broadway. Sandra Wasserstein Meyer, the eldest, became a high-ranking corporate executive at a time when the best job available to most women in Fortune 500 companies was boss's secretary.

Their brother Bruce became a billionaire superstar of the investment banking world.

Even Georgette Wasserstein Levis, the middle daughter who checked out of the race early -- married young, had babies, moved to Vermont -- ultimately became the successful owner of a large country inn, the Wilburton.

The Wasserstein children held Morris, their sweet father, in special regard as the source of comfort, quiet wisdom, and unconditional love. Morris and Lola were said to be the perfect couple, though it was also said their marital bliss was helped by the fact that Morris was practically deaf, his hearing damaged by illness when he was a boy. When he needed peace and quiet, he just turned down his hearing aid.

A decent, hardworking man, Morris Wasserstein had brains, foresight, and ambition, but not the fierce personality that produces titans or playwrights.

For the mythmaking ingredient, look to Lola.

She was of minuscule size but a powerhouse contender among legendary heavyweights, Jewish-mother division. Lola was the lightning rod, credited or blamed for her children's drive, their idiosyncrasies, their outsize successes and peculiar flaws.

Lola stories were legion. Perhaps most emblematic were those told after Wendy won the Pulitzer Prize. Lola was said to have responded in at least two ways:

"I'd be just as happy if she'd marry a lawyer."

"Did you hear? Wendy won the Nobel Prize?"

Either way, the clear message was that the Pulitzer wasn't quite good enough.

On the other hand, anything her children did was de facto the best. Lola decorated the walls of her apartment with lacquered collages of Wendy's press clippings and Playbills, as well as articles about her other children. Their framed diplomas, school photos, and prizes were on display. Lola said her chest was so puffed out from pride that she needed a bigger bra.

That particular paradox -- of being better than everyone else but not good enough -- would become a recurrent theme in Wendy's life and in her work. In "The Heidi Chronicles," the superior-inferior concurrence emerges when Heidi Holland, the heroine, is invited to speak at the all-girl prep school she'd attended. Heidi -- by then a well-known art historian -- has a meltdown as she enumerates the ways she feels that women of her generation have failed one another.

Discussing all the women she meets in her gym's locker room, she erupts into a fantasy about what she'd like to say to them. "I'm sorry I don't want you to find out I'm worthless," she says. "And superior."

The problem may have been that Lola never explained what would happen to the child who couldn't produce achievements that could be quantified and displayed. Would he -- would she -- still be worthy of love?

 

From "Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein" by Julie Salamon. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) 20011 by Julie Salamon.

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