New biography sheds light on legendary playwright Wendy Wasserstein

File Photo by: Jill Krementz

By Ellen Futterman, Editor

In 1989, playwright Wendy Wasserstein came to Washington University’s Graham Chapel to speak.

That year Wasserstein had won a Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award – the first ever given solely to a woman playwright – for her Broadway hit “The Heidi Chronicles.” She had already garnered much acclaim for her first important play “Uncommon Women and Others,” loosely based on her college years at Mount Holyoke.

Afterwards, the two of us met for an interview. Within minutes of sitting down, I felt as if I were talking to a lifelong friend with whom I had lost touch but not our bond. We discussed the heady stuff that Boomer women like she and I grappled with at the time – the precarious balance of career, marriage and motherhood while still being faithful to Weight Watchers – the same themes central to so many of Wasserstein’s plays and essays. I walked away thinking she was the nicest of nice Jewish girls, someone who could easily be my new best female friend.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone in those feelings. As former New York Times and Wall Street Journal critic Julie Salamon explores in her fascinating, thoroughly readable biography “Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein,” (Penguin Press, $29.95), Wasserstein had a way of connecting with people, including audiences, so that they felt they knew her intimately. “People would stop her on the street and greet her, not with star struck awe but with familiarity,” writes Salamon. Later she notes: “She became a celebrity by turning her life over to the public domain.”

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Yet while Wasserstein’s work spoke to her personal struggles and mirrored those of a generation, she was much more complex than the everywoman, open-book persona she projected. Much of what makes Salamon’s portrait of the artist so compelling is this dichotomy, from giggly girlish Wendy who lounged in Lanz nightgowns and didn’t take herself too seriously to shrewd, ambitious Wendy who mined the lives of family and friends for core material.

What Salamon unearths, through more than 300 interviews and a trove of private papers, was how Wasserstein compartmentalized her life and kept so much secret. When she died in 2006, at the age of 55 of lymphoma, few among her legion knew she was gravely ill. “She was as covert as a spy, parceling out information to a host of confidants, allowing each of them to believe that he or she alone had access to the inner sanctum,” Salamon writes.

The youngest of five children, Wasserstein was born in 1950 to Lola and Morris Wasserstein, Polish-Jewish immigrants eager to get ahead in America and not be relegated as Jewish outcasts. Salamon charts the family’s upward trajectory from Brooklyn, where Wendy attended yeshiva though her family wasn’t particularly observant, to the Upper East Side, where the Wassersteins prospered in a ribbon-cutting business.

Lola Wasserstein was a true piece of work, “a powerhouse contender among legendary heavyweights, Jewish-mother contenders,” writes Salamon. Though Lola encouraged greatness in her children and took pride in all their accomplishments, she also was the first to criticize and point out their shortcomings. She nagged Wendy about her weight and later told her getting married and having a child meant more to Lola “than a million dollars or any play.”

Wendy had her share of suitors but during her years at the “Yale School of Trauma,” she developed impossible crushes on gay friends such as playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally and Broadway costume designer William Ivey Long, whom she tapped as a sperm donor (though the result wasn’t believed to have worked). Few people knew she was pregnant before giving birth at age 48, and afterwards she refused to divulge her daughter’s paternity (it still remains a mystery).

Salamon details the insecurities and self-doubts that plagued Wasserstein throughout her life. Being the youngest in a competitive family didn’t help. Her eldest sister Sandra served as a role model, becoming among the first women to rise to the highest ranks in corporate America (before her death at age 60 of breast cancer). Wasserstein had a love-hate relationship with her brother Bruce, a billionaire investment banker who championed hostile takeovers (and died at 61).

In shedding some light on Wasserstein’s psyche, Salamon suggests the playwright grew up in a home where it was standard practice to conceal the family’s dirty laundry. Not until Wendy was an adult (and in a whirlpool with Sandra and the widow of Clark Gable!) did she learn she had a different father than Sandra and their brother Abner. Secrets, most definitely, ran in the family.

Wendy was haunted by the notion of Abner, who was institutionalized before she was born because he suffered from violent seizures. “For Wendy, he became a symbol of what might happen to children who didn’t meet Lola’s standards,” Salamon concludes.

Where the author stops short is in speculating what, if any, lasting legacy Wasserstein created through her work. While many significant critics heaped praise, others likened her writing to a television sitcom. Most agreed, however, she was a force with which to be reckoned.

Nevertheless, what Salamon has crafted in “Wendy and the Lost Boys” is a revealing, sometimes funny, often moving story of a first-generation American Jewish woman who, as the author writes, “became the quintessential Baby Boomer . . . named for Peter (Pan’s) beloved friend Wendy Darling, the girl who couldn’t avoid her fate, that of becoming an adult. Whereas Peter’s Wendy understood her duties were to stay home and tend to marriage and motherhood . . . Wendy Wasserstein came of age when women were supposed to do it all.” That she came close to pulling it off makes this uncommon woman worth marveling.