New Biography Chronicles Playwright Wendy Wasserstein

From the late 1970s until her death in 2006 at age 55, playwright Wendy Wasserstein was a force in New York theater. She won the Pulitzer, the Tony and many other awards for writing about her generation of educated, successful women struggling to balance their professional and family lives.

“The crucial thing about Wendy is she was born in 1950 at the height of the baby boom, and her plays address the issues that people of her generation, especially women, were dealing with,” says Julie Salamon, the author of Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, a new biography that illuminates the links between Wasserstein’s characters and the playwright herself.

Wasserstein’s writing could be funny or sad, but either way,  her writing always struck a chord with a generation that was rocked by big social upheavals: “Changes in rights, attitudes, expectations for women, for gays — all of that was happening during Wendy’s lifetime.”

Her plays reflect the shifts. The heroine of her 1988 play, The Heidi Chronicles, goes to a women’s consciousness-raising session, where she hears a dedicated feminist explain that “every woman in this room has been taught that the desires of her husband, her son or her boss are much more important than her own. Now, the only way to turn that around is for us, right here, to make what we want, what we desire, to be as vital as it would undoubtedly be to any man.”

The Heidi Chronicles won the Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama, which thrilled everyone in Wasserstein’s wide circle of friends and family. That included her mother, Lola, whose pride in her daughter collided with her criticisms that Wendy was fat, unmarried and childless. Lola’s words to her daughter: “You make me want to bleccccccccch!” A mother from hell.

“When Wendy won the Pulitzer Prize, Lola supposedly told all of Wendy’s aunts, ‘Oh, Wendy won the Nobel Prize,’ ” Salamon says. “Or she would say, ‘I’d be just as happy if she married a lawyer.’ So either way, the Pulitzer Prize was not good enough.”

Wendy Wasserstein

“In The Heidi Chronicles, the main character is a woman who’s a professional — she’s an esteemed art historian — but she’s in her 30s and she isn’t married,” Salamon says. “And she’s pondering what her life is about. She’s pondering what the women’s movement has meant to her, the things that have been helpful in her career but also left her without a family. And that was an essential question that runs through all of Wendy’s plays and certainly through her life: How do you have it all? How do you balance family, career and friendship?”

Four years after that play opened, Wasserstein began fertility treatments, and in 1999 Lucy Jane Wasserstein was born — prematurely. She weighed less than 2 pounds. Her mother was 48 years old; her father remains unknown.

Wasserstein became ill in 2001. She died of lymphoma in 2006 at age 55. Wendy’s brother Bruce raised Lucy Jane until he died in 2009. Lucy Jane remains with his ex-wife and children.

Five years after her death, those closest to her and even casual acquaintances can’t quite believe it. She attracted such affection.

“She was so warm, she was so engaging. She was so there,” Salamon says.

For those who loved her, the loss remains palpable.  The overflow crowd at her memorial service in Lincoln Center’s 1,080-seat Vivian Beaumont Theater was packed not just with scores of close friends (many as famous as she was), but with mourners who knew her only through her work — including Uncommon Women and Others, The Heidi ChroniclesThe Sisters Rosensweig and the funny and touching personal essays collected in Bachelor Girls and Shiksa Goddess. Yet these people grieved as if they had lost a dear friend.

With Wendy and the Lost Boys, Julie Salamon has written the perfect biography for Wasserstein’s legions of fans, a book as entertaining and personable as its subject. She underscores how the playwright, a “quintessential baby boomer, part of the generation captivated and characterized by Peter Pan,” carefully manipulated her own narrative, revealing different aspects of herself to different people, using “humor as a dodge, intimacy as a smoke screen.”

Wasserstein channeled concerns about balancing career and personal life — shared by so many women in her generation — into her plays.  But the juicy heart of this book centers on the remarkable Wasserstein family, and on Wendy’s numerous, intense relationships with mainly gay men (including fellow playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally, and producer Andre Bishop), which took the place of marriage for her.

The Wasserstein family story could fill its own book.

The best biographies revivify their subjects while immersing you in their world. Wendy and the Lost Boys puts Wasserstein’s most complex character — the driven, social, secretive, confessional, comic, endearing, restless, generous, cookie-fueled, weight-conscious woman that she was — center stage, under bright lights. It’s a riveting and entertaining production.

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