Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman playwright to win a Tony Award, Wendy Wasserstein was a Broadway luminary. But with her high-pitched giggle and unkempt curls, she projected an image of warmth and familiarity. Everyone knew Wendy Wasserstein. Or thought they did. In Wendy and the Lost Boys, Salamon delicately pieces together the many fractured narratives of Wendy’s life—the stories (often contradictory) that she shared amongst friends and family, the half truths of her plays and essays, the ...
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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, the first woman playwright to win a Tony Award, Wendy Wasserstein was a Broadway luminary. But with her high-pitched giggle and unkempt curls, she projected an image of warmth and familiarity. Everyone knew Wendy Wasserstein. Or thought they did. In Wendy and the Lost Boys, Salamon delicately pieces together the many fractured narratives of Wendy’s life—the stories (often contradictory) that she shared amongst friends and family, the half truths of her plays and essays, the confessions and camouflage present even in her own journal writing--to reveal Wendy’s most expertly crafted character: herself.

Born in Brooklyn on October 18, 1950 to Polish Jewish immigrant parents, Wendy was the youngest of Lola and Morris Wasserstein’s five children. Her mother had big dreams for her children, and they didn’t disappoint: Sandra, Wendy’s glamorous sister, became a high-ranking corporate executive at a time when Fortune 500 companies were an impenetrable boys club. Their brother Bruce became a billionaire superstar of the investment banking world. Yet behind the family’s remarkable success was a fiercely guarded world of private tragedies.

Wendy perfected the family art of secrecy while cultivating a densely populated inner circle. Her long time friends included theater elite such as playwright Christopher Durang, Lincoln Center Artistic Director André Bishop, New York Times theater critic Frank Rich, the many women of the theater for whom she served as both mentor and ally, and countless others. Yet almost no one knew that Wendy was pregnant when, at age forty-eight, she was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital to deliver Lucy Jane three months premature. The paternity of her daughter remains a mystery. At the time of Wendy’s tragically early death less than six years later, very few were aware that she was gravely ill. The cherished confidante to so many, Wendy privately endured her greatest heartbreaks alone.

At once a moving portrait of an uncommon woman, and a nuanced study of the generation she came to represent, Wendy and The Lost Boys uncovers the magic of Wendy’s work. A daughter of the 1950s, an artist that came of age during the freewheeling 1970s, a power woman in 1980s New York, and a single mother at the turn of the century, Wendy’s very life spoke to the tensions of an era of great change, for women in particular. Salamon brings each distinct moment to vibrant life, always returning to Wendy’s works—The Heidi Chronicles and others—to show her in the free space of the theater. Here Wendy spoke in the most intimate of terms about everything that matters most: family and love, dreams and devastation. And that is the Wendy of Neverland, the Wendy who will never grow old.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006) kept her secrets well. At forty-eight, she surprised even friends with a baby whose father still remains unknown; when she died six years later, most of the world did not know that she had been critically ill. This authorized biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright raises the curtain on a woman whose plays were, on one level deeply autobiographical, and on another, cloaked some of the main issues of her life in the stories of other. Wasserstein's choice of biographers was apt: Veteran journalist and author Julie Salamon (Hospital; Facing the Wind) has already been hailed for her "perceptive and empathetic; but also gently unsparing?. Superbly nuanced portrait" of the dramatist.

From the Publisher
“[Salamon’s] fresh reporting . . . gives the book a live, romping air, very much keeping with its subject . . . Wendy and the Lost Boys reads more like a novel than a biography.” 

“Excellent…Salamon’s voice is like that of a Wasserstein character, a late-night girlfriend who tells you the truth, but confidentially, and sideways.” — THE NEW YORKER

“Top-notch…a penetrating biography. The book, less a literary reckoning with Wasserstein’s legacy than a frank character study, is superbly paced. [T]he work unfolds with an alacrity that had me fearing the end not just because it was such a tartly compelling read but because it's still so hard to accept a theatrical world without Wasserstein around to make it seem so much more magical.”  — THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

“Intriguing” — PEOPLE Magazine

“Engaging new biographyTHE ECONOMIST

Julie Salamon is a helluva journalist and her Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein is a helluva story.” — NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

“Perceptive and empathetic, but also gently unsparing—a superbly nuanced portrait”       — KIRKUS (starred review)

Francine Prose
…spin[s] a colorful narrative of failure and fame, disappointment and satisfaction, while hitting all the right marks…
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Salamon (Hospital) brings full circle the life of Wendy Wasserstein (1950–2006) in this insightful biography of the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright. Despite the autobiographical nature of her work, Wasserstein, as Salamon underscores, was a fiercely private person, doling out personal details to a select few in her large social circle. The youngest child of Polish-Jewish immigrants, Wasserstein was raised in Brooklyn and urged from an early age to succeed, as her four older siblings had, in her career and in parenthood. She graduated from Mount Holyoke and got graduate degrees from City College and Yale School of Drama. Her play Uncommon Women and Others put Wasserstein on the New York theater radar in 1977. Her professional and personal life became increasingly busier, with the production of The Heidi Chronicles (1988) and The Sisters Rosensweig (1992). Salamon highlights Wasserstein's close relationships with the men she called her "husbands," men (primarily gay) to whom she was often attracted, and how these friendships changed when she asked some to donate sperm when she decided to have a child (Lucy Jane was born in 1999, most likely through an anonymous donor). Salamon's thoroughly researched account of a too-short life brings readers as close as anyone to such a private and complex woman. (Aug.)
Writing an authorized biography gave Salamon access not only to Wasserstein's papers but also to her family and friends. That allowed her to paint a sympathetic yet layered portrait of a warm woman who was able to elevate and belittle herself in the same sentence, who was both driven and never quite certain where she wanted to go. Salamon does what Wasserstein often couldn't in her work: she fully realizes the "Wendy character."
Emma Brockes
In her best-known book, "The Devil's Candy," Ms. Salamon pulled apart the movie business in meticulous detail, and here too her fresh reporting (some 300 people were interviewed, and the book was written with cooperation from key members of the Wasserstein family) gives the book a live, romping air, very much keeping with its subject.
New York Times
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 production.
Ann Levin
Now, in the first major biography of the playwright since she died of cancer in 2006 at age 55, veteran journalist Julie Salamon presents a thorough and engaging account of a complex, driven woman.
The Associated Press
The Forward
Uncommon Women and Others was Wendy Wasserstein's first major play. And Julie Salamon's well-researched, engrossing new biography, "Wendy and the Lost Boys," makes it clear that Wasserstein was no commonplace woman herself.
The Seattle Times
In her compelling, revealing and insightful new biography "Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein" (Penguin Press; $29.95), Julie Salamon explores this gifted and complex woman, whose works mirrored the concerns of many women of her generation (Salamon will appear at Elliott Bay Book Co. on Sept. 19).
Miami Herald
Wendy and the Lost Boys falls short of providing a satisfactory answer. It reveals a great deal about Wasserstein, yet she remains something of an elusive figure. Nevertheless, the book is entertaining and accessible. Salamon's journalistic style lends itself to quick reading. Time would have passed more unnoticeably, however, if she had not contextualized so much. The world might have been spared this jejune sentence: "New York City, 1971, was Fear City, dirty and dangerous." And what reason was there to mention, in the next breath, the publication of The Godfather, whose "cynical vision of capitalism and crime meshed with the country's sense of unease"?
Chicago Sun Times
In her compulsively readable book, Salamon deftly nails the many contradictions in Wasserstein's character, though she makes somewhat too great a fuss about her cult of secrecy, harking back to a long family history of such things. What she seems to forget is that even in the 1950s, when Wasserstein was growing up in a large Jewish family in Brooklyn, much was kept buried or private — a concept quite foreign to our current existence.
Laurie Winer
Salamon writes in a straightforward, journalistic style, and she seems to have gained the trust of all the key living players in Wasserstein's life. She resists the urge to over-analyze her subject and lets the story speak for itself. The result is a detailed picture of a complicated person. It is no fault of the author's that one finishes the book feeling a bit like one of Wasserstein's friends — that this was a woman who left mysteries about why she left mysteries.
Washington Post
Charles McNulty
Salamon, a former film critic and cultural reporter whose book "The Devil's Candy" has become a classic exposé of the movie business, brings a wide repertoire of skills to the challenge of exploring a subject whose appearance of openness turned out to be an ideal disguise for furtiveness. A dogged reporter who interviewed nearly 300 people, Salamon maintains a stringent critical perspective that is rare in a biographer granted access to private letters, diaries and the confidences of bereaved family members, loyal assistants and staunch friends.
Los Angeles Times
Library Journal
Salamon (Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God, and Diversity on Steroids) richly details the life of Wendy Wasserstein (1950–2006) in this first authorized biography. In it are all the big names of New York theater from the 1960s–70s, but don't read this book if it's gossip you're after. Read it because Wasserstein's life was full of drama and because her characters just begin to approach the truth of her story, one that deserves its own dramatization (let's start with how her Auntie Mame-type mother married her brother-in-law after the death of her husband). Certainly Wasserstein is important because she was the first woman playwright to win a Tony (later adding a Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles to her accomplishments). But she was also the first playwright of her generation to give voice to women at a time when everything was changing. VERDICT You will laugh and you will, most assuredly, cry. Enthusiastically recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 1/31/11.]—Larry Schwartz, Minnesota State Univ. Lib., Moorhead
Kirkus Reviews

From veteran nonfiction author Salamon (Hospital: Man, Woman, Birth, Death, Infinity, Plus Red Tape, Bad Behavior, Money, God and Diversity on Steroids,2008, etc.), the authorized biography of the playwright who brought the dreams and disappointments of her generation of women to the American stage.

Though she was the first female playwright to win a Tony Award and a Pulitzer Prize (forThe Heidi Chroniclesin 1989), Wendy Wasserstein (1950–2006) never entirely escaped the judgment of her overbearing mother Lola, whose comment about the Pulitzer was, "I'd be just as happy if she'd marry a lawyer." That wasn't going to happen: Wasserstein's most intimate relationships were with gay men such as playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally, nonprofit theatrical impresario André Bishop and costume designer William Ivey Long. She jokingly referred to them as her "husbands" and enlisted McNally and Long in her attempts to conceive a child, but it was characteristic of Wasserstein's seemingly open but profoundly private nature that when she did finally give birth to daughter Lucy in 1999, no one knew precisely how she had arranged it. She was similarly secretive about the leukemia that killed her at age 55. Her conflicts and contradictions were as extraordinary as she was, yet plays likeUncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic, The Sisters Rosensweig,and most of allThe Heidi Chroniclesvoiced the experiences of her peers, women who expected to have careers as well as families and painfully discovered that having it all wasn't going to be easy—or maybe even possible. Salamon does a capable job of covering Wasserstein's professional life, including her grad-student days among the legendary mid-'70s Yale Drama crowd that also featured Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver. The author's real interest, however—and where the book excels—is in elucidating Wasserstein's complex personality and the creative, unconventional life she fashioned for herself, balancing fraught but committed family ties with a busy social life teeming with devoted friends who in the end shared drama critic Frank Rich's assessment that they "had somehow failed to see Wendy whole." That was, Salamon suggests, because she didn't want them to.

Perceptive and empathetic, but also gently unsparing—a superbly nuanced portrait.

The Barnes & Noble Review

"O Fame! Fame! Thou glittering bauble!" Captain Hook cried heartrendingly in J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan. We laugh; but as every sane person knows, Hook was on to something. The personal price exacted from the famous is punishing, and countless celebrities from Barrie's day to our own have had misgivings like Hook's.

One such, certainly, was the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein. Both her career and personal life (if these two can be disentangled in her case) consisted of an uneasy balancing act between her relentless striving for the spotlight and a simultaneous revulsion from its glare. Wasserstein was determined to control her own narrative, seldom an easy task for any public figure. As Julie Salamon observes in her penetrating biography of the dramatist, Wendy and the Lost Boys, Wasserstein "became a celebrity by turning her life over to the public domain." When it came to her wide social circle, however,

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. Only later did they realize that Wasserstein had constructed her life as a giant game of Clue, full of hidden connections and compartmentalized players. She used humor as a dodge, intimacy as a smoke screen.
All true. With so many "best friends" in her life, why did hardly anyone know she was pregnant when she prematurely gave birth to her daughter, Lucy Jane, at the age of forty-eight? And who was Lucy Jane's father, anyway? What was the real nature of Wasserstein's relationships with the numerous gay men she called her "husbands"—colleagues like playwrights Christopher Durang and Terence McNally, producer Andr? Bishop, and costume designer William Ivey Long? When Wasserstein died of lymphoma in 2006, at the age of fifty-five, why hadn't she informed her friends of the gravity of her illness?

All this information might come as a surprise to Wasserstein's devoted fans, who tend to perceive her, via her various fictional alter egos, as warm, confiding, gently cynical, but fuzzy au fond. Heidi in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Heidi Chronicles, Janie in Isn't It Romantic, Pfeni in The Sisters Rosenzweig, Holly in the early Uncommon Women and Others: all these have been welcomed as soul sisters by Wasserstein's (predominantly female) groupies. Salamon accurately describes the writer as "a friendly touchstone" who became loved for her modest self-presentation as much as for her sharp humor. "She didn't preach from above but invited her public to join her perplexed, witty contemplation of the rapidly changing, confusing times in which they lived. Her characters moved in tandem with Baby-Boomers as they aged, helping them—women in particular—sort out the shifting definitions and demands placed on their generation."

Salamon posits—persuasively—that the deep conflicts in Wasserstein's character can be traced to her odd upbringing, specifically to the pressures imposed by her flamboyant mother, Lola: "of miniscule size but a powerhouse contender among legendary heavyweights, Jewish-mother division." Lola had tragedies in her past: close family members had been executed by Nazis back in Poland, and Lola's first husband, George, had died young of a ruptured appendix. But she believed in the powers of denial; if you don't talk about it, it doesn't exist. Thus Wendy and her sister Georgette and brother Bruce (who would grow up to be Bruce Wasserstein the billionaire takeover king) were never informed that their father, Morris, wasn't also the father of big sister Sandy. The kids also weren't told—or at least the fact was hinted at only in a very oblique fashion—that George and Lola had had another child, Abner, who was alive and well in an institution for the mentally disabled. (He appears to have been autistic.) Wendy did not meet Abner until she was middle aged, when she was astounded to discover that he was not the vegetable she had been led to expect but was perfectly competent to talk, write, and communicate: he kept up with his famous sister's and brother's exploits in the press and was consumed with rage and grief at having been abandoned by the family.

In Wasserstein's humorous personal essays Lola comes across as a wacky but basically benign figure. In truth, the demands she placed on her children were relentless and became more so as she and Morris moved up in the world. The family textile business boomed during Wendy's childhood in the 1950s, and the Wassersteins branched out into real estate. Wendy's early years were spent at Yeshivah of Flatbush, but by the time she entered high school the family had moved to Manhattan's Upper East Side; she attended the Calhoun School for girls, moving on, eventually, to Mt. Holyoke.

In the fall of 1967 the feminist movement was in full swing, but the Mt. Holyoke campus seemed hardly ruffled by these winds of change: the incoming class "didn't find the all-female intellectual citadel they had anticipated, and certainly not a campus fomenting radical thought. Instead they encountered a hothouse of girlieness, stuck in the 1950s, filled with bright women who seemed desperate to land a husband." Wasserstein and her classmates were caught awkwardly between two generations, two vastly different eras. Their late-night rap sessions, in which they discussed the challenges of trying to find fulfillment as "new women" while still obsessing over the cultural expectations with which they were raised, would become the genesis of her breakthrough play, Uncommon Women and Others (1977).

Wasserstein's academic performance was mediocre at best, at least until she took a playwriting class at nearby Smith College. It was a revelation: "This was the first time I realized that a person could get credit in life for what they liked to do, " she said later. Back in New York after graduation she took more workshops with Israel Horowitz and Joseph Heller, both of whom appreciated her particular gift, an "inclination to inhale the raw material of her life and exhale a comedy routine or a story." She was palpably present as a character in each of her plays, and as Salamon notes, she was adept at "turning a memory—real, imagined, or embellished—into an amusing scene with a sly or outrageous punch line that simultaneously promoted and diminished herself."

It was not a style that appealed to Robert Brustein, head of the Yale School of Drama when Wasserstein studied there from 1973- 76. (She dubbed it the Yale School of Trauma.) At Yale Wendy was part of a dazzling cohort that included Christopher Durang, Albert Innaurato, Paul Rudnick, Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, and William Ivey Long. Retrospectively, Brustein realized that he had underrated Wasserstein and her theatrical style. "We were almost ideological in our antirealistic view, " he admitted later. "She was not touching on things that went deeper than the sociological." Brustein branded her work as "sitcom-y, " perhaps not taking into account the significant social analysis contained in many sitcoms, as well as in Wasserstein's unpretentious dramas. After all, any faithful rendition of women's lives, as Wasserstein knew, must encompass farce as well as tragedy, and in its cruder style Roseanne was to deal with many of the same issues that The Heidi Chronicles had taken up.

Unfashionably realistic or not, Wasserstein's work tapped right into the baby boom sensibility, and from the appearance of Uncommon Women in 1977 her career never veered too far off track in spite of the occasional failure like Miami (inspired by the Wasserstein family's yearly visits to that Jewish Mecca during the 1950s). All her plays contained versions of herself; all her material was personal. Too personal, according to many of her friends, who were shocked at seeing scarcely disguised versions of themselves up on the stage. From the very beginning Wasserstein had specialized in unfiltered reality. In her pre-Yale play Any Woman Can't she based a central couple clearly on her brother Bruce and his then-wife Lynne—so clearly that Lynne, thus forced to confront certain unpalatable truths about her marriage, divorced her husband. Several of Wasserstein's Mt. Holyoke friends were horrified to hear their most private conversations repeated almost verbatim in Uncommon Women. Her posthumous novel about New York caf? society, Elements of Style—a piece of malicious fluff—brutally lampooned some of her most faithful and generous friends. As Salamon writes, "Wendy had her own definition of privacy. She treated her life as source material and—a cynic might say—as a marketing tool, a way of keeping her audience hooked as they waited for the next installment of the Wendy Chronicles. She had learned the power of secrets from Lola and had become a master of controlling information, publicly and privately. She used self-exposure to draw people in and the illusion of secrecy to leverage relationships, to create a false sense of complicity?"

Wasserstein jealously guarded her own narrative, but now it has been taken out of her hands. She turns out to have been a more complex and nuanced character than any of her own creations, and a darker one, too. Salamon probes her intelligently and respectfully, and when Wasserstein's actions seem inexplicable, the author forebears to make assumptions about her subject's motivations. Wasserstein would probably be horrified to be so exposed; but such is the price of fame.

Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. Reviewer: Brooke Allen
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143121398
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/31/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 574,706
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Julie Salamon
Julie Salamon is the author of Hospital, about Maimonides Hospital, as well as The New York Times bestseller The Christmas Tree; the true-crime book Facing the Wind; the novel White Lies; the film classic The Devil’s Candy; a family memoir, The Net of Dreams; and Rambam’s Ladder. Previously a reporter and critic with The Wall Street Journal, she has also written for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Vogue, and The New Republic.
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Table of Contents

Prologue 1

Part 1 Growing Up, 1950-71

1 The Family Wasserstein 7

2 A Brooklyn Childhood, 1950-63 27

3 A Girls Education, 1963-67 49

4 Gracious Living, 1967-68 67

5 Great Expectations, 1968-71 83

Part 2 Becoming a Writer, 1971-80

6 The Funniest Girl in New York, 1971-73 101

7 Drama Queens and Kings, 1973-76 119

8 A Playwright's Horizons, 1976-77 139

9 Tryout Town, USA, Summer 1977 155

10 The Emergence of Wendy Wasserstein, 1977-78 167

11 Orphans' Christmas, 1978-79 187

Part 3 Isn't It Romantic, 1980-89

12 Design for Living, 1980-83 205

13 Miami, 1984-86 227

14 Rooms of Her Own, 1986-87 239

15 The Heidi Chronicles, 1988-89 259

Part 4 Days of Awe, 1990-99

16 Wendy Wasserstein, Inc., 1990-92 275

17 Thicker Than Water, 1990-93 287

18 The Objects of Her Affection, 1993-98 307

19 Festival of Regrets, 1998-99 327

20 The Birth of Lucy Jane, 1999 343

Part 5 Wendy's Last Act, 2000-2006

21 The New Millennium, 2000-01 357

22 Welcome to My Rash, 2002-04 371

23 The Final Production, 2005 391

24 Legacy, 2005-06 413

Acknowledgments 429

Illustration Permissions 433

Notes 435

Bibliography 445

Index 447

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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Julie Salamon, author of the new book WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

Why did you title the book Wendy and the Lost Boys?

As the research progressed, I noticed that the classic story, Peter Pan, became a recurrent motif. Wendy was one of the many Baby Boom babies named for Wendy Darling, Peter’s beloved friend, after the book became a popular Broadway musical starring Mary Martin. Wendy performed in the play as a girl, choreographed a dance for an avant-garde version in college, and named her daughter Lucy Jane (Jane was the name chosen by Peter’s Wendy for her little girl). For Wendy’s peers, Peter Pan became emblematic of a generation that tried to retain eternal youth, and then had to contend with the realities of aging and responsibility.

Moreover, Wendy’s life was filled with “lost boys,” including a brother who was mentally disabled (and who was pretty much dropped from conversation within the family and who was separated from the family at an early age). Her “lost boys” included the gay men of the theater who became her closest circle, even as they all lived through vast changes in their lives and personal relationships.

Wendy came from an extremely successful family; can you describe what shaped her as a young girl growing up?

Wendy was born in 1950, to immigrant parents, just five years after the end of World War II; her family was caught up in the postwar desire to achieve the success that would make them safe. Her mother Lola, in particular, had a fierce personality and powerful ambition. Lola instilled the paradox that would become a recurrent theme in Wendy’s life and her work, the feeling of being better than everyone else but also not quite good enough. In The Heidi Chronicles, Wendy refers to the phenomenon of being “superior-inferior.”

The playwright was also profoundly shaped by the times she lived in. In her youth, the Sixties roared through New York, calling everything into question. The world was changing fast, creating a charged and exciting atmosphere of provocation and creativity: Civil rights, pop art, the Beatles, feminism, pacifism and protest. It was a pivotal moment, the line of demarcation between conformity and rebellion, stability and chaos.

Wendy's story reflects the accomplishments—as well as the fear and anxiety—of women who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. How was she affected by the changing roles and attitudes of women, and how did her work reflect those changes?

Her work—plays, essays and a final novel—reflected her life and her life reflected the times she lived in. Uncommon Women and Others deals with the youthful dreams of young women who came of age as society’s demands and expectations were undergoing a vast transformation. In subsequent plays, notably Isn’t It Romantic and The Heidi Chronicles, she dealt with the complex choices women confronted as they faced competing desires for home and family and successful careers. In essays dealing with her family and her decision to have a baby as a single mother, she acknowledged the longing for home, while struggling to find her place in society that hadn’t found a way to satisfy competing desire. Her final play, Third, contends with the disillusionment and reflection of a woman in middle age, contending with children, career, and aging parents.

You characterize Wendy as at once extremely social and yet mystifyingly private —can you elaborate?

After Wendy died, her close friend, the former New York Times columnist Frank Rich, wrote, “How could the most public artist in New York keep so much locked up? I don’t think I was the only friend who felt I had somehow failed to see Wendy whole.” She gave the illusion, in her writing and in her relationships, that she made her life an open book. It was only after she died that people began to realize how much she kept hidden.

As with so much in her life, the source of her secrecy was her mother. Lola Wasserstein suffered many losses, and survived by forging ahead, not “dwelling” on past wounds. The family joked that, when people died, it was said “They went to Europe.” Wendy’s reaction to her upbringing was to hide in plain sight—giving the illusion of revelation, while keeping the most crucial information locked inside.

Your portrait of Wendy reveals a remarkable driven yet remarkably insecure woman – what do you think accounts for that insecurity?

One of Wendy’s friends once said: “Wendy was a very driven person, and yet she was a very warm person. Sometimes those things came into conflict.” Much of her insecurity derived from the ambition that led her into the highly competitive world of theater. The “vicious dumpling” as one friend called her, wasn’t really very vicious but she had inherited her mother’s urge for self-preservation. Balancing her wish to be loved with her lofty goals was a high wire act.

A more profound source of her insecurity was the absence of her mentally-disabled brother Abner, who she didn’t meet until she was almost fifty years old. The family’s secrecy about him and other matters kept Wendy off-balance, unable to fully trust her own sense of reality.

And then there was Lola, always quick to remind her daughter that she wasn’t svelte enough, she wasn’t married, and she didn’t have children (until late in the game). Wendy often told the story of Lola’s response to her daughter winning the Pulitzer Prize: “I’d be just as happy if she brought home a husband.”

Bruce Wasserstein was a famous character in his own right, a Wall Street titan— what was her relationship with her brother?

While I was working on the book, a Wall Street guy cornered me at a party and said: “I want you to find out how the same DNA produced Bruce and Wendy.” This was a frequent refrain. He became a billionaire, known as a pugnacious investment banker with little regard for social (or business) niceties. She was beloved as both playwright and person, considered a best friend even by people who barely knew her. Yet they were more alike than different in their ambition, their willingness to disregard convention, their extreme desire for privacy. They were very close, though their separate orbits often led to fractiousness. “I can’t help wondering whether what I say has any relevance for him at all,” she once wrote. In the end, though, when she was dying, Wendy turned to her brother and his wife to care for Lucy Jane.

What drove Wendy, at age 48, to give birth to her daughter, and how did motherhood affect her?

Throughout her life Wendy expressed yearning for a family. In a little-known play called Miami, about her childhood, the adolescent character based on Wendy discusses the conflict she feels, between wanting to be a star and wanting children. She was quite close to her nieces and nephews and discussed having children with various men in her life. On the other hand, her actions often contradicted this desire. She repeatedly fell in love with unavailable men, many of them gay. For years she underwent in-vitro fertilization, but never engaged wholeheartedly in the process. By the time her daughter was born, Wendy was 48 years-old and already showing signs of the illness that eventually killed her. Much as she loved Lucy Jane, Wendy was often too ill or too preoccupied with her writing to enjoy being a mother as much as she had hoped.

What was the theatrical scene like in the 70s and 80s when Wendy came of age as a playwright?

Wendy came of age as a playwright as the nonprofit theater world hugely expanded. She became one of the original group of playwrights at Playwrights Horizons who brought a Baby Boom mentality to theater, and help create a sense of excitement and relevance for a new generation of theater-goers. In telling Wendy’s story, Wendy and the Lost Boys also recalls the formative years of Wendy’s group, which included James Lapine, Stephen Sondheim’s longtime collaborator; Andre Bishop, who became artistic director of Lincoln Center after putting Playwrights Horizons on the map; playwrights Christopher Durang and William Finn. Frank Rich, then the New York Times drama critic (and who became known as the Butcher of Broadway) was a dear friend of Wendy, a friendship often looked at with raised eyebrows by her theater friends, many of whom were on the receiving end of Rich’s lacerating prose.

What do you think her legacy will be in the theater? Will her plays pass the test of time?

Her plays were, in many ways, bright sociological commentaries on her times, though Uncommon Women and Others and The Sisters Rosensweig contain enduring themes about friendship and families. Certainly her success as a woman playwright continues to be an inspiration, considering how much less notably women have progressed in the theater world compared with other professions, including the arts.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 1, 2012

    Fabulous book about recent theatre history

    This is a great book about Wendy Wasserstein that also gives history and insight about her amazing circle of theatre and New York people!! I now want to go back and re-read her plays!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 7, 2011

    Love it

    One of the best after The Glass Castle. Have to read one of Wendeys plays and another by the same author. Dont want to finish it.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 3, 2012

    Didn't hold my interest

    The narcissism & insecurity just didn't cut it for me.m who cares?

    0 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 14, 2011


    Good read.

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