Wendy Wasserstein, 55, a Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning playwright who chronicled the triumphs and travails of modern American women, died Jan. 30 at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater and Ms. Wasserstein's longtime friend, said the cause of death was lymphoma.
The best-known female playwright of her generation, Ms. Wasserstein was a wellspring of strong leading roles for women in "The Heidi Chronicles (1989) and "The Sisters Rosenweig" (1993), among others.
"It's where my imagination goes and sticks," she told The Washington Post in 1994. "Women's issues are still interesting enough to me to make me want to sit alone in a room and write." More than a decade later, she still was creating memorable female characters.
Her characters bear more than a passing resemblance to herself. They are feminist baby boomers, usually urban or suburban Jewish, seeking to have it all, even as they come to realize the futility of that desire.
Heidi Holland, the feminist art historian who is the main character in "The Heidi Chronicles," is typical. Tracing her life from youth to adulthood, the play mirrors the evolution of the women's movement from its heady 1960s adolescence through the consciousness-raising groups of the 1970s to the myth of the "superwoman" of the 1980s.
"When I wrote 'Heidi,' I was 35, I had just written a movie for Spielberg that didn't work out, I wasn't married and I was beginning to feel like the odd man out at baby showers," Ms. Wasserstein told People magazine in 1995. "I didn't know whether the sacrifices I had made were worth the road I was taking. So I decided to write a play about all that."
"The Heidi Chronicles" won a Tony as best new play, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for drama and virtually every major New York theater award.
Her next play, "The Sisters Rosenweig," was a serious comedy about three Brooklyn-born siblings who meet in London on a summer weekend to celebrate the 54th birthday of the eldest. The play holds out the hope that a loving relationship is a possibility, even for a smart, successful, twice-divorced woman.
The wit and snappy dialogue of her work occasionally evoked comparisons to playwright Neil Simon, although she aimed for more than comedy. She described her 1997 play, "An American Daughter," as "a serious play, but hopefully it has a texture of humor mixed with the sadness."
The play was inspired by news headlines, specifically the tribulations of Zoe Baird, a lawyer whose hiring of an illegal immigrant couple scuttled her nomination to be President Bill Clinton's attorney general. Ms. Wasserstein's character, Lyssa Dent Hughes, is a Georgetown physician, the privileged daughter of a Republican senator and the wife of a professor. Her nomination to be surgeon general goes awry when the media discover that she once failed to respond for jury duty.
Her final play was "Third," in which a college professor's well-ordered life is thrown into chaos when she accuses a male student of plagiarism. Dianne Wiest was featured in a Lincoln Center Theater production late last year.
Born Oct. 18, 1950, in Brooklyn, Ms. Wasserstein was the youngest of four children of Lola and Morris Wasserstein, Jewish immigrants from central Europe who had come to the United States as children in the 1920s. Her father was a prosperous textile manufacturer, her mother, a housewife and perennial dance student.
In the early 1960s, she moved with her family from Brooklyn to Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side, where she grew up in what she described as "nice middle-class surroundings." After graduating from an exclusive East Side prep school for girls, she attended Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in intellectual history and considered law school and medical school.
The turning point came when a friend suggested that she take a summer playwriting course at nearby Smith College. That experience boosted her confidence, and she became involved in campus theatrical productions at Amherst College, where she spent her junior year.
After graduating from Mount Holyoke in 1971, she enrolled at City College of New York to study creative writing with Israel Horvitz and Joseph Heller. Her play "Any Woman Can't" was produced off-Broadway in 1973.
Receiving her master's degree from City College later that year, she enrolled at Yale University's School of Drama, where classmates included Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver, Glenn Close and Jill Eikenberry. She received her master's of fine arts degree from Yale in 1976.
She still had doubts about her talent. Her friend Bishop remembered her as "a warm, giggly mass of curls -- a shy, awkward, self-deprecating woman who was quite insecure about her own work and extremely supportive of the work of others."
"What's great about Wendy now," Bishop told The Post in 1995, "is that she has kept all her good qualities and eliminated the bad."
Her big break came when Playwrights Horizons in New York produced "Uncommon Women and Others" in 1977. She was still working as a gofer for the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. "We got 2,000 scripts a year," she told The Post. "My job was to schlepp the scripts to readers all over the city. Needless to say, I got well-versed in who was writing what in America, and I began to realize that I wasn't seeing any plays that reflected the women I knew."
Determined to create strong female characters, she wrote "Isn't It Romantic" (1983), about a young TV writer whose parents keep insisting that she find a nice Jewish doctor to marry. The play helped her win a grant to study in London, where she wrote another play about women she knew, "The Heidi Chronicles."
Ms. Wasserstein also wrote for television and film. Her best-known screenplay is the 1998 film version of Stephen McCauley's novel "The Object of My Affection," about a pregnant woman and a gay man who meet and move in together.
She also wrote a children's book and two collections of personal essays, "Bachelor Girls" (1990) and "Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties" (2001).
At age 48, Ms. Wasserstein had a daughter. She never revealed the identity of the child's father.
Survivors include her daughter, Lucy Jane Wasserstein, her mother, Lola Wasserstein, and a brother, all of New York City; and a sister.