Whatever flaws Lola Wasserstein had as a mother, she produced more than her share of extraordinary offspring. Her eldest, Sandra Meyer, was a top executive for American Express and Citicorp at a time when few women entered those boardrooms. Bruce Wasserstein pioneered the 1980s-style corporate takeover and became one of the richest men in the country (Forbes put him at #190). Georgette, who wanted a quiet life, runs a large country inn with her husband. Lola’s family was both dazzling and haunted by dark secrets and early deaths.
Wendy, the baby, became the first woman to win a (solo) Tony award for best play. In an astute new biography, “Wendy and the Lost Boys,” veteran reporter Julie Salamon fills in the history that produced a personality as extravagantly affable and intensely compartmentalized as Wendy Wasserstein. Eminently approachable, often unkempt, Wasserstein did not look like the sort of woman to keep complicated personal ledgers. When she died, at age 55, many of her closest friends discovered that each of them knew a different Wendy.
Born in 1950, Wasserstein graduated from Mount Holyoke in the early ’70s, a period memorialized in her play “Uncommon Women and Others.” She returned to her parents’ home, fretting about what to do next. To Lola, self-pity — or perhaps introspection — was not to be tolerated. “What have you got to be sad about?” she asked Wendy. “Did your husband die? Did your son get sick?” This was how Lola told her daughter that she had been married before — to the brother of Wendy’s father. Also contained in those sentences was the news that Wendy had a half-brother she had never met. Her siblings knew more: Abner Wasserstein, born in 1940, developed severe mental disabilities at around the age of 5 and was installed in an institution. As Salamon points out, Lola’s expectations of success for her children were cruelly underlined by the knowledge that those who were not good enough might find themselves abandoned.
Wasserstein went on to the Yale School of Drama at an auspicious time; her classmates included Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep. There Wasserstein found her best friend, playwright Christopher Durang, and her sharpest antagonist, school dean Robert Brustein, who thought her work sitcom-y. She dubbed the place “the Yale School of Trauma.” To Durang she confessed she felt like “a car that doesn’t have bumpers.”
Begun at Yale, “Uncommon Women” was a window into the thinking of educated women caught in a social revolution, hyper-aware they were being called on to Change the World while still negotiating the identity issues of youth. Hanging over their heads was the image of Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, a girl full of promise for life and art who winds up married and unremarkable forevermore. It may have seemed to Wasserstein herself that a talented woman could do interesting work and hang out with fascinating, sexy people, or she could get married. There would be no question of which path she would take. Wendy, for god’s sake, was the girl from “Peter Pan” who was fated always to be around enchanting, magical boys . . . but as some sort of mother figure.
After Yale, Wasserstein used her gift for intimacy to fashion safe harbors in which she could grow as a playwright. Her most significant link was with Andre Bishop. They met when he was taking over Playwrights Horizons, the most exciting venue for new American plays in the 1980s. There he produced “Isn’t It Romantic” and “The Heidi Chronicles,” and then several more of her plays (including “The Sisters Rosensweig”) when he became artistic director at Lincoln Center Theater. Their bond was deep; they shopped and vacationed together and fantasized about having a family. It was more than a friendship and less than a marriage. Wasserstein referred to Bishop as her husband – as she did with numerous other close gay male friends of the theater. Later when Bishop made a commitment to a man and adopted a daughter, Wasserstein was deeply stung.
Wasserstein wrote in a time of accelerated social change, which in some ways worked against her. Girls born just a decade after the playwright could sometimes not identify with her heroines’ quandaries, while established feminists combed her plays for what they said about the movement. In the conclusion of Wasserstein’s most celebrated play, “The Heidi Chronicles,” an unmarried and unfulfilled art historian adopts a baby. Betty Friedan and other feminists derided Wasserstein for, as they saw it, suggesting that career and motherhood was still an either/or choice. Wasserstein rightly pointed out she was under no obligation to create a heroine who stood for all womankind. Still, one wonders about the wound that Heidi seemed to believe would be relieved by having a baby. Perhaps if Wassertein had outlived her mother and been able to raise her own daughter into adulthood, she might have examined that wound with more maturity.
Lola’s habit of diminishing Wendy’s successes did not decrease with age. When Wendy won the Pulitzer prize for “Heidi,” she called Lola to tell her the good news. “Is that as good as a Tony?” Lola asked. By now Wendy was having none of it. “Why don’t you just call my brother and he’ll explain it to you,” she said, before hanging up the phone.
Wasserstein lost her beloved big sister Sandra to cancer in 1997 at age 60. She grew more secretive as she grew older. She told very few people that she was taking fertility drugs and even fewer people when she finally got pregnant at age 48 — a miracle that she said was the result of a last ditch, in-vitro fertilization. The pregnancy was difficult; she developed Bell’s Palsy and high blood pressure. Wasserstein’s daughter, Lucy Jane, was born three-months premature, and the mother’s health continued to deteriorate. She raised the baby with the help of friends and assistants, always trying to keep her frailty under wraps. In November 2005 she was hospitalized with lymphoma. When she died three months later, many in her large circle did not even know she was ill. Bruce and his wife adopted Lucy Jane. Lola died in 2007 and Bruce in 2009.
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.
Laurie Winer, a former drama critic at the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times, is an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.
WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS
The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein
By Julie Salamon
Penguin Press. 460 pp. $29.95