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Wendy and the Lost Boys
The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein
By Elyse Sommer
Brother Bruce, a billionaire financial wiz was a model for Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. Oldest sister Sandra became a high powered executive. Even the less success oriented Georgette became a successful inn keeper. Wendy, the youngest and best known member of the Family Wasserstein, became a Pulitzer prize winning playwright and was herself a fascinating character.
I don't know if the memoir for which Wendy Wasserstein had a contract but didn't live to write would have been better or as revealing as Julie Salamon's Wendy and the Lost Boys -- the uncommon life of Wendy Wasserstein. But, while biographies don't usually fall into the "can't put it down good read" category for me, this book is just that.
Salamon has created a richly detailed, heart stirring portrait of the Wendy everyone knew -- as well as of a very private person. The Wendy revealed in these pages emerges through extensive interviews with Wasserstein family members and friends; also exhaustive research that includes exam papers (complete with teacher comments). The result is a pointilistic tapestry that incorporates the story of a very uncommon woman whose personal life and career ups and downs have come to symbolize the concerns faced of a whole era of educated, ambitious women.
Besides being a theatrical biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys is a fascinating family saga, complete with a mystery involving a brother who is and isn't part of the family's upscale life in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Given the family tensions, the secret even Wendy only learned about as an adult, and the untimely deaths of three of those four of the sibling, it's not surprising that this often reads like a novel.
Since Wasserstein was very much a people person her friendships were wide ranging and often complex. Though not all sugar and spice and everything nice, these friendships included a virtual who's who of other emerging theatrical talents during the last half of the past century. To name just a few: Fellow playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally, set and costume designer William Ivey Long, Lincoln Center's Andre Bishop, and erstwhile New York Times drama critic Frank Rich.
Salamon reveals Wendy to be not quite the giggly, knowable, much admired and well-liked playwright, popular essayist and public speaker that mention of her name brings to mind. Even the Pulitzer won when she was 39 didn't erase the effect on her self-image of a mother who wanted her to be thin and married as well as successful. Her family's upper middle class values also contributed to her floundering quite a while as to how best to achieve a Wasserstein-approved career path. She missed being a lawyer only because she failed to get into law school.
For all the Wendy we thought we knew aspects of this biography, Wasserstein's plays all fall within that much touted advice to new writers: focus on what you know. Her stories and characters all have their roots in her real life, including family members. They usually included a Wendy stand-in and the themes explored reflected her experiences as a New Yorker attending private schools and elite colleges and coming of age during the Women's Movement .
Wendy's first successful play, Uncommon Women and Others (1981), revolved around a lunch reunion of a group of class mates much like those from her Mt. Holyoke undergraduate days . When Mary Jane Patrone, one of those classmates, expressed shock and distress at recognizing herself (right down to exactly quoted lines), Wendy assured her that she was all the characters. Actually, Holly is the most Wendy-like member of this group of women who keep postponing the age when they'll be "fucking amazing." Salamon quotes Patterson, who eventually thought it rather cool to be "immortalized" to define this often used Wasserstein method: "She takes things she knows and characters she knows and Wendifies them, probably making them more interesting than they are in real life."
In The Heidi Chronicles, the breakthrough Pulitzer and Tony winning play the title character, Heidi Holland, is the Wendy substitute taking a very personal journey through the women's movement and every other seminal event from 1965 to 1989. While the Wasserstein family saga has the elements of a modern Greek tragedy, Wendy's plays, filled as they are with dashed hopes and dreams, are tragedies on a less epic scale. However, as she once said "though women are often said to write small tragedies, they are our tragedies, and therefore large and therefore legitimate."
The strength of Salamon's book is that she's managed to include lots of " good-read" stuff, but doesn't neglect to cover Wasserstein's development as a writer. Teachers knew she was smart but her grades were not impressive. Papers she turned in were often penalized for lateness and sloppiness. However, as the biographer points out, sloppy as she seemed to be about school assignments and personal attire, this did not free her from the elitism or what Salamon refers to as the "superior-inferior" attitudes she grew up with. Thus failure to get into the best law schol meant no law school; that when she decided to go to drama school her choice would be the exclusive Yale School of Drama (or as it was known to many experiencing the competitive hotbed atmoshere, "The Yale School of Trauma"). This elitist Wasserstein gene also explains that Wendy enjoyed expensive clothes, restaurants and hair salons later in life.
Ms. Salamon does a wonderful job of balancing personal and professional details — clearly admiring her subject yet not shying away from revealing the warts in the giggly communicator, friend-gathering, extrovert, super networker.
Wasserstein's relationships with the now defunct Phoenix Theater, with Playwrights Horizon — and with the gay men who were at the heart of her second family, the one of her own choice — provide a fascinating look at the Wasserstein psyche and the in-the-bud stage of her talents as well as those of her colleagues and friends. I'd hardly call these successful men "lost boys" but since Peter Pan's heroine was the inspiration for Wendy's name, and she saw herself as very much part of the boomer generation that phrase does make for a nice, catchy go-along tag line.
Though Wendy Wasserstein's battle to have a child was well-publicized, as was her losing battle with fatal illness, the length and intensity of that battle is less well known. The details make for a harrowing finale to an uncommon if too short life.
For Curtainup's Author's Album page on Wendy Wasserstein, with links to her plays we've reviewed go here. Wendy and the Lost Boy is published by Penguin Books Currently available in Hardcover: 480 pages and as an e- book.
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