Wendy Wasserstein Gets Spotlight in a New Biography

By Mervyn Rothstein
19 Aug 2011

Wendy, already showing signs of illness, bringing Lucy Jane home from the hospital.
Courtesy of the Wasserstein family

In terms of Wendy's personal life, what are the things you didn't know before you started that you set out to learn? Wendy wrote about the birth of her daughter, Lucy Jane, when Wendy was 48. There was the very premature birth, the tiny child — less than two pounds — who might not have survived; the revelation that few people, including her closest friends, knew that she was pregnant until she entered the hospital; and the fact that Wendy never revealed the name of the father. Her secrecy set up a guessing game involving the many men, secret and not so secret, who had over the years been part of her life. And then there was of course her family — her oldest sister, Sandra, a major corporate executive; her older brother Bruce, a billionaire investment banker; her difficult mother, Lola. What did you find out?
JS: The primary issues about Wendy were: Did she ever have somebody she was really in love with? Who was her daughter Lucy Jane's father? Why did she decide to have a baby at age 48, which was not young? She did this really at the forefront of women who decided to attempt that kind of defiance against biology. What were the forces that motivated her and propelled her through what seemed often like a somewhat chaotic life?

When I started the book I had an idea of her friends, her relationships, her family. I felt I knew a lot — just as many people who lived in New York at the time she was writing knew something about it, and felt they knew a lot. When I began writing, people would ask me, where's Lucy Jane now? Who was her father? The name of her father was something I didn't find out. What I found in the course of doing the research was how much more complicated the answers were than "Lucy Jane's father is X, Wendy had an affair with Y."

Nothing was ever simple with her. She led this extremely compartmentalized life, where she had these intense friendships with people and then intense friendships with other people who may not have known about the other group of people. And she managed all this with business-like acuity that's a little startling. And yet the most startling thing about it is here's this woman who led this unusual life, had a very unusual set of relationships, and yet so many people identified with her and with the dilemmas she faced, the insecurities she felt in spite of all her success, and the inability to keep up in her private life with the changing roles of women. And then the biggest question with Wendy is, what was success?

Wasserstein's high school graduation photo
Courtesy of the Wasserstein family

Was that because of her mother? A story, as related in the book, was that when Wendy told her mother she won the Pulitzer, her mother replied that she'd be just as happy if Wendy married a lawyer. Lola was also said to have remarked, "Did you hear? Wendy won the Nobel Prize."
JS: I really didn't want to blame it all on her mother, because that's what people do. And yet it's impossible not to say that Lola Wasserstein was the source of Wendy's success and Wendy's insecurity — and Wendy's way of operating in this world, because Lola kept a lot of secrets, things that didn't need to be secrets. Like the fact that Lola had been married before. That Wendy's father was not the same father as that of her two oldest siblings [Sandra and Abner, her phantom brother who suffered from severe seizures and was hidden away in a special school and largely forgotten]. Wendy didn't find out about her mother's first husband until she was in her 20s.

Wendy was trying to have it both ways. To live in the world of secrets of her parents, and to tell all. And that's really a complicated act.

What was Wendy's relationship like with her older brother Bruce, who died in 2009 at age 61? He was an exceptionally powerful figure known for his overwhelming personality.
JS: The two primary forces in her life were her sister Sandra and Bruce. Sandra was 13 years older, and became a parental figure. She's the model for Sara Rosensweig in The Sisters Rosensweig. [Another older sister, Georgette, married early, had children, moved away and became owner of a large Vermont inn.] Bruce and Wendy had the closest and the most contentious relationship. They were three years apart. Each became very prominent in New York City, their hometown. They were very competitive. They both were ambitious. They really loved each other at the same time they competed with each other. They took different paths and they were wary of each other. But in the end Wendy left her daughter to him. When she knew she was dying, she named Bruce as Lucy Jane's guardian.

Joan Allen in The Heidi Chronicles.
photo by Gerry Goodstein

What led Wendy to make having a child such an overwhelming issue in her life? It's interesting to note that at the end of The Heidi Chronicles, the successful Heidi chooses motherhood.
JS: It's not a simple question. The Wasserstein family, with all its fractiousness, was a very close family. Within that family the idea of carrying on the line was extremely important. Just like with everyone else who was born to parents who went through World War II — that's where Baby Boomers came from — everything was about moving forward, not looking back, creating a new generation.

Those lessons were very much imprinted into Wendy's brain. On the other hand, there were the competing messages for women, which were to be successful, or more successful than men, to dedicate yourself to your career. Those messages were often in conflict with that aspect that led her both to want to have and to delay having a baby.

Far more complex is the psychology regarding the men Wendy chose to have relationships with. When she was younger she had serious relationships with men she might have married and had a child with, in a "more traditional" way. She chose not to do that. And then she dedicated herself to picking impossible men. She had a series of gay friends she adored, with whom she flirted with the idea of marriage, and of having a child.

One of the characteristics of Wendy was that she did not always consider the consequences of her actions. In the end, I feel that she never found a man who was as successful as her brother. She never saw a relationship that was as close as her parents'. There was nothing outside that could compare with what had happened inside the Wasserstein family. There is something deliberate about the men she chose to fall in love with, knowing from the outset that there was an impossibility built into the equation.