An Uncommon Woman: Wendy Wasserstein Gets Spotlight in a New Biography

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18 Aug 2011

Cover art for
Cover art for "Wendy and the Lost Boys"

Biographer Julie Salamon sheds light on Wendy Wasserstein, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of The Heidi Chronicles and The Sisters Rosensweig.


Julie Salamon's "Wendy and the Lost Boys," an authorized biography of the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, has just been published by Penguin Press. Wasserstein's plays include The Heidi Chronicles, The Sisters Rosensweig, Uncommon Women and Others, Isn't It Romantic, An American Daughter and Third, as well as Pamela's First Musical, with songs by Cy Coleman and David Zippel, based on her illustrated children's book.

Salamon, a former reporter and critic with The Wall Street Journal and a former culture reporter for The New York Times, had exclusive access to Wasserstein's private papers, journals and letters and interviewed nearly 300 people in writing the biography of Wasserstein, a beloved figure in New York theatre who died of cancer in 2006 at age 55.

Salamon — whose other books include "Hospital," "The Christmas Tree" and "The Devil's Candy," which is about making the movie version of Tom Wolfe's "The Bonfire of the Vanities" — spoke to about Wasserstein's unique place in American theatre.

Why write a book about Wendy Wasserstein?
JS: She provided a really interesting perspective on a period of time. She was not just a playwright. Robert Brustein [dean of the Yale School of Drama when Wasserstein was a student there] said it as a criticism, but I'm saying it in praise, that she was a dramatic sociologist and historian. She left behind a valuable piece of history about what women of her class and education were thinking at a particular moment in time.

She captured a slice of society that was important, that had cultural relevance, and she portrayed it in a way that other people hadn't before and probably won't after. Wendy embodied a lot of the issues of her Baby Boomer generation. The whole notion of what success is has become very murky. Is it to be the richest person? I think self-interest became very much a characteristic of the generation. The '60s was supposed to be about "power to the people," and then it became "power to me." Wendy was grappling with these issues, in her work and in her private life.

Author Julie Salamon
photo by Sara Krulwich

What was Wendy's importance as a playwright?
JS: We're going to talk about what it was at the time, and then think about it long-term. Long-term's harder to assess, because we never know what's going to be long-term. But at the time her importance was manifold. She was one of the handful of women who achieved pre-eminence as a playwright. She won a Pulitzer and a Tony for Heidi Chronicles [1988, which follows Heidi Holland, an art historian, from high school in the 1960s as she journeys into the 1980s and tries to cope with the evolving roles of women in American society.] Wendy was the first woman to win an unshared Tony.

Did she speak for all Baby Boomers? Of course not. The world she spoke about had a very particularized upper middle class, well-educated sensibility. But boy, did she articulate it. And I think the issues she was talking about, for the generation as a whole but for women in particular, were very profound.

As I interviewed people for this book, whether they knew Wendy or didn't know Wendy, three plays, The Heidi Chronicles, Uncommon Women and Others [1977], and to a lesser extent The Sisters Rosensweig [1992, a semi-Chekhovian serious comedy modeled on her own family about, well, three sisters], spoke to the things that people within this relatively small but powerful universe were thinking about. That's what made her plays so interesting. Uncommon Women is still being performed all over the country, especially in high schools and colleges. That play, about a group of young women at a college very much like Mount Holyoke, where Wendy went to school, still speaks to the issues confronting young women — O.K., you've got this great education, you're going to have this great career, but what about relationships, what about family, how do I balance all of this? And those questions remain very significant for women. They're played out in a different way these days, but those questions remain very important.

How did you come to write this book?
JS: This was the first book I've ever done that wasn't originally my idea. Ann Godoff at Penguin Press has been my editor — this is the fifth book we've done together — and she had been approached by André Bishop, [the artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater], who was a good friend of Wendy's and her literary executor. A few people had been circling around the idea of doing a biography of Wendy, and he was concerned that it wouldn't be done right. He went to Ann and asked if there was anyone interested in doing it, and she called me. Why me? I think it was a combination of things. Even though I had never written about theatre, I wrote about films for The Journal, and then about the cultural world for The Times. Also, Wendy's parents had immigrated from Europe, as had mine. I'm a few years younger, but we were both Baby Boomers. There was a lot we had in common, and also a lot we didn't have in common. Both things were important to Ann. I did a little bit of research into Wendy's family, and I was fascinated about what was known and what wasn't known.

Wendy had a very public persona that she created through her writing — not just the plays but her essays in The Times and elsewhere. [In addition to many autobiographical essays, her works included the screenplay for "The Object of My Affection" (1998) and a novel, "Elements of Style" (2006).] But in her real life she was intensely private: On the one hand she seemed like somebody who had no secrets, and on the other hand she was someone to whom everything was a secret. And that public-private dichotomy and the way she arranged her life was extremely interesting to me.

It was an authorized biography in that André endorsed the project and was very helpful with it but he did not read it until it was in galleys. He had no power of censorship in any way. He was amazingly willing to do that.


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