THE BOOK SHELF: A Biography of Playwright Wendy Wasserstein, Plus Kay Swift and "The Memory of All That"

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28 Aug 2011

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

Our books column explores the unusual entanglements of two Broadway names: Wendy Wasserstein in "Wendy and the Lost Boys," and George Gershwin in "The Memory of All That" by Kay Swift's granddaughter.


The so-called lost boys in "Wendy and the Lost Boys" by Julie Salamon [Penguin] are principally Andre Bishop, Christopher Durang, William Ivey Long and Gerald Gutierrez; young in spirit and ageless, perhaps, but not exactly "lost." The one who was lost, if you will — and who some analyst somewhere might even theorize was a "lost boy" — was Wendy Wasserstein herself. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who died at the age in 2006 at the age of 55, was highly accomplished and by all reports quite a character. Salamon draws a picture of a bubbly, wise, anything-for-a-friend person who seems to have been overwhelmed and very much weighted down by severe and self-defeated unhappiness. And when I say "weighted down," I don't chose those words lightly.

Wasserstein was born in 1950 in Brooklyn, into a family of ambitious, upwardly mobile and successful Jews — I think that's probably the most accurate description I can come up with — who believed there was nothing they couldn't accomplish. As long, that is, as they barricaded unflattering truths behind doors locked so tight that said truths vanished. Vanished, yes, but with a tendency to rematerialize like Ibsenesque ghosts. Here is Wendy in a jacuzzi at an exclusive spa at 24, sharing the waters naked with Clark Gable's widow (who has nothing to do with anything), learning that her idolized big sister was fathered by an uncle. Here is Wendy at a book-signing in Rochester at 48, confronted by a 60-year-old in a wheelchair who demands to know why the Wassersteins kept him locked away in an institution since he developed encephalitis or meningitis or something — the actual cause is unclear — when he was five. Wendy, meet your other brother.


Wendy Wasserstein

Here is Wendy, searching and searching and searching for love in what anyone who ever heard an unrequited love song can tell you were the wrong places, principally with lost boys. Here is Wendy in two spectacularly unlikely full-scale relationships. Ed Kleban? The Chorus Line lyricist, who was so socially awkward (bordering on neurotic) that some of his close friends eventually wrote a posthumous musical about him, A Class Act. Terrence McNally? I mean, really; Terrence McNally?? This affair was apparently so unthinkable that the pair — who worked furiously/desperately/unsuccessfully to have a child — kept the whole thing secret from everyone. Wendy and Terry in the Clair de Lune?

The wish for a child — without which, per Wasserstein's overbearing mother, Wendy's existence was thoroughly worthless — drove the playwright to embark on a decade with fertility doctors, insemination artificial and non-, and other unhappy adventures. Always, it seems, with Wendy showing a broad smile and boisterous giggle to the outside world. When she finally did bear a child, at the age of 48, she kept it secret from even her closest friends — those lost boys, none of whom could fulfill that need (although at least one of them tried). Wasserstein's daughter Lucy Jane was born three months premature, weighing in at one pound twelve ounces. Wasserstein wrote about her pregnancy and childbirth at length in a New Yorker article called "Complications," which struck me at the time as the finest thing she had ever written.

Lucy Jane Wasserstein — father unknown, possibly one of the boys (but Wendy refused to tell even them) — survived and has apparently thrived. Not so the mother, who in her article only hinted at the true complications of her pregnancy. She never physically recovered, and spent her final six years struggling with a variety of conditions before succumbing to lymphoma. All the while keeping the severity of her condition a secret to even her closest friends, the sort of matter that true Wassersteins never discussed. Even with each other. As Lucy Jane entered kindergarten at the Brearley School — a school to which young Wendy, decades earlier, had been too ungainly or too uncouth or too Jewish to gain admittance — Wasserstein went into a final decline. She died on Jan. 30, 2006, shocking friends, family and admirers alike.


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

All of this is covered in detail by Salamon, who has assembled the story with the help of Wasserstein's many friends and despite the numerous highly fictionalized biographical threads that the playwright wove through her plays, books and articles. Wasserstein embellished the facts so well that Salamon seems at times to be feeding on gingerbread crumbs strewn through the forest. But by combining the words of the people who knew Wendy (or distinct parts of Wendy) best — Bishop, Durang, Long, Frank Rich, James Lapine and a stellar group of theatre royalty — Salamon has come up with a convincing truth. Or at least a reasonable version of the truth.

An uncommon woman, to borrow the title from the play which first established Wasserstein as a playwright to reckon with. With uncommon talent, yes, and an overwhelming set of personal problems that seems to have kept her under a perpetual cloud. Salamon, in "Wendy and the Lost Boys," illustrates the career and life of Wendy Wasserstein in smashingly good, can't-put-the-book-down read-through-the night form.


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