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

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.

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

*

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.

Cover art for "The Memory of All That"

Who is Sidney Kaufman, and why should we care to read about him? That's the question I had 60 pages into "The Memory of All That" by Katharine Weber [Crown]. My puzzlement grew 80 pages in, 100 pages in, and on. " George Gershwin, Kay Swift, and my family's legacy of infidelities" is the legend emblazoned on the top corner of the cover. Kay Swift, as many readers of musical theatre literature are aware, was the talented composer — Broadway's first female to write a mainstream hit musical — who left her husband and three young children to become mistress, muse and musical companion to Gershwin. The story of Kay and George, told by Katharine Swift's granddaughter Katharine Swift Kaufman Weber, sounds promising. Especially if the author happens to be a decent writer — and Katharine Weber turns out to be a fine writer, indeed.

But who wants to spend the first half of the book — literally, the full first half — reading not about Kay and George but about one Sidney Kaufman, who've we've never heard of and never had reason to. Kaufman was a serial underachiever, all bluster with little accomplishment, a minor cog in the world of motion pictures. (According to his daughter, he more or less developed the use of completion bonds for independent films, which is sort of an insurance policy for motion pictures.)

Kaufman was a spectacularly poor provider, insolvent, unreliable and worse. At one point, Weber reports, her father left their Forest Hills (NY) house and disappeared for 18 months. Kaufman was a good talker with outsized charm, and a serial adulterer; Weber tells us, in one fascinating stretch, that one of his mistresses had affairs with Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe, another with Maxim Gorky and H.G. Wells. (Weber accumulated bits of the story over the years, with many perplexing shadows filled in courtesy of her father's FBI file, some 800 pages-worth.) So yes, Sidney Kaufman makes interesting reading. From the moment of his birth, in fact: Kaufman's mother left her job in a sweatshop to give birth, not long before the place — the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory — burst into flame in Manhattan's deadliest workplace tragedy of the 20th century.

But "The Memory of All That," title borrowed from an Ira Gershwin lyric, is supposed to be about grandma Kay, who only comes along in the second half. It turns out, though, that Ms. Weber knows what she is at; her memoir consists of numerous nonmatching strings, which she somehow manages to masterfully pull together. Kay had been married to James Warburg, scion of the ultra-wealthy banking family, for eight years when she met and fell in love with George. Two of Kay's children seem to have rejected their mother for destroying their family; the middle daughter, Andrea, appears to have just as irretrievably fallen under George's spell. (For a short period of his brief life, Gershwin avidly took up photography. One of his most striking compositions, a self-portrait from 1934, is centered on 12-year-old Andrea; George sits behind her — or maybe she is on his lap — taking the photo in a mirror, the Leica obscuring his face.)

 

Kay Swift
 

Andrea, the author's mother, is present throughout the book but the often-absent Sidney gets far more coverage. The question, though, is why Andrea Warburg — raised in a splendorous mansion on the Upper East Side — chose to marry and stick by this disastrous Sidney Kaufman. And that's where Ms. Weber starts to unpeel her story like an exotic artichoke. She describes a fascinating, outgoing, swarthy man with boundless energy, a Brooklyn-born child of Russian immigrant parents with the energy and confidence to change the world. That describes the man who walked into Kay Swift Warburg's life in 1926, mesmerizing her and little Andrea as well; and that description also fits Sidney Kaufman. Who claims to have been an uninvited but undisturbed visitor at George's bedside at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital while the composer was undergoing tests, two weeks before his death from a brain tumor in 1937; Kaufman was sitting vigil with a friend in the next room. Maybe true, maybe not; but a story that would undeniably appeal to Andrea when he met her a decade later.

Weber spends less time discussing her mother and more on her grandmother, who started the next stage of life after Gershwin by marrying a rodeo cowboy, writing a book about it, making a film about it (starring Irene Dunne as Kay), and divorcing said cowboy. And there's plenty more to be said about the fascinating Kay. Swift spent a good part of her 95 years as the unofficial artistic guardian of George's music; having sat beside him on the piano bench for half his adult life — and being an accomplished musician herself — Kay was the person to go to for songs, for information, and for demonstrations of how George intended his music to sound. Swift was also our prime expert on the score for Porgy and Bess, having been deeply involved in its creation. Would that she was around just now.

(On a personal note, let me add that I consulted Kay several times on matters Gershwin. The last time I saw her was especially memorable. The 93-year-old Swift turned up at a show I produced in 1990, offhandedly introducing me to her 84-year-old friend Frankie. Who turned out to be Frances Gershwin Godowsky, kid sister to George. They both especially loved the score and the show, Bill Finn's Falsettoland.)

All said, "The Memory of All That" does indeed tell us about George and Kay, offering new insights that will be of interest to Gershwin followers. Weber also tells us about her father; his numerous associates, some of whom were decidedly shady; her grandfather James Warburg, a central cog in the bogus "International Jewish banking conspiracy" that still circulates in some circles; and numerous passersby. There's even a glamorously beautiful Englishwoman with one arm, along with plenty of memories that might raise an eyebrow. Like the night Zero Mostel came to dinner, circa 1962. The then seven-year-old author watched as he "reached into the basket of dinner rolls on the table and licked each one before putting it back, while everyone laughed uproariously." Did that sort of thing ever happen at your house?

Cover art for "Fine and Dandy: The Kay Swift Songbook"

As an adjunct to Katharine Weber's memoir, we have "Fine and Dandy: The Kay Swift Songbook [Alfred Music]". Prominent are nine selections from Fine and Dandy, the 1930 musical that established Swift as Broadway's first female composer. Lyrics came from Paul James, which is to say Kay's financier-husband James Paul Warburg. Also included are an additional eight songs, some known and others heretofore unpublished. Seventeen songs, which seems to be only a sampling of her output. (My small folder of Swift sheet music contains at least two published items not included in the folio.)

Kay Swift's Greatest Hits, as it turns out, number three; nothing included in the songbook is likely to increase that total. The most famous of them — or I should say the most familiar — is "Fine and Dandy," from the show of the same title. The other two are fine ballads, the lovely "Can't We Be Friends?" (from The Little Show) and the even better "Can This Be Love?" (from Fine and Dandy).

I must note, however, that "The Kay Swift Songbook" has seen fit to change the keys for the two ballads (along with several other songs). This sort of thing rarely bothers me, as the published sheet music versions back in the old days were typically altered from the composer's manuscript anyhow. In the case of these two songs, though, I find the newly published versions — which seem to be straight transpositions — more difficult to play. I long ago memorized "Can This Be Love?" in the key of F, and still enjoy sitting at the piano with it. In D, my fingers just don't seem to want to find the notes. Odd, certainly; but if I'd first located this incredibly beautiful song in the new arrangement, I don't know that I would have bothered to keep it on the piano rack.

(Steven Suskin is author of the recently released updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble" and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He also pens Playbill.com's On the Record and DVD Shelf columns. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

* Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.