By Amy J. Barry Special to Living
Playwright Wendy Wasserstein (1950 to 2006) led a complicated, funny, heartbreaking, short, but very full life.
Julie Salamon has written a big, fascinating biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys, chronicling the "uncommon" life of the brilliant yet elusive playwright-the first woman to win a Tony Award, for The Heidi Chronicles, for which she also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
In this ambitious work, Salamon, author of seven books and a former reporter and critic with The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, paints a revealing and intimate portrait of Wasserstein in the context of her secret-keeping family. The book details the rapid socio-political changes that occurred during her coming of age as a Baby Boomer and the theater world inner circle that she inhabited.
The youngest of five children born to Polish Jewish immigrant parents in Brooklyn, New York, Wasserstein received a B.A. from Mount Holyoke College and an MFA (in 1976) at Yale School of Drama, where classmates included such theater greats as playwright Christopher Durang and actors Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver.
At age 48, unbeknownst to most everyone she knew that she was even pregnant, Wasserstein gave birth to her daughter Lucy Jane three months premature. She tragically died less than seven years later.
Wendy and the Lost Boys is the only biography of Wasserstein written with the full cooperation of her family and literary executors: director André Bishop and Durang. Salamon had carte blanche access to the playwright's private papers, journals, and letters. Bishop and Durang's endorsement of the book also opened the door to hundreds of people's agreeing to be interviewed by Salamon.
The following is an exclusive Living interview with the author.
You interviewed 300 people for this book. Why so many?
It was a couple of things. [Wasserstein] was not somebody who wrote voluminous amounts of letters…There was only a smattering of information. And her supposedly autobiographical essays, I learned, were somewhat fiction. The interviews were to reconcile the discrepancies and the mysteries. Even though I interviewed 300 people, I could have interviewed 500-there were so many gaps. It was a really investigative journalistic experience. The hardest part was figuring out what to cut out; there were so many great stories from so many interesting people-a lot of them very important.
The book is about Wendy, but also the era she grew up in. Why is that important?
Thinking back through all the changes that have taken place culturally since Wendy was born-same for me; I'm only a few years younger-and as someone who didn't grow up in New York (I grew up in Ohio), [even though] I went to New York young and had a career [here], I never really understood the kind of 'Triple A' type personality that drove New York. The Baby Boom generation had such expectations on their shoulders-the idea they had to be better than everyone. Wendy lived in the heart of that neurosis. For me, it has been fascinating through someone else's life to come to understand the city that I love…but this aspect has always perplexed me-beyond the pursuit of excellence, no matter what you achieve, it can never be good enough.
You reveal so much about Wendy by developing these smaller portraits, for example, of her mother Lola, who always criticized Wendy's weight, and even when she won a Pulitzer responded, 'Is that as good as a Tony?' and then told everyone Wendy won the Nobel prize. Lola couldn't seem to accept her daughter for who she was, could she?
I think Lola truly loved her children, but was a narcissist to the highest order. She said things to be funny or provocative, or would say whatever popped into her head, uncensored…and she was ambitious, [always thinking], 'So what's the next step?' I think Wendy learned a lot from Lola, got her creativity from Lola; her kids were her project.
You say in the book that Wendy had become a master at controlling information, publicly and privately. What do you mean?
Every artist has elements of this. What's unusual about Wendy, in addition to her fiction, [is that] she wrote all these supposedly non-fiction essays designed to create some kind of idea of who she was. It was almost like she never stopped creating a public persona. That's what became especially fascinating to me: Where was Wendy in all of this?
The Heidi Chronicles ends with Heidi adopting a baby and becoming a single mom in 1989, which was such a radical idea, or, as you say in the book, 'Wendy Wasserstein's plays were predictive, as though she were mapping out her future…' Can you talk about this idea of life imitating art?
The whole thing was pretty astonishing. At times it felt like I was working on a contemporary gothic novel. It really did feel like all those novels I loved as a kid, [like] Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier-there was always some secret not lurking too far away. What's going to happen next? It was really like [writing] a page-turner. I wanted to figure out all these missing pieces. There's no denying that the end of her life was unbearably sad, but having said that, she had an incredibly full life, an incredibly packed life, and I think she enjoyed herself very much. In retrospect, a lot of her friends commented that she might have had a premonition that she'd die young. Whether or not she had a premonition, she produced so much in her lifetime.
Wendy and The Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon (The Penguin Press, New York) is $29.95, hardcover. Salamon will give a talk and booksigning on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 7 p.m. at R.J. Julia Booksellers, 768 Boston Post Road, Madison. Tickets are $5. To reserve a space, call 203-245-3959, ext. 14, or visit www.rjjulia.com.