Like her older brother Bruce, Wendy Wasserstein was something of a slob.
I once attended a meeting presided over by Bruce Wasserstein where the only color in his tie that matched his shirt was the stain.
The brilliant investment banker and his famous playwriting sister shared a practiced disregard for physical appearance. It signaled, “I’m too brilliant, too busy, too engaged with important matters to waste time on how I look.”
“The siblings were as similar as they were different,” writes Julie Salamon in “Wendy and the Lost Boys,” her empathic biography of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Heidi Chronicles.” “They were smart and ambitious and had gargantuan personalities, hers projecting warmth and his, gruff superiority ... They struggled with their weight and shared a particular look; strong expressive faces notable for character, not beauty.”
The much-married Bruce, the brains behind Wasserstein Perella & Co. and, for a time, Lazard Ltd., guarded his privacy even while operating on the public stage of global mergers and acquisitions.
Wendy, beginning with the success of her first play, the barely fictional “Uncommon Women and Others” in 1977, transformed her life into comedy with pathos on the more literal stage. (Perennially rebroadcast on public television, “Uncommon Women” recounted her days at Mount Holyoke College in the early years of second-wave feminism.) At the same time, at age 27 she became as public a personality as any bold-faced name in the gossip columns.
Plays and Life
Her plays and life were so interconnected it was hard to tell where the one ended and the other began.
In “The Heidi Chronicles” (1988), the title character is an art historian who champions unheralded women artists while her own complicated romantic relationships always leave her alone and depressed. In a final act that riled the feminists of her generation, Heidi Holland adopts a baby.
“‘I’m happy she won the Pulitzer Prize, but I was disturbed by the play,’” Salamon quotes “Feminine Mystique” author Betty Friedan as saying. “‘In depicting Heidi as troubled over career and family, Wendy Wasserstein inadvertently fed a media hype, a new feminine mystique about the either/or choices in a woman’s life.’”
Two decades later, after years of unfulfilling love affairs and long, intense relationships with gay men, Wasserstein became pregnant. Conceived via artificial insemination, daughter Lucy Jane came into the world in 1999 with her father’s identity still secret. The writer was 55 when she died of lymphoma in 2006. Lucy Jane went to live with Bruce and his family. He died in 2009, at 61, of heart failure.
Salamon is a gifted storyteller whose eclectic oeuvre -- including “Hospital” and “The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco” -- suggests an enviable catholicity of engagement and a serious passion for digging beneath the markers of a story. These qualities are especially useful in telling the tale of Wendy Wasserstein, a brilliant, complicated artist whose gifts included making everyone feel like her friend even when acting in unsentimental self-interest, a quality Bruce must have admired.
The book is at its most revealing in detailing Wasserstein’s relationships with Christopher Durang, Andre Bishop, Gerald Gutierrez, William Ivey Long and Terrence McNally -- each an iconic theater figure, each at one time an object of romantic desire and all gay.
Circles Within Circles
“Wendy and the Lost Boys” presents e-mails, letters and extensive interviews showing the circles within circles of relationships Wasserstein spun among a group of people who mostly remained loyal to her, no matter how hurtful her betrayals could be.
Salamon leaves to others the task of evaluating the long-term impact of Wendy Wasserstein’s work; this is not a critical biography. Indeed, the book’s title is reductive, suggesting a life that centered on a mother-figure’s relationship with needy young men. But whoever attempts the critical biography will have been given an exceptional road map of Wendy Wasserstein’s journey.
“Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein” is published by the Penguin Press (460 pp, $29.95). To buy this book in North America, click here.
(Jeremy Gerard is an editor and critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)