Biography Showdown Pt 2: Wendy Wasserstein

Right after I finished Mad World the strike ended, and my hold for Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein came in. One of the reasons it took me forever to read Mad World was that I always think I have to be in a certain mood for biography. But here was another one, and I take these things as they come.

I'd never heard of Wasserstein before, but I read an engaging review, and I'm always in the mood for a good New York story. Wendy Wasserstein, with her emigrates-and-makes-good Jewish family and career in the theatre, is about as New York as it gets. As well as the usual historical context that is involved in most biography, Julie Salamon gives the reader a good crash-course in Off-Broadway history, especially the creation of Playwrights Horizons, now in its 42nd year. This is where Wendy would get her start in the New York theatre scene. What makes Wendy and the Lost Boys wonderful to read is that amidst all the privilege of upbringing and glamour of the stage, Wendy Wasserstein is always shown as very down-to-earth, without fawning or over-critique. Wendy was never perfect, but she was tremendously funny and smart, with a stunning work ethic learned through being a child of immigrant parents (and shared by her siblings: both Wendy and her sister Sandy worked almost until the moment of their deaths.) Wendy always felt like the low-achiever in a family of super A-types, and even after she won the Pulitzer and the Tony for The Heidi Chronicles; her mother was disappointed Wendy hadn't won a Nobel. Salamon supposes what Wasserstein must have felt in her formative years:
Wendy would be such a good student, if only her work were neater, less convoluted, better.
Wendy would be such a pretty girl, if only she would lose weight.
Wendy would be perfect, if only she were someone else.
The plays Wendy wrote expressed this vulnerability, in ways she couldn't to her friends and family.
She expressed the often-unspoken, conflicted desires of her peers. Many women like Wendy rebelled against social constraints but were driven toward conventional notions of success. They wanted power and respect — and had begun filling newsrooms, law schools, management-training programs, and medical schools in significant numbers. But they still measured themselves by how much they weighed, what they saw in the mirror, and whether or not they were married.
Wendy dated, but her closest and longest-lasting relationships were with the gay men she worked with. She often crushed on the unattainable, and didn't much enjoy the relationships she had.  Graduating from all-female Mount Holyoke College in 1971, she was of a generation directly influenced by the burgeoning women's movement in the United States. Yet that feminism left a certain privileged set of women floundering: without the clear instructions of the past, how would they go about defining roles for themselves? Unlike her J.M. Barrie namesake, Wendy was the one who wouldn't conform to what society saw as "grown up" While she worked hard, she never got married, and had a baby very late in life after  IVF treatments that went on for years, starting in her early 40s.
Wendy recognized the inherent tension for women who wanted professional achievement and a family. She resented feeling forced to make choices men hadn't been obliged to make, because they had wives to take care of their children. The characters in Uncommon Women keep postponing the age by which they will be "pretty fucking amazing," because the goal seems both impossible to define and unattainable.
The story of Wendy's life comes from pieces archival and nebulous. Wasserstein had many friends, but was intensely private, often giving out made-up or exaggerated details of events.  (No one ever knew who the father of her child, Lucy, was.)  Both Wendy and her mother indulged in story-telling where the truth was something that might get in the way of a better punchline, or more impressive ending. This is the skill that served Wendy all her life.

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