I was surprised at my negative reaction to Wendy and the Lost Boys, Julie Salamon’s exhaustive biography of Wendy Wasserstein’s life, loves, laugh lines, web of lies and artful dodges. I read it nearly straight through, out of curiosity—a bit like a highbrow National Enquirer read. Wasserstein was a media darling in this town and, as is common in New York City, I know people who know people who were intimately related to her. But I never saw one of her plays so I read the biography to learn more about a celebrated playwright and the merits of what she wrote.
Oy. Almost too much information—and much of it colored by a rose gel that softened the searing heat of an unfiltered white stage light. Wasserstein came from that most usual of American origins, the dysfunctional family. Hers was adept at hiding important truths, fabricating settings and scenes and mixing nurture with emotional torture. The hidden-away mentally-impaired half-brother no one spoke of, the fact that her elder siblings were only half-siblings, again unspoken truths here, the relentless pressure to be perfect, super-hero progeny who achieved out of all proportion to the norm, married well and produced bragging rights offspring—all this informed the youngest Wasserstein’s emotional resilience and left her predictably damaged.
Wendy was a chubby child, adolescent and adult. Her skinny mother spent hours every day in a dance studio and never missed a chance to needle her daughter about her weight. Wendy never married. An entire not-very-funny-comedy could be written about mama’s barbs on that subject. In fact, Wasserstein did write about her mother, her own shortcomings and frustrations, her friends and their confidences–anything at all that crossed her path or tripped her up was fodder for the plays. She never bothered much with disguising the real models for her stage characters and she exposed the unpretty parts as often as the smart and humorous dialogs. Her total recall for a conversation and her trick of using it in a very public play had a dampening effect on some of her friendships. So did the reflections of the Wendy characters in her plays that were less than flattering about family and friends who were blindsided by the revelations on opening nights.
Wendy is painted as warm, empathetic, funny, engaging and magnetic company. But she seems to have spun faster and faster all her life to avoid facing uncomfortable realities like barely above-average or even average academic performance in a family of self-made geniuses, a lumpy body and a profound sense of being not-enough—not good enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not celebrated enough, not accomplished enough, not loved enough. She apparently befriended half of New York City and kept all her relationships in separate orbits, confiding some things to one, other secrets to another, deliberate fictions to lovers and casual friends alike. She had an enormous need to be the sun in her solar system—not having known her at all, it was hard to reconcile the warm funny friend and the desperate, obfuscating writer into one person.
For sure, Wendy Wasserstein was blatantly dysfunctional herself. A person who doesn’t bathe, shows up at theaters for rehearsals in a nightgown, and is noticeable for an off-putting lack of personal hygiene is not an entirely well human being. So I read on, looking for the click that signaled how she managed to achieve such exalted reviews for some of her plays and such acclaim for her talent. Two things stood out and neither of them was a complete answer.
Wendy Wasserstein came from money, privilege and connections. Her second generation immigrant family rose rapidly in economic status and, after graduating from in an all-girl ivy league college, she didn’t have to scrape by in a cold water walk-up, waiting tables for rent money. In one job, she accepted subway fare for errands without a murmur and then went outside and hailed a cab. She may have wandered around unwashed but she shopped for designer labels and didn’t go hungry. Lot of pressure about the career-achievement-marriage thing but plenty of enabling for the long years it took her to find herself and turn out the work that made her famous.
One telling anecdote involves Wasserstein’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles. Her mother lost no time in telling everyone she knew that Wendy had won the Nobel Prize–only top, top prizes for Wassersteins. The talent was there and she worked it as diligently as her brother put in the hours to reach the pinnacles of the financial world. While her sister was shattering glass ceilings in corporations, Wendy was attending every rehearsal of her plays, taking copious notes and rewriting constantly to fine tune and improve the production. It was the family work ethic on display and, if she was all over the map in the rest of her life, she was extremely focused on winning rave reviews and selling out houses. She did it often enough to secure her place in American theater but never enough to banish her demons.
The end of this book is sad, sad, sad as her decade-long quest to have a child ended with the birth of a dangerously preemie daughter and Wasserstein’s own precipitous health decline. She hid both the baby’s parentage and her own illness from everyone, retreating into the family habit of denial and racing around the country and back and forth to Europe for rehearsals, openings, book signings, speeches and social events. She died in 2006 at age 55, leaving Lucy Jane, her six-year-old, in the care of her brother and his wife. The denouement of the biography traces the deaths of her mother and two brothers not long after.
I will have to read Wasserstein’s plays now to make sense of this life story. If they are remarkable and timeless, Wasserstein’s life may hold some clues to genius. If they are dated or merely good, she was a classic overachiever with a gift for collecting powerful people and a self-destructive streak a mile wide. In any case, I’m tempted to lay off the biographies for a while. It’s too easy to become jaded about all the insiders and their off-kilter psyches and the fortunes and advantages that allowed them to pursue their own dreams, or just stumble into them. It seems a bit rigged, like too much of life these days. I think I’ll revisit Stephen King’s book on writing for a reality check on how a complete outsider, with nothing but guts and an old typewriter, survived to tell his tales. That is a life as satisfying as fiction.
Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein Julie Salamon | The Penguin Press 2011