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Wendy Wasserstein’s life no open book

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WENDY AND THE LOST BOYS

THE UNCOMMON LIFE
OF WENDY WASSERSTEIN

By Julie Salamon

Penguin Press, 480 pages, $29.95

Updated: November 3, 2011 5:17PM



Wendy Wasserstein left many things behind when, after a long and mostly hidden battle with lymphoma, she died in 2006 at the age of 55. In her unvarnished biography of the playwright, Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein, Julie Salamon takes stock of them all, and in the process captures many aspects of a woman who led a complicated, if perhaps not entirely uncommon life given her time and place and talent.

Of course the most public part of Wasserstein’s legacy was her plays. There was “Uncommon Women,” the bittersweet 1977 drama that put her on the theatrical map as it presented us with a group of Mount Holyoke alumnae of her own generation who cannily reveal the traps of feminine consciousness as they gather at lunch. There was “The Heidi Chronicles” (her 1988 Pulitzer and Tony Award winner that homed in on the ambivalence of one woman trying to negotiate the fallout of the revolution of the 1960s and ’70s). And there was “The Sisters Rosensweig,” her wonderfully rueful, quasi-autobiographical portrait of three sisters in middle age who have chosen quite different paths.

Wasserstein left a handful of books, too, ranging from Elements of Style: A Novel (her comedy of manners, published the year of her death, that captured the lifestyle of the privileged inhabitants of Manhattan’s Upper East Side in the post-9/11 years), to Pamela’s First Musical, the popular children’s story infused with her passion for introducing young people to the same joys of the theater to which she had long been happily addicted.

A slew of female friends from many areas of her life also were left behind, as were theater world friends — many of them gay men (playwrights Christopher Durang and Terrence McNally, director Andrew Bishop, designer William Ivey Long) — with whom she had developed intimate, if ultimately less than satisfying relationships. And there was her family, too — Lola, her somewhat “Mommie Dearest” mother, from whom she never received the approval she so clearly craved; her older brother, Bruce, a hugely successful New York investment banker, and both an older sister, and a half-brother whose very existence had long been shrouded in secrecy.

Unquestionably the most complicated part of Wasserstein’s legacy was her daughter, Lucy Jane, who was just 6 when her mother died. The playwright was 48 when Lucy Jane was born, almost fatally prematurely, and in the wake of Wasserstein’s extensive fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization. And even on her deathbed, and amid much speculation, she maintained a fanatical silence about the identity of the child’s father.

It was almost immediately after Lucy Jane’s birth that Wasserstein began to suffer serious medical problems, though her life in many ways sped up. Outwardly ebullient, this woman, who harbored serious issues of self-esteem on many levels (she was invariably disheveled, and forever battling weight issues), kept her anguish disguised, hiding many things even from her closest friends and relatives.

In her compulsively readable book, Salamon deftly nails the many contradictions in Wasserstein’s character, though she makes somewhat too great a fuss about her cult of secrecy, harking back to a long family history of such things. What she seems to forget is that even in the 1950s, when Wasserstein was growing up in a large Jewish family in Brooklyn, much was kept buried or private — a concept quite foreign to our current existence.

The epilogue to this is as sad and dramatic as any the playwright herself might have imagined. Although Wasserstein’s brother Bruce, and his then-wife, Claude, adopted Lucy Jane after her death, their marriage soon fell apart, and in 2009 Bruce also died, at 61. Claude assumed mothering responsibilities for Lucy Jane, incorporating her into her family of two sons who have become her brothers as well as her cousins.

Greek tragedy could hardly compete with such a story line. Yet it is playwright J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan” that is the source of Salamon’s title. And it is worth remembering that while HIS Wendy came of age serving as surrogate mother to the lost boys of Neverland, she actually moved on to become a proper, if ever wistful Edwardian-era wife and mother.



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