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Wendy Wasserstein: No Lost Cause

Julie Salamon's new biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys, examines the playwright's complex life. logo
Despite the breadth of intelligence and humor and ebullience spicing her many plays, Wendy Wasserstein was frequently criticized for backing off from the implied depths of her subject matter. The same charge is unlikely to be aimed at Julie Salamon, who fathomlessly plumbs the late dramatist's complex life In her new book, Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein.

Drawing on Wasserstein's writings, public and private remarks about herself, and also culling from approximately 300 interviews with Wasserstein's family and associates, Salamon goes into detail on every aspect of the life of this celebrated theater artist -- a woman who often gave the impression that everything about her was open to scrutiny but actually remained hush-hush about almost everything.

Indeed, the need to keep secrets from even her closest associates extends to her death in 2005 at 55 -- few people knew she was succumbing to a rare leukemia strain while working on her last play, Third -- and to the still closely-guarded truth of who fathered daughter Lucy Jane, to whom she gave birth as a single mom when she was 48.

Moreover, while Wasserstein may have alienated her closest family members and friends from time to time she almost always reconciled with them. Perhaps the only person who ultimately wasn't completely enthralled was Wasserstein herself. Explaining Wasserstein's fundamental lack of self-assurance -- which was only partially instilled in her by Lola, her consistently disapproving mother -- may be Salamon's primary achievement.

Born in Brooklyn in 1950, Wasserstein might have traced her keep-mum tendency to predisposed family inclinations. Her father, Morris, was Lola's second husband, while the first -- about whom Wendy knew nothing until she was much older -- was Morris' deceased brother, George

George and Lola's daughter Sandra, became Wendy's eventual close confidante, while half-brother Abner was declared mentally deficient and sent to a New England home; meanwhile, Wendy also had close relationships with sister Georgette and brother Bruce, who became a billionaire investment banker and media mogul.

Many readers will pick up the book less for the family saga and more for its accounts of Wasserstein's plays. Uncommon Women and Others, the first to get the New York theater community buzzing, was based on her Mount Holyoke years and, after its bow, had the college's conservative alumnae outraged. Isn't It Romantic extended Wasserstein's notoriety, and The Heidi Chronicles made her name and earned her the Pulitzer.

As for the "Lost Boys" to whom Salamon refers in her title, they include her close friends, playwright Christopher Durang, Lincoln Center Theatre artistic director Andre Bishop, the late director Gerald Guttierez, playwright Terrence McNally, and costume designer William Ivey Long (all of whom are gay and all of whom have been rumored to be potential sperm donors).

That these men were her closest male companions for most of her life -- when they weren't estranged from her -- strongly suggests something about Wasserstein's ambivalence towards commitment. But whether Salamon is implying by her title that Wasserstein's attraction to these talented fellows was her paramount feature is questionable. Being a good friend was just one of Wasserstein's many talents.

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