Personal Reflections on the Life of Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006)
How very strange it is that we should lose Wendy Wasserstein just weeks after the memorial service for Senator Eugene McCarthy, the 1968 peace candidate whose primary campaign opened her Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Heidi Chronicles. As a campaign volunteer myself I was thrilled at the way she built her story out from that time - a campaign "mixer" where several of the main characters met. She even let me help a little, since I’d been there, and so I built her a timeline and some of my old McCarthy stickers and buttons graced the set.
That was how she wrote though - so much of her immediate world went into her work. Soon after graduating from Mt. Holyoke, she wrote Uncommon Women and Others - a play about a group of young women sharing one of those smaller, more intimate dorms women’s colleges called “houses.” The story moved through their frequent reunions, where they’d gather and tell each other that (after we graduate, when we’re thirty, when we’re forty…) "we're going to be 'pretty f*ing amazing!'" In many ways, through the rest of her career she followed them - and so us - always with a touch of loneliness. That was the bravest part of her writing, since it didn't take much to figure out that she wrote it so well because she knew the feeling too.
I met her while her second play, Isn't it Romantic was in previews. We went out to lunch, and stayed out almost until dinner time, sharing common ground from women's colleges to Jewish parents to dreams and aspirations. I had invited her because I wanted to do a story about her – and was able to get my boss to put her on the Today Show even though she wasn’t yet "the famous lady playwright." I never expected the huge bonus that came from knowing her.
Wendy became a good friend - to me - and to my family. It was a family joke that pieces of us would show up in her plays. Lots of whining about struggles to get children into the Ethical Culture School - where our kids went; lines about being married to psychiatrists (yes, my husband is a shrink - Wendy called him "the Doc-tuh" and was crazy about him) and even zingers about an apartment decorated much like ours. We never minded - partly because we knew how much of Wendy was in there along with us.
Her Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning The Heidi Chronicles was a wrenching reminder of all that women our age were living though. The hardest scene for me was when Heidi, a successful art historian, asks Scoop (the guy she fell for at that McCarthy party and never got over) - at his wedding to a sweet children's book illustrator -- why he'd married her. Clearly he and Heidi belonged together.
He responds, speaking of his new wife, "Is she an A+ like you? No. But I don't want to come home to an A+. A- maybe, but not A+.” For women my age that comment was searingly familiar. I’m pretty sure it was to Wendy, too.
I’ve met so many women who describe weeping, sobbing epiphanies at The Heidi Chronicles. Its accuracy - reporting almost - was a lot of what won the awards I think. Beyond the "A+ scene" was a monologue emerging from a speech Heidi was supposed to be giving: "Women, Where Are We Going?" At one point she takes us into her gym locker room as she wrenchingly describes the lostness that Heidi the career woman feels there among younger, more aggressive and seemingly colder women ("who had probably screwed a lot of thirty-five year old women, my classmates even, out of jobs, raises and husbands") and who had never had to walk into many of the walls that clobbered us - probably because we'd broken them down.
There are other plays. Wendy lost a sister to cancer, and her play The Sisters Rosensweig, was for her. For any woman who loves her sisters (I went with one of mine) it's a real gift. She wrote a lovely musical, Miami, that was never produced ("too Jewish," she was told).
But when my son Josh called me this morning to tell me that he'd seen on the web that Wendy had died - I thought more of her self than her writing. Of how sad I was that our years in California had reduced our connection. Of her appearance on a party video saying to Josh "This is the best bar mitzvah since my brother Bruce's - when my aunt fell through the floor" and of the warmth she offered her friends. Of her hilarious recounting of her mother's question “The Pulitzer Prize! When do you get to go to Sweden?” Of all the breakfasts and lunches and teas we shared. Of her extraordinary ability to remind us of what it is to love your friend - your sister - and later, your daughter.
Then I also recall, with gratitude, the diary her plays are for us – from Uncommon Women to Heidi’s Chronicles to those three loving sisters to a pro-choice feminist battling to become Surgeon General. We never have to say "you weren't there, you can't possibly understand." We just hand our children Wendy's life's work – and they will see our own.
Cynthia Samuels is a writer and web producer and consultant. For much of her career, including 9 years at TODAY, she was a television journalist.