“Julie Salamon evokes Wendy Wasserstein herself, filling the printed pages not only with laughter, but also the details of a stranger, sadder, darker side about which it was once said, ‘beneath that giggly wit were shark’s teeth.’ The portrait of Wendy Wasserstein that emerges from the pages of this book, in the fullness of the detail and the lushness of the prose, can be likened to the works of the Old Masters—with Wasserstein’s grin standing in for the Mona Lisa smile.”
The cover of Wendy and the Lost Boys, Julie Salamon’s superb new biography about playwright Wendy Wasserstein, has fittingly been designed with the iconic look of a theater Playbill with the playwright’s face set front and center. She is photographed in black and white, her round face is pushed forward and downward, her hair is a familiar nest of chestnut curls, and the expression captured on her face is a familiar smile. Her eyes are closed, and her right hand sits upon her forehead, as if just slapped there in disbelief.
The moment frozen by the camera’s lens reminds us of the sound of her laugh—full, robust, and heartfelt—that will surely, surely come soon.
The cover serves to remind us, her audience, of what we knew of Wendy Wasserstein: her giggly humor, her razor sharp wit, her warmth, her intellect, the searing vulnerability that she was willing to share and put out there on the stage.
The book within the cover gives us even more. It gives us a fullest, richest understanding that we have had to date of the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, the raconteuse, the wit, the social critic, and social butterfly that Joseph Heller once referred to as “the funniest girl in New York.” (Or, to be more nearly correct, one version of the story has him saying it. In other versions told by Wasserstein over the years, it was said to Heller as she was introduced to him at a party or in a fancy restaurant. In all cases, the punch line remains the same. Wasserstein, nervous and overwhelmed by the kind words and august company, promptly threw up.)
Perhaps the most interesting part of this anecdote is that no one can say which of the versions represents the truth of it—if, indeed, any of them do.
Which might, from the biographer’s point of view, be par for the course when dealing with a Shakespeare or any other prominent person who lived and died some time ago; but when dealing with an author whose lifespan includes cell phones, if not quite Facebook, it all seems a bit strange.
And yet, Wasserstein, for all her notoriety and in spite of the fact that she died only a handful of years ago, was something of a cypher, if not an out-and-out contradiction in terms. Throughout her life, she was given to rewriting the narrative of her own life and to sharing the various rewrites equally with her friends and fans. She was also given to evasions and silences, with an almost Blanche-Dubois-level need to avoid harsh realities, all while presenting the world with a demeanor that seemed both jovial and welcoming.
As author Salamon puts it:
“People she didn’t know would stop her on the street and greet her, not with star struck awe but with familiarity. Women identified with her dilemmas, petty and grand: What shoes to buy? Was it possible to lose weight without exercising or eating less? What was the most romantic spot in New York? Why couldn’t she find a man who would want her? Was the problem her success? Could she create a family when she couldn’t always cope with the one she was born into? What did it mean to be a good person? Where was fulfillment?
“They believed they knew her well enough to ask about her daughter, her diets, her siblings, her boyfriends, her mother—and to tell her about theirs.
“Yet, after she was gone, what stunned those closest to her was how much they didn’t know. What was the nature of her relationships with the numerous men, gay and straight, she called her ‘husbands’ or ‘crushes’? Why had almost no one known she was pregnant, and who was Lucy Jane’s father? If so many people were her friends, why did none of them realize how gravely ill she was until the very end? Why did some of her obituaries say there were four Wasserstein siblings, while others said there were five?
“Through drama she told many truths. In personal essays, drawn from her life, she freely reconfigured events, as though she were writing fiction. She was as covert as a spy, parceling out information to a host of confidants, allowing each of them to believe that he or she alone had access to the inner sanctum. Only later did they realize that Wasserstein had constructed her life as a giant game of Clue, full of hidden connections and compartmentalized players. She used humor as a dodge, intimacy as a smoke screen.”
The art of writing a book like Wendy and the Lost Boys, therefore, could be said to involve the ability to counter the dodge and blow away the smoke screens. In both of these, Julie Salamon proves herself to be more than capable.
In the pages of this well-researched, beautifully rendered biography, Ms. Salamon surpasses the excellence of her past work (Hospital, a harrowing look at the inner workings of Brooklyn’s Maimonides Hospital, and the true crime book Facing the Wind among them) in what is seemingly a labor of love. In that her past work does not include any biography of an individual, the reader can only assume that the selection of Wasserstein as a subject was made based upon the impact that Wasserstein’s work—The Heidi Chronicles and Uncommon Women and Others—had upon a generation of Americans (a generation that includes author Salamon).
Whatever the actual motivation behind her labors, we can only be pleased that Julie Salamon chose Wasserstein, and the New York Theater world of the 1970s and 1980s as her subject. Because for those of us who can remember those days, Ms. Salamon’s spot-on prose recreates all but the street sounds and smells. With a novelist’s gift for timing and detail, Ms. Salamon evokes the time, place, and personalities with resounding success.
Of that time and those personalities, Salamon writes:
“In retrospect, it was a remarkable convergence. None of them knew it then, but all of them—Chris Durang, Andre Bishop, Frank Rich, William Ivey Long, James Lapine, Wendy Wasserstein—would become among the most prominent players in the New York Theater scene. Their lives would intersect professionally and personally, with Wendy at the fulcrum of many connections.”
And most important, Julie Salamon evokes Wendy Wasserstein herself, filling the printed pages not only with laughter, but also the details of a stranger, sadder, darker side about which it was once said, “beneath that giggly wit were shark’s teeth.”
The portrait of Wendy Wasserstein that emerges from the pages of this book, in the fullness of the detail and the lushness of the prose, can be likened to the works of the Old Masters—with Wasserstein’s grin standing in for the Mona Lisa smile.
And, as Ms. Salamon suggests, perhaps Wasserstein remains beloved because of the role she always played, that of Wendy to a whole generation of Peter Pans.
As Ms. Salamon concludes:
“She addressed the conflicting goals of youthful ambition in Uncommon Women and Others and the changing relations between men and women in Isn’t It Romantic. With The Heidi Chronicles, she captured an essential dilemma: how political movements can thwart individual desire for personal fulfillment. In Miami and The Sisters Rosensweig, she grappled with the powerful pull of family, even for those children seeking a wider world. She looked to larger issues of responsibility and power in An American Daughter and Old Money. Her final plays, Welcome to My Rash and Third, dealt with aging, the breakdown of body and beliefs, questions of legacy.
“Casting herself as the amiable outsider who could deliver though messages with humor and warmth, she reinforced these dramatic themes through her essays and public appearances, her work with [her charity] Open Doors, and her friendships. In doing so she because a cultural phenomenon while giving the impression that she was an unassuming part of the crowd.”
It is high time that we not only assess the work that Wendy Wasserstein left behind, but also celebrate that fact that for an all-too-brief moment she was here among us. Luckily, Julie Salamon has taken on both of these tasks with her book Wendy and the Lost Boys. It is highly recommended.