Monday, September 16, 2013

"Wendy and the Lost Boys": Wasserstein's stranger-than-fiction life

If you're an American female playwright, particularly one who went to a Seven Sisters college, you're going to have to grapple with the legacy of Wendy Wasserstein. We all have our literary forebears that we do battle with in that "Anxiety of Influence" kind of way, and Wasserstein is one of mine. Not the only one, certainly. But Uncommon Women and Others was a big, big influence on me when I was writing Pleiades, and I wrote a college term paper on The Heidi Chronicles. And Wasserstein is the archetypal Baby Boomer female playwright, and I am a daughter of Boomers, so in some sense, it's like she is my mother...

As such, I had wanted to read Julie Salamon's biography of Wasserstein, Wendy and the Lost Boys, ever since it came out two years ago. But I was also hesitant: I read reviews stating that the biography made Wasserstein out to be a sadder and more complicated woman than she ever let on. Is this what it meant to be a female artist? (Must a female artist suffer?) Would reading the book just depress me? I knew that Wasserstein never found romantic love, and I too was suffering bad luck in my love life, and in my more cynical moments I'd repeat to myself, "Arthur Miller married Marilyn Monroe, and Wendy Wasserstein died alone."

Maybe I finally allowed myself to read Wendy and the Lost Boys this month because I am secure and happy in a relationship, so the story of a romantically-frustrated female playwright now has less power to trigger my neuroses. Anyway, here's my Goodreads review of the biography.

  Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy WassersteinWendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein by Julie Salamon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Wendy and the Lost Boys" is a fascinating biography that ferrets out some of the secrets and sorrows that Wendy Wasserstein hid beneath her giggly, lovably self-deprecating public persona. In some respects, Wasserstein was a typical Baby Boomer woman, breaking the glass ceiling in the '70s, giving up her bohemian roots and becoming part of the Establishment during the '80s and '90s, etc. In other respects, she was completely atypical. Her parents, siblings, friendships, and romantic relationships were all far more complicated than she ever revealed to the public, either in her plays (which were often semi-autobiographical) or her magazine essays.

Julie Salamon tells this story capably, bringing to life the vivid "cast of characters" that made up Wendy's world. Many of Wasserstein's famous friends, such as Christopher Durang and André Bishop, spoke to Salamon and provided valuable insights. (Dishiest piece of gossip: around the time "The Heidi Chronicles" was on Broadway, Wendy had a lengthy affair with Terrence McNally -- though McNally was gay, and had formerly been Edward Albee's boyfriend!)

Salamon's writing shows some signs of fatigue in the later chapters of the book -- lots of one-sentence paragraphs, things like that. Nevertheless, the final chapters are surprisingly suspenseful, as Wendy has a "mystery" baby and then a "mystery" illness, all within the last six years of her too-short life. Her secretiveness about the pregnancy and about her baby's father is mirrored by her secretiveness about the lymphoma that killed her. If this were a play, you might not believe it -- but this is Wendy's uncommon life.

View all my reviews

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