THE GREAT SUBJECT for American Jewish literature has always been the family: its imprisoning intimacy, its guilt-inducing demands, and sometimes even its life-giving warmth. From Arthur Miller’s Lomans, cursed by their dreams of success, to Henry Roth’s David Schearl, depraved by the sexual tensions in his extended clan, the heroes of American Jewish fiction are generally martyrs to their families. If Judaism had saints, these writers’ patron saint would be Jephthah’s daughter, who was sacrificed by her father in accordance with a thoughtless vow.
Wendy Wasserstein may not belong in the ranks of the greatest American Jewish writers, but like Neil Simon before her, she helped to popularize the Jewish family romance by making it a subject for heartfelt and accessible comedy. And whether the characters in her plays are explicitly Jewish, as in The Sisters Rosensweig, or atmospherically so, like the heroine of The Heidi Chronicles, Wasserstein left no doubt that it was her personal experience she was dramatizing.
Indeed, as Julie Salamon makes clear in her rather breathless new biography, Wasserstein was her own most popular creation. Fans reacted to her more like a character in a play or TV show than a mere playwright. “When we walked up the street,” remembered her friend William Finn, the songwriter best known for Falsettos, “all these sixty-five-year-old Jewish ladies would come up to Wendy, and she would talk to them. They’d talk about their husbands and their daughters, and when they left, I’d ask her who was that, and she’d say, ‘I have no idea.’ … People embraced her as if she were going to explain their lives to them.”
But the key to Wasserstein’s appeal was not that she had all the answers. Her gift was for tormented ambivalence—about daughterhood and motherhood, feminism, romance, achievement, and not least, body image. It is rare, and illuminating, to read a literary biography in which so much attention is paid to the subject’s weight. It would never happen with a male writer, and that very fact helps to explain why Wasserstein’s open discussion of weight and food and dieting struck such a chord.
As Salamon shows, Wasserstein was not above using her candor strategically. In 1988, the actress Caroline Aaron, who had played a major part in the out-of-town tryout of The Heidi Chronicles, was replaced for the New York run. Salamon reproduces Wasserstein’s apologetic letter to Aaron, which begins, “Oy Gavalt!! I’ve had a baguette, a Saga Blue Cheese, and a nice bag of Reese pieces before I sat down to write this note.” It was a ritual abasement—a confession of weakness and a plea for sympathy—and it worked: “After reading Wendy’s words, Caroline Aaron had no doubt that she and Wendy would become even better friends.”
That is one of the useful and revealing anecdotes in Wendy and the Lost Boys, showing how Wasserstein could use weakness as a form of power. (There are many others that are much less useful—Salamon often seems to have put in everything her interviewees told her, and there were clearly a lot of people eager to talk about Wendy Wasserstein.) Even the book’s cover makes the point: it features a photograph of a ruefully smiling Wasserstein with her eyes closed and her palm planted on her face, as if she had just made some comical blunder. A born theater person, she had a sure instinct for dramatizing her incompetence. It can become squirm-inducing: “Sometimes she forgot to wear a sanitary pad when she had her period and then walked around with stains on her dress,” Salamon writes.
Salamon tells us enough about Wasserstein’s childhood to make clear that her performance of helplessness was, at bottom, a defense mechanism. It may not be literally true that, when she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1989, her mother Lola went around bragging that her daughter had gotten the Nobel Prize—this is one of many too-good-to-check stories that Wasserstein told in several versions (like the one about the time Joseph Heller introduced her as “the funniest girl in New York” and she promptly vomited). But Lola does seem to have been a world-class neurosis-inducer, a mother who set the bar for her children so high that even a Pulitzer seemed like a B-plus. She was also largely to blame for her daughter’s lifelong weight issues: in a horrifying detail, Salamon writes that Lola would walk down the street with the teenaged Wendy and tell her, “They are all looking at you and thinking, ‘Look at that fat girl.’”
From one point of view, this technique worked, since the Wasserstein children grew up to be very high achievers. Sandra became a pioneering female corporate executive, Bruce became a Wall Street billionaire, and Wendy became Wendy. (A third sister, Georgette, led a more normal life as a mother and innkeeper in New England.) Lola went around the house singing “There’s no children like my children,” to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business”—one of many Mama Rose-like details in Salamon’s portrait—and she might well have felt justified. When Bruce was born on December 25, it was the set-up for a lifelong joke: “Bruce and Jesus Christ—the Messiahs, holy Jewish sons—shared a birthday.”
But this tiger-mothering (or is a more passive-aggressive animal called for?) exacted a high price. Its most dramatic casualty, Salamon writes, was Abner Wasserstein, who was born in 1940 and began to suffer from seizures and mental retardation at the age of 5. By the time Wendy was born, in 1950, Abner had been sent to a “home,” and she grew up unaware of his existence. She was also unaware that her older sister, Sandra, was actually Lola’s child by her first husband, George—the brother of her own father Morris. It is certainly true that parents of that generation believed in keeping secrets more than we do today, but by any standard Wendy Wasserstein grew up in a family with a problematic relationship to the truth. And that’s not counting the more innocent, eccentric lies Lola indulged in—like cutting the line at Radio City Music Hall by telling people she was visiting from out of town.
It was all perfect training for a playwright, and Salamon shows that Wasserstein never stopped writing about, or mythologizing, her parents and siblings. In 1973, her early play Any Woman Can’t (already a characteristic title) dissected her brother Bruce’s marriage—so successfully that, after seeing it, his wife filed for divorce. Twenty-seven years later, Old Money was a thinly veiled commentary on Bruce’s plutocratic milieu and his relationship with his son. And the three sisters Rosensweig are clearly versions of Sandra, Georgette, and Wendy Wasserstein—the corporate conquistador, the homemaker, and the commitment-phobe.
The most intimate sections of Wendy and the Lost Boys show how Wasserstein’s ambivalence about romantic commitment played out in real life. The title refers, of course, to Peter Pan—Wasserstein was “one among the many babies [in the Baby Boom years] named for Peter’s beloved friend Wendy Darling”—and the “lost boys” in question are the gay men with whom Wasserstein had her closest relationships. The allusion is in rather poor taste, and sets an unfortunately whimsical tone for a story that is actually quite sad.
Wasserstein repeatedly fell in love with openly gay men whom she met in the theater world, a distinguished list that included Christopher Durang, Andre Bishop, Terrence McNally, and Nicholas Hytner. In each case friendship turned into a quasi-romantic, quasi-sexual bond: “Wendy always tried to say, ‘Oh, let’s get married, let’s have children, and be sort of lovey-dovey,’ said Andre [Bishop]. I think she thought, ‘At some point he’ll marry me and we’ll have a strange but happy relationship.’ I thought it too. Seriously. I had nothing else in my life.” But inevitably, these relationships foundered on the bedrock of sexual incompatibility, and the men found love with other men—as happens to Pfeni, the Wendy figure in The Sisters Rosensweig.
Salamon doesn’t venture a direct psychological explanation for all this, but after reading her portrait of Wasserstein it isn’t hard to imagine one. Convinced of her unattractiveness, still under the sway of her parents and siblings, Wasserstein shielded herself from romantic intimacy by falling in love with men she knew would not respond to her sexually. Not until the very last minute, at age forty-eight, did she become a mother through artificial insemination, keeping the identity of her child’s father a closely guarded secret. Salamon does not reveal it, but she does show that Wasserstein tried for a long time to have a baby with the costume designer William Ivey Long—a failed effort that ended in bad feelings. “I don’t feel defined by being gay,” Long told Salamon. “Michelangelo wasn’t a gay artist. I have never felt I am a gay designer. But with Wendy I felt I was part of a big group of gay men, part of the people who had disappointed her. I kept thinking, ‘Why didn’t you go after straight men if we were going to fail you as a group?’”
It is an unusually candid moment in this usually fulsome biography, and it hints at the deep tensions in Wasserstein’s glitzy circle of friends. After reading Wendy and the Lost Boys, it’s easy to feel that the best play about her life has yet to be written—and that it wouldn’t be a comedy.
The piece was originally published in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.