This play unfolds, as so many contemporary dramas now do, over the medium of email.
LOLA WASSERSTEIN PRODUCED more than her share of extraordinary offspring. Her eldest, Sandra Meyer, was a top executive for American Express; her financier son Bruce became one of the richest men in the country. Wendy, the baby, was the first woman to win a (solo) Tony award for best play (The Heidi Chronicles, 1989). Born in 1950, Wendy graduated from Mount Holyoke in the early ’70s, a period memorialized in her play Uncommon Women and Others. After college, she returned to her parents’ home, fretting about what to do next. Lola had no patience for self-pity. “What have you got to be sad about?” she asked Wendy. “Did your husband die? Did your son get sick?” This was how Lola told her daughter that she had been married before — to the brother of Wendy’s father. Also contained in those sentences was the news that Wendy had a half-brother she had never met. Her siblings knew more: Abner Wasserstein, born in 1940, developed severe mental disabilities at around the age of 5 and was installed in an institution.
Wendy grew more secretive as she grew older. She told very few people that she was taking fertility drugs and even fewer people when she got pregnant at age 48 — a miracle that she said was the result of a last ditch, in vitro fertilization. Wasserstein’s daughter, Lucy Jane, was born three-months premature, and the mother’s health deteriorated. She raised the baby with the help of friends and assistants, always trying to keep her frailty under wraps. In November 2005 she was hospitalized with lymphoma. When she died three months later, many in her large circle did not even know she was ill. Bruce and his wife adopted Lucy Jane. Bruce died in 2009.
DEB, a punk rocker still at 57, sits in front of her computer screen at home in Manhattan in a slightly tattered leopard bathrobe. Across the country in Santa Monica, also at her home/office computer and in her pj’s, is JOY, 58. She wears a ratty, oversized Harvard t-shirt and flannel pajama bottoms as Sadie, the loving family mutt, snores beneath her desk. The last time these former college roommates saw one another was a year ago at a Radcliffe class reunion where Gloria Steinem was the guest speaker. Later the old friends reminisced about late-night dorm antics, which included incredible simulations of Tina Turner dance moves performed in flannel Lanz nightgowns. While DEB has recently endured the funeral of a family patriarch, JOY has just deposited her youngest child and only daughter to the bowels (bosom?) of Harvard. Currently, they share a mutual obsession with Julie Salamon’s biography of Wendy Wasserstein — and not only because the playwright immortalized the Lanz nightgown in several of her works.
This play unfolds, as so many contemporary dramas now do, over the medium of email.
DEB: This Wendy Wasserstein book could not be a more perfect antidote to the mishegas of my even-crazier family. Thanks for recommending. :)
JOY: One of the saddest books I’ve ever read.
DEB: It was so intense. Maybe it was just sitting shiva with my relatives — they almost make Wendy’s seem like the Donna Reed Show. I had to actually seek retail therapy @ Bloomingdale’s (well, it WAS Clinique Bonus Time).
JOY: Yes! The hiding of her illness, the hiding of her pregnancy, the hiding of her daughter’s father — all, supposedly, to get back at her mother? Or bring her closer to her brother? There’s so much that Salamon doesn’t tackle directly, I’m left reeling. Maybe you’re right: the book makes you need to go shopping. Not to mention the sad photo of her daughter in this month’s Vogue, the poor little rich girl in her fancy bedroom with her cousins/brothers and uncle’s rich ex-wife. Total weirdness.
DEB: You think it was getting BACK at her mother? Or it was just her survival mechanism? She does not come off as a MEAN person — not a mean bone in THAT BODY. That body. How many times does Salamon describe her as DUMPY or LUMPY? But she never really tackles the fat issue, which, like for so many people, may have been a protective shield.
JOY: Beneath that little-girl voice and giggly persona was a very lonely person. I thought one of the most revealing anecdotes was that class at Yale when E.L. Doctorow said he was upset, because a girl he knew from Sarah Lawrence had committed suicide, and Christopher Durang asked, “Was it for credit?” Wendy burst out laughing. You say she wasn’t mean, but that sounds kinda mean to me, if not cruel, and it was the basis of their friendship. Plus, her view of Jane Austen was that she was “a bitch like the rest of us.”
DEB: Salamon’s technique is interesting. She’s pretending to know what Wendy must be “thinking,” even though all of the info is obviously gotten from the conversations she’s had with Wendy intimates, juxtaposed with whatever Wendy seemed to “reveal” via the characters in her plays. It feels like one long magazine feature, and like what we used to call “New Journalism”: Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem. But it’s interesting and very well done. You simply have to admire Salamon’s WORK. I’m reeling, actually, thinking about the depth of all this material — and how it simply touches me in constantly unexpected ways.
JOY: It inspired me to reread Wendy’s plays. I remember flying to New York to see them in the ‘80s and ‘90s. We had little kids back home in L.A., and it was like Wendy was speaking on our behalf, especially with The Heidi Chronicles and its almost insane ambivalence about motherhood and feminism.
DEB: She was a sort of touchstone — for people who were more literate than Sex & The City — and even just hearing about them you knew Wendy’s scope is just so much wittier and multi-dimensional. The book makes her such a compelling character. You don’t have to be familiar with all the plays to appreciate it.
JOY: I wept. For all her talk about women’s rights, she didn’t much care for women. She so completely internalized her mother’s disapproval that she was too fat, too ugly, too unmarried — buried it. Lying was a way of life in her family.
DEB: And how ironic is it that her daughter is being brought up with cousins/siblings — just as Wendy was. That story about the mother’s first marriage to the uncle — just so much there. The family spawned these incredibly driven people; maybe they all were compensating for the damaged brother, who was sent away. Really, what a family. Who could make these people up? Shakespeare? Chekhov? Nabokov? Aaron Sorkin? I doubt it.
JOY: You know, I was a little bothered by how judgmental Salamon was about how Lola and Morris treated Abner. Of course, it was crazy that they never told Wendy about him and it haunted the whole clan. But sending kids with mental disabilities away wasn’t uncommon in those days. The real tragedy for Wendy, though, was how much she wanted motherhood. It reminded me a little of Elizabeth Edwards, taking so many hormones to get pregnant later in life and seemingly paying for it with her own life.
DEB: Yes, literally at all costs.
JOY: Wendy was supposedly a really fun person to be around. I didn’t feel that reading the book at all. I mean, she roamed around New York in her pajamas. That might be another reason we’re drawn more to the person than the plays. She’s just like her namesake, Wendy Darling in “Peter Pan,” whose entire wardrobe consists of a nightie.
DEB: The more I think about Wendy, the more compassion I have for her. And compassion is really the important element — and what is so missing here. Maybe that is what Wendy Wasserstein’s life teaches us: that however lost we may all get in our respective confusions, we shouldn’t lose compassion for ourselves.
JOY: I couldn’t agree more. It’s like her favorite line from King Lear: You will “see it feelingly.” There is no question that she had chutzpah. Who were the Jewish women writers of her era who owned their Jewish selves? She had the courage to do that, even if some of her plays were thin. In The Sisters Rosensweig you can feel her trying to be clever. Speaking of: that Pfeni character sheds some light on Wendy’s falling in love with her gays –- and how it felt to be dumped by them. If there is one missed opportunity that Salamon had, it was the topic of Wendy falling in love with her “husbands.” Did she do that because she feared intimacy so much? Or because her brother Bruce was the one man she really loved? Or was the intimacy of those relationships her ideal?
DEB: Maybe she was more interested in falling in love with someone’s mind. Or heart. And they with hers. Why does that seem strange?
JOY: Rereading Isn’t It Romantic is a little like watching a rerun of Rhoda.
DEB: You sound like Robert Brustein who hated her work and criticized her for being too “sitcomy.” I ask you, what was wrong with sitcoms, Mr. Yale DEAN? More people think fondly about I Love Lucy than your greatest production of The FROGS! It’s important to remember that Wasserstein and her contemporaries like Durang were the first gen of playwrights who grew up on a steady diet of TV. And some of this stuff that seems dated on the page might have worked just fine in a theater, especially with talented performers. So, maybe Wendy’s plays, particularly in retrospect, seem a little crude, but the reality is they worked and entertained.
JOY: The thing is, when people complain that WW was “too Jewish,” what does that mean, exactly? Too New York-centric? Too Hadassah-centric? I do wonder, too, when she was criticized for being “unimportant” whether that was code for “too Jewish.” I had no idea how enmeshed her life was with the New York intelligentsia, especially from the New York Times, like her pals Frank Rich and Michiko Kakutani. It was like she was part of the Insiders Club.
DEB: I like the way you write “WW”— as if she’s practically a war. And she nabbed the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize, things that can’t be taken away. Not like the defective brother who was simply cast out. Can you imagine, Joy, what if you went to do a book signing somewhere, and a guy in a wheelchair rolls up to you and says, “Joy, I am your brother!” Tell me that is NOT a Darth Vader moment — but WORSE — because it is REAL.
JOY: The saddest book I’ve ever read.
DEB: But funny, too. I roared out loud reading her old boyfriend’s comment that if she had known she was going to be on the front page of the Times when she died, she would’ve come back to life. In the end what remains so lovable and endearing is her humor. Not to mention her sheer bravery. More than chutzpah. She may not have told all of it, but she told a lot of her story publicly. It is really only very recently that women have been PERMITTED to do this. And our mothers (mine, as well as Wendy’s) passed on all of this incredible sexist mishegoss. I mean, really f-d up stuff. Maybe yours did not. But I remember going to the Harvard Club with my mother as a child. We had to go in a SEPARATE DOOR for women (never mind I had to be forced into an idiotic outfit with the party underpants and little matching socks) and sit there ‘til a MAN (father, uncle) came to FETCH us. I was outraged. And my mother’s attitude was always, Shhh-be happy they let you in at all. And I was not happy. I resented it.
JOY: I think all our mothers internalized that stuff. On opening night of The Sisters Rosensweig, someone remarked that Wendy’s mother must be proud of her daughter, and Lola supposedly replied: “Yes, but wouldn’t it be nicer if this was Wendy’s wedding?” Thank goodness we came of age when we did. Think of how much better it is for our kids than it was for us. Last week, the New York Times reported that women earned two-thirds of graduate degrees in 2009 and 60 per cent of master’s degrees and more than half of the doctorates. That’s progress!
DEB: Now they can take all those degrees and become doctors or rabbis or whatever it is men don’t find profitable or prestigious enough any more.
JOY: There is so much about Wendy I identify with — her struggles in seeing our generation as materialistic and self-involved, her disillusionment with the women’s movement. Not to mention that she named her daughter Lucy, like me. And her middle name is Joy.
DEB: And is it too complicated to mention that her billionaire brother Bruce and his wife were no sooner given custody of Wendy’s daughter than they divorced — and then he dropped dead? Who could make these people up?
JOY: There is a line from her play Third, in which a character says “sometimes your protection can become your own confinement,” and that’s what I think happened in her personal life. She may have been writing clever comedies for the stage, but beneath the glib comebacks were rage and loneliness. She can’t “go with the hope,” as she writes in “Third,’ because she’s so invested in “going with the irony,” instead. Or, as Janie Blumberg puts it in “Isn’t it Romantic,” “It doesn’t take any strength to be alone. It’s much harder to be with someone.”
DEB: Hold on, Joy.
JOY stares longingly at a black-and-white photo of her daughter, LUCY, on her desk. The photo is of LUCY, age 3. JOY picks up her cell phone and taps out this furtive text to her daughter MIA somewhere in the bowels of Lamont Library in Harvard Yard.
After what seems like an eternity, her phone pings and this message appears in response:
LUCY: Studying at Lamont. I have to read Peter Pan for my freshman seminar. Did you know that JM Barrie was a total perv? My prof, who baked us brownies, is the shit! I love her! Oh, and thank you SO much for sending the care package! Can’t wait to put up my Halloween lights.
Joy sighs and waits for Deb to come back.
DEB: Sorry to keep you waiting. I couldn’t get off with my mother. She’s excited I’m writing about Wendy, because her headmistress Miss Parmelee at Calhoun was my mom’s, too.
JOY: You’re so lucky your mother is still part of your life. I miss my mom like crazy and, I must say, it makes me sad to think that Wendy didn’t get the chance to see her daughter grow up.
DEB: And vice versa. Poor Lucy Jane — the little girl with a fairytale life.
JOY: Yes, but in Grimm’s.
published in the Los Angeles Review of Books