“Wendy was looking for an idealized love and hadn't found it. Or, rather, she kept finding it and then was disappointed when Prince Charming jumped off his steed and revealed himself to be distressingly human. Or he was gay. Or he was married to someone else. She had been in therapy for years, with at least three different therapists, and still hadn't determined why she always chose impossible men.”
“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.
Such reinvention was the stuff of theater. But Wasserstein learned the tactic long before she began writing plays. Her parents, Lola and Morris Wasserstein, were immigrants who'd had the brains and ambition to become what they believed they should be (successful Americans), not what they had been (Jewish outcasts). They took their children to see the Broadway musicals that celebrated these notions far more often than they took them to synagogue. They displayed no nostalgia for the past, only intense hunger for the future.”
Reviewer Adam Kirsch didn’t love it; I’ll probably finish it this weekend. I know almost nothing about Wasserstein so it’s interesting to read from that newcomer perspective, but I like reading biographies whether I know a lot about the person or not. It’s such a welcome change from memoir, and a reminder of how very subjective memoir (as well as biography, of course) is.
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.”
This 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: “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 1989 Pulitzer Prize, her mother Lola went around bragging that her daughter had gotten the Nobel—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.’ ”