Salamon came to the Wasserstein biography at the suggestion of her editor at Penguin who had been approached by a close friend of Wasserstein, Andre Bishop, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater. Bishop serves as literary executor for Wasserstein's work including her best known play The Heidi Chronicles which won both the Tony Award for best play and the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1989. Bishop realized that a biography of Wasserstein, who died in 2006, was inevitable and wanted the project done properly.
Salamon, whose immediately prior book Hospital (2008) explored the daily challenges of a busy urban hospital, was initially cool to the idea of writing about a playwright. "I was worried the subject might be too narrow and appeal only to theater people," Salamon explained to TCR. "What helped change my mind was learning a bit about Wasserstein’s fascinating family. What tipped the balance was an article by Frank Rich [theater critic and friend of Wasserstein], written not long after Wasserstein died, in which he talked about how strange it was to learn that this very public artist kept so many secrets. The secrets clinched the deal."
|Wasserstein in the mid-1980s
|PBS teleplay, 1978
Wasserstein was born in 1950, deep within the Baby Boom years. Examining the lives of the more affluent members of her generation, especially its women, is a hallmark of Wasserstein's work. "She definitely saw herself as emblematic of her generation, the Baby Boomers. All of her plays are peppered with sociological references; they reflect their moment in history," Salamon told TCR. A mediocre student, Wasserstein graduated from Mount Holyoke College in 1971 with a history degree and no particular ambition. She drifted into writing workshops at the City University of New York taught by novelist Joseph Heller and playwright Israel Horovitz both of whom encouraged her to pursue playwrighting.
Failure to shine in drama school was quickly left behind. In the fall of 1977, when Wasserstein was just twenty-seven years old, her play Uncommon Women and Others was produced by the Phoenix Theater, a high profile Off-Broadway company. The play presents a group of college friends (clearly based on Wasserstein and her friends at Mount Holyoke) coming together a few years after graduation. Their conversation, which employs frank language that some commentators thought unseemly coming from a female writer, questions the modern feminist movement's focus on professional achievement while still supporting the movement's larger goals. In 1978, Wasserstein's work reached a nationwide audience when Uncommon Women and Others was staged for television on PBS with an up-and-coming Meryl Streep in the cast.
|Playbill from Broadway production, 1989
Salamon interviewed nearly three-hundred people for the biography. "I’ve done big, complicated books in the past and have learned a good filing system is crucial," she explained to TCR. "I am also a stickler for transcribing interviews as soon as possible so the workload doesn’t get bogged down in backlog." Salamon had written extensively about films but Wendy and the Lost Boys was her first book about theater. Asked to compare theater to films, she told TCR -- "The theater world seems more innocent to me. Not without its petty jealousies and politics, but certainly very different from Hollywood where the large sums of money at stake have a particularly corrupting effect."
|The Heidi Chronicles, Arena Stage, Washington, DC, 2007
(photo courtesy of Arena Stage)
The Pulitzer and Tony Award winning The Heidi Chronicles, is a series of humorous and insightful episodes in the life of Heidi Holland, a successful art historian in her thirties (played in the Broadway production by Joan Allen) who, like so many of Wasserstein's characters, grapples with the expanding opportunities but seemingly endless choices and increased pressures faced by educated women in the late-twentieth century.
|Kate Nelligan (l.) and Penny Fuller in An American Daughter,
Broadway, 1997 (photo by Joan Marcus)
Capturing the Pulitzer Prize for drama raised Wasserstein's profile beyond the theatrical world. "The Pulitzer became very important to Wasserstein's legacy," Salamon told TCR. "In the public mind (and in her own), winning the prize elevated her from a funny New York writer to an authoritative commentator on her times." A 1995 made for television film version of The Heidi Chronicles, with a screenplay by Wasserstein, starred Jamie Lee Curtis.
|Wasserstein in 2000 (photo by AP)
|Poster for Wasserstein's last play, 2005
The story of a liberal female professor (played in the original production by Dianne Wiest) who hurls plagiarism charges at a male student from a blue-blood family, Third brought Wasserstein's work to new level of seriousness with its nuanced look at politics, social class, money, and family connections.
Wasserstein died in January 2006 at age fifty-five. Following her habit of selective confidentiality, few of her family members or friends knew about the seriousness her health problems until she was close to death. Her passing stunned the theater world and brought an abrupt halt to a flourishing career. Salamon told TCR -- "With Third Wasserstein seemed to have reconnected with her voice as a playwright. I believe she had more to say and she would have said it."
|Wasserstein's only novel, 2006.
Wasserstein adapted John Cheever's short story "The Sorrows of Gin" into a teleplay for PBS in 1979 and wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film The Object of My Affection, based on Stephen McCauley's comedic novel about a romance between a pregnant woman and a gay man.
Wasserstein is also the author of the children's book Pamela's First Musical (1996), dedicated to her niece and celebrating Wasserstein's love for Broadway musicals, and the collection of essays Shiksa Goddess or How I Spent My Forties (2001). Wasserstein's only novel, Elements of Style, about the effect of the September 11 attacks on the lives of New York socialites, was published posthumously in the spring of 2006.
Here's more information --
"Interview. Wendy Wasserstein, The Art of Theater." Paris Review (Spring 1997).
"Wendy Wasserstein Interview (with writer A.M. Homes)." BOMB Magazine (Spring 2001).