Witty Voice of Feminist Self-Doubt

Times Staff Writer

Wendy Wasserstein, who won a Pulitzer Prize, a Tony Award and considerable popularity writing comic yet pointed plays and essays about the nagging choices and disappointments that many Baby Boom women encountered on the path to "having it all," died Monday. She was 55.

Wasserstein died at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, according to Andre Bishop, artistic director of the Lincoln Center Theater. The cause of death was lymphoma.

"She was very much like the women she wrote the plays about," Bishop told The Times. "She connected to people in her plays in a personal way. I think that's what made her distinctive and I think a lot of people -- men and women -- felt as if they knew her through her work."

"Theater has lost its great human, hysterically funny voice. She could break your heart and be hilarious at it," said William Finn, the composer of "Falsettos," who called her death "an immeasurable loss."

Wasserstein secured her place in American theater with four consecutive plays, from "Uncommon Women and Others" (1977) to "The Sisters Rosensweig" (1993) that traced women's progress from college to middle age in the wake of the feminist revolution of the 1960s. Part of their strength and charm, Wasserstein's admirers said, was that they weren't sociological sketches of a generation, but highly personal stories anchored in her own experiences with family and friends.

The third in her informal series, "The Heidi Chronicles," won the Pulitzer Prize for drama and the Tony Award for best play in 1989 -- but it raised some prominent feminist eyebrows, including those of Betty Friedan, for an ending in which a committed feminist art historian, feeling sad, isolated and let down by the movement's lost promise of enduring comradeship and solidarity, decides to adopt a baby.

"I'm just not happy. I'm afraid I haven't been happy for some time," protagonist Heidi Holland says near the end of a long, rambling, extemporaneous speech to her high school alumnae association, supposedly on the achievements and prospects of the women's movement, of which she is considered a distinguished exemplar. "I don't blame any of us. We're all concerned, intelligent, good women. It's just that I feel stranded. And I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the point was that we were all in this together."

Wasserstein said she wasn't trying to discredit feminism, which she regarded as a life-changing inspiration, but to write what seemed most truthful for her character. However, she wanted to open eyes to the trap of trying to "have it all."

"The women's movement, the movement that said, 'Your voice is worthwhile,' is the only reason I feel like a person," Wasserstein told People magazine in 1990. "But what still needs to change is that women shouldn't beat themselves up for their choices -- for being a mother or a single mother, or being a playwright, or being beautiful or not being beautiful. It's important that there isn't one ... slot."

Her career took off in 1977 with "Uncommon Women and Others," begun while she was earning her 1976 master's degree at the Yale School of Drama. It assessed the glowing yet uncertain hopes of a group of friends during and after college at Mount Holyoke, the elite women's school where Wasserstein, the youngest of four children in a wealthy, high-achieving New York family, earned her bachelor's degree in 1971.

"When we're 25, we're going to be pretty ... incredible," says Rita, one of the play's brainy and attractive collegiate clique. "All right, I'll give us an extra five years for emotional and career development. When we're 30, we're going to be pretty ... amazing." By play's end, six years after graduation, the former dorm mates have gotten an inkling that the path to fulfilling careers and relationships may not be quite so easy, and the timetable for an incredible life has been pushed back to 40 or 45.

The show was noteworthy for its cast of future stars who were then unknown: Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry and Swoosie Kurtz (Meryl Streep, Wasserstein's friend from Yale, took over for Close when the play was redone for a PBS broadcast in 1978).

"My life has been more amazing than I thought it would be," Wasserstein told the Independent of London in 1996. "I've been inordinately lucky."

Besides being an industrious writer, Wasserstein was an avid traveler and socializer, and a woman whose need to nurture led her on an eight-year journey through fertility treatments that culminated in motherhood at the age of 48. She was known for her self-deprecating humor, sharp wit and an enthusiastic, outgoing nature that came across in her numerous lectures and TV talk show appearances, in addition to her plays and her frequent essays for newspapers and magazines, which are collected in the books "Bachelor Girls" and "Shiksa Goddess (Or, How I Spent My Forties)."

Her "combination of sweetness and wit is true, and people embrace her for that," theater critic Robert Brustein, who got to know Wasserstein as dean of Yale's drama school, said in a 1997 New Yorker profile of her. "Being with Wendy, you feel like you're having a bubble bath or an ice cream soda."

Those qualities attracted a glittering roster of friends from the worlds of theater and media. At Yale, she made lasting connections with Streep, Sigourney Weaver and playwright Christopher Durang. Charlie Rose repeatedly had Wasserstein as a guest on his late-night PBS show. She dedicated her most overtly political play, "An American Daughter," (1997) to columnist and former Los Angeles Times Editorial Page Editor Michael Kinsley, and another friend, Frank Rich, now a political and cultural columnist for the New York Times, who recused himself from reviewing her plays when he was the paper's theater critic.

"We are all losing her way too soon," Durang said in a statement. "I'm reminded of the line in her 'Heidi Chronicles' in which Peter says to Heidi, 'I want to know you all my life.' That's what I wanted, too, and indeed expected it. And I'm so, so sad that fate, or whatever, called her away so soon."

Wasserstein was born Oct. 18, 1950, in Brooklyn, New York, to two Polish-Jewish immigrants, Morris and Lola Wasserstein -- her father an inventor and manufacturer of gift wrapping and decorative items, her mother a larger-than-life personality who relished daily dance lessons. Going to Saturday matinees on Broadway was a weekly childhood ritual, Wasserstein recalled in a 1997 article for the New York Times in which she detailed a program she had created to interest New York youngsters in theater.

Her brother, Bruce Wasserstein, is a well-known power on Wall Street, an investment banker whose specialty is mergers and acquisitions; he also owns New York magazine and other periodicals. Her eldest sister, Sandra Meyer, became a high-ranking bank executive before her death from breast cancer in 1997 at the age of 60. Another sister, Georgette Levis, operates a Vermont inn with her psychiatrist husband. She is also survived by her daughter, Lucy Jane Wasserstein, and her mother, Lola Wasserstein, both of New York City.

Wasserstein told the New Yorker that as "the youngest in a family of very large personalities," humor became her niche -- and her defense mechanism. "I've always been funny," she said.

"Isn't It Romantic," an off-Broadway hit in 1983, grew out of her parents' pushy desire to see her married to a good, solid, Jewish doctor or lawyer. Instead, Wasserstein remained single all her life, writing comic essays about her romantic setbacks and jokingly referring to a series of close, long-term male friends as her "husbands."

"The Sisters Rosensweig" was modeled on Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" and on the three Wasserstein sisters. It raised issues of Jewish identity while questioning whether romance can still light up lives that have moved well into middle age. She said the impetus for the 1993 play, which ran 16 months on Broadway, was "to write smart and funny parts for women over 40" because she knew "too many actresses whose career opportunities had diminished because they made the grievous error of growing older."

While she earned many glowing reviews, some critics questioned whether she achieved depth along with the laughter and popularity that often come with good comic writing.

"I think Wendy is a very pioneering writer, but because her plays are pleasing, rather well-received and successful, she gets credit for all the wrong things," Bishop, who helped shepherd all of Wasserstein's major plays as artistic director at Playwrights Horizons, then at Lincoln Center Theater, told the Dallas Morning News in 1994. "The very things her plays are about, the seriousness of them, the political nature of them, is not referred to. She's seen as an entertainer."

In her preface to "The Sisters Rosensweig," Wasserstein wrote of the challenge of being funny and serious at the same time: "The trick

As she approached 40, Wasserstein would later write, she had no desire to marry, but longed to love a child of her own. She had almost given up on conceiving through in vitro fertilization, involving onerous injections, but decided after her sister's death that "I was willing to try once more.... It was Sandra's obstinate and heroic determination that made me do it." The essay, "Days of Awe: The Birth of Lucy Jane," told of her daughter's premature birth in 1999, weighing less than 2 pounds, and of the 10-week fight for survival that ensued.

"It was my training in the theater that taught me to show up every day and hope for the best," Wasserstein wrote in the preface to "Shiksa Goddess," which includes the piece.

She continued to show up and work during her illness -- her play "Third" (2005) earning mixed reviews for its satiric portrayal of a left-wing feminist college professor who takes an automatic dislike to a preppie golden-boy student and maliciously undermines him. Her first novel, "Elements of Style," is scheduled to be published by Knopf later this year.

In her third book of humor, "Sloth," a parody of self-help literature that was published last year, Wasserstein shows how to shed the stress of ambition and find the ease that comes with not caring: "You will make some sacrifices in accepting sloth, but the rewards ... will be greater. And remember," she concludes, "getting through this book is the last difficult thing you will ever have to do.... Sleep well, fellow sloths."

Funeral services will be private. A memorial service at Lincoln Center Theater will be announced later.

The family suggests that donations be made in Wasserstein's name to the Open Doors program of the Theatre Development Fund, 1501 Broadway, New York, NY 10036.

Times staff writer Lynne Heffley contributed to this report.

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A prolific pen

Wendy Wasserstein's works included plays, essays, a screenplay, children's books and a novel.

Plays

"Uncommon Women and Others" (1977)

"Isn't It Romantic" (1981), revised (1983)

"The Heidi Chronicles" (1989)

"The Sisters Rosensweig" (1993)

"An American Daughter" (1997)

"Old Money" (2000)

"Third" (2005)

Books of essays

"Bachelor Girls" (1990)

"Shiksa Goddess (Or, How I Spent My Forties)" (2001)

"Sloth" (2005)

Novels

"Elements of Style" (2006)

Children's books

"Pamela's First Musical" (1996)

Screenplays

"The Object of My Affection" (1998)

Source: Associated Press

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