Wendy Wasserstein (October 18, 1950 – January 30, 2006) was an award-winning American playwright and an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. She was the recipient of the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn, New York to Morris Wasserstein, a wealthy textile executive, and his wife, Lola Schliefer, an amateur dancer who moved to the United States from Poland when her father was accused of being a spy. Wasserstein was one of four children, including brother Bruce Wasserstein. Her maternal grandfather was Simon Schliefer, a prominent Polish Jewish playwright who moved to Paterson, New Jersey and became a Hebrew school principal.
Wasserstein earned a B.A. in history from Mount Holyoke College in 1971, an M.A. in creative writing from City College of New York, and an M.F.A. in 1976 from the Yale School of Drama, where her classmates included the future playwright Christopher Durang. In 1990 she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Mount Holyoke College and in 2002 Wasserstein received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Bates College.
Plays and screenplays
Wasserstein's first production of note was Uncommon Women and Others (her graduate thesis at Yale), a play which reflected her experiences as a student at, and an alumna of, Mount Holyoke College. A full version of the play was produced in 1977 off-Broadway with Glenn Close, Jill Eikenberry, and Swoosie Kurtz playing the lead roles. The play was subsequently produced for PBS with Meryl Streep replacing Close.
In 1989, she won both the Tony and the Pulitzer Prize for her play, The Heidi Chronicles.
Her wry, smart, and often highly comical plays, which explore topics ranging from feminism to family to ethnicity to pop culture, include The Sisters Rosensweig, Isn’t It Romantic, An American Daughter, Old Money, and her most recent work which opened in Fall 2005, Third, . In addition, she wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film, The Object of My Affection that starred Jennifer Aniston.
The New York Times described Wasserstein as a "chronicler of women's identity crises." As the paper's obituary of the playwright noted, "Her heroines -- intelligent and successful but also riddled with self-doubt -- sought enduring love a little ambivalently, but they did not always find it, and their hard-earned sense of self-worth was often shadowed by the frustrating knowledge that American women's lives continued to be measured by their success at capturing the right man" (Wasserstein commented that her parents only allowed her to go to Yale because they were certain she would meet an eligible lawyer there, get married, and lead a conventional life as a wife and mother). Although appreciative of the critical acclaim for her comedic streak, she described her work as "a political act," wherein sassy dialogue and farcical situations mask deep, resonant truths about intelligent, independent women living in a world still ingrained with traditional roles and expectations.
Life and illness
Wasserstein gave birth to a daughter, Lucy Jane Wasserstein, in 1999, when she was 48 years old. The child's difficult birth (three months premature, she weighed less than two pounds and had hyaline membrane disease) was recorded in Wasserstein's collection of essays, Shiksa Goddess (Or How I Spent My Forties). Wasserstein, a single mother, never publicly identified her daughter's father. Lucy Jane was named after the Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds."
Wasserstein was hospitalized with lymphoma in December, 2005, and died on January 30, 2006, aged 55. The news of Wasserstein's death was unexpected because her illness had not been widely publicized outside the theatre community. The night after she died, Broadway's lights were dimmed in her honor.
She was survived by her mother, two siblings (including businessman Bruce Wasserstein, who became Lucy Jane's guardian), and her daughter.