This Day in Jewish History

2006: Wendy Wasserstein, Who Never Had It All, Dies

Pulitzer-prize winning humorist seemed to tell all in her tales, but turned out to keep much secret, including the disease that would kill her.

Wendy Wasserstein
Wikimedia Commons

On January 30, 2006, Wendy Wasserstein – a playwright and essayist whose work reflected with humor and empathy the dilemmas and challenges facing American baby-boom women who wanted to “have it all” – died, at age 55.

Wasserstein, the first woman to win a Tony for drama-writing – for her 1988 play “The Heidi Chronicles,” which also won her a Pulitzer Prize – was beloved among both her colleagues and her fans, many of whom felt as if they knew her intimately because of the personal and confessional nature of much of her writing. In fact, she came from a family that knew how to keep its secrets, of secret-keepers and kept many things to herself, including her final illness.

'Look at that fat girl'

Wendy Joy Wasserstein was born on October 18, 1950, and was the daughter of Morris Wasserstein and the former Lola Schleifer. Morris, co-owner with his brothers of a ribbon manufacturer, had been born in Wizna, Poland, and immigrated to the United States in 1927.

Lola was from Wloclawek, north of Warsaw, and had arrived in America in 1928, the year after her father, a yeshiva teacher, had fled Poland while being pursued by authorities who suspected him of Bolshevik ties. In the U.S., he became a high-school principal who, in his free time, liked to frequent the race track.

Before Lola married Morris Wasserstein, in 1943, she was married to his brother George. The couple had two children before George died of appendicitis, in 1941.

According to Julie Salamon, author of the 2011 biography “Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein,” Lola and Morris decided to rewrite the family history to omit the fact that the children’s late Uncle George had been married to Lola or that he was the father of two of them.

The lie could be sustained because the oldest child, Sandra, was only 3 when her father died, and the next oldest, Abner, born in 1940, was institutionalized as a child with severe mental disabilities.

The family in general, and Lola especially, provided Wendy with a surfeit of material for her plays, as did her friends, many of whom appeared as only thinly disguised characters in her work.

To the world, Lola projected the sense that her children were the world’s most talented and deserving, while Wendy at least was on the receiving end of much criticism. As a teenager, writes Salamon, Wendy was often reminded by her mother that passersby on the street “are all looking at you and thinking, ‘Look at that fat girl.’”

And others

Wendy attended the private Calhoun School and Mt. Holyoke College, graduating in 1971. She followed that with master’s degrees from City University of New York and Yale Drama School, where her graduate thesis was a play, “Uncommon Women and Others,” that drew on her years at the all-female Mt. Holyoke. The play went on to be produced off-Broadway and for television by PBS.

“The Heidi Chronicles (1988), about the coming-of-age and adulthood of an art historian and her unconventional relationships with men, paralleled Wasserstein’s life in many ways; “The Sisters Rosensweig” (1992), which, according to the writer, was “about being Jewish,” dealt with three middle-aged sisters and their respective searches for happiness.

The 2000 play “Old Money” was a thinly veiled depiction of Wasserstein’s older brother Bruce, a hedge-funder entrepreneur who became chairman of the investment bank Lazard.  

Wasserstein was famously in a lifelong, largely unfulfilled search for romantic attachment, and desirous of becoming a mother. When she was 40, she began fertility and pregnancy treatments, and after many failures, finally bore a child, in 1998, at age 48.

About two years after Lucy Jane Wasserstein’s birth, her mother began treatment for what turned out to be lymphoma. Although she wrote in detail about her pregnancy for the New Yorker, she went to lengths to keep her illness covered up, so that her death came as a surprise even to many close friends.

When Wendy died, her daughter was adopted by Bruce, and when he died, in 2009, his ex-wife Claude Becker became her guardian. By 2014, when Wendy’s sister Georgette Meyer died, none of the immediate family of Morris and Lola Wasserstein remained alive.