Wendy Wasserstein

Wendy Wasserstein

Wasserstein, Wendy, 1950-2006, American playwright, b. Brooklyn, N.Y. Wasserstein, who made a place on the American stage for contemporary women and their concerns, explored such issues as love, independence, careers, family relationships, and feminism with wit and affection. Her first success, Uncommon Women and Others (1977), introduced five typical Wasserstein women: young, educated, intelligent, accomplished, and struggling to attain both autonomy and love. Her most celebrated play, The Heidi Chronicles (1989, Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award) takes her heroine, an idealistic and insecure art historian, through the emotional upheavals of the 1960s and 70s while dealing with themes of love, selfhood, marriage, and motherhood. Wasserstein's other plays include Isn't It Romantic (1981, rev. 1983), The Sisters Rosensweig (1993), An American Daughter (1997), Old Money (2000), and Third (2005). She also wrote essay collections (1990, 2001), a self-help parody (2005), a children's book (1996), screenplays, teleplays, libretti, and the posthumously published novel Elements of Style (2006).

See studies by G. Ciociola (1998, repr. 2005) and C. Barnett (1999).

Wendy Wasserstein (October 18 1950January 30 2006) was an 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 Schleifer, an amateur dancer who moved to the United States from Poland when her father was accused of being a spy. Lola Wasserstein reportedly inspired some of her daughter's characters. Wendy was one of five siblings, including brother Bruce Wasserstein. Her maternal grandfather was Simon Schleifer, 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 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 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 2005, Third ().

During her career, which spanned nearly four decades, Wasserstein wrote eleven plays, winning a Tony Award, a Pulitzer Prize, a New York Drama Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Award, and an Outer Critics Circle Award.

In addition, she wrote the screenplay for the 1998 film The Object of My Affection, which starred Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd.

Personal reflections

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 allowed her to go to Yale only 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 reportedly 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, Lola (who died in 2007), two siblings (including businessman Bruce Wasserstein, who became Lucy Jane's guardian), and her daughter.





  • Elements of Style (a novel), 2006 (Knopf).
  • Sloth. New York: Oxford University Press (2005), (ISBN 0-19-516630-2).
  • Shiksa Goddess : Or, How I Spent My Forties : essays. New York: Knopf (2001), (ISBN 0-375-41165-8).
  • Bachelor Girls. New York: Knopf, Distributed by Random House (1990), (ISBN 0-394-56199-6).



[{Category:Polish-American Jews]]

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