Wendy Wasserstein (October 18, 1950 – January 30, 2006) was an American playwright. She was an Andrew Dickson White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University. She received the Tony Award for Best Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1989 for her play The Heidi Chronicles.
Wasserstein gave birth to a daughter, Lucy Jane Wasserstein, on September 12, 1999, when she was 48 years old. The child’s difficult birth was three months premature and is recorded in Wasserstein’s collection of essays, Shiksa Goddess. Wasserstein, who was not married, never publicly identified her daughter’s father.
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. In addition to her daughter, Wasserstein was survived by her mother, Lola, and two siblings—businessman Bruce Wasserstein (deceased in 2009) and Wilburton Inn owner Georgette Wasserstein Levis who died on February 6, 2014 in Manchester, Vermont.
Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn, New York to Morris Wasserstein, a wealthy textile executive, and his wife, Lola (née Liska) Schleifer, who moved to the United States from Poland when her father was accused of being a spy. Wasserstein “once described her mother as being like ‘Auntie Mame’”. Lola Wasserstein reportedly inspired some of her daughter’s characters. Wendy was the youngest of five siblings, including brother Bruce Wasserstein, a well-known investment banker.
Her maternal grandfather was Simon Schleifer, a yeshiva teacher in Włocławek, Poland, who moved to Paterson, New Jersey and became a high school principal. Claims that Schleifer was a playwright are probably apocryphal, as contemporaries did not recall this and the assertion only appeared once Wasserstein had won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
A graduate of the Calhoun School (she attended from 1963 to 1967), 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 in 1973, and an M.F.A. in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama in 1976. In 1990 she received an honoris causa Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Mount Holyoke College and in 2002 she received an honoris causa degree from Bates College.
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. The play was workshopped at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 1977, and 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. While at Yale, she co-wrote a musical with fellow student Christopher Durang, When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth.
In 1989, she won the Tony Award, the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama 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 last 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.
Wasserstein is described as an author of women’s identity crises. “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.” In a conversation with novelist A. M. Homes, Wasserstein said that these heroines are the starting points for her plays: “I write from character, so it begins with people talking, which is why I like writing plays.”
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.
In 2007 she was featured in the film Making Trouble, a tribute to female Jewish comedians, produced by the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Pamela’s First Musical, written with Cy Coleman and David Zippel, based on Wasserstein’s children’s book, received its world premiere in a concert staging at Town Hall in New York City on May 18, 2008.
She wrote the libretto for the opera Best Friends, based on Clare Boothe Luce’s play The Women, but left it incomplete when she died. It was completed by Christopher Durang, set by Deborah Drattell, and is in development with Lauren Flanigan. In 1996 she appeared as the guest caller “Linda” on the Frasier episode “Head Game”. Wasserstein was named the President’s Council of Cornell Women Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large in 2005.
|Productions||Date of Productions|
|The Heidi Chronicles
|Mar 19, 2015 – Aug 09, 2015|
|An American Daughter
|Apr 13, 1997 – Jun 29, 1997|
|The Sisters Rosensweig
|Mar 18, 1993 – Jul 16, 1994|
|The Heidi Chronicles
|Mar 09, 1989 – Sep 01, 1990|
|Show(s) (listed chronologically,
most recent first)
|Position(s)||Role(s)||Theater Name||Award Nominations||Award(s) Won|
|Third||Playwright||Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater|
|Old Money||Playwright||Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater|
|Love’s Fire: Fresh Numbers by Seven American Playwrights||Playwright||Joseph Papp Public Theater/Newman Theater|
|Uncommon Women and Others||Playwright||Lucille Lortel Theatre|
|The Sisters Rosensweig||Playwright||Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater|
|The Heidi Chronicles||Playwright||Playwrights Horizons||1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama1989 Drama Desk Award, Outstanding New Play1989 Drama Critics’ Circle Award, Best Play|
|Urban Blight||Book||New York City Center-Stage I|
|Orchards||Adaptation||Lucille Lortel Theatre|
|Isn’t It Romantic||Playwright||Lucille Lortel Theatre|
|Isn’t it Romantic||Playwright||Playwrights Horizons|
|Young Playwrights Festival (1983)||Dramaturg||Circle Repertory Theatre|
|Uncommon Women and Others||Playwright||Marymount Manhattan Theatre|
- Wasserstein, Wendy (1990). Bachelor Girls. New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-394-56199-6.
- Wasserstein, Wendy (1999). Pamela’s First Musical. New York: Bt Bound. ISBN 0-613-08513-2.
- Wasserstein, Wendy (2001). Shiksa Goddess: Or, How I Spent My Forties: Essays (First ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 0-375-41165-8.
- Wasserstein, Wendy (2005). Sloth (First ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-516630-2.
- Wasserstein, Wendy (2006). Elements of Style: A Novel (First ed.). New York: Knopf. ISBN 1-4000-4231-3.
- 1983: John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship
- 1989: Pulitzer Prize for Drama – The Heidi Chronicles
- 1989: Tony Award for Best Play – The Heidi Chronicles
- 1989: Outer Critics Circle Award – The Heidi Chronicles
- 1989: Drama Desk Award – The Heidi Chronicles
- 1989: Susan Smith Blackburn Prize – The Heidi Chronicles
- 1993: Outer Critics Circle Award – The Sisters Rosensweig
- 1993: William Inge Award for Distinguished Achievement in American Theatre
- 2007: American Theater Hall of Fame
- “Wendy Wasserstein” jwa.org, accessed June 29, 2014
- Simonson, Robert. “Wendy Wasserstein, Playwright Who Dramatized the Progress of a Generation of Women, Is Dead at 55” playbill.com, January 30, 2006
- Charles Isherwood (31 January 2006). “Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55; Her Plays Spoke to a Generation”. The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-21.
- Julie Salamon (2011). Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein. Penguin Press. ISBN 978-1-59420-298-8. OCLC 713567430.
- “Wendy Wasserstein, ’67” calhoun.org, accessed June 29, 2014
- “Wendy Wasserstein Pulitzer-Prize Winning Playwright, to Speak” mtholyoke.edu, September 20, 2001
- “2002 About the Speakers” bates.edu, accessed June 29, 2014
- Napoleon, Davi (June 3, 2010). “At the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s Critics Institute 5Q4 Dan Sullivan”. The Faster Times. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
- Staff writers (25 November 2005). “Was Wendy Wasserstein’s Third Number One with Critics?”. Broadway World. Retrieved 2009-02-12.
- Homes, A. M. “Wendy Wasserstein”. Bomb. Spring 2001. Retrieved 22 July 2011.
- Deming, Mark. “Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women”. New York Times. Retrieved 14 April 2012.
- Blank, Matthew.” ‘Pamela’s First Musical’ Premieres at Town Hall”, playbill.com, May 19, 2008
- Aloi, Daniel.“Playwright Wendy Wasserstein to be remembered in Schwartz Center symposium” news.cornell.edu, February 20, 2007
- “Wendy Wasserstein: Her premature baby goes home”, Wilmington Morning Star 2A, 24 December 1999; accessed via Google News search 4 February 2011.
- Smith, Dinita. “The Newest Wasserstein Creation Comes Home” The New York Times, December 23, 1999
- Rothstein, Mervyn. “Wendy Wasserstein Gets Spotlight in a New Biography” playbill.com, August 19, 2011
- Jones, Kenneth. “Wasserstein World Premieres, ‘Welcome to My Rash’ and ‘Third’, Play DC Through Feb. 15” playbill.com, February 3, 2004
- Isherwood, Charles. “Theater Review | ‘The Downtown Plays’” The New York Times, October 26, 2004
-  The Year of Wendy Wasserstein, 2011-2012, a year-long retrospective celebration at Mount Holyoke College
- Audio: Wendy Wasserstein at the Key West Literary Seminar, 2005
- Wendy Wasserstein at the Internet Broadway Database
- Wendy Wasserstein at the Internet Movie Database
- Wendy Wasserstein at the Internet Off-Broadway Database
- Jan Balakian, Wasserstein biography at Jewish Women Encyclopedia
- Laurie Winer (Spring 1997). “Wendy Wasserstein, The Art of Theater No. 13”. The Paris Review.
- 2001 BOMB Magazine interview of Wendy Wasserstein by A.M. Homes
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