Wendy Chronicled: Deceptive Depth, Uncommon Woman

For nearly 30 years, theater audiences knew Wendy Wasserstein as the wry mistress of wit who could make them guffaw in their seats or wheeze until they wept. But to her friends, the essence of this Broadway scribe was always her own high-pitched giggle.

“It happened quite often, it was really a part of hezr conversation. It almost took on the character of words,” said Swoosie Kurtz, who became friends with Ms. Wasserstein after starring in the career-making 1977 production of her breakout play, Uncommon Women and Others. “The giggle would just erupt—and it could mean so many things. It could mean that it was covering up some pain …. Or sometimes it could just be her wonderful sense of the absurd, which was highly refined.”

“It was sort of the laugh of a 12-year-old girl. It was life-enhancing,” said her friend Jon Plowman, who produced the British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous and now heads the BBC’s comedy division.

“It was very brave,” Ms. Kurtz said. “It was a very brave giggle.”

On the morning of Monday, Jan. 30, Ms. Wasserstein died of complications from lymphoma at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She had been sick for some time, friends said, but had largely kept the illness a secret. She was 55.

With Ms. Wasserstein’s death, the New York theater world lost one of the most vivid voices of the baby-boom generation. She began writing in the 1970’s, and from that first, breakout play, she forged an identity as a kind of generational Ouija board, channeling the yearnings, disappointments and ambitions of her particular era of women. Her women aged as she aged, and as her preoccupations matured and shifted, so did theirs.

Along the way, Ms. Wasserstein saw more of these plays go to Broadway than any woman playwright since Lillian Hellman (three, to be exact) and won a theater’s worth of awards, including the Tony and the Pulitzer for The Heidi Chronicles. She also wrote essays and magazine articles, and had just completed her first novel, a pink-covered satire called Elements of Style. In doing so, she chronicled the first and second acts of her generation, and now that she is not here, her friends and fans are wondering who will tell the rest of their story.

“It’s scary to lose a spokesman for our generation,” said the Broadway theater actress Tovah Feldshuh, who first met Ms. Wasserstein through the playwright’s proud and doting mother, Lola, in the mid-1970’s. “She really was one of the cornerstones of our community. She was of our generation, the children of the 50’s and 60’s and 70’s, that postwar boom, the children who never knew the war, but had grandparents, all of whom had accents.”

From early on, this connection had a particular resonance for women—certainly for that cadre of driven, hyper-educated feminists and post-feminists—who saw their lives played out not just in Ms. Wasserstein’s characters, but in her career as well.

“When Wendy was first being produced, there weren’t women writers being produced very often,” said Tim Sanford, the artistic director for Playwrights Horizons, the theater company that first produced her early works. “I think she was a trailblazer that way, she made that a necessity, partly because she proved the accessibility of her voice.”

This accessibility—effortless, disarming, infectious—was as true of the real woman as it was to her characters. “You really got the sense of absolute worship from her fans,” said Ms. Wasserstein’s friend and fellow scribe, Paul Rudnick, who met her during their proto-theater days at Yale (she was a graduate student, he an undergraduate). “They treasured her, and there was that amazing intimacy that very few people in the arts had. They’ve got the sense that their fans own them, and Wendy had that.”

A true actor’s playwright, she was present throughout the staging of her plays, writing and rewriting dialogue as the actors worked their way through the material.

“I had just this one moment that I had a longish speech, and I remember sitting down with her and kind of working through it with her, and she was really so open and smart about it,” said Glenn Close of her days preparing for her role in the uncommon first production of Uncommon Women and Others. “So the process was really very fun and creative.”

“She really knew people very, very well and could just put her finger right on the pulse,” said Ms. Kurtz. “And her ear for dialogue was just so on the money. She had a great instinctive ear for what rang true and what didn’t, and what fell flat and what could really soar.”

Wasserstein’s flair for the language of theater was wound into the double helix of her DNA: Her maternal grandfather, Simon Schliefer, was a Yiddish playwright, and her mother was an occasional dancer with a passion for theater. Her cousin, Leslie Moonves, tried his hand (and voice) at acting before hopping over to the world of television production, where he now roosts as president of CBS.

Ms. Wasserstein was born in Brooklyn on Oct. 18, 1950, the fifth and youngest child of an “eccentric but traditional” Jewish family. Her mother was (and has, rather famously, remained) a classic Yiddishe mamme—as proud of her kids as she was pushy for grandchildren—and her father, Morris, was a textile manufacturer who eventually earned enough money to move the family to the airy reaches of Upper East Side Manhattan. His daughter has said he invented velveteen.

This old-world business sechel was also passed down through the generations. Ms. Wasserstein’s older brother, Bruce, is the mergers-and-acquisitions man who now heads Lazard. And friends said that she herself might easily have followed in the family tradition.

“She always said she applied to both business school and the Yale School of Drama after college, and she would have gone to whichever place accepted her,” said her longtime friend, the Tony-winning Broadway composer William Finn. “And Yale accepted her first.”

At Yale, Wasserstein joined a herd of talented young theater folk—including the actress Meryl Streep, the playwright Christopher Durang and the costume designer William Ivey Long—who would go on to define a generation of actors, designers, dramaturges and writers. For the next three decades, these men and women would be her closest friends, collaborators and, ultimately, her family. She never did marry, but instead carved out a life worthy of her heroine Heidi Holland. At the age of 48, she gave birth to her daughter, Lucy Jane, named for the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

“We did everything together. We were total family,” said Mr. Finn, who met Ms. Wasserstein after a performance of her play Isn’t It Romantic in 1981. “My family, when they came to New York, would always expect to see her. There’s nothing we didn’t do together.

“She gave so much to me,” he said, citing, as just one “small” example, the role she played in introducing him to the Off Broadway version of the play that would ultimately become his latest Tony-winning project, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. “That was just delivered to me on a platter because of her.”

Generosity was a Wasserstein hallmark—as was her sly sense of humor, always delivered in her signature squeaky, girlish voice.

“I was in the hospital, and she used to come in and do hospital routines. Anything she said was funny,” said Mr. Finn.

And Mr. Plowman, who spent years engaged in an over-the-top contest of wits with Wasserstein to see who could take the other on more absurd and outlandish adventures, couldn’t help but laugh as he recalled one of their last outings—inspired by an orange Lambertson Truex tote bag she had been given by Harper’s Bazaar.

“She rang me and said, ‘I’ve got this bag. We’ve got to take this bag to dinner, because I think this bag could take us places we wouldn’t normally go.’ And she kind of made the bag into another person,” he said. “She was kind of like an injection of vitamins or something. Being with her, she just kind of took you up. Whatever she was on, I wanted part of it,” he said.

“You just knew that you were going to have a great time and you did,” said Mr. Rudnick, recalling one particular evening during the 1980’s “chocolate-chip-cookie boom” when Ms. Wasserstein whisked him off to a restaurant owned by the David’s Cookies guru; she treated him to a multi-course meal made entirely from rich, gooey cookies. “Our religious love of chocolate was one of the things that bound us together forever,” he said.

On the day after her death, the lights went dim on Broadway in tribute.

“We are all losing her way too soon,” wrote Christopher Durang, who said he was too devastated to speak on the phone, and so provided a written 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.” Wendy Chronicled:  Deceptive Depth,  Uncommon Woman