Wendy Wasserstein almost went to law school, and business school, and medical school. (She was turned down by the first, turned down the second, and stopped thinking about the third after two weeks of physics.) Once she came close to marrying a law student. “He was a nice man, but I knew I would get angry with him,” she says. She very nearly got a job in TV. “It was with Sesame Street,” she recalls. “They told me I was too funny to write for them, and I burst into tears. I’m someone who’s always tried to become normal—it’s just never worked out.”
So she became extraordinary instead. Atop a bookcase in her Manhattan apartment, not far from a very dusty exercise bicycle, there is a Tony award and a Pulitzer prize, both for her play The Heidi Chronicles, now the longest-running hit play on Broadway. Her first produced play. Uncommon Women and Others, is still performed at colleges around the country. Isn’t It Romantic, Heidi’s off-Broadway predecessor, has been optioned for the big screen. And Wasserstein’s first book, a collection of essays titled Bachelor Girls, was recently published by Knopf.
But Wasserstein, 39 and a bachelor girl herself, hasn’t forgotten that urge to be “normal.” Her plays feature characters like herself, women struggling toward self-definition amid ever-changing societal imperatives: to be a wife and mother; to have a lucrative profession; to do it all and look as good as Meryl Streep.
Isn’t It Romantic, for example, is the story of a budding writer who resists her parents’ pleas that she marry the nice Jewish doctor she doesn’t love. (Wasserstein says her own parents “used to call me every morning and sing ‘Sunrise, Sunset,’ “) The Heidi Chronicles follows witty, earnest Heidi Holland from the unenlightened early ’60s into the every-woman-for-her-self ’80s, when Heidi begins to feel “stranded” by the choices she’s made. “When I wrote Heidi I was 35, I had just written a movie for Spielberg that didn’t work out, I wasn’t married, and I was beginning to feel like the odd man out at baby showers,” Wasserstein says. “I didn’t know whether the sacrifices I had made were worth the road I was taking. So I decided to write a play about all that.”
If her plays are autobiographically inspired, the essays in Bachelor Girls, many of which first ran in New York Woman magazine, are Wendy undisguised. She has written about everything from the politics of body hair to the excess weight she periodically attempts to shed to the time a boyfriend jilted her in Paris. “I read that one and think, ‘Wendy, that’s really personal!’ ” she says. “But sometimes if you can create order out of experiences, it lets you pass through them.” Betsy Carter, editor of New York Woman, says, “Wendy is more emotionally naked than most writers, and she gets a lot of mail. Readers write to her as if they know her.”
She is accessible in person as well. Quick to giggle and quicker to make fun of herself, Wasserstein seems more like the girlfriend you’d trust with your most embarrassing crushes than one of the hottest playwrights in America. “People always say to me, ‘Oh, Wendy, you just seem like a real person,’ ” she says. “I think the fact that someone who seems like a real person writes these plays and, you know, wins awards is a good image for younger girls to have.”
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., Wasserstein could have used such an image herself. She was born into a close, loving family that encouraged traditional kinds of success. Her father, Morris, ran a thriving textile business. “We used to say he invented velveteen, and I think he actually did,” Wendy says. Her mother, Lola, was a housewife and tireless dance student who believed her son and three daughters were destined for greatness-provided they didn’t slack off. “My sister Sandy tells stories about coming home with a 99 and Lola saying, ‘Where’s the other point?’ ” Wendy remembers. For Wendy and her sisters, the pressures didn’t stop there. “I remember thinking it was enough for my brother, Bruce, to be smart and do well,” Wendy says. “I mean, he didn’t have to go to the Helena Rubinstein Charm School when he was 12. For girls there seemed to be all this other stuff, learning those feminine wiles, and I resented it.”
All four siblings took the family’s success ethic to heart. Sandy, 52, is now an executive at Citicorp; Georgette, 45, runs a Vermont inn with her husband; Bruce, 42, has made millions as co-founder of the powerful and controversial Wall Street investment banking firm Wasserstein Perella & Co. He is also the sibling to whom Wendy was closest as a child. “Bruce is very creative,’ ” she says. “He would tell you that what he and I do is not actually so different. Of course, I would tell you that he made up the three-tiered deal, but I couldn’t tell you what it is.”
In childhood, Wendy—a mediocre student because of a reading problem she now believes was dyslexia—was “very interpersonally skilled, and incisive, and always very humorous,” Bruce remembers. “I’ve always been funny and had a lot of friends because of that,” Wendy says. “I remember at 8 or 9 watching shows like Danny Thomas and thinking. ‘I’m funnier than them. And not only that, these families are boring.’ ”
Compared with hers, they were. For all her conventional aspirations, Lola was “a lot like Auntie Maine,” Wendy says. She dressed with stylish flamboyance, ordered Thanksgiving dinners from the deli—while boiling spices for atmosphere—and had unusual ideas about entertainment for children. “My parents would take us to see anything,” Wendy says. “I remember sitting in nightclubs in the Catskills listening to Myron Cohen joking about how his wife’s breasts were like matzo balls, and thinking, ‘Please, I want to get out of here.’ ” But she adored Broadway musicals and put on plays with her stuffed animals.
A life in theater, however, didn’t occur to her: not at Manhattan’s Calhoun School and not at Mount Holyoke, where she enrolled “because I thought if I went to a Seven Sisters school my parents would leave me alone for the rest of my life.” Even the playwriting class she took—and aced—at neighboring Smith didn’t seal her ambition. “I loved the theater, I just didn’t think you could do it as a profession,” she says. “I thought that I would marry a lawyer, or be one, and do productions of Guys and Dolls at the Scarsdale Playhouse.”
But she soon began to question the rules she had grown up with. As an exchange student at Amherst in 1969, she was struck by “how much more confident the male students were. I started reading all this feminist stuff and going to consciousness-raising groups. That year affected me a great deal.” After two years of postgraduate floundering, she applied to the Yale School of Drama. Her parents gave their blessings, she says, largely “because it was Yale, and I could meet a doctor or a lawyer there. I guess they thought I’d be writing plays in the library of the medical school.”
Her three years at drama school were tough. “Each class at Yale varies in tone, and Wendy’s was this kind of bizarre macho class,” says playwright Chris Durang, a fellow student. “There were an awful lot of would-be Sam Shepards, and Wendy felt a little left out.” Also, Wasserstein says, “There were no role models—no women playwrights came to talk to us.”
She didn’t let that stop her. Her Yale thesis play was Uncommon Women and Others, a comic drama about the hopes and terrors of eight Mount Holyoke women facing adulthood at the height of the women’s movement. Though virtually unnoticed at Yale, it was the play that would launch her career. In 1977, while Wasserstein was making a meager living doing odd jobs in Manhattan, Uncommon Women caught the eye of Andre Bishop, director of a small off-Broadway theater. “What drew me to Wendy’s work was its underlying seriousness and sadness,” says Bishop. “I think in the early days she was thought of as funny and goofy, with some talent. People didn’t take her seriously. But I thought Uncommon Women was funny and touching. I knew she had the gift.”
The play had a well-received off-Broad-way run, then was sold to PBS, where it was made into a TV movie that is now a cult classic. Wasserstein had become a serious writer, though it would be years before she believed it.
“I remember being in Chicago doing Uncommon Women in 1978,” she says. “There was this theater assistant there who wore lovely lace dresses and had long Pre-Raphaelite hair and a lovely face. Someone had come to interview me, and they went directly up to her. I said, ‘No, actually, it’s me,’ and they said, ‘But you don’t look like a playwright. You look like you write cookbooks in Maine.’ I think for a long time part of me bought into that—that to be a woman and say you were an artist you had to look like some Sarah Lawrence girl in a lace dress.”
She doesn’t buy into it now. Three acclaimed plays, several movie scripts and countless awards have made her financially solvent, if not wealthy. More important, they have helped persuade her that she has a genuine calling. “I was probably a very serious writer all along,” she says. “I just didn’t realize it.”
It is a spring weekend in Manchester Village, Vt., and Wendy Wasserstein has come to the Wilburton Inn, run by her sister Georgette, to speak about the playwright’s art. Most of the guests are people she knows, former Mount Holyoke classmates and their husbands. So when Wendy finds that she has misplaced the notes for her speech, she isn’t especially concerned. “Well, maybe I’m a little bit nervous,” she admits, with a giggle. “I’m afraid I’ll get up there and turn into Heidi and say, ‘I feel stranded.’ ”
She doesn’t, of course, and in truth she feels less stranded these days. “The acceptance of Heidi, the respect from my peers while we were staging it, made me feel that,” she says. She has a life that she enjoys: a bright apartment overlooking Washington Square, a beloved cat named Ginger, and a large, devoted circle of friends. “I don’t know when she has time to write,” says Mary Jane Patrone, a pal since college. “Being a good friend takes time, and Wendy is one.”
Still, the single life isn’t always easy. Morris and Lola, proud though they are of her, will never stop lobbying for grandchildren. And Wasserstein, who is romantically uninvolved at the moment, admits that “it’s hard, sometimes, when the cheese comes alone. You want to have the same experiences your friends do so you can share them.” Lately, she has been thinking she may follow Heidi’s lead: She is considering having a child. “I wonder about doing it alone, not giving the child an alternative to me. But, God knows, my friends will be around,” she says. “I’m considering it pretty seriously.”
Which doesn’t mean, as some of Heidi’s critics have suggested, that Wasserstein feels her generation was sacrificed to the women’s movement and that female fulfillment must come through babies.
“That’s silly,” she says. “The women’s movement, the movement that said, ‘Your voice is worthwhile,’ is the only reason I feel like a person. But what still needs to change is that women shouldn’t beat themselves up for their choices—for being a mother or a single mother, or being a playwright, or being beautiful or not being beautiful. It’s important that there isn’t one woman slot that puts you all in competition with each other.”
It’s important that, one day, growing up to be “normal” could mean being a lot like Wendy Wasserstein.