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Remembering Wendy Wasserstein

Friends of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, who died Jan. 30 at age 55, recall her wit, humor, and conviction

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Wendy Wasserstein: Ron Galella/WireImage.com

The title of Wendy Wasserstein’s first produced play, back in 1973, was Any Woman Can’t. Ironic, since the rest of her career could be described as ”Any Woman Can.” She won a Pulitzer Prize (one of many accolades for her 1989 masterpiece The Heidi Chronicles). She gave birth to a child at 48 years old. She raised Lucy Jane on her own. ”She was,” says Jamie Lee Curtis, who starred in a made-for-TV version of Heidi, ”the voice of a generation of women.” Wasserstein died Jan. 30 at the age of 55 from lymphoma.

A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and the Yale School of Drama, Wasserstein first made a splash Off Broadway with the 1977 feminist coming-of-age comedy Uncommon Women and Others. ”I remember thinking, I have not read plays by a woman about women such as these ever before,” recalls Andre Bishop, her close friend and longtime producer. ”I just thought the seriousness of her preoccupations in her plays juxtaposed with this lovely warmth and tremendous sense of comedy was very special.” Indeed, Wasserstein’s works can best be described as tragicomic — heavy issues filtered through her trademark comic lens: In Isn’t It Romantic (1981), a single Manhattanite struggles with relationships while her well-meaning but meddling parents sing ”Sunrise, Sunset” into her answering machine. In The Heidi Chronicles, Heidi Holland contemplates the enduring yet unheralded legacy of women in art between locker-room breakdowns and break-ups with self-involved social climbers. In The Sisters Rosensweig (1993), a Brooklyn-born London-dweller turns 54 and forges a (possibly fleeting) connection with a faux furrier named Merv. An American Daughter (1997) put politics and the media through the wringer; Old Money (2000) filtered history and family values through contemporary celebrity-obsessed culture; even her most recent play, 2005’s Third, wrung laughs from close-to-her-heart issues like liberalism and feminism.

Off stage, friends describe her similarly: serious, and seriously funny. ”She had deeply held opinions and convictions,” says Bishop. ”Underneath the charm and the warmth and the laughter and the razor-sharp wit was a very hard-working woman who passionately believed in many things besides the power of theater — education for young people, the political scene.” Pal William Finn, who penned The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, calls her ”the smartest, funniest, and wisest person I’ll ever know.” Playwright Christopher Durang describes his friend and former classmate using, appropriately enough, Wasserstein’s own words: ”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 sad that fate, or whatever, called her away so soon.”

Next page: A Wasserstein reading list

Wasserstein in Print

A recommended reading list of the late playwright’s memorable works

Reading list: Wendy Wasserstein’s memorable works

”She would want to be remembered as an articulate and passionate spokesperson for her generation of women,” says Bishop. ”And, as the dust clears, I suspect she’ll be remembered as much more of a trailblazer than people think.” These five books are all those things and more: hilarious, heartfelt, and published proof that even a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright worries about the size of her thighs.

The Heidi Chronicles & Other Plays (Vintage) This chronological collection begins with Uncommon Women and Others, an ode to all-girls’ schooling and formative female friendships. The second act is Isn’t It Romantic, in which single Janie Blumberg contemplates (then eschews) happily-ever-after with a standard-issue Jewish doctor. And the finale is Heidi, Wasserstein’s best (and, in many ways, saddest) work, which follows a feminist art historian’s seemingly futile search for happiness.

Bachelor Girls (Vintage) In this compulsively readable collection of essays, the warm, witty author riffs on her mother Lola, manicures (”Are well-buffed nails the hallmark of post-feminism?”), diet doctors, body hair, and other pressing issues.

The Sisters Rosensweig (Harcourt Brace) Inspired by Chekhov and (undoubtedly) by her own spectacular siblings, Wasserstein penned what she herself deemed a ”mature” meditation on family and ”personal history,” a portrait of three outwardly successful but inwardly struggling middle-aged women.

Pamela’s First Musical (Hyperion) Everyone from Ethel Merman to Nathan Lane is referenced in this terrific children’s tome, a lavishly illustrated, over-the-top ode to the the-a-tah.

Shiksa Goddess (Or, How I Spent My Forties) (Knopf) A second set of essays includes an imaginary interview with Bette Midler; a tribute to Ginger, her ”fuzzy orange Creamsicle” Calico cat; an account of her sister Sandra’s struggle with breast cancer; and, the most poignant piece, ”Days of Awe: The Birth of Lucy Jane,” a chronicle of Wasserstein’s very private pregnancy and the arrival of her premature daughter. — Melissa Rose Bernardo