Wendy Wasserstein

Author of 'The Heidi Chronicles'


Wendy Wasserstein, playwright: born New York 18 October 1950; (one daughter); died New York 30 January 2006.

The American playwright Wendy Wasserstein focused on contemporary women's lives and on the triumphs and struggles confronting the liberated woman of the late 20th century.

The play that made her famous, The Heidi Chronicles, won her both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize, and, though her work found less favour on the London stage, she was acknowledged as a key figure in putting the modern educated woman before the public - often a person refusing merely to accept her life, whatever its surface advantages. The New Yorker critic John Simon wrote of her play The Sisters Rosensweig,

Miss Wasserstein is surely one of our wittiest writers, but under the bubbles and eddies of her wit are real people in deep water, resolutely trying to keep from drowning.

The youngest of five children, Wasserstein was born in 1950 into what she called "a nice, middle-class Jewish family". Her father was a textile executive and she was raised first in Brooklyn, then Manhattan. She was educated at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, and Yale University School of Drama: "My parents only let me go to drama school because it was Yale. They thought I'd marry a lawyer." Her first play, Uncommon Women and Others, started life as a graduate thesis.

She later told People magazine that after graduating she was turned down by law school and business school, briefly tried medical school, then tried to break into television before becoming a playwright. "I'm someone who's always wanted to become normal - it just never worked out." Swoosie Kurtz, who appeared with Glenn Close in the off-Broadway production of Uncommon Women and Others (1977), commented,

Wendy had a voice like no other, and a great sense of the absurd. She could take something that was sad or sombre in life, wrap her words around it and somehow make it light and not so disturbing.

The play, in which five articulate women remember in flashback their anxieties during their final college days six years earlier, was filmed for television a year later with Meryl Streep replacing Close. That version is now on DVD and makes fascinating viewing. In one scene, one woman urges another to join her on the town, where they will go to a bar alone and order Brandy Alexanders: "We'll be two uncommon women, mysterious, but proud" - adding, "It's debilitating constantly seeing your work in the terms of someone else." Its heroine's concluding lines doubtless echo the optimism of the young author:

I keep a list of options. Just from today's lunch, there's law, insurance, marry Leonard Woolf, have a baby, bird-watch in Bolivia. A myriad of openings.

Wasserstein was to conquer Broadway with The Heidi Chronicles (1989), which follows the initially insecure Heidi through 20 years from the late Sixties. Wasserstein wrote the play in London:

I had a crazy grant from the British-American Arts Association for $4,000, and I sat alone and wrote this in this little room in a place called the Nell Gwynn House.

Wasserstein was the first female playwright to win the Tony, and she had an equally big hit with The Sisters Rosensweig (1993), which she described as "your basic, well-made boulevard comedy". The late Madeline Kahn starred as the piquantly named Gorgeous, a part played by Maureen Lipman in London.

Other plays included An American Daughter (1997), which starred Kate Nelligan as a forceful politician whose career falls apart, Old Money (2000) and Isn't It Romantic (2001), in which a character makes a telling speech:

No matter how lonely you get, or how many birth announcements you receive, the trick is not to get frightened. There's nothing wrong with being alone.

Wasserstein also wrote books, essays, an opera and the screenplay for the film The Object of My Affection (1998). But she always returned to the theatre.

In 1999, at the age of 48, she had a daughter, Lucy Jane, but she refused (despite much Broadway rumour) to reveal who the father was. She told the reporter A.M. Homes,

I had my child so late because my focus and energy was on those plays. I couldn't do both. I would not have been able to do it until this age, and I don't even know if I can now.

Tom Vallance

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Voices
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jay Z has placed a bet on streaming being the future for music and videos
music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury
music
News
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
news
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own