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Wendy Wasserstein

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Wendy Wasserstein
Born(1950-10-18)October 18, 1950
Brooklyn, New York City, U.S.
DiedJanuary 30, 2006(2006-01-30) (aged 55)
Manhattan, New York City, U.S.
EducationMount Holyoke College (BA)
City University of New York, City College (MA)
Yale University (MFA)
Notable awardsPulitzer Prize for Drama (1989)
Tony Award for Best Play (1989)
RelativesBruce Wasserstein (brother)

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.


Early years[edit]

Wasserstein was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn, the daughter of 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.[1] Wasserstein "once described her mother as being like 'Auntie Mame'".[2] 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.[3]

Her maternal grandfather was Simon Schleifer, a yeshiva teacher in Włocławek, Poland, who moved to Paterson, New Jersey, and became a high school principal.[1] 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.[4]

A graduate of the Calhoun School (she attended from 1963 to 1967),[5] 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,[1] and an M.F.A. in fine arts from the Yale School of Drama in 1976.[1][3] In 1990 she received an honoris causa Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Mount Holyoke College[6] and in 2002 she received an honoris causa degree from Bates College.[7]


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,[8] 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.[1]

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.[9]

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.[3] "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."[3] 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."[10]

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.[11]

Wasserstein also wrote the books to two musicals. Miami, written in collaboration with Jack Feldman and Bruce Sussman, was presented at Playwrights Horizons in 1985–1986, and starred among others, Marcia Lewis, Phyllis Newman, Jane Krakowski, and Fisher Stevens.[12] 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.[13]

She wrote the libretto for the opera Best Friends, based on Clare Boothe Luce's play The Women, but it was uncompleted when she died. It was subsequently completed by Christopher Durang, set by Deborah Drattell, and is in development with Lauren Flanigan.[when?]

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.[14]

Personal life and death[edit]

Wasserstein gave birth to a daughter in 1999[15] when she was 48 years old.[16] The baby 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.[16][17]

Wasserstein was hospitalized with lymphoma in December 2005 and died at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on January 30, 2006, at age 55.[3] News of her death was unexpected because her illness had not been widely publicized outside the theater community.[citation needed] The night after she died, Broadway's lights were dimmed in her honor. In addition to her daughter, Wasserstein was survived by her mother and three siblings, Abner Wasserstein, businessman Bruce Wasserstein (who died in 2009), and Wilburton Inn owner Georgette Wasserstein Levis (who died in 2014).[3]





  • 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.


  • Wasserstein, Wendy (February 21, 2000). "Complications". The New Yorker. Retrieved December 21, 2008.


The Wendy Wasserstein Papers, 1954–2006, are available to researchers at the Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collections. The finding aid for this collection is available online at http://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/mountholyoke/mshm325_main.html .



  1. ^ a b c d e "Wendy Wasserstein" jwa.org, accessed June 29, 2014
  2. ^ Simonson, Robert. "Wendy Wasserstein, Playwright Who Dramatized the Progress of a Generation of Women, Is Dead at 55" playbill.com, January 30, 2006
  3. ^ a b c d e f Charles Isherwood (January 31, 2006). "Wendy Wasserstein Dies at 55; Her Plays Spoke to a Generation". The New York Times. Retrieved December 21, 2008.
  4. ^ Julie Salamon (2011). Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein. Penguin Press. ISBN 978-1-59420-298-8. OCLC 713567430.
  5. ^ "Wendy Wasserstein, '67" calhoun.org, accessed June 29, 2014
  6. ^ "Wendy Wasserstein Pulitzer-Prize Winning Playwright, to Speak"mtholyoke.edu, September 20, 2001
  7. ^ "2002 About the Speakers" bates.edu, accessed June 29, 2014
  8. ^ Napoleon, Davi (June 3, 2010). "At the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's Critics Institute 5Q4 Dan Sullivan". The Faster Times. Archived from the original on June 7, 2010. Retrieved June 4, 2010.
  9. ^ Staff writers (November 25, 2005). "Was Wendy Wasserstein's Third Number One with Critics?". Broadway World. Retrieved February 12, 2009.
  10. ^ Homes, A. M. "Wendy Wasserstein". Bomb. Spring 2001. Retrieved July 22, 2011.
  11. ^ Deming, Mark (2012). "Making Trouble: Three Generations of Funny Jewish Women". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 26, 2012. Retrieved April 14, 2012.
  12. ^ Playbill: Playwrights Horizons: Miami, Playbill Inc. New York, December 1985
  13. ^ Blank, Matthew."'Pamela's First Musical' Premieres at Town Hall", playbill.com, May 19, 2008
  14. ^ Aloi, Daniel."Playwright Wendy Wasserstein to be remembered in Schwartz Center symposium". news.cornell.edu, February 20, 2007
  15. ^ "Wendy Wasserstein: Her premature baby goes home", Wilmington Morning Star 2A, December 24, 1999; accessed via Google News search February 4, 2011.
  16. ^ a b Smith, Dinita. "The Newest Wasserstein Creation Comes Home" The New York Times, December 23, 1999
  17. ^ Rothstein, Mervyn. "Wendy Wasserstein Gets Spotlight in a New Biography" playbill.com, August 19, 2011
  18. ^ a b Jones, Kenneth. "Wasserstein World Premieres, 'Welcome to My Rash' and 'Third', Play DC Through Feb. 15" playbill.com, February 3, 2004
  19. ^ Isherwood, Charles. "Theater Review | 'The Downtown Plays'" The New York Times, October 26, 2004

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