books

wasserstein, wanderings, and a wayward biography

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein (2011) by Julie Salamon weaves and wanders and quotes and alludes and does all the superficial things a biography is meant to do.  It is well-organized, cited and indexed.  People are quoted, apparently many years were spent in reading and interviewing, and the outlines of a brief life (1950-2006) are presented.  One does not doubt the amount of the researching effort.  What one does not glean, however, in the reading of the biography supposedly informed by all of this research is the heart of the woman at the center, the heart of the plays and essays and other writings that are her legacy.  I doubt the author’s ability to assess Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning Wasserstein’s work, and I question the facile connect-the-dots association of individuals to conversations and life events that largely defines what counts as play and book analysis of the work of Wendy Wasserstein and of other artists throughout this book. One doesn’t have to love the subject of one’s work, I suppose, but at minimum I have expectations for the tools used to analyze the art that is produced during the life of a person studied in a biography.  Salamon comes up short.  And Wasserstein as an artist and as a person deserves better.

Sharing a world view or a life experience or an era with the book’s subject is not sufficient for a positive assessment of this book for me.  I am a late-era Baby Boomer who came along in the Ivy League and in personal life and career decision-making about 10 years after Wasserstein.  I relate on many levels and share many beliefs and learn from her characters specifically and her art generally.  I am a feminist fan of her writing of women weaving lives through cultural expectations and personal priorities, have been eager to learn more about her life, and I am thrilled that a woman of my generation to whom I can strongly relate and who I admire is receiving this biographical treatment. My remarks are not to be construed as a commentary on the life lived.  It is the murky telling in this biographical journey with which I struggle.

Over and over and over the biographer cites individuals who report intense and important friendships with Wasserstein and yet Salamon is not able to provide a sense of who Wasserstein is — why people are so drawn to her.  In part I fault biographer’s art itself gone awry — confusing juxtapositions of events and dates so that you don’t know WHERE you are in the course of a single page.  We are told the story at times, it feels, in the order in which the biographer learned the details rather than resorted to actually tell the story of a life. More glaringly and pervasively, often the focus is profoundly on the people in Wasserstein’s orbit, her friends of the theatre, rather than Wasserstein herself — she fades away.  The informant’s perspective is allowed to lead the narrative. And most profoundly problematic to the theatre lover in me — what this biography fails to reflect is the joy of her art, the joy in her art, the romance of the theatre, her joy in living,

The author first loses me with her ham-fisted approach to analyzing literature and movies.  I first began taking notes on this tendency to oversimplify or unnecessarily summarize on page 50, when presented the biographer’s version of the themes of the 1955 Herman Woulk novel Marjorie Morningstar.  Salamon summarizes the story as “a beautiful young jewish woman torn between rejecting and respecting her parents’ values” and “fantasies of becoming an actress”.  It is also a story of summer stock and the magic of theatre, as much as Moss Hart’s Act One — but this part of the story is silenced.  And this ignored theme will re-emerge.

The author’s relentless simplistic parallelism, drawing parallels between Wendy’s life is deadening.  On page 115 she applies this treatment to discussion of Any Woman Can’t.  Wendy says to her friend James Kaplan “You can’t view characters in a play as real”, and yet the biographer does, and all the informants she talks to throughout the book address the characters that share characteristics with them or people they know as real.  To the biographer I suggest that she just describe the play and allow us the readers to connect the dots or not.  Some of us allow for art from life at all times.  The biographer’s job is to show the life and describe the art and the people and to allow the connections to emerge.  That is not this writer’s style.

Facts are dropped in when convenient as cliff hangers or as afterthoughts, not assembled well to tell the story of a full and complex life.  Example: Therapy.  On page 223 (covering 1980-83), we are presented “She had been in therapy for years, with at least three different therapists, and still hadn’t determine why she always chose impossible men.”  This is news to the reader at this point, and at this point in our story Wendy is ages 30-33.  The author ties the therapeutic story to Wendy’s romantic decision making, but certainly there is potential for other meanings, interpretations, understandings.  At what age, in what matters, with what presenting issues, at whose insistence (or her own volition) did she begin, continue, pause in the decision to go into therapy?  These questions are not addressed.   Example: work arrangements.  On page 232 (covering 1984-1986), discussing working with Gerry Gutierrez: “… both he and Wendy wanted to work together again, and both were eager to do a musical. They’d survived a disappointing experience with a CBS comedy series, a failed summer replacement show called The Comedy Zone.  Wendy was one of the writers; Gutierrez had been fired as director halfway through the taping.”  When did THIS happen and might the story of this work era have been important to impart at the time it happened?  On page 253 (covering 1986-1987), discussing a grant: “By June 1987 she had written the first act.  That summer, and for much of the autumn, she lived in London, courtesy of a four-thousand dollar writing grant.”  When did Wendy apply for this grant and what inspired the application?  We are here to learn about the world of a writing woman — the sense of writing for grants, taking particular jobs, assembling the work of a writer is not here or quite unevenly here.  Details are just plopped in as if they appeared by magic.  The author chooses instead to focus on friendships, her interpretations of events, relationships beginning and ending. Wendy is portrayed as the petulant child rather than a serious professional.  We are shown the networking from a snide viewpoint, not the work. Example: medical facts.  (p. 373)  We are presented with a medical fact that might have been relevant to Wasserstein’s final illness that occurred while she was at Yale decades before, timing the revelation of this personal detail with the time at which Wasserstein writes it into a character in a play.  Decades separate the events (fact and fiction).

Whose random confused logic is running this biographical show?  We as readers don’t need to replicate the biographer’s investigative journey in the revelation of fact and event.  I wonder who the audience is at this point — we the readers who have been here assuming we’ve been receiving the facts of Wendy’s life as they happen or the reader who has dropped in for a chapter at a time?  As long-haul readers we are continually reminded by revelations like this that at any moment we might be presented with a new  primary fact.  And in a related stylistic habit, the author can’t resist writing the biography with cliffhangers and surprise details.  A sample of a few of the twenty-four chapter final sentences to give a sense of this tiresome habit, that more often than not leaves the reader with the feelings and impressions of someone other than Wendy to carry one over to the next chapter.

  • p. 65.  [about Mount Holyoke roommate request with high school girl friend] “they wouldn’t know if their request had been granted until they arrived on campus a few weeks later.”
  • p. 116. “But Wendy believed in the power of pedigree and connections. She chose Yale.  The school became an important stepping-stone, though not exactly in the way she might have expected.”
  • p. 152. “He thought Uncommon Women could help launch his career as literary manager at Playwrights Horizons.  Having the play chosen for the O’Neill confirmed his judgment and would make their production in the  fall more momentous.  Significant producers went searching for material at the O’Neill, and Andre already had laid claim to this one.  Or so he believed.” [And wait a minute — whose story is this supposed to be again?]
  • p. 164.  “This was his Scarlett O’Hara moment.  He vowed to himself that his theater would never lose a play again.” [this is a dramatic statement related to Andre Bishop — we’re still on his story and not Wendy.  See a theme here?]
  • p. 184.  “Lest Wendy become complacent, now that her play had been acknowledged, Lola was there to remind her of her shortcomings…. There were many more ways to succeed — and even more ways to fail.”
  • p. 201.  “For Abner, however, time had stood still.  He was a middle-aged man equipped with the mind and heart of an inquisitive youngster, understanding that a larger life was passing him by but powerless to do anything about it.  His lot was to feel, forever, the pain of a lost boy.” [this is about Wendy’s institutionalized older half brother the family response to him — is this now his story?]
  • p. 285. [at end of series of queries to Andre Bishop about fathering a child with her.] “As for Wendy, she was accustomed to realigning her relationships, and so she did — once again — with Andre. Their lives and careers would remain intertwined, though she was old enough to know that nothing stayed as it had been.” [again, about Andre here in the end of this chapter]
  • p. 305. [at end of long litany of reproductive efforts assisted by William Ivey Long]  “So he resolved to stick with it, no matter how often Wendy disappeared.”

Factual errors that glare. The first such fact that struck me appears on page 89 related to Amherst, embedded in the discussion of Wendy’s time on that campus around 1970 as a visiting student from Mount Holyoke.  Salamon notes: “Amherst didn’t accept women for another five years, for the graduating class of 1975-76.”  In fact, as one of the women accepted for admission in the first Amherst class of men and women (I attended another school in the end) I know that first coed class matriculated in fall of 1976 as the class of 1980.  I also wonder why the biographer presents primarily the responses of the New York Times critics to Wasserstein’s plays — as well as a final dismissive comment about all of her work from the Wall Street Journal‘s Teachout.  This breadth of reaction, as a biographer, seems unnecessarily limited.

Informant perspectives often lead the narrative.  Salamon’s tendency to relate the most powerful moments in Wasserstein’s life through the words and feelings and impressions of others is troubling.  Every biographer is hampered by the informants and source material at hand.  But it is the biographer’s job to stay true to their course and focus on their subject — at minimum to ask questions from the perspective of their subject that may or may not be answerable with the available information.  Example: William Ivey Long and failed fertilization attempts (pages 318-319).  We read of his humiliation of reports of “low-quality sperm”.  We read of how he comforted her when “she became pregnant but then miscarried” but read nothing of Wendy’s own reactions, nor do we read any author queries about her during these attempts to become pregnant.  Example: Brother Bruce and Wendy’s final days (page 421-22).  Wendy’s final days in the hospital feature family visiting, some people not asked up (and of course their hurt feelings are presented) and others who were present who we must assume did not agree to be interviewed.  “Bruce came to the hospital and behaved like a man accustomed to getting his way. … Bruce brushed by Wendy’s friends who were visiting.  They were struck by his insensitivity.”  Or perhaps he was hurting and they need to get a little perspective on family and loss and grief.  Wendy’s story is lost in the reportage of others and their needs.

Failure to present the joy in the art.  In the end, the author offers these comments about Wasserstein’s art.  (p. 427).  “… she was a gentle social critic, clarifying the pretension of her peers and expressing frustration at their hypocrisies and self-deceptions while showing tender appreciation for their frailties and conveying genuine empathy for the desire and uncertainty that made them human.”  If only this biographer had extended that same consideration to her subject.  Salamon assembles facts, assembles reporters, creates endless cliff hangers and individual stories, without conveying the genuine empathy and acceptance of uncertainty that makes us all and in particular Wendy Wasserstein human.  And wonderful.

In conclusion, I offer an attempt to allow Wasserstein’s enchantment with the magic of theatre and her sense of whimsy to speak for themselves in a way that this biographer avoids.  Salamon indicates that Wasserstein published a children’s book about the musical theatre in addition to plays and journalism in the 1990s with a summary dismissal.  “Besides this journalistic output, in 1996 she published Pamela’s First Musical, an illustrated children’s book in which an Auntie Mame type introduces her niece to Broadway musicals.  She dedicated the book to her niece Pamela, Bruce’s oldest child, who was then a senior at Dalton.” That barebones assessment of this poem of joy to the theatre misses the point of the exercise.  This piece may have been written for children but, like Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons of the 1960s and later, the jokes, the references and double entendres and plays on names are meant for adults.  I am baffled why Salamon doesn’t take a few moments to enjoy and assign real life human source material to the book’s character names (as she does endlessly with every other piece of writing Wasserstein wrote) such as dancer Nathan Hines Klines and singer Mary Ethel Bernadette and producers Bernie S. Gerry, Margo Dandelion and Andre Cardinal.  Most important, Salamon doesn’t share the magic, the impression of this theatre world Wasserstein shares with us through Pamela’s eyes.  When nine-year-old Pamela first sees Broadway in all its evening-just-before-curtain wonder we read: “When Pamela first saw Broadway, it looked so exciting she thought she had made it all up.”  Those of us who love the theatre felt the same way our first time, Pamela.  And after the show and being shown around backstage by connected Aunt Louise, Pamela is introduced to the evocative ghost light.  “As they were leaving the theater, the old stage door man waved to Pamela to come stand onstage in the empty house. ‘This is the ghost light,’ he explained. ‘This means the theater always stays lit for all the people who ever performed here.  It also means you can come back anytime.'”

The charm and wonder of those words and images are part of the charm and wonder of this life. In assessing a life such as Wendy Wasserstein’s, I ask that we parse the wit and the wonder as well as the tragedy.  At minimum, I ask that we keep the focus on Wendy Wasserstein.  And at the same time, come on we can do it, let’s get a sense of the joy of  life in there.  The material abounds.  Let us select with more grace the next time.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 2, 2011)

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