February 9, 2006
Wendy Chronicles—A Personal Memoir
Wendy Wasserstein, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, died on Jan. 30 in New York of lymphoma. She was 55. This essay was written by her close friend, actress Caroline Aaron.
I first discovered Wendy Wasserstein at the 92nd St. Y. Known as the off-Broadway playwright of "Uncommon Women and Others" and "Isn't It Romantic?" she was reading a monologue but did not introduce the piece. She simply came up to the lectern and began, "Women, where are we going?"
I was smitten. I felt she had plagiarized my inner life. In the last paragraph, the character says, "It's just that I feel stranded, and I thought the whole point was that we wouldn't feel stranded. I thought the whole point was that we were all in this together."
That monologue became "The Heidi Chronicles," which earned Wendy a Pulitzer Prize and the distinction of becoming the first female playwright to win the Tony Award for best play.
But long before the Pulitzer or the Tony was the workshop production of "Heidi" at The Seattle Rep. As part of that cast, I was on the front lines as new pages were coming out of her typewriter. I loved being around her, but for Wendy the spontaneous and instantaneous camaraderie of show folk did not come easily. The workshop was a success, and "Heidi" was on its way to New York.
The full-scale production was to be mounted at Playwrights Horizons. All of us in the Seattle workshop were to be replaced. It was not unusual to be the guinea pig actor replaced in New York with the pedigreed one.
What was unusual was I got a letter from Wendy thanking me for my contribution. She wrote that she had already worked on the play with an ensemble of actors and felt they should have the first crack at the New York production.
She then went on to say that she fully hoped some day I would be on the other side of that loyalty. And indeed I was. That letter was the beginning of one of the most rewarding and complicated friendships of my life. That letter was the beginning of "The Wendy Chronicles" for me.
It would be another five years before I would once again be the actress to her playwright, but in the interim, our relationship grew from colleagues to friends to family.
I became one of Wendy's regular I-should-be-writing-but-let's-meet-for-coffee-instead dates. It was a blast to help Wendy procrastinate. We shopped, gossiped and swore to get thin together. We went to each other's openings. I was her date for award ceremonies and multiple engagements where, in her words, "I'm speaking to the Jews."
But our most fun was going to temple together for the High Holidays. Every year we went to a different temple. The Super Bowl is probably the only ticket harder to get than one for High Holidays at a temple in Manhattan. But Wendy was always a coveted guest at all the best temples in New York, so I was in.
Wendy never wanted to belong to a congregation. She did not want to be identified by any institution.
Still, she was not above feeling obligated to the decorum of a nice Jewish girl. After Kol Nidre one Yom Kippur, Wendy wanted to go out to eat, but where?
She was Wendy Wasserstein, after all, and being seen in a restaurant at the beginning of the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, a day of fasting and atoning, would just not be right. We were two Jewish girls on the lam, looking for a good meal.
Wendy knew just the place -- a small, elegant bistro on Madison. When we sat down at our table, Wendy pointed and with a whisper said, "Oh look over there, it's Donna Karan, so we're OK."
I told Wendy first that I was pregnant with my now 16-year-old son. I was her date for The Outer Critics Award Ceremony, and I was bursting with my news, but it was still a secret.
"The Heidi Chronicles" won that night. Over drinks celebrating the play's first of many prizes, Wendy told me a secret of her own. She was trying to have a baby, too.
Wendy had a way of being so personal and so guarded all at the same time that I instinctively did not press for details. I just got on the ride of her unique journey.
There were allusions to possible mates, donors or adoptions, but the how seemed insignificant. It was the chance to be somebody's mother that was important to Wendy. It would be 10 years later before this dream would finally come true with the birth of Lucy Jane.
Fast forward five years, and it is time to enroll my son in preschool, a highly competitive world in Manhattan. Wendy agreed to be my pull and enthusiastically wrote a hilarious letter that highly recommended my 4-year-old son because she was so impressed with "Ben's opinions about movies and books" and because she "supported his political views."
In 1993, I became her actress again when I played Dr. Gorgeous in the national tour of "The Sisters Rosensweig." The tour ended in Los Angeles, and I ended up staying in L.A.
My life spread out, and I added cats, dogs, fish and a baby girl to my family. Wendy came out to meet the new baby, and as we peered over the crib to gaze at Sydney sleeping, I said, "I don't know whether to raise her to be Madeleine Albright or Kate Moss." Without hesitating, Wendy said, "Kate Moss. She will be much happier."
I believe Wendy wanted a happy life, but she was not a slave to securing that outcome. An interesting life, that was her brass ring, with as much happiness as possible in its midst.
Perhaps our most profound bond was we were little sisters. Our big sisters were accomplished, imperious, judgmental and brilliant. They were the women we both feared and relied on. And then, Sandy, Wendy's big sister, was struck with breast cancer. During this time, she wrote "The Sisters Rosensweig," and Sandy was the inspiration for the eldest sister, Sara.
I was amazed at Wendy's fortitude and wisdom. She was learning on her feet but a quick study. Sandy, once the shtarker in the family was now the fragile one. Sandy couldn't be the manager, the boss.
These were now Wendy's roles, but in her infinite kindness, Wendy made it still appear that she relied on Sandy. When Sandy died, I felt so sorry for my friend, still strong but profoundly diminished by the loss.
Ironically, very shortly after Sandy died, my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer and Wendy was my first call. I was living in Los Angeles and Wendy flew all the way across the country to be with me. She stayed only for the day and said, "I just came to tell you two things: One, this is not a TV movie, and two, show up."
For the next six years as Josie battled this hideous disease, I called Wendy my cancer coach. When my sister died, I thought now I only have one big sister left -- I have Wendy.
The following year, I got a call from Wendy asking me to come to Washington to do a workshop of a new play. She started giggling and said, "Whenever there is a two-figure deal in a swamp, your name immediately pops into my mind. But I totally understand if you can't do it."
It was no money, it was all the way across the country and it was just a reading. But she was the only place I felt safe with my sadness. She was the one who had also buried a sister. I didn't even the read the play -- I just headed to Washington, D.C., in the August heat.
The play was "Rash," a two-character play about a doctor and his patient. I knew then why Wendy had wanted me. It was a play about a woman trying to cheat death in chemo rooms, being poked and prodded, winning and losing the battle on a daily basis.
But because it was Wendy's writing, it was a romance, a kind of love affair between this Indian doctor and his frightened female patient, and it was damn funny. She knew I had ridden sidesaddle while my sister had endured each one of these scenes.
One night back at the hotel, after Wendy had put Lucy to bed, we were hanging out watching TV, and I ventured forth into the choppy waters of Wendy's privacy.
"Who is this play about?" I wanted to know. "It's not about your sister or mine is it?"
"No, it's not," she finally replied. "It's about me. I have leukemia. I went through a lot in the last year, and I met this great doctor, and I am OK now."
I needed to believe her. She ducked my worry and said, "I wrote another play on my way to D.C, and maybe we should read that one, too."
I was in.
"I don't know if it is any good," she demurred, "but why not put it out there and find out?"
So the next day at rehearsal, the company sat around and read the one-act version of "Third." We mounted both for the festival at The Kennedy Center, and both were a triumph. I thought "Third" was her best writing ever, and she was energized and hopeful, with her muse at full throttle.
We once again parted for different coasts, but I felt full, with a good dose of my friend. The next year, she worked to turn "Third" into a full-length play, finished her novel, started Lucy in school, spoke to the Jews and hid from all of her friends the war she was waging in order to be OK.
Wendy spent her formative years as a student at The Calhoun School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where, she says, "I began writing to get out of gym class." Wendy's early resistance to physical fitness gave us Heidi and Holly and Rita and Dr. Gorgeous and "An American Daughter" and all kinds of "Uncommon Women." But when asked about her work as a female playwright, she would always bristle.
"I am a playwright," she would respond, "it is not relevant that I am a female. My plays stand for me, not my gender."
Wendy did not want to represent. She wanted to reveal. But now that she is gone who will speak for us? Who will be the custodian of our dreams, our rage, our disappointments, our politics and our power? Who will remind us not to leave each other stranded, that we are all in this together no matter what our individual choices?
And who will be my big sister?