Monday, February 27, 2006

Remembering Wendy Wasserstein

Famosity got hold of me when it came to Wendy Wasserstein--I felt an inflated sense of self-importance just because I knew her. By all accounts, Wendy herself never succumbed to famosity, never let her fame get to her head. In fact, it was her ability to transform her self-deprecating nature into the funny, poignant characters of her plays that made her famous and gave her importance in the eyes of the world.

I met Wendy when we were both part of an experiment at Amherst College during the academic year 1969-70. We were two among the first twenty-three women ever to attend the college. Wendy was a junior from Mt. Holyoke, I a junior from Smith. All of us had been accepted for one semester but we soon petitioned and were invited to stay for the full year. The members of our small band of women were viewed on campus as representing the "woman's point of view" in an era when women's liberation had made our views interesting, even to men. We all felt the heady sense of being larger than life, of performing before a rapt audience of our male classmates. Given that extraordinary environment, it's no wonder so many of Wendy's plays concerned feminism and college life.

It was during second semester that I really got to know Wendy. After Christmas vacation, I moved into the one of the Social Dorms, which had suites consisting of a common room and four single bedrooms. My suite was connected by an interior door to a second suite of four singles plus common room. I returned early from vacation so I could settle into my new room. Most students hadn't arrived yet. That first evening back, I heard voices coming from the adjoining suite and ventured through the interior door. Like Alice going through the looking glass, I entered the world of Wendy Wasserstein. Her friend, Mary Jane, also from Mt. Holyoke, was there as well, doing her Theda Bara imitation. Wendy greeted me with friendliness and a blizzard of jokes aimed mostly at herself.

She and Mary Jane made an odd but arresting pair of friends: Mary Jane--slim,
self-contained, darkly beautiful, taciturn; Wendy--plump, messy, exuberant, with wildly curly hair and a freckled face. Mary Jane intimidated me. She seemed the essence of cool, her cigarette dangling between her fingers and her lips a pouty red. Wendy, on the other hand, made me feel instantly comfortable. But dazzled. She was just so brilliantly funny.

That first evening, I learned about her father (like Holly's father in
Uncommon Women and Others, he invented velveteen) and her ditsy, dance-obsessed mother. She told the story of the beautiful suede jacket given to her by her father. Wendy, incurably clutzy, was afraid to wear it for fear she would ruin it, so it stayed in her closet during most of first semester. Finally, she cast fate to the wind, wore the jacket to a fraternity party, and promptly spilled beer all over it. Now that the jacket was "ruined," she said, she could finally wear it and not worry about it.

We became friends. Wendy thought I was smart and could see I was thin, two qualities she admired. I hid my insecurities better than Wendy, who used hers to make us laugh, but I felt a bond with her because of them. With Wendy, it was more than okay not to be perfect.

While at Amherst, I attached myself to an amazing group of upperclassmen, who achieved a creative alchemy that resulted in exciting theatre, art, and music, both at Amherst and beyond. Naturally, Wendy was also drawn to this group. Some of its members later became characters in her plays.

The following year, when Wendy and I were back at our respective women's colleges, one of our Amherst friends, David Rimmer, directed an edgy production of the musical
Peter Pan, with a classmate, Artie Wilkins, as a black Peter Pan. I was cast as Wendy's mother and the real Wendy (Wasserstein) was the choreographer for the production. David brought together a talented bunch of people: he himself went on to write Album, a Pulitzer Prize finalist play; his musical director, Barry Keating, earned several Tony nominations for his musical, Starmites; Artie went on to a career in dance; and then, of course, there was Wendy.

Wendy's choreography talents weren't needed for my non-dance role, but she devoted her efforts to building up my acting and singing confidence and supporting me when Barry tried to get me to sing
Tender Shepherd in a higher key. Barry prevailed, after which Wendy managed to convince me that I really could reach the high notes. The whole experience was a marvelous lark for me, the high point of a senior year spent unhappily back at Smith College.

After graduation, Wendy and I both moved to Manhattan, where we got together occasionally for coffee. In January of 1972, Wendy asked if I had any interest in travelling with her to Amherst, where a friend of hers, then a senior, would be performing on his French horn. I had recently renewed an interest in my old boyfriend, Eric, who was living in Hadley at the time, so I jumped at the chance to invite myself to stay with him under the guise of attending a French horn concert. 

Wendy and I took the Greyhound Bus up to Amherst, where we were dropped off in front of the Alpha Delta fraternity house on Pleasant Street. Wendy went off to see her friend and I waited for Eric to pick me up. Five months later, Eric and I were married. I've been forever grateful to Wendy for suggesting that jaunt to Amherst. Without it, Eric and I might never have rekindled our relationship.

After that winter, my contact with Wendy was sporadic: a note dropped in my law school mailbox in 1978, when Wendy was in Chicago for the opening of Uncommon Women; occasional letters back and forth; in the early 1990s, a dinner at Wellesley College, where Wendy had been invited to attend a performance of Uncommon Women. By then, she had achieved widespread fame with The Heidi Chronicles. Later, when The Sisters Rosensweig opened, I wondered whether the fact that one of the sisters, Gorgeous, lived in the same Boston suburb as me was coincidence or not. Sadly, Wendy and I had lost touch by then and I never had the chance to ask her.

A few years ago, though, I crossed paths with Wendy's old friend, Mary Jane. Still glamorous, but no longer so intimidating, she updated me on Wendy--the difficult birth of her child, Lucy Jane, the challenge of meeting the high expectations created by so much early success.

By that time, my younger son, Alex, had become passionately interested in writing and the theatre. He went on to study dramatic writing at NYU's Tisch School and immersed himself in the New York theatre world. I thought about contacting Wendy. I knew Alex would enjoy meeting her and I was sure she would like him. I imagined she'd be gracious, even delighted. But still, I put it off, not wishing to impose. Now it's too late. I'll always regret that.

But at least I have Wendy's plays. I can introduce Alex to her through them. And I can hope that she remembered me as fondly as I remember her.


Anonymous said...

Great personal perspective putting the experiences into fine focus. Let's always act in the moment (and not have regrets).

Anonymous said...

A lovely piece and tribute to a friend of the past. So often the best of intentions to keep contact with past friends is left unattented until too late. The feeling that life goes on forever can limit action. Neither fame nor distance should be allowed to play the role of inaction when the desire is there. A good message for us all.

beth.fer.ves.cence said...

I just saw the Heidi Chronicles in San Francisco at a small theatre. It was great! I was so sad to see that Ms. Wasserstein was taken from the world before her full output could be realized. Thank you for this retrospective. It is comforting to know there are such phenomenal women out in the world.