Part detective, part social commentator, Julie Salamon employs her copious investigative gifts in portraying the life of Broadway lion Wendy Wasserstein (1950-2006) in Wendy and the Lost Boys.
Wasserstein’s frank, wry dramas earned her a Pulitzer Prize, made her the first female playwright to win a Tony and, along with her essays, established her as a spokeswoman for baby boomer women. The playwright opened the stage by revealing her inner life in her work, yet Salamon convincingly shows that her personal life was riddled with secrecy and paradox.
While Wasserstein died prematurely from leukemia five years ago, Salamon was presented with a cornucopia of biographical material to unpack. The book is the result of over 300 interviews and three years of research in the Wasserstein archive at Mount Holyoke. This exhaustive, finely rendered study is not only the first authorized biography of the gifted playwright and quintessential New Yorker who, it seems, preferred to remain hidden in plain sight, but Salamon’s first biography.
Read more Best of 2011 Nonfiction.
So this is your first biography…
It is. I’ve written a lot of books, and I would say they all contain a lot of biographical elements. I would say I’ve always been fascinated by people’s lives and how they end up doing what they’re doing. I was a little daunted at first at the idea of presuming to tell somebody’s life story, but I really did love it because I think it meshed very well with my interests or obsessions.
And what are those?
I don’t think I knew it when I started out, but I would say my personal obsession is the way family secrets, family dynamics shape your destiny. I mean I think it’s something that you know intellectually and maybe intuitively, but it’s so profound, and I think with somebody like Wendy Wasserstein it was an especially fascinating journey because she wrote so much about her own history.
For me, untangling her presentation of herself versus other people’s version of that story and what appears to be the objective reality—if there is such a thing—was just such a mystery. I guess all lives are mysteries to an extent, so I really did love the process.
In what ways did you find the Wasserstein clan typical or extraordinary?
In a lot of ways, they were representative of the upper middle class post-war striving population. And in a way, I think that was one of the things that made Wendy’s work resonate so strongly with her audience.
If you think about it, it’s almost like a prototypical immigrant story. The parents come over. They’re poor. They make it big. The children go to Ivy League or to really good schools and become successful. I mean this is a generational story.
It was very common in the baby boom generation, and the aspirations were very common—you become a doctor, a lawyer, a businessperson, and then if you’re weird, you become a playwright. In that way the Wassersteins were very typical, but they were extraordinary in the success that they achieved. Most people don’t become billionaires and Pulitzer Prize winners!
In your prologue and title, you note that Wendy was named for Wendy Darling, the girl who couldn’t avoid her fate of becoming an adult. Do you think she ultimately accepted that role or was fighting the inevitable need to grow up all the way?
I think she was fighting it every step of the way. It’s funny, I think that’s something I totally identified with. I remember watching Peter Pan on TV as a kid, and I was inconsolable at the end, weeping because it was as if Wendy had been given a death sentence, which I guess she had in a way, that she would grow up and die.
But the idea that she had to grow up and Peter Pan didn’t seemed so unfair to me, which probably says too much about myself! But I think Wendy was fighting that, and I think it wasn’t just about growing up—it was about freedom. Peter Pan always was going to be the one who had the freedom to explore and be a hero and not be constrained by the bedroom of the house, and I think she did fight that.
I think in her plays that’s what hit such a chord—that internal fight. Wendy loved her family. With all of the fractiousness, there was a lot of love there, and that was her universe, so I think that fight was fought on many fronts.
What was the most surprising thing you learned about Wendy?
How somebody who was so astute, really astute about human relations and about herself in her work, could not achieve—or not appear to have achieved—that self-awareness in her life. I don’t think it’s unusual for very intelligent people to be unself-aware, but this is somebody who gave the illusion of incredible self-awareness, and so that was surprising to me.
What image, ultimately, do you have of Wendy: the “vicious dumpling” or “gentle social critic,” as you say?
[Laughs] Probably a mixture. You know, at various points in writing the book, I would get really annoyed with her, which I think is not uncommon for biographers—you know, you spend too much time with anybody, and you want to kill them. But there were certain aspects of her value system that I really didn’t like—like when she became so obsessed with social climbing, and sometimes she would act like a pinball in a way, boinging around from one thing to another.
At some points I wanted to say, Wendy, grow up—just stop! But I have to admit, every time I would start to feel that, I would watch a video tape or listen to a recording of one of the various speeches she made, and I would really see what people were drawn to. It wasn’t just her writing—when she spoke, she had a very warm, very confident aspect, which came out later in life. So I think you can’t separate those things.
I think I felt happy to see that as she, unfortunately, neared the end of her life, she achieved a groundedness, a belief in her own authority. In a lot of ways, I think the saddest part of her story is that it took her a long time to really believe in herself. At some level, she had grandiosity, she had great belief in herself, but I think that was always battered around by a lot of anxiety. I think it took her a long time to say, This is who I am. For anybody who’s at all self-aware, that’s not easy. And once you put yourself out into the public arena, it becomes very difficult.