Monday, January 30, 2006

Wendy Wasserstein 1950-2006

Playwright Wendy Wasserstein has died.

Starting in 1977 with her breakthrough work “Uncommon Women and Others,” Ms. Wasserstein’s plays struck a profound chord with women struggling to reconcile a desire for romance and companionship, drummed into the baby boom generation by the seductive fantasies circulated by Hollywood movies, with the need for intellectual independence and a sense of achievement separate from the personal sphere.

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.

Ms. Wasserstein drew on her own experience as a smart, well-educated, funny Manhattanite who was not particularly lucky in romance to create heroines in a similar mold, women who embraced the essential tenets of the feminist movement but did not have the stomach for stridency.

For Ms. Wasserstein, as for many of her characters and indeed her fans, humor was a necessary bulwark against the disappointments of life, and a useful release valve for anger at cultural and social inequities.

Her work, which included three books of nonfiction and a forthcoming novel as well as about a dozen plays, had a significant influence on depictions of American women in the media landscape over the years: Heidi Holland, the steadily single, uncompromising heroine of “The Heidi Chronicles,” can be seen as the cultural progenitor of “Sex and the City’s” Carrie Bradshaw. (Coincidentally, Sarah Jessica Parker, who starred in that HBO series, played a series of small roles in the original production of “The Heidi Chronicles.”)

I met Ms. Wasserstein in April 1993 when she was the honoree at the William Inge Festival. She immediately fit in with the casual setting, staying until all hours in the lobby of the Apple Tree Inn telling stories and jokes, her big laugh filling the room. She was genuine, funny, and — like many of her characters — not at all ashamed to admit that she felt slightly insecure with the fame and adulation she had earned, and was thrilled to be the first woman playwright honored at the Inge.

After the festival I wrote her a short note thanking her for attending, and surprise, surprise, she wrote back. We corresponded off and on for a year or so, and I will treasure those quick little notes that I got from her, often just signed “WW” (or somesuch scrawl).

Peace, Wendy.