When I think of Wendy Wasserstein, I hear her giggling. I know I’m not supposed to. I know that we live in a time when individuals are supposed to represent their genders and age groups and ethnicities with dignity and correct thinking, and that everyone’s behavior to everyone else must be immaculately polite. I know that Wendy, who died Monday after a long and horrible struggle with cancer, was a feminist hero, a significant spokeswoman for the social good, and a major role model for women in the arts. I know all that—but I still hear Wendy Wasserstein giggling. I can’t help it. Wendy giggled the first time I met her, when she was an incoming student playwright at the Yale School of Drama and I was the (rather self-important) literary manager of the Yale Repertory Theatre. She kept giggling, as her playwriting career blossomed over the years, when we ran into each other at various social and theatrical occasions. And she giggled the last time I saw her, as she struggled to sing her part in the little entertainment she had invented to celebrate her dear friend William Ivey Long’s 50th Broadway show. She was visibly in pain and may have already known that she was dying, but she still giggled.
Wendy’s giggle was both a mask and a revelation: It was an insecure plump girl’s defense against a coldhearted world that mistakes anorexic for beautiful, and a smart, observant child’s satirical comment on the absurdities of that world. The product of a high-pressure family that urged its children toward success, and got its wish, she learned early on that she could succeed by turning her insecurities and embarrassments into comedy. Having achieved that success, she extended it into a long-running series of triumphs by turning the world that had laughed at her into a target of laughter—and demonstrated the superior quality of her own comic sense by mixing compassion, irony, and incredibly astute social observation into the joke. She became a social commentator, an essayist, a spokesperson, and an éminence grise. She evolved, in her late forties, into the proudly independent single mother who steadfastly refused to reveal the identity of her child’s father. Yet behind this imposing figure there always stood the shy, dateless Seven Sisters coed of her first successful play, Uncommon Women and Others, the nervous novice playwright who, when a friend introduced her to the novelist Joseph Heller as a brilliantly funny writer, responded to his request, “Say something funny, Wendy,” by barfing on his coat.
That Wendy in later life had no shame in recollecting this story was a mark of the fundamental honesty that led to her skill at observing, and making dramatic capital of, so many different kinds of people and ways of life. Not for her the easy oversimplifications of television writing, which comes in for merciless ridicule in what is probably her best play, The Heidi Chronicles. (Remember the devastating line: “Just tell us who these women are and why they’re funny.”) Her project, insofar as a playwright has an overall project, was to dramatize the female life of America in her time without scanting its complexity, its pain, its inconveniences, or its lapses into the absurd. If sometimes in her later plays, as in the laborious An American Daughter, she seemed to be layering issues onto her characters simply because the issues needed representation, you could always feel her struggling, as all artists inevitably struggle with their material, to make the issues make human sense, to give them three-dimensional embodiment. That, as some have pointed out, the original cast of Uncommon Women was sprinkled with future stars only demonstrates the great chance that awaited Wendy: A newly aware generation of women was coming into its own. That she had the prescience to seize her chance and make herself a principal chronicler of that generation with the plays that followed, from Isn’t It Romantic? through The Sisters Rosensweig, is the highest tribute to her intelligence and skill.
For the giggling girl who had enlivened the Yale School of Drama with endearingly foolish extravaganzas like Montpelier Pa-zazz and When Dinah Shore Ruled the Earth, this achievement was a triumphant evolution. But the even higher compliment is that, through all her travails, she never let go of the giggle; her puckish, uneasy comic sense pervades the most unfairly underrated of her plays, Old Money, in which the ironies of this generation’s feminist progress are played off, cannily, against those of a century ago. This canniness, too, was the essence of Wendy: While she was giggling, and making you giggle with her, she was watching for her opportunity, and took it. As a result, she is a permanent part of our social as well as our theatrical history, an artist who began by making herself an unforgettable character, and concluded by impressing that character’s achievements upon the world.