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The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein

A-Wendy and the Lost BoysIn Wendy and the Lost Boys, former Wall Street Journal and New York Times culture writer Julie Salamon examines the life of Tony Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein, whose The Heidi Chronicles influenced drama and art well beyond New York City in the late 1980s. Salamon's previous work includes the film-industry exposé The Devil's Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood (1991).

The Topic: An unremarkable student at Mount Holyoke and the Yale School of Drama (her classmates there included Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver), Wendy Wasserstein became a force on the New York theater scene before succumbing to lymphoma at the age of 55 in 2006. Known for her outgoing personality, the author of Uncommon Women and Others, The Sisters Rosenzweig, and The Heidi Chronicles--the first play by a woman to win a Tony Award--carefully managed the public details of her very private life, including her affairs; the birth of a daughter, Lucy Jane; and her own family (particularly her domineering mother, Lola), Polish-Jewish immigrants who had settled in Brooklyn. Through more than 300 interviews with colleagues, friends, and family, Julie Salamon traces Wasserstein's uncommon life.
Penguin. 480 pages. $29.95. ISBN: 9781594202988

Chicago Sun-Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In her compulsively readable book, Salamon deftly nails the many contradictions in Wasserstein's character, though she makes somewhat too great a fuss about her cult of secrecy, harking back to a long family history of such things. What she seems to forget is that even in the 1950s, when Wasserstein was growing up in a large Jewish family in Brooklyn, much was kept buried or private--a concept quite foreign to our current existence." Hedy Weiss

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Salamon delineates questions about Wasserstein's identity without resorting to schematic answers and maintains an open mind about the varieties of adult intimacy, which for Wasserstein rarely conformed to conventional models. ... The book, less a literary reckoning with Wasserstein's legacy than a frank character study, is superbly paced." Charles McNulty

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"In Wendy and the Lost Boys, Julie Salamon's shrewd, gripping biography, the gap between the public rendition of a life and how it was actually lived is shown at times to be startlingly wide. ... Ms. Salamon implies that Wasserstein was finding a new dramatic maturity when she died, but she doesn't speculate on how her work will endure." Emma Brockes

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"In an astute new biography, Wendy and the Lost Boys, veteran reporter Julie Salamon fills in the history that produced a personality as extravagantly affable and intensely compartmentalized as Wendy Wasserstein. ... She resists the urge to over-analyze her subject and lets the story speak for itself." Laurie Winer

Miami Herald 3 of 5 Stars
"[Wendy and the Lost Boys] reveals a great deal about Wasserstein, yet she remains something of an elusive figure. Nevertheless, the book is entertaining and accessible." Ariel Gonzalez

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"[The biography is] highly readable in the way profiles are, spinning a colorful narrative of failure and fame, disappointment and satisfaction, while hitting all the right marks. ... I'm not faulting Salamon ... so much as noting missed opportunities: the chance to look more penetratingly at the reasons Wasserstein spoke to a generation; to examine the process of (and the rationale for) basing art so closely on life that her friends were frequently surprised to see themselves onstage with little more than their names changed; to look at the ways in which the public, or a dramatist's sense of that public, affects a play's composition." Francine Prose

San Francisco Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"Any Wasserstein bio must necessarily encapsulate the genesis of Playwrights Horizons (her Heidi Chronicles platform) and the golden years of Yale Drama School. ... The author is less assured putting Wasserstein's work in historical context, and she periodically succumbs to the florid sigh of romance novel writing." Jan Stuart

Newsday 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Instead of exploring this major artist through her work and her words, Salamon dwells on gossip and psychological speculation, the pressures on an overweight New York girl in a large, competitive family with a mother who nagged her to get married and have children. ... More descriptive than analytic, the book goes off on lively but nonessential tangents about immigrant history, feminist history, Off-Broadway history and the history of friends' romances." Linda Winer

Boston Globe 2 of 5 Stars
"Sketching the playwright's life in undistinguished prose, Salamon doesn't do much to explore either the import of Wasserstein's feminist trailblazing or the contradictions within it. ... Salamon displays not a dramatist's ability to climb inside her characters' skin but a journalist's capacity to empathize with her interview subjects." Laura Collins-Hughes

Critical Summary

Wendy Wasserstein's brilliant plays and her enigmatic personal life would seem to be the perfect combination for a biography. Julie Salamon's research and interviews (the book was authorized by Wasserstein's family) provide the details of Wasserstein's two lives--one lived in the white-hot spotlight of the theater scene, the other in closely guarded privacy--although fans of Wasserstein's work might be disappointed by the lack of focus on the plays themselves or much of a sense of how groundbreaking and influential the playwright's work really was. But how to truly capture the essence of someone who never spoke publicly of the birth of her child, her loves, or the disease that would eventually take her life? Every biographer deals, to some extent, with similar issues; given the circumstances, Salamon handles her subject better than most.