When Steve Jobs died in his fifties, it made me think of Wendy Wasserstein, the playwright, who also died in her fifties. I started reading both biographies that had just been published.
When Wendy died it was like What? No! It was in January, 2006. She died in the bleak dead of winter. They never say the “dead” of summer. A lot of people I know have died in winter. It’s as if they think I’m going to die anyway why go through another freeze ass winter. At the time I was so against Wendy’s death I read everything thinking I would ultimately find her still alive. The internet is macabre about death. There’s the Blog of Death where they catalogue obituaries. There’s “Dead or Alive” and if the subject is gone, the page just reads: Dead. There’s a skull in the corner. Or it screams Alive! with a smiley face. Most accounts on Wendy said simply “…dead at 55.” Gawker.com added …”died this morning of cancer. She was 55.” Lots of people posted comments on Gawker including Firebrand who had a beef with the idea that 55 was a ”tragically young age” since Pfc Brian J. Schoff had died on the same day in Iraq at the age of 22. The Daily News had a lot of the soft news on Wendy including her will and a round-up story on the special challenges of single moms finding a guardian for their child. It mentioned that Wendy’s billionaire brother, Bruce, was raising Lucy after “dismissing the girl’s live-in nanny.” This was the same Bruce who would go on to divorce his third wife and marry his fourth and would now spring his orphaned niece on their new household. For all I know, Lucy Jane captured everyone’s heart but something tells me this household was not a warm fuzzy place. Fast forward three years later. Bruce dies mysteriously and Lucy Jane is once again in need of a new household.
I wasn’t a fan of Wendy’s plays although I liked her non-fiction articles and I particularly liked her New Yorker piece on the heart wrenching birth of Lucy Jane, her in-vitro created child.
Here’s this Pulitzer Prize winning playwright who decides to inject herself with a fertilized egg at age forty-eight. Who was the father? No one knows. The baby is born premature and barely survives. The mother names her Lucy Jane, a fanciful name but just right for a single famous mother named Wendy. When Lucy is seven her mother, who has been in decline since the birth, dies. Uncle Bruce who, among other things, has commandeered the venerable firm of Lazard Freres and sent all it’s old world founders into near cardiac arrest by getting rid of all things Frenchy and Roccoco and taking the very private firm public, adopts his sister’s child.
Fast forward three years and Bruce dies mysteriously. I say mysteriously because one of the common traits of the Wasserstein family was to withhold important information and to this day the cause of Bruce’s death, the name of Lucy’s father, where Bruce is buried and a myriad other details of the Wasserstein family are not known. By the time he died, Bruce had already fathered another extra-marital child and also divorced wife number three and married number four. Hey, where does that leave Lucy Jane? Lucy is being raised by Bruce’s third wife and enjoys the company of her two boy cousins in what appears to be a stable and happy household.
I ask myself, why are you so obsessed with Wendy Wasserstein especially since you don’t particularly admire her skill as a playwright or the importance of the central themes of her plays? I am obsessed with Wendy because she was someone with limited creative skills who willed herself a place of huge importance in a creative field and worked hard to stay at the white hot center of the action and remain relevant for more than thirty years. Wendy had to work against an overbearing, almost cruel mother who didn’t clap for Wendy even when she won the Pulitzer. Lola Wasserstein might have been the first Tiger Mother, relentless in her demands of excellence and overachievement from her brood. Wendy also had to work against her obesity and lack of fashion grace.
Like Steve Jobs with his no bathing, no shoes fetish, she often appeared at rehearsal or meetings in her nightgown, hair disheveled. Wendy was certain (and her experience confirmed it) she could “will” anything into existence. She tried several times to convince talented gay colleagues to marry her and father her children. One of them may be Lucy’s father. No one knows.
All of the children in the Wasserstein family were very successful. Lola extracted all of the fame and fortune she could have hoped for out of her brood. The lone disappointment was a first-born son that was “challenged.” Lola put him away early on and never brought his name up again until Wendy accidentally discovered him at one of her public appearances. The tragic outcome is that all of the cast members in the original Family Wasserstein have died, many prematurely. The sole survivor is Georgette who runs an inn in Vermont.
I’m rooting for Lucy Jane.