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Patricia Zohn

Patricia Zohn

Posted: February 1, 2006 11:09 PM

The World According to Wendy


You didn't have to be born white, Jewish and upper middle class in 1950, go to an Ivy League school, have a career that was all-consuming and live in New York to understand a Wendy Wasserstein play, but it helped.

I didn't exactly fit that mold: I was rejected from Penn and indulge me, dear reader, I'm a little younger, (and each year counts!) but from the moment I saw Wendy Wasserstein's play UNCOMMON WOMEN AND OTHERS , I knew that I had found a kindred spirit.

Not only were there thousands of us in NY and up and down the east coast who had had the virtual Wasserstein experience, but all over the country, young women of all stripes (blonde-wasp-y-shiksas and catholic-girls-raised-by-nuns) were finding that Wendy had somehow gotten inside their heads, and under their skin and put her finger on the very things that were bothering us no matter where we lived or had gone to school or what our religion was: guys who didn't love us back, educations that hadn't prepared us for the world, girlfriends who were our rocks, friends who were having trouble with their sexuality, mothers and fathers who were disappointed in us, and politicians who weren't listening.

Fortune smiled upon me in the early eighties--I was producing at WNET/13 and in a moment of uncharacteristic lightness, they had agreed I could invite some local NY theater talent to try our hand at making a Comedy pilot for PBS. (this was, and continues to be, oxymoronic). Though I went after Wendy first, she was busy and suggested we work with her old pal Christopher Durang--and he, and Ellis Weiner and Keith Reddin and Lewis Black, all young and unheard of talents at the time came together to try to get PBS to yuk it up. Of course, we were rejected.

But I stayed in touch with Wendy even after I left public television and we joined forces to work together on a film project. I was pregnant with my first child and we would meet at my kitchen table, both of us trying not to eat too much (Wendy and her weight, another timeless topic) and figure out what those cretins in Hollywood would want. It was so hard to concentrate--Wendy would make us both laugh in her infectious and inclusive way--she was a modern girl who knew how to tell a Borscht-belt joke and make it sound like something out of Saturday Night Live. She trained much of her running commentary on her own life and family (the project, as in all of her projects, had its roots in her personal history) and every so often we would get frustrated and between bathroom-runs, I would make us a grilled cheese and a vanilla milkshake (subsistence fare during my first pregnancy) to stimulate our wobbly creative juices.

In the derby of life, I guess I had by then fulfilled the pre-reqs of an uncommon woman: I had had a series of good jobs which I then mostly abandoned for the successful, professional husband and the apartment on Park Avenue. But in the derby of important, intellectual work and national recognition, Wendy was, and continued to be, leaps and bounds ahead of me. Even though we were on different paths, we sympathized and understood everything about each other--both of us had huge self-esteem issues and longed to have things we didn't. I often wanted to call Morris and Lola and tell them, look, trust me, it doesn't matter, I don't feel any better inside than your daughter does.

As a stopgap measure and so that I could get us some money,( and we could be out of my kitchen), we applied to one of the first Sundance workshops for aspiring filmmakers. At the last minute, Wendy suggested we add her old friend, future-Tony- award winning Jim Lapine, to the submission as director, and I got future-Tony- award-winning Broadway producer Liz Oliver to nominate us. Of course, we were rejected and told to come back when we had a finished script (huh? That's what we needed Sundance for). Eight months later, I got a letter from them--they had somewhat belatedly realized their folly in rejecting such a stellar team--and were beseeching us to reapply. By then, of course, these talented people had gone on to greater glory and I had a six-month old.


It was kind of ironic that the State of the Union was on the same day Wendy Wasserstein's obituary appeared on the front pages of the LA and NY TIMES , for if you had been able to ask Wendy what the state of our union is, she might have said, well, it's confused. Wendy and George Bush probably overlapped a little at Yale, each representing the yin yang that was Yale in those days (Wasp Deke legacy athletes and Jewish theatre majors) and more importantly, the one's larger, magnanimous, charitable, generous view of the world and all its foibles and the other's narrow, self-serving, insular, old-boy fear-driven polemic of the past. (guess whose is which).

The death of Wendy Wasserstein could not come at a more inopportune time; besides the legions of grieving friends and fans, an entire generation of young women is going to miss out on the World According to Wendy, just when they need it the most. The things that so concerned boomer women turn out not to have gone away: when is the right time to have a baby, how do you juggle work and career, what do you do when your heart is broken? I don't know if Larry Summers ever met Wendy, but I'm sure she could have given him a piece of our mind after that crazy speech at Harvard and made the feminist point more effectively and with humor than the academics who lined up against him.

Wendy found a way to get the medicine to go down because she was in the trenches with everybody else trying to figure out her own life. I was convinced she knew everything I was going to do and say and feel before I even got there. Her prescience was extraordinary; each play was a testament to both her personal concerns and our national ones. In UNCOMMON WOMEN she knew we were chafing at being categorized as we entered the world as adults and were petrified of getting it wrong and madly reassuring each other that it was all going to be ok. In ISN'T IT ROMANTIC she went full stop to the juggle of work and men; in THE HEIDI CHRONICLES, she refined her view of these competing pressures; in THE SISTERS ROSENSWEIG, she showed how feminist issues were reflected in the microcosm of one family; in AN AMERICAN DAUGHTER she took the pulse of one successful woman and in OLD MONEY, she dissected the perils of having that success. No, she told us over and over again, you can't have it all but that doesn't mean you're not going to give it your best shot anyway.

Not long after I moved to LA (and became one of THEM!), I went back for a short trip to NY. It had been hard to get hold of Wendy, she was so busy (I felt better about this after learning on the NY TIMES editorial page yesterday that Gail Collins had the same problem) but we finally found a way to meet at a new restaurant on the recently revamped 42nd Street. I started to bawl over the soup and didn't stop--I was a floppy fish out of water in a place where they liked that as a movie concept but not in real life--and Wendy was kind and nurturing and reassured me that my grey matter would not turn to cottonwool, well, not right away, anyway.

Life intervened, and regretfully, Wendy and I didn't see much of each other for some time. Last spring, when I heard that she was going to Dartmouth College for a teaching fellowship, I couldn't have been more excited since my youngest son is a student there and I knew he and his friends would love experiencing Wendy. And I was secretly thrilled that she would be able to inspect a current member in good standing of Guy-dom and let me know how I had done. Then I heard she had had to cancel at the last minute.

In the fall, I went to see THIRD at Lincoln Center. As was always the case with Wendy's plays, she made me laugh in rueful self recognition. She had never even ended up meeting my son the pitcher but the story of a recruited athlete at an elite college is troubling and warm and on point as her other work. They were selling copies of the script in the lobby for an AIDS charity and I almost bought one at intermission and then said to myself, no, next time I go to NY, I'll call her and we'll have dinner and I'll get her to autograph it in person. Sadly, that time never came.

Yesterday, I pulled out all the files of our 1981 project, called GUARDIAN. Once again, and with tragic irony, Wendy had been uncannily prescient. In longhand, she had written the story of a politically engaged young woman who has to unexpectedly become the guardian of her successful brother's two young children. (Her brother Bruce, I have learned, will be the guardian of Wendy's daughter Lucy Jane.) She describes Clara, the protagonist, as "disorganized, funny, a long-time graduate student, a believer in humanism because then you know a lot of people. A nice girl, but as her mother says, a little confused."

Thank you for sharing your confusion, Wendy. You, and it, will be very missed.